Can Parents Still Worry About Overpopulation?

Family Matters on 05.06.11
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image credit: Ray_from_LA, used under Creative Commons license.

I've argued before that "judge not" should be the first rule of parenting. But I must confess I've always had a hard time understanding why some folks choose to have large families. We already know that our Earth's ecosystems are straining under the weight of a rising Global population, and more importantly, rising levels of consumption. Surely it wouldn't be a bad thing if we all limited ourselves to, at most, replacing ourselves when it comes to breeding? (The natural replacement rate comes to 2.33 per couple.)

A 5 Year Ban on Having Kids?

But before I rush to judgement, I have to be aware that there are those who would judge me for my own heinous contribution to overpopulation. (My wife and I have one 18 month daughter, and another baby on the way.) My friend and one-time collaborator (on a non-baby related proect!), author and journalist Steven Kotler, once created a firestorm by suggesting there should be a 5 year ban on anyone having babies. His argument was that the world has already far exceeded its carrying capacity and, as he put it, "a billion less people would be a great place to start."

Population is a Taboo Subject

Needless to say, population is an incredibly touchy subject.  As i noted in my post over on TreeHugger about whether birth control is the cheapest argument to climate change, it is often so heated that people would rather not discuss it at all. There are those who argue that to even talk about it is a distraction from topics like overconsumption, and an attempt by the rich to place the blame for environmental degredation on the developing world. There are also those who argue that we were put on this Earth to procreate, and any attempt to mess with that plan is to defy God's will. And then there are those who say we should never allow the State (or anyone else) to dictate what we can and can't do with our own bodies.

Judgement and Legislation Will Not Stop Population Growth

Ultimately though, I think both my own misgivings and Steven's radical plan miss the point about overpopulation, not because the topic should be taboo, but because they propose the wrong solutions to the right question. We can neither guilt trip people into not having kids, nor can we legislate for it. Besides any moral qualms, they are just not the most effective ways to bring population under control.

Tackle Poverty. Population Takes Care of Itself.

The fact is that tackling overpopulation means providing women with choices. It means ensuring access to birth control. And it means, most importantly of all, promoting health, education and opportunities for fulfilling, rewarding lives. As Carl Sagan has argued, "get rid of poverty, and exponential population growth slows or stops."

So Can Parents Worry About Overpopulation?

To answer my original question - whether it is OK for me to have kids and still worry about population - I would argue that of course it is. As soon as we stop talking about overpopulation as a series of individual choices, something to be argued over, or something to point fingers about, it becomes - I believe - less of a contentious issue. The question becomes not "how do we pursuade others to have less kids", but rather how do we empower women and families around the world to lead the lives they want to lead - including having however many, or few, children they want.

Now surely that's something that none of us need to argue over?

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