Talking Population With the Old Men

Sharon July 19th, 2007

Today is World Population Day, and again, the laments from my fellows on the ecological left are singing out in semi-unison “But no one is talking about population.” I always smile when I hear this, because if you are a woman in the environmental movement with four kids, it does tend to seem as though we *are* talking about population, and not just on World Population Day. About 1/4 of my mail is about population - mostly about my personal contribution to it. And every time this subject comes up on the blog I get my ass toasted by all the flames ;-)
Fortunately, I’m a pale sort and the only way I can get decent color for a bathing suit is to get my heinie roasted now again, so it serves a purpose. Heck, let’s do it again.

And frankly, I think it is really important that I talk about population - which is why I bring it up so much, heat or no (although I really wouldn’t hate it if I had a little company among the similarly imperfect - I keep hoping for Rob Hopkins to jump in ;-). Because if those of us who have kids, even too many kids, don’t participate in this discussion, the population debate will go on without us. Up to now, most of the loudest voices in this discussion have been men, mostly old men - Albert Bartlett, Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, and, of course, the grand old man of the subject, Thomas Malthus. And I admire and respect these voices and think much of what they say is true - not all of it, but a good deal. But if all of us, who do speak from a different experience, especially (but not exclusively) those women whose bodies any policies will play out in don’t talk, don’t speak from our perspective, we’re in big trouble.

So I write about this, knowing that my position is suspect, my limitations visible, and with the pitter patter of little ecological footprints running about, but also knowing that because of this, when I say “let’s talk about population” at least a few people might just pause and think that we can have this conversation. That some of the people who think that a conversation about population is just going to be a long screed about how they or their religion or their gender or their politics is wrong might know that at least one voice isn’t going there. Or at least they might feel like there’s someone else there to take the heat.

At least, I hope that’s what will happen. And I have the hope that people might think that if I came to the table, the table might seem less a place for two hostile sides to bang their heads against each other, but for voices from the ambiguous middle to start to find a ground to speak on. Perhaps I flatter myself. I want to see population on the agenda everywhere, and after I point out to the ZPG folks that I’m something of fraught advocate, I’m very firm on the fact that I will work with them to get the discussion to the table.

But if I bring this to the table, I’m also going to bring a perspective that begins from the premise that we have to respect and trust the people most affected -women. I think that not only because I am one, but because I’m truly aware of the limitations of statistics and science, and why this isn’t just a conversation about demography. I write from the perspective of someone whose physical body has experienced almost everything that can happen to someone in their childbearing years. I’ve written the next paragraph about 50 times and deleted it, because frankly, this is more than I want people to know about me. But I’m going to include them anyway because I think there’s some real urgency to knowing where we speak from. And I think my personal desire for privacy may be less important than that we talk honestly about this.

I’ve gotten pregnant by intent and by accident, wept with frustration when I wasn’t pregnant and with panic when I was unexpectedly. I’ve gotten pregnant in a secure marriage and been pregnant by a man who told me he’d leave me if I had the baby. I’ve gotten pregnant using every form of birth control known to man, often in combination, including those that aren’t supposed to have a meaningful margin of error. I’ve endured side effects from birth control and miserable pregnancies as well. I’ve miscarried multiple times, and wished desperately for the continuance of a pregnancy. I’ve had an abortion, been grateful for my freedom to do so, and also regretted beyond measure having had it. I’ve given birth to four beautiful, wonderful children. I’ve had health scares and nearly lost an infant, had a premature baby and one that wouldn’t come out even more than 2 weeks late. I’ve been angry and ambivalent and sad, and wracked with joy and delight and love.
I’ve breastfed and struggled to breastfeed. I’ve had a disabled child and non-disabled ones. I am now, in my mid-30s, done (barring any other weird miracles of fertility) with childbearing, although we hope someday to adopt. And there are plenty of experiences out there, thank G-d, that I’ve never had. But within those limits, I have lived in my body a significant part of the material reality of our childbearing, our medical system, and motherhood. Now that’s not all there is to say about population, but I flatter myself that that means that I’ve got something to say that the old men might not.

I’m a pretty blunt person, and writing the above was difficult for me. I can understand, then, why even people who admit we have to talk about population struggle to speak about it. And for women, this can be particularly difficult, because in the abstract conversations about bodies, we bang hard into our real bodies, and our real fears about what can be applied to them. When people speak of abortion, as a solution, I think about my own, about the physical pain and deep grief it caused me - about the idea that someone would have a right to order me to act surgically. When we talk about one child policies, I look at my autistic, disabled son and ask “If I had had only one child, what would be his hope of survival and success in a depleted world? Who would care for him when I am gone? Who would love him and ensure his survival?” When we talk about birth control, I think about getting pregnant while breastfeeding, using condoms and the pill - and yes, I know that’s statistically unlikely. But I’m here as the voice of the statistically unlikely - the real woman into whose body devices must be inserted. When we talk about abstinence, I wonder what the price of the failure of abstinence will be - will others pay a price I didn’t? I wonder whether other women will always have the power to say no freely.

And of course, there’s the blurring of personal history. When I talk about my implication in the population issue, I am necessarily talking about my real, here, present children who I love. It is one thing to acknowledge moral failure, and another to imply in any sense that I regret my children (nothing could be further from the truth, obviously). I met a woman at the Community Solutions Conference who told me that she worked for years for various environmental organizations, and never talked about her six children - children born before most of those organizations were founded. I’ve said this before, but ultimately, a movement that wants people to feel ashamed of the children they do have is bound to fail. So too is one that forgets that population is not a subject that comes up in isolation - that people have children for complicated reasons, and that things like money and power and military policy and medical care are mixed into this mess - if we try to talk about population without talking about the world around it, we will fail to change anything.

Demographers historically talk about population in terms of the I=PAT formulation, invented by Paul Erlich, famous for the book _The Population Bomb_. I is total impact here, and it is the product of Population, times Affluence (consumption) and Technology (Technology here implies pollution, but it is interesting to me that this acknowledges that pollution and technology are so deeply intertwined). But feminist critics of the I=PAT formulation such as T. Patricia Hynes, in her book _Taking Population Out of the Equation_ have pointed out that the I=PAT formula leaves all actors out of the equation - it is simply passive. That means it conceals power relationships - for example, the way that western consumption influences patterns of reproduction in the third world. That is, the way our need for endless stuff creates an incentive to have more kids to move into the factories. It conceals the realities that the ability to avoid pregnancy is often about power, access to medicine and war - a woman who knows her children are going to be impressed into service in the military, for example, has only one path of resistance if she wishes to have her children live - to have many children.

Donnella Meadows, one of the authors of _The Limits of Growth_ writes about her own experiences of seeing Hynes and others complicate the I=PAT formula here: Meadows was initially resistant, but then says, she began to reconsider her equation when she began to think about how the disproportionate impact of things like the military and corporate power affect the equation,

“An equation was beginning to form in my head:

Impact equals Military plus Large Business plus Small Business plus Government plus Luxury Consumption plus Subsistence Consumption

Each of those term has its own P and A and T. Very messy. Probably some double counting and some terms left out. But no more right or wrong, really, than IPAT.

Use a different lens and you see different things, you ask different questions, you find different answers. What you see through any lens is in fact there, though it is never all that is there. It’s important to remember, whatever lens you use, that it lets you see some things, but it prevents you from seeing others.”

