The Division Over Multiplication


graphic of stylized male-and-female people holding hands; set apart is a lone female figure near a stroller

Among the growing ranks of the eco-aware, it’s commonly understood that many environmental problems, as well as their solutions, are linked to individuals’ choices. For example, the car you drive contributes to the planet’s level of greenhouse gases. By choosing not to drive a vehicle, you can reduce your contribution to global climate change. Your decision alone cannot reverse the situation, but, with enough people making similar choices, change can be effected. The logic is straightforward and rarely meets with rational, reasoned opposition. It’s a no-brainer, right?

But what about this statement, similar in concept: The child you have contributes to the planet’s level of greenhouse gases. By choosing not to have a child, you can reduce your contribution to global climate change. Your decision alone cannot reverse the current situation, but, with enough people making similar choices, change can be effected.

Suddenly the argument becomes much more controversial. Logic goes awry, rationality retreats, and emotions take over.

Choices about cars and children involve vastly different sets of emotions and values, of course. Any examination of the environmental consequences of the sheer number of humans on the planet is very sensitive, given that it involves one of our most intimate decisions rather than reason alone. When it comes to family size, the options and outcomes are a blend of individual preferences, personalities, philosophies, and religious beliefs. Whether in Manhattan or Mumbai, culture wields massive influence over our ideals of what constitutes a perfect family size. Decisions about reproduction often involve more than just the couple conceiving; family, friends, and colleagues exercise all kinds of pressure, for or against, subtle or blatant.

That’s rarely the case with other decisions that affect the environment. Nobody’s mother has ever burst into tears upon learning that her child has chosen environmentally friendly laundry detergent over a phosphate-laden brand. Few people ever ask a co-worker who just bought an SUV if he plans on having another one right away. And nobody gets all misty-eyed about waking up to see their Energy Star appliances on Christmas Day.

The Right (Not) to Bear Children

For every one of us that goes forth and multiplies, a different idea about how to deal with the issue of population comes forth and divides. The freedom to reproduce as we wish is a core human right, and for many people having a child is one of the most joyous opportunities available to humans. That freedom, though, by definition, also includes the right not to procreate.

Those who abstain from the right to reproduce and remain childfree by choice often face harsh questioning, however. In her article “Voluntarily Childfree Women: Experiences and Counseling Considerations,” Dr. Debra Mollen, assistant professor at Texas Woman’s University, reports that women who remain childfree by choice have experienced reactions that “ranged from subtle but persistent questions from family members, co-workers, and strangers to more blatant expressions of shock, dismay, pity, and sympathy.” Mollen writes: “On a fundamental level, women opting out of mothering challenges the ideology of the institution of parenting, calling into question the rigidity of gender roles, of what women are supposed to covet, and of the sociopolitical, religious, and familial idealism of creating the next generation.”

Whether the motivation for remaining childfree is based on environmental beliefs or some other reasons, the reaction from others remains largely the same.

Lori Blacksin, a 32-year-old environmental activist in Seattle, tires of defending her decision to remain childfree. “People automatically assume that I have not thought things through, or they engage in misogynistic thinking that suddenly my hormones will take over my brain and I will be helpless against their pull simply because I am female. It’s very frustrating and offensive. It comes from everywhere: friends, family, and most often, strangers you meet in your day-to-day life. People think it’s appropriate to ask inane and personal questions on such intimate details of your life and then won’t accept the answers.”

In some cases, an individual’s environmental reasons for not having a child are taken as an egregious affront to society – a “radical” choice that will contribute to the end of life as we know it. In his article “Environmentalists Put Planet Before Family,” Gary Palmer, president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, writes, “[M]any radical environmentalists do view children, especially children born in America and Europe, as a threat to the planet. The inconvenient truth about the radical, environmentalist, anti-child, anti-economic growth agenda is that it is really an assault against traditional family and free-market values that are foundations of Western civilization. Consequently, as more and more people and their governments fall under the influence of environmentalism, what we may be witnessing is not the death of our planet, but the death of cultures that protect and cherish strong families and embrace economic growth.”

Pro-growth ideologues may fear the consequences of population stabilization, but in some environmentalist circles, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s not the childfree who are scrutinized, but those who decide to have more than two children. Environmentalists interviewed for this article says they are very sensitive to the effects of their decision.

Robyn Harding, author of Mom, Will This Chicken Give Me Man-Boobs?: My Confused, Guilt-Ridden, and Stressful Struggle to Raise a Green Family has increased her environmental awareness as she contends with “a daughter who can’t sleep for worrying about the polar bears and a son who fake barfs whenever a meal’s not strictly organic.”

“My first child was born in 1997, before the environment was the hot topic it is today,” Harding says. “The excess and waste associated with infancy and childhood never factored into my decision. If I’d been more environmentally aware then, I may have made some different choices, but it would never have stopped me from having children.

“We are a pretty green family,” she says. “We have one small car, my kids walk to school, my husband busses to work. We compost our vegetable waste, we use CFL lightbulbs, we eat local and organic when available and affordable, we’re conscious of our water usage.… I don’t feel guilty about bringing kids into the world. But I do feel it’s important that all parents teach their kids to love, respect, and care for this planet. That’s the only way we’re going to save it.”

More is More

Dealing with the population question is like trying to get your footing on a floor covered with marbles. The choices and options are constantly changing; decisions that are available to people today didn’t exist 30 years ago. Despite the continuing debate over access to abortion, there’s little question that couples in the US and Europe have more control over reproduction than at any time in human history. The introduction of the Pill in 1960 gave women unprecedented control over their own fertility. Since the birth of the first “test-tube baby” in 1978, otherwise infertile couples have been given the ability to have children. These two technologies mean that couples have near total control over whether, when, and how to have children. And it’s that power that then makes the choice so much harder.

