Global Population Speak Out

There's a great scene in the book _Cheaper By the Dozen_ (which had almost nothing to do with the recent movie Steve Martin was in, although there's a fairly good old one) in which Lillian Moller Gilbraith, mother of 12 (11 surviving) is offered by a joking friend as the ideal host for a Planned Parenthood organizational meeting. The PP representative, who has been told that Gilbraith is a model organizer, a professional woman and a leader in her community - but not that she has 11 kids. "Within 15 Miles of Organizational Headquarters!" announces the representative of Planned Parenthood in despair!

I felt a little bit like Gilbraith when I was asked to participate this year in the Global Population Speak Out. I wanted to make sure this wasn't a joke - and there's some measure in which it looks like one. Yes, even in the Peak Oil and Climate Change movement, right in the midst of things, is someone with more than two kids! (Actually, there's a bunch of someones, but I'm still waiting for Rob Hopkins and a few others to pony up and share the load ;-)).

And yet, I was also glad - because the reality is that population is an issue that is spoken about mostly from extremes - the voices either come from those who argue in favor of no limits on the right or those, mostly men, mostly affluent white older men, who make absolute statements about reproduction, and who will never have a device inserted in their body, or an abortion, or give birth or go through pregnancy. I've been in the environmental movement long enough now to have watched a lot of white men sitting there talking about what women's bodies should be doing to save the planet for them.

But if we're ever to have an honest and productive conversation about limits, including reproductive limits, the middle, the people who don't want to talk about population because they are afraid they will be reproached for having children, the people who are tired of the same old extreme arguments stay away. I'm glad that the imperfect thoughts of a woman with four children were actually solicited - despite the fact that my comments section is going to be extremely annoying for a while ;-).

As my long time readers will know, Population is a major issue for me - my doctoral work focused on issues of demographics in the 16th and 17th century, and I feel very strongly that we have to address population issues. There's a full chapter on the subject in each _Depletion and Abundance_ and _A Nation of Farmers_., and I've written a number of articles and done interviews on gender, reproduction and the politics of population. At the same time, I get tired of the subject devolving into my personal reproduction - which is inevitably the result of any discussion. I have four biological children, not as many as the mother in the story, but enough that my personal reproductive habits are the subject of considerable scrutiny, given the issues I engage with. It isn't even that I mind, it is that I mind saying the same thing over and over and over again ;-).

What I say is simply this - like most people, I've done a lot of things that aren't environmentally responsible over the years - flown for pleasure, driven miles I didn't have to, consumed irresponsibly, and I've also got more children than represents a biological fair share. In a perfect world I'd have always lived the life that is most ethical and rightest, but like everyone else I start where I do. That said, impact is consumption multiplied by population - my family of six (hopefully soon to be augmented by additional children, by adoptiong) consumes, as a whole, about 1/5 the resources of an ordinary American household. The average American household is 2.6 people. That doesn't mean I'm not responsible for my actions, just population is not a single factor - it doesn't change the fact that this is one of the few places where I'm no one's role model - but that's how it is.

We do have to talk about population - we have to talk about it honestly and clearly, and with an eye to the real complexities of the issue. We have to put it on the table and stop being afraid of it. We have to have these conversations even when they are difficult, personal, emotional and when they are hard.

At the same time, I'm not prepared to make some of the claims made by my fellow science blogger, Martin Rundkvist over at Aardvarchaeology - I don't think it is unethical to have more than two children, at least among the world's poor. You can reasonably say that a middle class woman in the Global North like me doesn't have these justifications, but the reality is that in a whole host of ways, population is simply tied up with too many other issues to make such a bald statement, particularly for the world's poor. The fact is that we can address population honestly only when we address the issues that are tied up in our reproduction - and those are extraordinarily complicated. It would be easier to just say "no one should have X number of babies" - but also less truthful.

Consider the fact that a woman in rural India has to have 5 children during her lifetime in order to be sure that one of them will survive to adulthood to support her in her old age - and that there are few measures of other support for poor Indian women, or that a child in Nigeria, born to a desperately poor family begins to produce more than he eats by the age of six and brings in as much food as an adult by 12. In cultures that lack support networks of any kind, children are the only form of wealth and security available to the poor. The answer to their problems is certainly to enable the demographic transition by enabling them to have fewer kids - but also by supporting at every stage the networks of social supports that enable that. If our support for them not having babies isn't matched by our support for elderly Indian women or for enabling the world's hungry feed themselves, we are the ones suffering from ethical challenges.

Reproduction is one of those things that is both simple and complicated even in the Global North. Consider a little of my own experiences as a parent of a severely disabled child is the observation that social supports even in our own society are tremendously lacking - I didn't have my children to provide support in adulthood for my disabled oldest - by the time he was diagnosed I had already had most of them. But I do sometimes ask what kind of future my son would have after my husband and I are gone without his brothers?

Indeed, my niece, who is the same age as Eli but was adopted by a relative who is the same age now as my parents, has severe disabilities. Someday, my husband and I will be her guardians, and after us, my sons - because she has no siblings. My sons will eventually inherit responsibility for two seriously disabled family members. The thought of passing that responsibility on to my one other child, had I only had the "ethical" two is something that would have weighed with me when we chose to accept the guardianship of my niece. And yet, who would care for her when her parents were gone if we had said no? In a culture that doesn't nurture strong extended families, and encourages smaller ones, where do the disabled and the elderly get their care? How can we create the kind of social systems that enable people with disabled children to have fewer children and be sure that they will be cared for well and equitably?

What does a culture of population limitation do to the idea of a woman's right to choose? Does it change it only into the right to have an abortion? What strategies and pressures do we place on women, like me, who see birth control fail? Do we pressure them into abortion? Is that compatible with a belief that reproduction is truly a matter of women's choice? What happens when women choose more children? How do we respond as a culture?