This is my experience as well - the way we phrase the discussion now is going to shape whether we are able to talk about population, and how, and whether we actually get anywhere. What we include and what exclude, how we think about religion, politics, war, justice, sex and everything else has to come with us to the table. That doesn’t mean we can’t narrow things down for the purpose of discussion - we’ll have to. But how we narrow it, and who we bring to the table matters here. “Talking about Population” from environmentalists cannot be a code term for “Let’s all agree that we shouldn’t be having babies.” I don’t think it is for most people, but sometimes when I hear people lamenting that we can’t talk about population, I think the problem may be the terms we’re talking in.

Here are some things I think we have to talk about. If we’re talking about voluntary limitations, do we mean really voluntary, or the kind of voluntary where you’ll intimidate me if I don’t comply? Can we offer financial and political incentives for people to choose fewer children without discriminating against minority groups who choose to pay the price? How do we deal with power disparities, like women who are victims of violence and the poor who may have limited control of their own fertility? Will we be improving the medical system so that someone’s one child gets to live to a reasonable old age?

What will we do for the disabled? If I’d only had Eli, what assurance would there be that after my husband and I are gone, there will be someone to care for him? How about elderly parents? My husband and I have 7 parents between us and he’s an only child. Will we form low-energy, low cost, human powered and humane ways to help us with this? What about women in India, who have to have 6 children in order to be certain one will live long enough to care for their parents in their old age. How will we make sure that a woman in India who has only one or two children does not starve to death when she gets old? Is it better to put our resources into discouraging her from having kids, or ensuring the ones who are born get to live?

What about war? Will the state be allowed to take my single child away and sacrifice him or her on the alter of resource wars? If someone voluntarily sacrifices their right to more children, must they also sacrifice those children’s lives?

What about accidents? If we had a population policy, how would you treat someone who becomes pregnant by accident, or an abusive marriage, or by rape? Will we be requiring abortions? Pressuring girls into accepting birth control devices? Mandating sterilization? Offering it? Subsidizing it?

How will we empower women to control their own fertility? Will we grant universal health care? What do we tell women in poor nations who need children to grow food - go hungry for the good of the world? What will we do to prevent rape, to prevent domestic violence, to make sure women don’t have to become prostitutes or sell themselves into marriage to eat?

How will we treat the religious, those who honestly believe that G-d requires something different from them? How will we bring religious communities respectfully into this discussion and listen to their voices? How will we bring pooor women to the table to speak as equals with the old men?

What will we teach our sons and daughters about sex, love and family in a world with less energy, less access to birth control and medical care for many? What kind of family structures will substitute for the work and emotional needs now made up by aunts and uncles and cousins, nephew and nieces? How will the voluntarily childless get access to family life, ensure security in their old age?

I don’t claim we have to have perfect solutions in place before we have this conversation, but we cannot simply speak in isolation of “how do we get the population down” - this is a messy, cluttered question. As Meadows put it, the equation is imperfect, complicated, troubling - and that may be the only way we can talk about this. Nor do I expect to like the answers I get in many cases - and that too is real. The real test of how committed we are to preventing disaster will be how we act when confronted with unpleasant truths that hurt us - whether, in the blur of our hurt, we can look past our personal feelings to the consequences of others, whether we can recognize that we don’t want to know or acknowledge all truths, but that we have to begin in honesty, even if in pain.

So I join my voice with those who say today, on World Population Day, we *must* talk about population. We have to begin now, and bring everyone to the table. We have to begin going gently to a policy that will stabilize the world’s population. But to get there, we have to decide how to shape the lens and the conversation so that it opens up as much view as possible, and doesn’t close it off.

This is going to be a hard conversation - as hard as the hardest we’re going to have. It will hurt - it already does. But I think the only possible answer is for all of us to try and take the broadest possible view, with the greatest possible courage and integrity. I don’t know if I can do that - this issue has tested my integrity before, but I’d like to try, and I’d like the rest of us to try to begin.



59 Responses to “Talking Population With the Old Men”

  1. Will Flanderson 19 Jul 2007 at 5:52 pm

    Sharon -

    I’ve recently discovered your blog and have just read your posts on women/feminism and the need to talk about population. I love your clarity of thinking and writing generally.

    As a man I deeply appreciate your woman’s voice because it lets me see a different perspective. I especially liked your raw, honest sharing of your experience of fertility, pregnancy, loss, and motherhood. I know much of what you wrote on an intellectual level and it still deeply affected me to read your story.

    Thanks for being you and sharing so much of the rich and diverse person that you are. You enrich my life.

  2. Anonymouson 19 Jul 2007 at 6:53 pm

    Having almost the opposite experience of fertility — no pregnancies, adoption by choice, but, like you, parenting children with disabilities, I see mostly questions, and few answers, or at least no fast ones.

    Certainly there could be a strongly encouraged one child per woman “suggestion” backed up by free health care, free contraception, a “pass” for the parent of a disbled child who feels a sibling is in the best intrests of the family, no penality for twins, etc., provisions for elder care, and whatever consquences for a second, nothing that punishes the child. (I can’t think of any off hand.)

    I think, as long as there are children who need homes, a turn around in how we view adoption would help to some extent. But all too often it’s considered after a lot of expensive and emotionally difficult IFT has been undertaken. People seem to be compleled to tell me they were about to adopt and suddenly had a “real” or child of “our own.”

    Now, perhaps I’m being very harsh: I never struggled with inferitity.

    I do know that the things that slowly reduce population; good heath care for exisiting children, female education, etc. are less and less likely to be easily availble PO.


  3. roelon 19 Jul 2007 at 8:15 pm


    That is beautiful, and baring you soul, and your heinie, before the entire world, takes bravery that few have. Thanks for that.

    I have alwasy felt, and do so still, that the discussion is perverted from the start, for two reasons that look very transparen to me:

    1/ Nobody has the right to tell someone else whether they can have children or not, under no circumstance. They can choose so for themselves, but not for others. Anymore than they can choose for others who they would (not) have the children with.
    2/ The world, the ecosystem, needs the influx of new life just as it needs the change of the seasons. New life is as necessary as it is precious.

    There are other things like the distortion of having an aging population that play a part too, and we’ll soon see that come to fruition.

    But finally and most importantly, I keep ending up with the same notion: whoever feels that there are too many people in the world, and feels that so strongly that they want to preach to others about it, has one very obvious choice. Leave the planet.

    I don’t wish or recommend it, but for me there’s no preference for an older person prone to complaining about others, over a newborn baby. Oh, wait, yes, maybe there is:>) Still, the newborn child is not more of a burden to anything or anyone than the older person. You don’t get more rights just because you happen to be already here, and that includes the right to choose whether someone other than you may add another life.

    It all smacks far too much of thinking: if you add more babies, there’ll be less nice stuff left for me.

  4. Anonymouson 19 Jul 2007 at 9:12 pm

    There is so much to say it is hard to articulate:

    On Bakhtairi - I was reading comments on Bakhtairi’s arguments about the pacing of peak oil, and his contention that oil peaking in 2006 would be the event of the century but that global population would peak in the 2020s. And someone said that by long after the oil peak the global population peak might look even more significant. We are so used to thinking of population in negative-terms, but that is historically very unusual, and declining populations bring lots of social problems too. I wonder if when our own children are having children or grandchildren there will be policy making and hand-wringing about appropriate ways to increase the population.

