At least since the time of Thomas Malthus, people have worried about when the planet will be too full of people. Today there are more than 7 billion Homo sapiens on Earth, a number projected to grow to 9 billion by 2045. As the ecological limits of growth become more apparent, the debate over the need to reduce the number of humans becomes more urgent. Can the planet sustain a population of 9 billion people, especially if they all aspire to live as Americans? And if the answer is No, what does that mean for our personal choices about becoming parents? Environmental journalist Erica Gies says she won’t have children and says people should consider adoption. Naturalist and illustrator Julie Zickefoose believes having children and raising them to love the natural world is one of the best things we can do to protect the environment.
by Julie Zickefoose
Julie Zickefoose is a writer and illustrator who has contributed to The New Yorker, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and NPR, where she was a regular commentator. Her latest book is The Bluebird Effect.
We’ve done it. My husband and I are replacing ourselves with two children, a towheaded boy and a willowy, redheaded girl. When we go, they’ll take our places. We started late. It took a while for my husband to talk me into having kids. I was 37 for the firstborn, 41 when our son arrived. So I’m smiling wryly as I build a case for conscientious reproduction on an already overburdened planet. I’ve got no statistics to bolster my argument, no worldwide trends to report, nor do I have the energy to dig any out. I have no desire to see my rather hazy ideas strung up a flagpole as exemplifying anything. All I know is what seems to be true: Having children, and raising them to appreciate the natural world, is one of the most powerful ways to affirm your love for life on this planet.
Married at 35, I was afraid. Afraid to add to the world’s masses. Afraid to give up my freedom to travel or do whatever I wanted. Afraid I wouldn’t be up to the challenge of raising good people. Afraid I’d let them down. I closed my eyes and we took the leap. I’ll never forget what my doctor said when the pregnancy test came back positive. “Get ready for the best ride of your life.” When he saw the raw terror in my eyes, he added, “There are people coming into my office every day who can barely tie their shoes, and they still make the most beautiful kids. You’ll do fine.”
Here’s what I’ve figured out, 15 years later, that I didn’t know that day in the doctor’s office: Having a child rang a bell in me never before struck. It brought me into a much vaster and richer reality than the one I’d inhabited. It awakened me to the blindingly fast progression of infancy to youth, adolescence into maturity. It placed me in a larger context, served me notice that I’d have to pass on what’s good and discourage what was harmful and maladaptive. Not only that, I’d have to save a place for them to live, too. I felt bigger, more significant. This felt like a real job.
by Erica Gies
Veteran reporter Erica Gies has covered the environment for The New York Times, New Scientist, and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications. She writes a regular column about energy and water for Forbes.com.
As biological creatures, our raison d’être is to reproduce. Cultures worldwide reflect that purpose: Children are celebrated, and those who don’t have kids are pitied or distrusted. It’s time that changed.
We humans are an inordinately successful species – perhaps too successful. Our world population hit 7 billion on October 31, 2011. In my lifetime, 40 years, the population has nearly doubled. We are putting unprecedented demand on natural resources and are beginning to see their limits.
Some argue that this Malthusian idea has been overturned by human ingenuity. True, we have created innovations to accelerate the efficiency of production, thus expanding our growth capacity. But such progress can only go so far. There is no escaping basic biology: Our habitat has a carrying capacity. Resources are, ultimately, finite. When we go beyond that capacity, there are negative consequences. We can already see those consequences all around us: water shortages, topsoil loss, saline soil, pollution, degraded ecosystems, and of course, climate change.
Many animals stop breeding when they surpass their habitat’s carrying capacity or when they sense that conditions are not conducive to reproductive success, such as a monster drought. Environmental factors appear to be curbing human reproduction as well; there is growing evidence that the rise in human infertility is linked to chemical and air pollution. Still, our numbers are growing too fast, and the human population as a whole is showing few signs of course correction.
Others think the problem is not our sheer numbers but our consumption rates. As affluence grows, we consume more meat, more energy, more stuff. That is true. But there are also too many of us. Quality of life is suffering for us, for other creatures, for plants. The health of the natural systems upon which we depend is declining.
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