We know that educating women makes them more likely to have fewer children - but how does it change our story if we are educating women *in order to* reduce the number of children they have? What culture emerges if the education and political empowerment of women becomes a means to a reproductive end, rather than a good in itself?

My husband is an only child - and like many baby boomer parents, his are divorced, as our mine. We have 7 parents between us - my responsibilities will be spread over my two sisters and myself, his will fall entirely on him. How do we create societies that are growing poorer, using less energy, consuming less - and still providing social supports to its aging population?

None of this is an argument against population limitation. It is merely an argument against a conversation about population limitation that begins from the assumption that the issues are simple and can be addressed shallowly.

When you tell women "it is ok to have only one or two children" because your children will survive to adulthood, how do we ensure this by access to health care? What is the obligation of a state or a people who demand that women and men choose fewer children - what do they have to do to make this possible? Do we allow states to take our surviving offspring away from us to fight wars? What is the relationship of a state that wants less reproduction to a people who fear the loss of their sons and daughters on the altar of foreign policy?

The late, great Donella Meadows of _The Limits to Growth_ and many other articles offered, I think one of the clearest ways of starting to talk about population in a way that takes ordinary people into account in her essay "Who Causes Environmental Problems" She wrote:

The IPAT formula has great appeal in international debates, because it spreads environmental responsibility around. The poor account for 90 percent of global population increase -- so they'd better get to work on P. Rich consumers need to control their hedonistic A. The former Soviets with their polluting factories, cars, and buildings obviously should concentrate on T.

I didn't realize how politically correct this formula had become, until a few months ago when I watched a panel of five women challenge it and enrage an auditorium full of environmentalists, including me.

IPAT is a bloodless, misleading, cop-out explanation for the world's ills, they said. It points the finger of blame at all the wrong places. It leads one to hold poor women responsible for population growth without asking who is putting what pressures on those women to cause them to have so many babies. It lays a guilt trip on Western consumers, while ignoring the forces that whip up their desire for ever more consumption. It implies that the people of the East, who were oppressed by totalitarian leaders for generations, now somehow have to clean up those leaders' messes.

As I listened to this argument, I got mad. IPAT was the lens through which I saw the environmental situation. It's neat and simple. I didn't want to see any other way.

IPAT is just what you would expect from physical scientists said one of the critics, Patricia Hynes of the Institute on Women and Technology in North Amherst, Massachusetts. It counts what is countable. It makes rational sense. But it ignores the manipulation, the oppression, the profits. It ignores a factor that scientists have a hard time quantifying and therefore don't like to talk about: economic and political POWER. IPAT may be physically indisputable. But it is politically naive.

I was shifting uneasily in my seat.

There are no AGENTS in the IPAT equation, said Patricia Hynes, no identifiable ACTORS, no genders, colors, motivations. Population growth and consumption and technology don't just happen. Particular people make them happen, people who shape and respond to rewards and punishments, people who may be acting out of desperation or love or greed or ambition or fear.

Unfortunately, I said to myself, I agree with this.

Suppose we wrote the environmental impact equation a different way, said the annoying panel at the front of the auditorium. Suppose, for example, we put in a term for the military sector, which, though its Population is not high, commands a lot of Affluence and Technology. Military reactors generate 97 percent of the high-level nuclear waste of the U.S. Global military operations are estimated to cause 20 percent of all environmental degradation. The Worldwatch Institute says that "the world's armed forces are quite likely the single largest polluter on earth."

Suppose we added another term for the 200 largest corporations, which employ only 0.5 percent of all workers but generate 25 percent of the Gross World Product -- and something like 25 percent of the pollution. Perhaps, if we had the statistics, we would find that small businesses, where most of the jobs are, produce far less than their share of environmental impact.

Suppose we separate government consumption from household consumption, and distinguish between household consumption for subsistence and for luxury, for show, for making us feel better about ourselves. If we had reliable numbers, which we don't, we might be able to calculate how much of the damage we do to the earth comes from necessity, and how much from vanity.

So ok, let's put population on the table. Let's start talking. But let's have real conversations worth having.



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I *just* read your chapter on this in _Depletion and Abundance_, and have been talking about it with my husband all day, so this is a very timely blog post! In general, I found the chapter extremely thought provoking (especially your section on the math of what would happen if we had the same number of kids at a slightly older age, and your points about security as a reason for having lots of kids.)

On the other hand, mathematically, I'm not sure I buy the point that a family of 6 who consumes 20% of the resources of a typical American household is better than a family of 3 who consumes 100% of the American average. If you assume that each of your kids will have the same number of kids you had and will continue to be just as frugal (big assumptions, of course) while the family of 3 will do the same, you'll find that by the third generation, your family is making nearly twice the impact of the other family.

I also have to say that, as a youngish woman who's decided not to have kids (and talked my husband into a vasectomy to make that decision permanent), people passionate about dealing with human population aren't all old men.

All of that nitpicking aside, I have recently come to the conclusion that there aren't all that many people who are really called to parenthood. I suspect that if we dealt with the issues you've mentioned in your chapter and made it so that you didn't _need_ to have kids unless you _wanted_ to have kids, while also helping people see a more realistic and less Hollywood version of parenthood, the population would naturally decline drastically. And that's without any old men telling us how many kids to have.

We need to take in all impacts but also all benefits. Some of those big corporations are making things that benefit us that we would say I would put the carbon to make it into the atmosphere no matter what so I could have that thing (or so that I could make it super cheap so everyone can have one). This is tough to measure. Using population is an easy one because you just have to add up to 2. When you look at the carbon cost of everything and their benefits it gets into a lot of opinions about what is important. Most would agree that the military has allowed us access to all the oil in the middle east. Without our military, oil and our lifestyle would have been different years ago. We should definitely start the debate.