    On adoption - Liza Mundy discussed this a little. In the US in the 1960s (and earlier) a large percentage of babies born to white mothers out of wedlock were given up for adoption (but very few from Blacks or Hispanics), over the 1970s that changed. Many more white unmarried women choose to abort or to raise their children without husbands. The declining stigma of single-motherhood and abortion has very much kicked the guts out of the American adoption system since the 1970s, as supply could not keep up with demand, and it is often forced to adopt from abroad, which brings a whole seperate tangle of population and power struggles. Adoption is actually MORE expensive that IFT in many cases now. Population is so tanged with family and divorce and stigma and sex-roles and deep cultural forces. It is so hard to think clearly about the welter of interconnected strand.

    On my experience - I’ve fathered a child while using 2 forms of birth control, and have heard several other stories, I’ve often wondered if our generation was taught that birth-control is more reliable than it actually is. But our second child was more intentional. I remember trying to decide if it was morally appropriate to choose to have a child, and bringing every philosophical and religious consideration I could imagine to bear. I was so conflicted. And I doubt I am alone, it looks to be partly a generational issue. Strauss and Howe claim that the 70s saw a wave of anti-child sentiment in US culture unlike anything ever seen before in the West. For example, between 1973 and 1984 at least one of the top 10 grossing movies in the US was about evil children every year (The Exorcist, The Omen, Carrie, Children of the Corn, etc.). I suspect the children of the 70s internalized that in a very different way than the parents of the 70s. The average age of first sex and of first breeding have never been as far apart in our culture as they are now (for both genders). Sex, breeding and family are drifting further apart all the time.

    On families as a safety net - It is easy to be anti-population in a culture where the family system is fundementally broken, and people still hope for other safety nets besides family to function, government or wealth or whatever. But I suspect that when the other safety nets crumble family is going to start looking like the last line of defense, as dysfunctional and eroded as it is in the US. And I’m sure people in other parts of the world feel that way already. And there are costs. If you view your family as a safety net, it is easy in a slightly longer term to see them as an asset, then a bargaining chip. In some West African societies the worst oppressors of young women are old women, because that is where their power lies. American enjoys as system of marraige for love that is also a historical oddity. Marraiges arranged by families are far more common. When family planning decisions are made, even if they aren’t made by the government, they are often made not by the parents-to-be but by the grandparents-to-be who are often the property holders.

    More population as wealth - Look the main reason that oil is so valuable is that a gallon of oil can be used to substitute for 500 hours of human labor with the right machine. Human labor has always been a key form of wealth. Even if we took love and family and culture and happiness out of the equation, every society would try to have as much population as it could afford for wealth and power reasons. Voluntarily decreasing population, will never be more popular than voluntarily decreasing wealth. You can get a few ascetics to do it with enough ideology, but it will never be popular. Instead population will go down in all the unpleasant involuntary ways: war, famine, disease, lower life spans, increased infertility. So the only tricks we can leverage short of waiting for the unpleasant forms of population decline is to use love, family, and culture to encourage fewer children, despite the wealth and power incentives.

    So why do people choose not to have kids or not to have one more? Because they can’t find the right mate, or because they don’t think they can afford it, or because the world seems too bleak to bring a child into it, or because they are afraid of passing on a heritable health problem. Or I suppose because they are happy with what they have, but don’t want more. Are there other motivations I’m not thinking of in countries with low actual birth-rates? America kept its birth-rates down, by the consumerist Feminism, Sharon talked about last time, which made many women feel that they couldn’t afford a child (at least right now at this critical phase of their career), which ahd previously been mostly a male motivation. I suppose you could decrease population by creating an environment in finding a tolerable mate was difficult. Maybe you could make male and female cultures so seperate that love and friendship had troubles working, or give each party such unrealistically high expectations in a partner that they were never willing to settle on anyone real. Or you could increase the divorce rate. I suppose you could cut normal people off from contact with children, and try to make children seem scary with lots of movies. These techniques have had some success holding down birth-rates in the West, I suppose you could try to use them in other cultures. But in the end, are these techniques really that preferrable to waiting for the demographic spectors to catch up with us?

    Eesh, sorry to write so long, I’m just trying to think out loud about hard stuff honestly, and I’m sorry if I’ve said anything offensive.
    -Brian M.

  5. Anonymouson 19 Jul 2007 at 9:17 pm

    I have to agree with others here about your courage to post both your viewpoint and personal medical history here. No flames from me.

    MEA said: “I do know that the things that slowly reduce population; good heath care for existing children, female education, etc. are less and less likely to be easily available PO.”

    This is a definite concern to which I would add stable access to healthy food and freedom from unwanted migration be it from global warming, resource wars or genocide or lesser threats inspired by “nationalism” in a world of dwindling non-renewable resources.

    For those who wish to adopt, there should be as few administrative and cultural barriers as possible. For those who wish to use contraception, cost and limits to access should be at a minimum.

    Before the widespread use of ancient sunlight enabled the human population to explode, there were natural forces that kept things in check, however unpleasant at times. We know the history of human population expansion. However, not being a historian, I hope someone can point me to a time in human history when a sizable society of humans successfully diminished its numbers. Are there any examples from which we can learn?


  6. BoysMomon 19 Jul 2007 at 9:35 pm

    I’m not convinced that, looking at the big picture, there is a long term population problem.
    One: the disease rate in third world countries is horrific, and the death rates will only climb as global warming, peak oil, recessions, probably a depression, make it harder to get medications to people. Some parts of Africa have HIV rates as high as 50%. Maleria is endemic. There are plenty of other nasties out there.
    Two: the first world has a rapidly aging and sick and drugged population. Two of my relatives would both be dead if their pharmacies ran out of restock for a couple days at the wrong time. At least five other relatives in my immediate family would be dead today without modern medical care.
    I don’t think we’re close to having a clue how reliant our population is on modern medicine, but just to get started thinking about it, anyone with heart disease and anyone diabetic is one supply chain failure away from death.

  7. shadowfooton 19 Jul 2007 at 9:53 pm

    Thank you so much for writing, Sharon. This is very much something that needs discussing rather than avoiding, and including your personal experiences is very much appreciated.

    As for me, I would have liked to have children, but it didn’t work out. Yes, we started down the IVF road, but between the low chances and one of the procedures putting my health at risk (only 2% but he didn’t like it), it didn’t seem like the right path for us.

    Yes, we looked at adoption, both here and overseas. Too expensive. The IVF we looked at because our health insurance would cover it. There’s no help out there for people who’d like to adopt. Now we’re in our 40s, so instead we do our best to be exemplars on living more lightly to anyone who’s interested, hoping our experience and skills will be of some to those who can/will have children.

  8. Anonymouson 19 Jul 2007 at 9:58 pm

    The past two posts have been timely for me–my husband and I are thinking about trying to have our first baby in the next year, because it is the most “convenient” time professionally (although still immensely inconvenient, as these things go–I’ve only been out of school and applying my advanced degree for 2 years now, while he’s in a medical residency working 80+ hour weeks, and next year will be the “best” only because there won’t be overnight shifts or quite so many hours–but he’s no spring chicken ;o) , so we don’t feel we have another 5 years to wait until he’s out of residency, if he wants any chance of meeting his grandchildren–but I digress…). But we both have struggled greatly with the morality of bringing more consumers into this world. He’s justified it to himself (only half jokingly) that the world is doomed anyway, so him making our lives poorer by not having children won’t help anything, and having kids may help us survive the inevitable crash. He’s also half-hoping for some sort of pandemic disease to wipe out a good 50-90% of the current population (he can even accept it peacefully if that includes *him*), but he can be rather macabre at times…. I’ve justified birthing children only at a replacement rate (i.e. 2 kids), and planning to encourage our children to do the same–but we believe we may want a large family, and we’ve discussed adopting after the first two (or maybe sooner).