“Having a greater range of options for our reproductive lives is a good thing,” acknowledges Jessie Jury, mother of two and a member of Green Parents Network. “But I’ve seen friends worry whether they’re making the right decisions. Choices can be stressful!”

The public reactions to a few well-publicized large families show just how volatile – and contradictory — the issue can be. Media coverage of the birth of the Arkansas-based Duggar family’s 18th child on December 18, 2008 was hardly perceptible. A Christian family whose Web site proclaims that “each child is a special gift from God and we are thankful to Him for each one,” the Duggars are supported by charitable donations of food and household goods. Even their house was provided through the assistance of corporate sponsors and the Discovery Networks, on which the Duggars have their own reality show, “18 Kids and Counting” (formerly “17 Kids and Counting”).

In the case of Nadya “OctoMom” Suleman, however, the birth of her octuplets five weeks later on January 26, 2009 elicited an enormous public outcry. A single, unemployed mother, Suleman already had six children before adding eight more to her brood; all 14 were conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF). Suleman’s story went from a modern medical miracle to media mockery in a heartbeat. A USA Today-Gallup poll conducted in February 2009 found that 70 percent of those surveyed were unsympathetic to Suleman, and 21 percent answered that the children should be removed from her care. Since the Suleman births, reproductive rights in some states have come under attack. Politicians in Georgia and Missouri have introduced legislation designed to severely restrict access to IVF treatment by those states’ residents. There has been no such move to limit family size arrived at by other means.

The Privileged Few

Some options available to families in the affluent, secular West remain out of reach elsewhere in the world. In many countries, it would be a privilege to be able to worry about how few children to have, or to fret over the cost of IVF. Reproductive rights are not universal.

Barriers preventing or limiting access to contraception include far more than simple availability and/or affordability. Government policy and the influence of thought leaders are often major factors in this inequity. In the Philippine city of Manila, for example, a mayoral ban in effect since 2000 has meant that city-funded clinics can no longer distribute contraception. Women have to procure birth control from private clinics or simply go without. The Catholic Church, with approximately 968 million adherents worldwide, remains a staunch opponent of any form of contraception.

Changing behavior can be difficult enough without battling official policy from influential leaders. In some male-dominated societies, resistance to condom use becomes more firmly ingrained when religious and political leaders promote their own agendas. Rick Lathrop, executive director of Earth Island Institute project Global Service Corps, says, “Africa is greatly influenced by conservative religious groups. But while official policy may be anti-condom, most people on the ground – that is, church members, medical professionals, school teachers, and such – understand that condoms are necessary. There is a huge conflict between the official position of church leaders and everyday life.”

Even if contraception were universally available and affordable, it might not necessarily be enough to reduce birthrates in countries where so many other factors play a role in decisions to have larger families. A July 2008 report issued by the World Bank points to the importance of combining education with contraception as the most effective means of limiting fertility rates. “Fertility Regulation Behaviors and Their Costs: Contraception and Unintended Pregnancies in Africa and Eastern Europe and Central Asia” makes a connection between high birthrates and overall health, education levels, and poverty. Surveys analyzed for the report indicate that women with secondary or higher education have fewer children than those with primary or no education.

“Promoting girls’ and women’s education is just as important in reducing birthrates in the long run as promoting contraception and family planning,” says Sadia Chowdhury, a co-author of the report and senior reproductive and child health specialist at the World Bank. “Education becomes a form of social contraception for women. Time and time again, we see how women’s education provides life-saving knowledge, builds job skills that allow her to join the workforce and marry later in life, gives her the power to say how many children she wants and when, and these are enduring qualities she will hand down to her daughters as well.”

Less Stuff? Fewer Souls?

Although the population issue deals with numbers, the solution is not strictly mathematical – unlike an algebraic formula, there is no one single correct answer. As the fertility debates churns, another school of thought argues that the biggest issue isn’t how many people are on the planet, but rather how many resources each person consumes. Population control may address some environmental issues, but merely reducing or stabilizing our numbers won’t address one of – if not the single most – pressing global environmental problem of our time: climate change.

In her report “10 Reasons Why Population Control is not the Solution to Global Warming,” author Betsy Hartmann, director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, states, “Focusing on population growth as a major cause of climate change places the blame on the world’s poorest people who are the least responsible for global warming.”

“I think some people who work on population issues in Washington feel that if they use scare tactics and make connections between population and climate change issues, they’ll get more support from environmental groups and national security interests,” Hartmann says. “Sometimes I think they do it intentionally, and that can be a dangerous approach.”

British journalist Fred Pearce, who is the environment consultant for New Scientist magazine, concurs with Hartmann’s argument. In his article “Consumption Dwarfs Population as Main Environmental Threat,” Pearce contends that “[e]ven if we could today achieve zero population growth, that would barely touch the climate problem – where we need to cut emissions by 50 to 80 percent by mid-century. Given existing income inequalities, it is inescapable that overconsumption by the rich few is the key problem, rather than overpopulation of the poor many.”

Hartmann is even blunter: “Worldwide, reducing the population of automobiles would do more to curtail climate change than imposing limits on family size.”

For anyone struggling with how many kids to have, that sentence, with all its certainty, must be a relief. How you deal with your Hummer’s temper tantrum after it finds out you love your Prius more is your own business.

Audrey Webb is the associate editor of Earth Island Journal and the proud mother of one son.

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