I'm very new to this site, attracted mostly by an article on recommended crops for permaculture, but I find this article fascinating.

I'm one of two children, my parents both came from farming families. One parent has 3 siblings, the other, 7. The family with 4 children prospered more as farmers in the same geographical area because, of the 4 children, 3 were male and able to help with the physical labor of a farm at a more productive level. I'm not intending this to sound sexist, so please do not jump to that conclusion. It is simply easier for a 160lb teenage boy to haul a 120lb bale of hay than it is for a 100lb teenage girl to accomplish the same task. The family of 8 children had 7 daughters, and so the work of the farm fell to 2 males, while the work of the homestead was spread amongst 7 daughters. This resulted in a strain on the productivity of the farms ability to provide financially for the family with the family only providing one extra pair of hands for the extra labor.

At the complete risk of starting a flame war, would it be reasonable to conclude that the best way to increase security for parents in agrarian societies is to somehow ensure a greater number of male children? I'm interested in the thoughts of Ms. Astyk on the question. I do understand that in areas like China, we see years of male child preference has resulted in a country that is incredibly productive. However, the birth of more male children in poor agrarian society seems to provide a short term burst of prosperity and possibly even wealth.

"the Institute on Women and Technology in North Amherst, Massachusetts" - no way, really? I have never even heard of this concern, not 5 miles from me.

Great article, Sharon. As always, answers are complicated. I have been criticized by an elderly friend for having 'so many children' while she herself had three. Go figure.

Large families do not necessarily lead to more large families. I think the largest family in our background was 14 but of that group only four had children and only one had more than three. So the next generation totaled 11. There was a serious disability in one branch so they decided to not have children and the next generation was also smaller. There are only two children in the present generation although there are quite a number of second cousins. And yes, I do sometimes worry that if something happens, family support will be from much more distant relations (although it will still be there - we are a clannish lot :) and maybe not as close as in my grandmothers time. It is easier to donate to some care outfit than it is to actually take on some of the caring.

The whole thing is very complex. The problem to my mind is social, not scientific and needs to be treated as such for anything to have a chance of working. I have a horrible feeling that what will happen is simple starvation. Like a yeast that has eaten all its sugar. Is that scientific enough??

viv in nz

By knutty knitter (not verified) on 01 Feb 2011 #permalink

I really think that there is a place to discuss the standard "development" approach to population control. In practice, the only thing that has brought population growth under control has been economic development, which usually brings with it improved education and empowered women. Fertility rates drop as per capita income rises. The real issue is how to have development which is kind on the environment and not just more consumption and waste.

Increasing material wellbeing worldwide in a resource constrained world is indeed the Growth Conundrum...

Anna said it much better than I would have.

Here are illustrations to go along with the discussion on population, wealth and more:

âTaking Population Out of the Equationâ by H. Patricia Hynes, published by the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment:

Hynes is arguing that the IPAT equation has inappropriately focused attention on the worldâs poor as causes of environmental problems. Hynes emphasizes a distinction between the environmental impacts of consumption that is necessary for survival and of consumption that is a luxury. Perhaps we should be more critical of luxury consumption. Hynes also emphasizes the environmental impacts of military activity.

The United States military consumes more energy than any other organization in the world (for details, see eg "Nigeria, with a population of more than 140 million, consumes as much energy as the U.S. military.")

Hynes emphasizes the gender issues surrounding population, such as the ability of women to choose when to become pregnant.

I appreciate the discussion you are starting around population, Sharon.

I am a woman in my thirties and I'm leaning towards not having children, for multiple reasons, one being overpopulation (or if I do have children, I might try to adopt). However, I do have certain questions that come to me: Who will care for me when I am elderly? Is this a decision I'll be comfortable with later in life? How can I support children not my own in my life?

I think it's important for those who don't have their own biological children to have close connections with other children. I am an aunt and I live close to my nephews and I hope to be a part of their lives. Even though I don't have children, I'm thankful that one of my siblings decided to have children. I work with children as my job, so my decision not to have children is not at all because I dislike children.

I think sensitive issues--like overpopulation--really should be talked about. I find myself critical of people who say overpopulation isn't a problem and shouldn't be a factor in their considering whether or how many children to have. At the same time, even though I myself lean towards not having children, I find myself critical of many people who just simplistically say that overpopulation is the cause of everything and innerly frown upon every additional pregnant person they see. Unfortunately, I think judgement of those who have children (or have more than their "biological share" of children) closes the conversation instead of opening it.

Is it possible to have a serious conversation about population in our society that doesn't just resort to judgement of people's choices? I don't know. But I think it's needed.

Anna, you are right that if my kids do as I do, we're in trouble. At the same time, isn't that the collective problem? That is, our kids can't do as we have done - and we have to teach them to do not as we have done, but as we say (no easy practice at any level). My environmental sins are out there for public consideration, not everyone's are ;-). This isn't a claim that "ok, go have four kids because you can just use less" it is the observation that there are mitigatory factors - factors that have limits. For that matter, it would be better for everyone in some respects to have fewer children and also use less. I don't buy the argument either that "ok, I didn't have kids so I can consume all I want" (I'm not saying you are advancing that argument at all, I'm just observing that I've heard this one ;-)). The truth is that in an ecological sense it is pretty clear that I'm not making the noblest possible choices in any regard - not only do I have kids, I also don't live in a hut without electricity - I consume less, but not as little as a Kenyan or Nigerian.

I do think that overwhelmingly the public face of the population movement and most of its leaders are white men - and have been since its onset, from Malthus to Ehrlich. There are some women, but comparatively few - and I do think that the dialogue on this subject has failed often to take up the complexities in part because women are being described as a means to an end, rather than agents as Hynes put it (she's very brilliant, btw, and has a great book on urban gardening as well!)