    I dunno–it’s a tough nut to crack. Maybe it depends in part on how inevitable and imminent you think world collapse is–if you think it’s coming in our lifetimes, it may make very good sense to have a tight clan to depend on–OR, it may make you think that you don’t want to bring any more lives into the world to suffer that event. If you think that we can prevent a catastrophic world change, but only by decreasing human consumption, AND you have no faith in the current people/governments’ ability to reduce their personal consumption, then the obvious answer is that we simply, *urgently* need less people.

    I have been one of those people who *theoretically* would like to see some sort of governmental controls, or at least incentive programs, to limit birthrates–but I have never been able to answer a lot of the tough questions you raise in your post, so I’m left with no solution, just ambivalent feelings.

    I want to have kids, but I feel guilty about it. Your arguments are very appealing, but I do have a nagging feeling that I might only be agreeing with you because it suits me–meaning that I can’t quite trust my own thoughts on this, and leaving me in a bit of a quandary…. ;o)


  9. Anonymouson 20 Jul 2007 at 1:17 am

    I had one child, and would have had more, had I not gotten such a late start. My point is that perhaps it is good Sharon that your children are growing up in a household w/ values like yours–simple values focusing on whole foods, gardening, a sustainable lifestyle, family time, a sense of place, activity, etc.. Personally, I think that is a wonderful thing. We need more people growing up in homes like yours–such a rare thing in this day and time. If everyone w/ an environmental concern refused to have children, we can’t say what that would look like. There’s no clear answer to the population dilemma.


  10. Anonymouson 20 Jul 2007 at 1:22 am

    Obviously there is no solution to the human overpopulation problem. We are animals and having found an unlimited food source (oil) we did what came naturally, expand our numbers until we die off. The extent of our overshoot is so great that, and our weaponry so powerful, that we might even go extinct. Oh well, that is our genetic legacy.

    I do have to scratch my head when I hear of people who are aware of this situation and go ahead and have children anyway. Why not get yourself sugically sterilized? I did. It’s quick and easy, at least for men. But our urge to breed is very strong. Too bad, a lot of people are going to suffer.

  11. Kiashuon 20 Jul 2007 at 2:02 am

    Let’s be honest, here. There are two basic types of people who talk about coercively limiting population. There’s the yuppies who don’t want kids because it’ll interfere with their Saturday morning lattes and Sunday drives to the hobby farm, and then there’s the rich racists who are worried that soon there’ll be too many brown people in the world who want to live like the white people.

    The single biggest thing which limits number of births across a country is women’s education. An illiterate woman in Afghanistan is probably going to have seven or ten children; a PhD in New York will probably have none.

    Promote education of women, and the birth rate drops, and the women’s lives are improved by the education, too. That is the decent and humane way of doing things.

  12. Beamon 20 Jul 2007 at 2:15 am

    Hi Sharon,

    With the drive to localize, limiting population might happen naturally, with population responding to local conditions. In our current global economy, the support of larger populations from long distance supply chains perhaps creates local imbalances when the chain becomes disturbed.

    I see no contradiction between all your efforts and having a larger family, a family supported sustainably, lovingly and locally.



  13. niron 20 Jul 2007 at 2:24 am

    Seems to me that the explosion of homosexuality is nature’s way of limiting population. Animals do the same thing when overcrowded.

  14. Anonymouson 20 Jul 2007 at 2:48 am

    I assume that nature will correct this problem, as it always does. We will be unable to continue feeding the masses we have created, and probably billions will die - presumably including those who are dependent on regular medical treatment that depends on the oil-based supply chain system. It is sad, of course, but it’s the way of nature - which can only be thwarted for a limited time.

  15. Anonymouson 20 Jul 2007 at 9:53 am

    I once engaged in a debate with someone from Sustainable Population Australia which reminds me of your comments about “talking with old men”. I was struck by what appeared to me to be a lack of compassion, and the sense that, at least for this individual, it was more about ‘keeping the good stuff for us’.

    Now I do agree that the Australian population can’t grow a huge amount at our current levels of consumption - water being the main limiting factor. However I think addressing our consumption levels - ridiculous as they are - should be our first port of call.

    Projections suggest population will top out at 9bn in a few decades, and I agree that we should do all the positive life-affirming things in our power to help slow growth and hasten the arrival of the turning point (especially female empowerment/education in poorer countries).

    However note that this is a growth of 1.5x our current population. This is only going to be a bit player in the potential growth in consumption. When consumption varies by a factor of 27x between richest and poorest it is pretty clear to be where those of us in the wealthy countries should be directing our efforts.

  16. MSquirrelon 20 Jul 2007 at 12:33 pm

    As a mother of three, also with an autistic child, I know where you are coming from.

    Within our “Western world” (which includes Japan and Australia), the birth rates have actually fallen. Of all of our friends, only two have children (and we graciously allow our childless friends to live vicariously through our kids). The reason the populations of these “Western” countries is growing is two fold….medicine, allowing people to live two, even three, times as long as they did 100 years ago, and immigration. People immigrating from 3rd and 2nd world countries, bringing with them their children. It has nothing to do with you and have having more than one child. In fact, I have read just the opposite from other old men, lamenting that indigenous women are having no children, too few children, or having children too late, to keep up with the demands of the ever aging generations before us.

    It is sad to say that after Peak Oil, the population will drop…war, disease, no care for the aging baby-boomer generation, and certainly immigration from overseas countries will be cut down. There will come a day when our children will be encouraged to have as many children as they can.

    As for those nay-sayers who do their best to make you feel horrible that you have children…they probably aren’t even those involved in the movement. There is an underbelly of jerks on the internet who take on a personae and spend hours doing nothing but harassing people all in the name of entertainment. Pretty sad form of entertainment, isn’t it? I have come across people who pretend to be Nazis, people who pretend to fundamentalist Christians (and pretend they are extremely wealthy, too), people who pretend they are die-hard republicans, racists…while I have seen fake hyper-liberals, it seems like its a lot more fun for them to play the opposite. The truth is they are simply lonely people who have nothing better to do. Some of these people might even be twelve-year-olds. While it is possible there are some who genuinely believe what they are writing to you, I would gather that a majority are not the case.

    So, I would basically ignore them. But, if you do wish to get snarky back at them, just say, “Allright…I’ll write your name down. When the time comes, I’ll make sure my children don’t lift a finger to help you.”

  17. Anonymouson 20 Jul 2007 at 1:09 pm

    Two comments:

    One reason I am concerned with overpopulation is that I can’t imagine the “natural correction” (which is starting to playout in the 3rd world) coming without great suffering.

    I am, as I stated a parent by adoption. Much as I love my children, I know that it would have been better for them to have been born in a situtation where they were not only wanted be also able to be cared for. I’m not suggesting adoption as way to let people be parents so much as a way to find homes for children. My daughters were in a wonderful orphnage, well cared for, loved, etc. but it wasn’t the same as having a family. I think that people who are searching for the perfect newborn may well pay more. People who are willing to accept the pot luck that would some with bearing a child, find it a lot less expensive.



  18. Anonymouson 20 Jul 2007 at 1:11 pm

    Before the widespread use of ancient sunlight enabled the human population to explode, there were natural forces that kept things in check, however unpleasant at times. We know the history of human population expansion. However, not being a historian, I hope someone can point me to a time in human history when a sizable society of humans successfully diminished its numbers. Are there any examples from which we can learn?


    The only examples I know of are of native people chosing to die out rather than assimlate.

    Not a very happy model.


  19. jewishfarmeron 20 Jul 2007 at 3:21 pm

    Well, I know that Europe there are periods in which customs changed - for example, in the 17th in Germany and France, the birthrate dropped dramatically during the 30 years war and for a while after, in large part simply due to a change in custom - the practice of requiring men to be able to fully support a wife outside of a family before they could marry. Over a generation or two, the age of marriage pushed up towards 30, and population density fell dramatically.

    But if you are looking at a society that has done it over centuries, can’t help you.


  20. Anonymouson 20 Jul 2007 at 3:45 pm

    As for no help for people who want to adopt. There is a tax break. WACAP and (I believe Holt) offer no interst loans. WACAP has fee wavers; and very low cost domestic placement for AA and Hispanic infants.

    Hope this helps.


  21. Anonymouson 20 Jul 2007 at 4:00 pm

    “I do have to scratch my head when I hear of people who are aware of this situation and go ahead and have children anyway.” - Fair enough. In the end I figured my kids would suffer a lot if born, and wouldn’t suffer if they were never born. But they also wouldn’t experience the joy of being on this planet. I felt that the joy of a life, even a nasty, brutish, short one, is still worth the suffering involved. If I felt that the unpleasant experiences of life outweighed the pleasant ones, I’d probably have a different attitude to birth and re-birth.

    Are there ANY positive life- affirming strategies for population control that we can point to as success stories?

    I’ve seen some coercive suggestions. I’ve seen lots of “wait and let it take care of itself ecologically/economically/ demographically” ie. via lots of suffering.

    I thought of a few cultural strategies you could try, but none seem very life affirming to me.

    Promoting homosexuality is the only strategy I’ve seen that doesn’t feel morally icky to me.
    Promote women’s education? Look back at the bearded kitchen post. That only seems to lower birth rate if it comes with delaying first birth, usually by making children incompatible with education, or pushing women into a workforce where you can’t work with children. That only seems viable under surplus economics. If you educate an Indian woman more without changing her underlying economic conditions, she reasons in a rational and educated fashion, that she needs a lot of children now to hedge her bets that someone will support her in old age. Oh she probably reasons religiously, and in terms of wanting children too, but the economic incentive is still there. It is only if the job market and capital futures market looks rosy that she reasons, I’ll work now invest the money, it will grow that that money will support me in old age. But unless your capital market is booming and stable, and your family-system is in shambles, children will be a safer investment than money. And they will love you more, and bring more joy and happiness. Lastly I suppose you can remove policy incentives to have many children, but I doubt there are many of those left, and I doubt they have much effect either way. Oh also Afghanistan has about 3x the US birth rate (hardly 6-7 average though), but the issue isn’t women’s education as much as its colossal infant mortality rate (over 20 times the US rate) and abyssmal life expectancy (under 50 for both genders).

    Is there any other policy lever on population, where the medicine isn’t worse than the disease?
    -Brian M.

  22. Anonymouson 20 Jul 2007 at 4:26 pm

    Oh yeah, there is one other classic strategy we haven’t mentioned yet. Make sex-selection technology cheap enough to be availible to the 3rd world poor. Many (especially in China and India) will choose males, the gender balance will skew badly, and in a generation birth rates will fall. Cheap, effective, non-coercive. Of course, many women will feel (and be treated) even MORE like valued chattel instead of real people, and many more men will be unable to afford a wife.

    Other families will choose the opposite gender of what ever they currently have, (the main 1st world motive) and fewer families 1st world and 3rd world will try repeatedly for a gender without success, which will lower birth-rates a little. You could even try to mandate the technology only be used to provide the opposite gender of an existing child, if you wanted to keep the gender balance less skewed. (Of course it would be used the other way on the black market …)

    Not a pretty solution, but it’s already coming whether we like it or not, the only issue is how cheap they can get it and how quickly.
    -Brian M.

  23. sylviaon 20 Jul 2007 at 4:39 pm

    I’m from a big family (oldest of five), so I spent my entire childhood taking care of other kids, and I guess I always assumed I would be a pro at having kids, or at least better prepared than the average American. I knew kids were a lot of work, and my husband and I waited until we thought we were emotionally and financially ready to have them. We recently had our first, and I’m not sure we’re going to have any more.

    And this is not because I’m worried about resource depletion, although I am, or because I’m a working mom and a feminist, although I am. It’s because having a kid was the most overwhelming experience I’ve ever had to weather. I still look at other people who glide gracefully through their first, second and third pregnancies and childbirths and can’t imagine what they’re thinking.

    I may have had a more difficult pregnancy and childbirth experience than other people, or I may just be more of a wimp than other people (both distinct possibilities), or I may just complain more than other people, or I may just find motherhood less of a rewarding experience than other people, but I (currently)feel no desire to get pregnant again. Just the thought of being pregnant makes me panic.

    And I’m not sure that any of the above reasons are really why I feel so strongly about it. I think the reason is the simple (and shameful) fact that I’m a product of a very selfish, pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding culture, an individualistic, leisure-and-entertainment-oriented society in which it’s understood that nothing should interfere with my own personal pursuit of happiness. I should have a right to spend my time however I want, manage my body however I want, eat and drink and be merry however I want.

    I would venture say that most women of my generation feel entitled to the same “rights”. In fact, I’ve heard quite a lot of them say so. “I’m just too selfish to have kids”, they say.

    A kid definitely takes all of those “rights” away. I think my shock at how hard pregnancy was and how hard childbirth and breastfeeding were and at how much it changed my relationship with my husband are comparable to the shock that a lot of people are about to experience when they realize that the energy-intensive way of life they take for granted is a fragile construct, that for most of human history people have had to work very, very hard to raise enough food to stay alive. And that particular kind of shock and resulting trauma is not something I wish on anyone.

    All that to say, I don’t know what to say about the idea of population control. I tend to shrink away from the concept, and I tend to have a very visceral reaction when people mention any kind of decision of theirs that would involve my body.

    I second Sharon. We should tread carefully.

  24. Correneon 20 Jul 2007 at 4:53 pm

    I find this whole conversation slightly backwards. A few weeks ago, I read in Macleans Magazine (a Canadian weekly newsmagazine) that there is a huge problem with low birth rates in developed countries, Canada included. They wrote about how to ENCOURAGE women to have MORE babies.

    I have two children, and I adore them, obviously, but I think I was dealing with depression, because I do not have happy memories of the baby years. They were awful. I didn’t want more kids then because I already felt like I was stretched so thin you could see through me.

    Now that my kids are older and are soooo delightful, I feel sad that there won’t be any more.

    I’m not sure that this is totally a women’s issue. Of all the possibilities for why women aren’t having more babies, the only one they didn’t cover was that many MEN don’t want to. I know several women who would like to have more babies, but their husbands went and got “fixed” or their husbands don’t want more, or, even more tragic, the fathers aren’t even around anymore. They left.