I'm not sure what you mean by "called to parenthood" - I think the reasons people are parents are complicated, but I don't see it as a religious call, or think that it should only be a call in the same way one is called to a religious vocation or something like it. I think there's compelling evidence that a lot of people might like to have fewer children than they do, and making that possible should be a priority - no one is served by having women lack control of their fertility. At the same time, these conversations often look very different among women of color in the Global South, where birth control and sterilization are sometimes tied to economic pressures and feeding programs, and where the medicalization of reproduction can operate as a way of taking women *out* of other forms of control - for this you might look at Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies' _Ecofeminism_.

One of the things that worries me about the rhetoric of this is that we tend to be oblivious to the ways women's choice can be undermined from both directions - it is appalling that women should not be free to say no, not to use birth control for lack of availability, not to have the knowledge to limit their fertility. At the same time, it is worrisome the way the power to do these things become the compulsion to do these things at times. My worry is that women's choice gets left out of the equation either way.


I am not going to judge anyone for making a different decision on a question which is perhaps the most difficult we ever make. However, as annoying as I am sure it is to be constantly berated for having several children, if we accept that we want to leave reproductive freedom to the individual then we have to consider that social pressure is a powerful tool.

This is probably going to sound like self-justification, and it isn't meant that way, but for pure mathematical accuracy, since our calculations are based on household size, we actually use 10% or less of the energy, resources etc... that are used by the average American family - average household size is 2.6 people in the US, and we're a family of 6, sometimes 7 or 8 (when we've got housemates). That said, however, it is true that in a few more generations, you still get more consumption than not. The "Amish Defense" ;-) in the net doesn't work - add to that that my children may eat better and less energy consumptive food, but they don't eat less than an average American child (although we do leave out several common food groups including the congealed and the barbecue flavored ;-)), so the math doesn't quite work. But then, I don't think I'd ever try to justify my kids' existence by saying "well, they don't consume that much, so can I keep them ;-)?" Sounds too much like one of my kids bringing home a puppy.


Good discussion, need to have it, need to hear women on it who have had the whole range of experiences, including childless by choice or by chance. Also from the whole range of ages, because how the experiences play out changes as women age.

I say experiences rather than choices, because as I think you are saying, Sharon, how many children a woman has is influenced by a very wide range of factors, many of which are less of a choice than a product of circumstances. To make it into only a *choice* is to commit the standard sin of mainstream U.S. culture, that of individualism.

I'm in my mid 50s and childless. Partly by choice, partly by chance and circumstance, as best as I can tell. Our 4 year old neighbor considers me her best friend, so it's not a matter of my not liking children.

What happens as I grow elderly, I don't know. My DH stayed with his 83 year old mom yesterday and overnight because of the forecasted blizzard (we were lucky, the storm headed further west than it was expected at one point, just ended up with an inch of sleet followed by a few inches of snow). We figured his mom needed him more than I did. Who will do that for either of us when we get that age, I don't know. Which is exactly why your point about social support is so important. With sufficient social support, it would be much less of a worry. Which in turn leads me to realize that social support in general is something I need to be working on - not for me in particular, but to strengthen the community in general.

I am 36 and have one 2-year-old son who will probably be my only child. I used to be adamant about not wanting children. One of the more compelling reasons for changing my mind was my concern for my own support system in my old age. If I'd been able to adopt, I would have done so instead of having a child of my own. Adoption is so difficult and expensive in this country.

On this topic, the adult conversation has yet to begin. You are on the right track: Poverty is the clear, overwhelming #1 cause of human population increase. The calculus is well known and well established, as is the answer to it -- global-level wealth re-distribution.

Until that item reaches the top of the population activists' agenda, "speaking out" about population will remain what it is -- a shocking piece of vanity-based pseudo-politics.

Meanwhile, the proper outcome for all these pampered First Worlders who want to paint this as a moral issue is instant, permanent transport to a shanty in Manila or Nairobi or Mexico City, preferably with a m-to-f sex change as part of the deal.

I should have been clearer when I said "called to parenthood." I certainly didn't mean it in any religious sense. Instead, I was thinking about people who *choose* to have children for at least relatively altruistic reasons (ie, they like kids and want to pour the huge amount of time and energy it takes into being good parents.)

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because my friends are starting to have kids. I've asked several of them why they chose that route (not in a confrontational way --- I'm really curious about people's choices.) The answers could be summed up as fitting into one of the following categories:

"I feel unfulfilled in my life and I'm hoping kids will make me feel fulfilled."

"I really, really hate my job and it's societally approved to quit your job as long as you have kids."

"Birth control? What's that?"

I feel like popular media in the U.S. has made childbearing look like something you can do in between hobbies, while I suspect the reality is that to be a good parent, you have to commit masses of time and energy to the proposition. (I could be wrong about what it's actually like to be a parent --- I just get that impression from watching my sleep deprived friends.) That's why I feel that making the realities of parenthood more obvious to people like my friends might make them find a different way to seek fulfillment or quit their job if they're not a big fan of small children. I certainly don't think we should be using any methods of forcing (or even shaming) people into having fewer kids.

(For the record, I totally understand what you're saying about environmental choices from the past that can't be changed. I didn't mean to attack you about your kids --- more to use your hypothetical family size and impact as a mathematical equation to represent a world in which the average family was that size and used that many resources. I think you fit pretty clearly into the niche of someone who has been "called" to parenthood, and I think folks like you should have as many kids as they want to make up for folks like me who want to steer clear of the whole endeavor.)

Most of the comments look at this from the point of view of having children to take care of you in old age. My mind works the complete opposite:
When I had my children about 20 years ago, I had only two children out of concerns for overpopulation. Now, I am terrified of my kids getting married and having kids. I know that these grandkids will be doomed to rather dismal lives as the world's population must find a way to contract, and our lifestyle drops significantly. Starvation is not out of the question someday. I think the biggest relief to me would be to know that I am not responsible for future suffering of offspring. I think about the world at the end of this century and its not a very pleasant thought.