    Our culture is so mixed up around families and babies and men and women. We like to talk about how families are valued, but we punish people for having children, we act like they must be nuts to have big families, we make it impossible to work and have families, we make it impossible to find decent child care, we diminish the value of the work done for free, and so on.

    Just so you know, Sharon, reading your blog has had a profound impact on me. I used to be one of the people who thought having large families was crazy. It occurred to me a short time ago, however, that if you can produce most of your own food, and each person has a very small footprint, then we could all have lots of children, and it would even be an advantage, because there would be more people to help with the work. Believe me, that was a 180 degree turn in my thinking.

  25. Anonymouson 20 Jul 2007 at 5:17 pm

    To Sylvia from MEA

    I think motherhood (as opposed to being a caregiver for someone else’s child even 24/7) is a tremendous shock. I honestly don’t get women who tell me that they enjoy every minute of motherhood.

    It doesn’t mean you are bad mother, though, just that there a tremendous lot of stuff going on in your life and you’re having to deal with it without breaks.

  26. Weaseldogon 20 Jul 2007 at 5:31 pm

    “It all smacks far too much of thinking: if you add more babies, there’ll be less nice stuff left for me.”

    Well, actually less stuff for everyone’s babies.

    This sort of argument is a selfish one, ‘that I’ll have my babies for my own gratification, even if it makes their lives worse than mine.’

    My sister had five babies, and raised none of them. Her oldest daughter is 19 and having her third. She says she is going to have lots of babies, because it makes her feel like an adult. She’ll probably give most of them away for other people to raise.

    For both, pregnancy was a selfish choice and neither worries much about how their offspring will live.

    I know there are women who think about the quality of life they can provide their children, and decide in a fairly rationally and ethical manner how many children they will have, but I don’t meet many of them. Most of the women in my family, simply have babies for the attention they get from it.

    And yes, I’m a man, and I’ve chosen, thanks to examples provided by my own family, to never have children.

    One of the rules of liberty is that my rights end where your begin. The argument that no one has the right to criticize someone for having lots of babies, is an unethical one. As we’re so far along in Peak Oil that more than 90% of our population is likely to be die out over the next fifty years.

    If you don’t believe this, then you will certainly disagree with what I write. For that reason, I rarely even bother to bring the topic up. But as I see it, most of the children born today are going to have horrible short lives as compared to those of us that have enjoyed the good life of petroleum dependency all these decades.

    So my niece in my opinion, doesn’t have the ethical or moral right to have lots of children. But as she wouldn’t understand the argument, it doesn’t matter. She’ll have them anyway.

    We’re so far along that I really don’t think it matters now. If our grandparents had taken a different course, this problem may not have been so acute now. But our population expands and decline to meet our food supply, and I don’t believe we have the rational capacity as a species, to do otherwise.

    Thank you Sharon for broaching such a difficult topic. Though I think there’s very little point in discussing it anymore. It is too late to turn this around, and the fact that we’ve come this far, proves to me, that we can’t.

    We’re fast approaching a population bottleneck and soon enough, nature will be guiding our evolution again. I feel a deep sense of sadness for the next few generations that will have to suffer through the future that we are giving them.

  27. jewishfarmeron 20 Jul 2007 at 6:51 pm

    Sylvia, my husband is an only child, and he *hated* that fact so passionately that he told me upfront “we can have no children, or at least two, but I *won’t* have an only child.” (Which is not really why we have our kids - I mention it as related to the below).

    I had a tough pregnancy and a tough time afterwards, and my oldest had colic and screamed 6-8 hours a day. The only way I could make him calm down was to run the vacuum cleaner, or play a tape of the noise, so my whole life had either the soundtrack of a vacuum or a screaming child - it was never quiet, even for a second.

    And I remember sobbing to my husband “Ok, I know you are going to leave me, and this will be the end of our marriage, but I just *CAN’T* ever have another child. This is too awful.” And my husband looked at me and said, “Are you insane? Do you think I’d ever consider having another one?!” Clearly, this policy didn’t stick, though ;-).

    All of which is just a long way of saying that motherhood is one hell of a shock. Eventually, I think what happened is that I forgot what it was to have a life of my own, and once that happened, it wasn’t so bad. Plus, I got bettet at it over time.

    Yes, I think our selfishness has something to do with it, but that transition from “self at center of the world” to “others at center of the world” is tough no matter what, I think.


  28. jewishfarmeron 20 Jul 2007 at 6:58 pm

    Weaseldog, I agree you have a real point. I *don’t* think that most population advocates are selfish at all. In fact I think many of them derive their position from a real desire to minimize suffering.

    Which doesn’t mean that I think we’re gong to lose 90% of the world’s population in very short order. For example, I think we *can* feed the present population, and until things stabilize and begin to fall off. I can see a number of barriers to this, but a number of possible solutions. Richard Heinberg, for example, agrees that we can feed the world.

    But there is a real issue - having another child means less for the people who are here, that’s true. But I admit, when the inequities of our society are so dramatic, I find it hard, sometimes, to worry about the fact that the average middle class American might get a little less. Now to be fair, I’ve not yet figured out a way to make sure that share comes out of the deserving, rather than the undeserving, but given the tremendous inequity involved, I think there’s room for a good bit more flexibility.

    Which isn’t a full answer, just a new set of questions.


  29. Weaseldogon 20 Jul 2007 at 7:34 pm

    Sharon, I hope that you and Heinberg are right. but if you are, then our world population will just grow until you’re wrong again.

    Without cheap energy for fertilizers and irrigation, we’re not going to be able to feed everyone.

    Another problem we’re soon to be facing is that fossil water tables all over the world are dropping and being depleted. As the water tables drop, forests and fields, brown, dry and burn away.

    Another problem with dropping water tables, is that the drying soil and forests no longer humidify the air. So we get less rain, and temperatures go higher.

    The USA no longer produces enough food to feed itself. The last few years, we’ve become a net importer of food.

    Though I work as a software engineer, my college training was directed to ecosystem studies. What I learned there, about population collapses, applies to any species, even man. And to tell you the truth, I’m really depressed at times, what the numbers tell me, when combined with the science.

    I’m sure you’ve seen television programs and have read articles about how ecosystems collapse. Such as what happens when species go extinct and the ecosystem loses more species as dependencies re-balance. Human civilization works in much the same manner. As our energy supply winds down, there will be dramatic shocks that ripple through our global society. Our historical response to such shocks has almost always been war.

    And war of course, destroys productivity. I fully believe that the decline after Peak Oil will result in an unwinding negative feedback loop where many countries will do the opposite of the rational course, and only make matters worse at every turn.

    The USA right now, is my first example of how this notion plays out.

    Our entire global society is completely dependent on infinite growth. We will fight the decline tooth and nail all the way down. Just as we did in 2001, when world energy supplies declined. Rather than tighten the money supply to match declining productivity, Greenspan opened the floodgates on the money supply in order to feed economic growth. But without energy growth, real productivity could not grow, so we had fake economic increases instead. It became more profitable to trade debt instruments than to invest in industry and infrastructure.

    I fully expect this trend to continue until a disaster occurs that ends it.

    Check out some of the interviews on water, on Global Public Media.
    Here’s a good one:

    Also a video on money that I’ve on my blog here:

    But don’t give on me Sharon. I’m looking for a way out of this mode of thinking. I just need something tangible to latch on to.