I found a disturbing reference to DDT the other day.

A local radio station repeated the old wives tale about DDT causing thin eggshells. (It doesn't - the only project that claimed it did also withdrew the calcium from the quails' diet.)

"Population control advocates blamed DDT for increasing third world population. In the 1960s, World Health Organization authorities believed there was no alternative to the overpopulation problem but to assure than up to 40 percent of the children in poor nations would die of malaria. As an official of the Agency for International Development stated, "Rather dead than alive and riotously reproducing." [Desowitz, RS. 1992. Malaria Capers, W.W. Norton & Company] " - from

I can hope that none of the ethanol advocates are in favor of mass starvation, though we know a couple of obama's associates have advocated limiting the US to 100 million population (about 1/3 the number today).

A few years ago Brazil was held up as the darling of the AGW community - for switching almost entirely to ethanol. I read that the Indianapolis racing car circuit contracted with Brazil for all their racing fuel. I also know that some Iowa farmers have been wintering over in Brazil in the last few years - growing corn and soybeans. So, is Brazil shipping corn to feed the world, or distilling ethanol? And should we care?

The other food question I have is the energy and money required to ship that corn that is now going for ethanol. If that corn were to be shipped to the starving - who would pay for the corn, who would pay for the shipping and handling? What nation(s) would see the energy for transporting bulk grains come out of their national energy budget?

No one really blames Russia for halting exports of grain needed for food for the Russian people. But how much oil should the US import, to ship grain to other lands?

My own feeling is that all government subsidies for ethanol should be stopped immediately, both direct to ethanol distillers and distributors and refineries that have been using ethanol. The experience of many car owners is that adding ethanol reduces gas mileage - which means adding 10% ethanol burns ethanol, without stretching the gasoline at all. Local gas stations advertise they have gas without ethanol, as a selling point.

I mean, the government could do something interesting that would help. One idea I had was a tax on employers, one cent per mile per day for the distance each employee traveled to work for that day. The point? To get employers and communities involved in getting people close to work, to reduce the 40 and 50 mile commutes that were common among those I worked with in Phoenix 10 years ago. (I would use 1/2 the rate for miles on public transit, and split the tax equally between the federal government and county and community governments.) Another idea would be for a community to certify housing before it could be occupied - including adequate workplace opportunities and shopping access within a fixed radius - that could be shrunk over time, to reduce the housing developments 20 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart, and change the 'draw customer base from 50-100 miles out' store planning to corner stores. That is the real reason light rail is so stupid - it is a half-baked plan to gild a chunk of mud, not to clean up the mud in the first place.

Shipping grain from the US is always going to be unsustainable. As the decline from the Age of Cheap Energy progresses, it is the transportation costs and less secure access to energy at predictable prices that will be the next bottleneck. Until shipping US grain is part of a responsible program of local food security world wide, much of the argument is always going to be political, and not about humanitarianism. 'Cause don't forget - US corn and other grains are primarily the result of US agribusiness. Any threat to modern debt structures or energy availability and price will have immoderate effects. Continuing to depend on the productivity of US agribusiness, and asking others to depend in US grains as well, denies the presence of both the debt crisis in the US, and lack of response to peak oil at the public and government levels.


I stumbled across a self-evident statement that surprised me, a while back.

No culture with less than 2.1 surviving children per couple can sustain itself, over 25 years.

I look at coming together as a couple as being an act of respect for the home you were raised in, or at least an understanding of what that should have been. A couple that agrees on the culture of the home - what is right and wrong, the daily rituals and the traditions they bring from their extended families and their life experiences. Communities are built, primarily, of the cultures of the homes in that community. There is a reason that a family, a couple with children, is more important to the life of the community than any single person, or couple without children, can be - a family casts a shadow on the next generation.

I don't think anyone can have a more positive impact on the crises and celebrations, and daily life, of the future than to bring up children to respect what they respect, to cherish what they cherish, and to abhor what they abhor - and to know why.

Refusing to have children, at least two, is a form of genetic and cultural ending, a form of suicide. Yes, your works and crafts may be of good purpose, you may nurture your neighbors and community, you might even be a national hero. And some families may admire you and teach their children the virtues that you display. But the fact remains that in a hostile world of tomorrow (and the world has always been hostile at some level; I expect it to remain that way. Just last week a child was riding a skateboard down the street at dusk, wearing black clothes - and was run over. The world is hostile, and we must remain alert if not wary.) one or two fewer people will be living the truths and values that you think are worth living today.

If I remember the stats, the US and Europe are averaging about 1.5 to 1.6 children per couple, the Mexicans about 2.2, and the Muslims about 8.1. If we aren't ready and able to hold what we have, there are others ready to take it, both today and tomorrow.

As for Sharon raising four children? I figure four more citizens in the next generation with discipline and respect in their childhood years can only make the world a better place for all.

Brad K.,

Wow. I really don't know where to start with that. For openers, just on a statistical level, how many of those Muslim children survive to adulthood? That's a much better marker for actual growth of population than how many children are born to an average couple.

Second, as the child of two relatively conservative parents who is now more or less a flaming nutbar liberal, I have to challenge your assertion that your children will perpetuate the values in which they're raised. That's an absurdly deterministic view of human psychology.

Third, if the only chance our culture has of surviving is to literally outbreed its competitors, then perhaps it deserves to die a quiet, unlamented death.

I've heard Brad's argument before, but it often goes along the lines of:

"Only smart people are going to care about population, and if they all decided not to have kids, we'd end up with a bunch of dumb people!"

Sometimes people insert "Christian", "American", or their own favorite category instead of "smart", and "Muslim", "them over thar", or whatever instead of "dumb." But no matter how you phrase it, the argument always strikes me as racist/classist or whichever -ist is most relevant.