  30. Anonymouson 20 Jul 2007 at 7:46 pm

    Sharon said:
    “But if you are looking at a society that has done it over centuries, can’t help you”

    I think Jared Diamond in Collapse has a few examples of sustainability. Mostly island situations as I remember, where limits of growth become obvious fast. Of course, islands also provide some of the best examples of Collapse, such as Easter.

  31. Weaseldogon 20 Jul 2007 at 7:51 pm

    Sharon said:
    “But if you are looking at a society that has done it over centuries, can’t help you”

    Papau New Guinea is the only example that comes to mind.

  32. Anonymouson 20 Jul 2007 at 8:48 pm

    Weasldog - Suppose that all children born in the US in 2007 are doomed to have a much shorter and worse life than we had. Why is that a reason not to have them? A life can be a lot shorter and poorer than mine and still be worth living right? At least 75% of the world today lives much shorter poorer lives than me, are any of their lives worthwhile? Most people for the past 1000 years lived shorter and more horrible lives than you or I but still found joy in them. The numbers used to really depress me too, but they scare more than depress me now. You could take all the oil, gas, and coal out of the US energy picture, and we’d still have more energy per capita on nuclear, hydro and misc. than most 3rd world countries have today. Biological populations collapse all the time without leading to extinction. When resources are plentiful expand quickly, when not stay stable, when resources are collapsing collapse with them. That’s how nature does it and sometimes it leads to extinction, but often it doesn’t. America is a net importer of food, but we import high-end stuff and waste 40% of the calories in the system, and still eat too much. Further, labor-intense farming is far more productive than oil-intense farming in some ways. Of course our foodsystem is fragile with only 2% of the population working on it! When people are desperate enough to go back to labor-intense farming in the US in a big way, we’ll be able to feed ourselves again. (Of course, if we aren’t careful many people will starve before desperate measure bear fruit). Economic collapse will be a giant step back, and it will suck, and there is every likelihood that many people will die, probably war, and economic stupidity on the way down. But people have survived wars and economic stupidity before, and so have nations. Many will die, but 90%? The globe had more than that in the 1600s do you really think the globe will be in worse shape than the 1600s soon? Every first-worlder and half of the 3rd worlders could die and still not reach 90%. Dmitry Orlov argues at that dark fantasies about the great die-off are just the last stage of denial, where we try to avoid thinking hard about what to actually do to cope, by pretending it will be so bad it won’t matter. It will be bad, but not so bad that we can’t distinguish better and worse. If even 25% of Americans die, the rest are going to be scared and desperate enough to try something else as quickly as they can adapt. And Americans may be badly spoiled, but I do believe we are very good at adapting quickly. We will fight the end of our cushy lifestyle until we get desperate, but we will try to adapt once we do get desperate.

    Sylvia - Our birth culture is pretty screwed up in the US. We do all kinds of things to make the birth experience itself technocratic and de-humanizing, and then we isolate new mothers (largely because the women’s networks that used to help out fell apart as our social capital unraveled). My wife does a lot of birth-activism, and experiencing birth as a real hardship is a common phenomenon, even when there isn’t a post-partum depression angle. Have you ever read Birth as an American Rite of Passage? Certainly the newborn phase has been the hardest part of fatherhood for me to cope with so far (although neither of my kids are teens yet…) and I definately know other fathers who feel that way too. The lack of sleep and the always being on duty sucked. I found toddlers to be easier.
    -Brian M.

  33. Weaseldogon 20 Jul 2007 at 9:48 pm

    “Weasldog - Suppose that all children born in the US in 2007 are doomed to have a much shorter and worse life than we had. Why is that a reason not to have them?”

    Because every additional child makes matters worse. Are you making the argument that quantity of life is better than quality? I’ve heard this argument before. Especially in church where the belief is that we should maximize the number of souls we create and send to heaven, no matter what the cost. I don’t buy that argument.

    “The globe had more than that in the 1600s do you really think the globe will be in worse shape than the 1600s soon?”

    Almost every resource the world had in 1600 has since been depleted. We live on a completely differnet kind of planet now.

    Your arguments on energy miss the point. The third world is heavily dependent on fossil fuel derived fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The Green Revolution that spurred our population growth wasn’t derived from electricity used to power televisions.

    You skipped the point I made about water. Without cheap energy, we won’t have most of the water we use to irrigate crops. Much of our irrigation now comes from irreplaceable fossil water sources that can’t be accessed without cheap energy.

    To a degree, I believe there is some merit in what you and Sharon have argued. But its small change and doesn’t in my view add up to enough to change the big picture.

    I would better agree with you if I saw some sign of mobilization to get ahead of this problem. But I think our history shows that we normally wait until we’re in deep doo-doo before we change our behavior. I see no sign that we have changed our ways. All I see are small efforts, like my own and Sharon’s.

    We’re about to hit the downturn and move from an opportunity to prepare, to a time of nothing but emergency crisis management. And there is little in the way of the public consciousness that suggests that we’ll change course in the coming years.

    I’ll accept that you’re right about things that could be. But I have no faith they will be, in a time frame that matters.

    Brian have you ever worked on a farm?

  34. Emilyon 20 Jul 2007 at 10:11 pm

    You know, in developed countries, where families have a resonable certainty that their children will grow to adulthood, most people choose to have one or two children if they have any at all. The way I look at it, if we work to make sure that people worldwide have food, medical care and access to birth control, the problem of population may very well work itself out.

    I, too, have four children, and I, too have an autistic son. There was no intention of providing my autistic oldest with three human insurance policies for his care, but in hindsight, I see that’s what we’ve done. Honestly, without the younger children, my oldest’s social skills would really be worse. The younger ones provide a constant social friction that would be impossible to maintain in therapy.

  35. jewishfarmeron 20 Jul 2007 at 11:24 pm

    Weaseldog, I think things are marginally more hopeful than you do. For example, in terms of calories, the US *can* feed itself - yes, we’re net food importers, but we produce enough food to provide plenty of calories for everyone. We just squander those calories on livestock and ethanol, etc…

    I agree with you that water will be a defining and limiting factor, but again, that’s one of those things that could be so deeply improved by rational things like just letting people in the west collect what rainwater they do have, and growing drought tolerant tree crops, quinoa, dryland corns and amaranths instead of freakin’ rice in California.

    Bob Waldrop over at ROE2 has done some compelling math on food supply in the US, and I think that the answer is we can feed ourselves without pesticides (I’m sure you are aware that we’re actually losing *more* food to pesticides than we would in organic agriculture - 7%), and artificial fertilizers. 300 million people produce enough liquid nitrogen fertilizer by peeing to fertilize the acreage of the US and then some.

    None of which means we can’t fuck this up. And it will require radical change. But, for example, if we all lived like the people of Kerala, we’d need only 1/3 of the bioproductive land on earth.

    And no, I don’t think that an endless overpopulation is inevitable - that is, I think the reality is that population is going to level off and stabilize somewhere between 8.5 and 9 billion people this century, and then begin to decline, simply because the majority of countries have already made their demographic transition. America made its demographic transition around the turn of the century, dropping down in population dramatically, and a majority of nations, including many of the poorest, have now done the same.

    The demographic transition occurs after previous restraints (in this case, infant mortality and life expectancy) on population growth are suddenly removed (as they were in most of the world in the 20th century) - and after a generation or so, people start having fewer children because they don’t need to have as many.