I am entering my 80's, a member of the generation that boomed the babies. I always said we had a right to only two children per couple, one apiece. I had our two at ages 23 and 25. My cohort really chided me when we had a third at my age 37.

I have always thought abortion rights should be defended because compulsory pregnancy was an immoral sentence to lay on any woman. Probably compulsory abortion is equally deplorable, although it may be more necessary.

By Ruth Busch (not verified) on 02 Feb 2011 #permalink

I think this is a really great well thought out piece, Sharon.

Couple of thoughts:
1) Anna, I can't help but feel that you are over-simplifying the experience of being a parent just a bit. Perhaps there are people who have children for reasons that we would consider less than optimal. But if there were a lot of people having kids because they felt like it was akin to some trendy hobby, wouldn't they stop after one when they realized the work that parenting takes?
2) I think it's also important to bring up how the whole health of women in the Global South is often ignored. We talk about how economic development and education often leads women to have fewer children. But as Sharon says, educated women is a good in and of itself. Similarly, health care schemes are well and good, but they shouldn't treat women like walking wombs. We shouldn't focus all our health resources on handing out birth control and ignore the basic diseases that women suffer throughout the Global South. Health care should be holistic, not merely focused on women's reproductive systems.


I think the point you make about how you live is really a valid and reasonable case for a larger family. I'd go further. There has always been more than enough work to do on a farm for all members of a large family. Rural life works better when the family has enough strong backs to help with all the tasks at hand. That's not so important in cities. There is room for variation here without guilt.

But, on a policy level, we are missing official recognition that population is even an issue. We can get congressional resolutions honoring Holocaust survivors or condemning the Armenian genocide, but never can we bring up the concept of controlling our own population. If we could admit that we had a problem, may be we could do something about it. It would not be hard to come up with policy measures that would encourage smaller families.

Who are "the Muslims" who are having 8.1 children? By means of exhaustive research a quick look on Wikipedia, I found that no country in the world currently has a fertility rate that high. The highest fertility countries (6 or 7 children per woman) are Muslim (Niger), Christian (Liberia), and mixed (Guinea-Bissau). Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world, has a fertility rate of 2.18 per woman. Turkey, Iran, and Tunisia are below replacement rate.

I'm not well studied, but it seems I don't hear much talk about the population in the U.S. or changing the subsides for having more. To give just one example, my employer subsidizes heath insurance so that your cost for insuring 1 child is no different than if you have 5. This amounts to greater compensation for employees with more children. Lawyers may have to explain to me why that is even legal.
As a second example I might like paying for college educations for very many children in my country. I might want to pay more per kid if they were from smaller sibships. It would be a carrot.
I'd like to hear why ideas like these are stupid or smart as a simple start to the conversation. I am aware of a punishing the children argument, but think there's nothing for that. Might be nice to start solving things at home first too.

@rork:"I am aware of a punishing the children argument, but think there's nothing for that."

That's unclear. Do you mean that we're not punishing the children? Or that we are punishing the children, but that it doesn't matter?

We actually do have the recipe for low birth rates, a la Mediteranean Europe and the more wealthy parts of East Asia:
- High standard of living +
- Educational and employment opportunities for women +
- Traditional attitudes to childrearing (mothers expected to stay at home, stigma against unmarried births)

The last factor has its disadvantages...

I am the oldest of eight children. All three of my brothers are disabled. Two will need care for the rest of their lives and the other needs help but is fairly self sufficient. I am the guardian and end up taking 98% of the responsibility for them though one of my sisters does a great deal of advocacy work and has done much to raise awareness regarding the issues that typical siblings of those who are disabled face when their parents are gone. So in my case being part of a big family does not guarantee a sharing of the responsibilities. My brothers are in "the system" which means they get many service from a local agency. This is really a double edged sword here in Illinois. If they came back to live with us they would lose all services and would never be able to get into a group home again. One, in particular, would be better off here and rather than him paying almost all of his income to the agency for rent and fees he would pay us (they did live with us for 10 years) which would take a load off of us financially. However, if the time came that we could no longer care for him he would have nowhere to go. It just amazes me how our society promotes sending our family members other places for care and in fact makes it seem like this is "normal" and what we all should do.

I took a few minutes to cross-check your claim about DDT. I would suggest you remain skeptical of anything you get off that junksci website. Why?

Second, the 'we need to breed to continue our way of life' argument is bunk. Memes do not need genes, to summarize a counter argument.

Social regulation of one's reproduction is such a slippery slope, in so many directions! But, yes, I think it is a conversation that should be had. It will certainly be uncomfortable, but ignoring it and letting Mom (as in Mother-of-All) take care of our mess will probably not be too much to our liking either.

By ChrisBear (not verified) on 03 Feb 2011 #permalink

It is selfishness and greed that causes humanity all these problems. It's this "my family" versus "your family", rooted in race and genetics. Everyone should take care of everyone - we need to dissolve the "lines" that separate us from each other. The human race is one family - when we really feel it, see it and live it, these kinds of problems will be solved.

In other words, we must begin with the premise that we are all already one family, not as something to be achieved but as something that is always already the case.

Thanks, everyone, for the level of civility of this discussion. I admit, I always dread my comboxes after raising the population issue, and I'm glad I don't have to.

Brad, I think you need to do a little more looking at the actual data on TFR. Even the poorest nations, some Muslim, many not, are undergoing a demographic transition to smaller families.

Anna, that's interesting - I don't know anyone who chose to parent for those reasons - although obviously I know that people do become parents for a lot of reasons. Among the cohort of families I know, it was always a subject of some moment. That said, some of the best parents I know never chose at all - they had parenthood thrust upon them ;-). I do, however, think that it is extremely unfortunate that there is so much pressure on people to have children at all - and that so many people feel it is their business to enquire of others about their decision not to. I would be delighted to see a cultural shirt toward the idea that not having kids was something that was none of your business and not to be assumed. I feel like friends of mine who have chosen never to have kids all pretty much got hosed by a culture that thinks that they *should* want kids.

Gary, I take your point - and that's why I think it is important to talk about. At the same time, I think that some of the reason that we can't talk about population is the population movement's fault (just as the reason that peak oil is sometimes marginalized is the fault of the communications strategies of the peak oil movement in part).

Sorcha, we also have models of lower wealth societies with low fertility rates like Cuba and Kerala as well that might be more relevant to where we are headed.

Rork, I'm on record as suggesting we limit the child tax credit to 2 children (and yes, that would cost me something significant - but I'm still in favor), and that if/when it becomes necessary to impose rationing on energy and resource consumption (but not food), that rationing be pegged to a family of 4, forcing those who want more kids to conserve - I would want to balance that with some progressive strategies for the kids who were already here so that you weren't condemning them to live in poverty, but since I already live on well less than a family of four in almost every respect, I'd be the first to say that it could be done and wouldn't be unreasonable or unjust. I would not be in favor of changing college fees, however, because I don't think we benefit from an under-educated larger population ;-). In fact, I think we need to make college free to give unemployed younger people something to do besides building bombs and rioting ;-), but that's another issue for another day.

My own reasoning might be different than yours, however, for these changes - I think that the government should not give people an incentive to have more children - nor should they give *disincentives* to do so - although I don't have the slightest objective to removing existing incentives. When the state perceives personal reproduction as a tool it can manage, I think we all suffer, frankly.



First - you are right, I quoted a video that seemed to make sense. On looking, TinyFrog ( does a nice job of correcting the mis-statements.

While the actual European numbers of Muslims is much more constrained (somewhere around 2.6, maybe).
"France 1.98
England 1.66
Greece 1.36
Germany 1.41
Italy 1.3
Spain 1.3"
- according to the CIA factbook.

But the video I saw mis-stated Muslim reproduction rates.
"Morocco 2.57
Algeria 1.82
Tunisia 1.73
Turkey 1.87"

My bad.

My point was quite dramatic with those erroneous numbers, Scott, but I am still convinced the argument stands: We cannot afford to unilaterally disarm, because our enemies will take advantage, and we cannot unilaterally limit our population for similar reasons. We don't live in this world alone, nor do we control what other nations do. I would expect the "you aren't using it, I'll take it" argument for international aggression to become overwhelming if we chose to reduce our population or disarm without regard to what other nations do.

No 'correct' approach or program, no matter how energy conservative or green, or humanitarian it is, if our nation succumbs to an aggressor with a different agenda.

If there is no credible concern about another culture outgrowing us, then I seen no benefit at all in wanting an increase in population. That is far different than advocating 'we have to keep growing'. I would rather see our culture and society move toward more intentional family formation and reproduction. I think just getting the sex and innuendo filled commercials off all media would dramatically reshape what children consider important as they mature into parenthood. I also think ending the spectre of commercials that interrupt a presentation would dramatically reduce the number of children affected with ADHD and ADD, but that is just a guess on my part.


I bow to your numbers of children per woman. That does raise a question in my mind, though, about wealthier people forming multiple-wife households. This happens in the US to a very minor degree, as persecution of the polygamy of the first Mormons was encoded into law. I hear of it overseas, but have no insight, and I suspect that it is more common among the wealthy and powerful.


Currently on the world stage, it is mostly the Muslims that are actively campaigning in political and criminal ways to attack the US, with the avowed intent of destroying us. Forgive me for taking them at their word.

And, yes, I know that not all Muslims are engaged in jihad against anyone, let alone the US.

Brad - "I would expect the "you aren't using it, I'll take it" argument for international aggression to become overwhelming if we chose to reduce our population or disarm without regard to what other nations do."

I wouldn't worry about other countries overwhelming the US. Our greatest, immediate worry is the consequences of global warming. There's no guarantee that there will be even a billion people alive at the end of the century.

Much of the unrest in the Near East now is motivated by food prices. The price of grains has pretty much doubled in the last handful of years. For a family who gets most of their food as whole grains in burlap bags, and who used to spend half their income on food, this is a *big problem. And it's not going away. The major cause is reduced food supply from prolonged droughts followed by floods and devastating rain storms. Other major contributors are the rising price of oil, used for farm machinery, transport, and fertilizers; and diverting grains (especially sugars and corn) to the production of ethanol. We don't notice these issues yet in the US because a high percentage of our food prices go to packaging, advertisement, store costs, etc.

We cannot afford to unilaterally disarm, because our enemies will take advantage, and we cannot unilaterally limit our population for similar reasons.

It's the return of Mutually Assured Destruction!

When you're viewing children as weapons in a War of Civilisations, something has gone badly wrong somewhere...

I find it heartbreaking that people are citing the need to have someone to look after them in their old age, or to care for disabled relatives, as a primary reason for having children. Surely one of the basic goals of a civilised society should be to provide a decent life and basic human dignity for all, regardless of their luck in the lottery of births, deaths and marriages?

Dunc, while I wholly agree with you that a society with its head on straight can provide for its needy without reproductive strategies, I'm not sure that you can ever fully separate the social support that families provide for one another from the family itself - I wouldn't try. I think it is normal to talk about children as a means of caring for you in your old age, or as a way of supporting the disabled. The value of the unpaid work that the family does is enormous to society, and minimizing that, or suggesting it shouldn't exist doesn't seem to deal with the reality. That doesn't mean the only reason one has children is as retirement planning, though.

I actually think the fact that our society is so uncomfortable with the economic implications of marriage and children is a bad thing, personally.

I'm not sure that you can ever fully separate the social support that families provide for one another from the family itself - I wouldn't try. I think it is normal to talk about children as a means of caring for you in your old age, or as a way of supporting the disabled.

Certainly - it's the apparent assumption that this is the only way of caring for the elderly or disabled that bothers me. (The word "primary" in "a primary reason for having children" is important.) I'm not saying that families shouldn't support one another, I'm just saying that there have to be social mechanisms in place to (a) support carers, and (b) support those with no-one to look after them. You shouldn't have to depend on your relatives being able and willing to look after you.

Admittedly, it's something I notice at least partly because I'm almost certainly going to be facing old age (and whatever infirmities it brings) entirely on my own.

Sharon: Kerala is an interesting case. It's low fertility rate (compared to the rest of India) is usually accredited to the high female literacy rate. Women marry later (where "later" means in their 20s rather than teens) and are more empowered to choose the size of their families. Certainly, it's a good model for the developing world.

My (slightly flippant) point is that different strategies would be necessary for different countries. Bringing the fertility rate in Niger or Guinea-Bissau down from 7 to 4 children per woman requires certain strategies (economic development and female education). Bringing the fertility rate of Sweden or the USA down from 2 children to 1 child per woman requires something different.

BradK: If the male:female ratio is 50:50, then polygamy would have little impact on population numbers (it might lead to an increase in unmarried and childless men, which has its own problems). It would only have an effect if there was a large "surplus" of women, such as might happen after a war. The actual instance of polygamy in the Islamic world varies greatly; it's rare in Egypt and relatively common in Saudi Arabia.

Sorcha, we also have models of lower wealth societies with low fertility rates like Cuba and Kerala as well that might be more relevant to where we are headed.

40 years ago when the crisis in human population growth was first recognized would have been the proper time to have a conversation about our future population. Maybe we could have agreed to replace pro-natalist government policies and incentives in our society with a package of defined benefits for families who limited their reproduction to just two children. I'm afraid the time has past for this kind of a conversation. With approx. 80M new humans being added each year to the world population, we are moving rapidly on a collision course with our declining resource base. Access to cheap death controls like sanitation, cheap medicine like vaccines, cheap fossil energy for growing more food has acted like a turbo-charger on world population growth since 1825. Our population growth problem may be more amenable to the techniques of "game management" than anything else. After all, we are animals subject to the same environmental constraints other animals face when they overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment. Overshoot and collapse is the term that comes to mind. We are in overshoot and the collapse is likely not far behind. The only question I have is how grim is it going to get over the next several decades?

By Tim Wessels (not verified) on 06 Feb 2011 #permalink

Thank you, Tim Wessels, for a refreshing touch of humility. Reading the post itself and the comments, I was struck by an overwhelming impression of hubris: that this is a "problem", and that we humane, clever, (and maybe female) people know how to solve it.

Population is not a problem; it is a predicament. It has no solution in the sense that human agency can affect the outcome. The solution will be imposed by Nature, and that solution will be dieoff.

How bad? I tried some quantitative analysis, and reached the approximate conclusion that we will be "downsized" by some five billion people over the next 50 years. That is not my hope or my fear - neither hopes nor fears matter, only the cold equations.

By Robert Firth (not verified) on 06 Feb 2011 #permalink

BradK @ 18:

A local radio station repeated the old wives tale about DDT causing thin eggshells. (It doesn't - the only project that claimed it did also withdrew the calcium from the quails' diet.)

No, THAT is the old wive's tale. The causal link between DDT and eggshell damage has been incontrovertibly proven. Which leads me to....

"Population control advocates blamed DDT for increasing third world population. In the 1960s, World Health Organization authorities believed there was no alternative to the overpopulation problem but to assure than up to 40 percent of the children in poor nations would die of malaria. As an official of the Agency for International Development stated, "Rather dead than alive and riotously reproducing." [Desowitz, RS. 1992. Malaria Capers, W.W. Norton & Company] " - from

Steven Milloy of is a tinfoil-hatted conspiracy kook and proven anti-science liar. He denies to this day that asbestos and even tobacco are in any way related to cancer. He has a "clock" on his site allegedly showing "deaths from lack of DDT," which is so grotesquely false that he even includes fine print on his own site saying the numbers are made up but that "since even 1 avoidable death is too many, I will keep this here". And he's also a 9/11Truther, who has repeatedly advocated that the impact and fire from the hijacked planes would never have been enough to cause the WTC collapse and so instead there was extra inside-job sabotage which the U.S. government is either complicit in or is covering up. His own 9/11Truther insider-sabotage conspiracy theory is that environmentalists did it by secretly ripping asbestos out of the towers, and that they took unequal amounts out of both towers which explained why one stood for longer than the other.

Milloy is the ambulance-chaser of the ultra-Right, who hates real scientists and pro-science advocates far more than he cares about the truth, and who doesn't care about sick, dying, or jeopardized people whatsoever. If you want to be taken seriously, never cite him again.

Hey Sharon, don't let anyone give you a hard time for having a few kids. I chose not to have any kids myself, so I'll sell you my "child-bearing offsets" for an autographed copy of "A Nation of Farmers" and a stirrup hoe! :-)

By John LeDoux (not verified) on 08 Feb 2011 #permalink

I have been reading your blog for quite awhile now, always impressed with your comprehensive approach. But I have never been compelled to respond until this post. There is much food for thought in this post, clearly showing how simplistic answers to any of our problems just don't work. Unfortunately, we seem to been designed for those simple answers. That's why I despair that we will ever do the hard and complex thinking needed to avert our impending future.

Thank you for always being a voice that reminds and informs us of the many factors of what faces us, with population being one of them most complex. I read you not just to stay informed but to be challenged not to accept the easy simple answers, however much it reassures me to do so.

Keep up the good work.

By Colleen Carboni (not verified) on 13 Feb 2011 #permalink