    What’s really important is that you can have the demographic transition without wealth, or a lot of the things associated with wealth. Sri Lanka, Kerala, Cuba, Albania, Thailand - all have TFRs below 2. What generally helps are three things. Power in the hands of women. Education - even if only enough to delay onset of childbearing by a few years - and also the custom of sending children to school, which means that they aren’t economic assets early on. And a reasonable expectation that the few children you do have will live to adulthood.

    Now all those things can actually be achieved very cheaply, in a very low technology society, and they are minimally dependent on fossil fueled infrastructure. So if we aren’t total idiots (and I’m the first to admit that that’s a bit if - a really big if), we might actually be able to pull this off.


  36. Anonymouson 21 Jul 2007 at 1:12 pm

    I am wondering about your thoughts about what seems to be U.S. policy towards increasing the U.S. population. In 1915, the U.S. population was 100 million; in 1967, 200 million; in 2006 (to great mainstream media fanfare), the 300 million mark was reached. On a policy level this growth would be necessary to enforce the endless “growth capitalism” that’s the basis of the U.S. economy. In addition, population growth is deemed necessary to support the aging population (or else the younger generation is overburdened; plus who will pay the costs of the endless war/national debt?).

    The decision to procreate or not is personal (though many factors come into play, as noted in many of the comments). But a government/corporatist policy of increasing population in the U.S. - that seems to me to have positive and negative implications, depending on point of view. Positive if one is in favor of/invested in growth capitalism; negative if one is interested in issues of sustainability, e.g., reducing environmental impacts, reducing sprawl, etc.

    So maybe in the interests of sustainability, there should be a querying as to whether growing the U.S. population is desirable? Of course, this all too quickly descends into a xenophobic, isolationist arguments. But, by gum, if the U.S./ corporatist system wants 420 million Americans by 2030 (as is projected), it will have them - whether any one of us decides to procreate or not.

    I hope this comment made sense - written on the fly. I have been enjoying your blog immensely, Sharon, and you inspired me to start my first ever vegetable-garden.

  37. sylviaon 21 Jul 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Thanks for the encouraging comments, folks. Yeah, the whole way we go about having kids and supporting women in the process is pretty broken. I think I’ve been hesitant to join in some of the efforts to work on the problem, though, cause it seemed like a lot of the birth activists were advocating a commercial substitute (doulas for hire, lactation consultants for a fee) for the problem, and what really needs fixing is our personal support networks, our families and friends and neighborhoods. I think I felt really let down when my son was born and my network of friends (we don’t live near our families) wasn’t able to really rise to the occasion. Of course, I think I think also made the mistake of not asking for enough help. I like to think of myself as the one helping other people, and this past year has been an exercise in learning how asking for favors helps build community too (I loved your post on that subject, by the way, Sharon).

    I’m still hoping that energy scarcity will force us all to turn back to more human-centered networks. Here’s to peak oil making the world more money-poor and community-rich.

  38. Anonymouson 21 Jul 2007 at 7:25 pm

    I wish that you had put this paragraph at the beginning of your essay, to establish this, and then elaborate on some personal feelings:

    “What’s really important is that you can have the demographic transition without wealth, or a lot of the things associated with wealth. Sri Lanka, Kerala, Cuba, Albania, Thailand - all have TFRs below 2. What generally helps are three things. Power in the hands of women. Education - even if only enough to delay onset of childbearing by a few years - and also the custom of sending children to school, which means that they aren’t economic assets early on. And a reasonable expectation that the few children you do have will live to adulthood.”

    Much of your post dealt with our personal responsibility in the rich countries. I do wish that folks here wouldn’t have more than two kids, if that; but there are many, many complexities, as you laid out.

    The real “bang for the buck” comes in hastening the demographic transition in poor countries via, as you mentioned- lower child mortality, & woman’s empowerment and literacy.

    The most Catholic countries one might think of? Ireland and Italy. They are both shrinking population-wise.

    One angle that has been mentioned, though, and is important for me, a single, older man– I really do now worry about what the world will be like 20, 40 years from now.

    I used to think it was silly when people in the early 70’s would refrain from having a kid because the “world was getting worse”, or in the 80’s because of nuclear war; but now, in 2007, I have serious questions about the collective response-ability of my shipmate s on spaceship earth.

    It often feels like parents have kids for selfish or thoughtless reasons, or in the case of yuppies, boutique reasons.

    One thing I have noticed is that a lot of good volunteer work is done by childless middle aged women– their counterparts are too tired to think, but the single woman “mother” all of us.

    I wish I could say the same for the counterpart single guys, but I can’t. So society can gain when women don’t have kids that way. And god knows our society could use more people doing more of that kind of thinking and acting.

    You pull all this off while working and parenting, but you’re more talented than most of us (that’s why we read you!)

  39. Chileon 21 Jul 2007 at 11:28 pm

    Thought-provoking post and discussion in comments. I do find it interesting that there was no mention (that I saw) of impacts on other species inhabiting this planet other than plants and animals grown for human food. Just an observation.

  40. yooperon 23 Jul 2007 at 3:10 am

    Hello Sharon!
    “Talking population with the Old Men”, eh?

    I suspect, I’m agreeing with alot of what weaseldog is relating to you here…

    Please explain to me how we can feed, 300 million in this country in ways you and Heinberg, might suggest, without the power of fossil fuel? You cannot possibly be thinking organic?

    Perhaps answers some of my questions, on a post that I replied to from a link from l.a.t.o.c., concerning, “It Is’nt Gridcrash That Makes The Lights Go Out”. Answer, these questions, if you will please?

    Thanks, yooper.

  41. yooperon 23 Jul 2007 at 3:19 am

    Sharon, ha! ha! I’d like to see you take a bath or shower in that rain water you’re suggesting! ha! ha! Come on!!! You’ve got to be kidding?!!!

    Thanks again, yooper.

  42. yooperon 23 Jul 2007 at 3:58 am

    Hey weaseldog, I won’t give up on ya! I agree with what you’re conveying here, absolutely. I’m, “the Black Knight” over at lacto. Check out the converstion, I’m having there…I’m also very interested in John Greer’s, “Archdruid Report”. Sharon, knows all about this, she’s been there………. Check it out.

    Sincerely, yooper.

  43. jewishfarmeron 23 Jul 2007 at 5:20 pm

    Yooper, I’ll gladly respond to your questions, but I don’t read the LATOC forums, and I don’t have time to hunt up a particular response. If you want to post specific comments or questions here, I’ll respond to them here.

    As for “I can’t possibly mean organic” - I certainly don’t mean industrial organic, but small scale, polyculture organic, yes - there’s ample scientific evidence that we can not only match but improve on present yields. It requires a lot more people involved, but that, I think is achievable.


  44. jewishfarmeron 23 Jul 2007 at 5:43 pm

    Yooper, we didn’t have running water here for some time after we first moved in. So yes, I’ve taken many a bath and shower with rainwater. What’s the big deal? It is *great* for your hair. Pump or pour out water, fill bath or solar shower bag, add heated water… tah dah.

    And no, no one gets to see but my husband ;-).


  45. Jan VanDenBergon 24 Jul 2007 at 4:59 am

    A few points:

    1) It’s mostly women who have to gain from reducing birthrates, so I don’t see your “old men” motif.

    Usually, old men are complaining that women aren’t having enough children. Just listen to the governments of Japan, Russia, Germany, HongKong, Singapore. etc. complaining about their reluctant womenfolk.

    2) Let’s stop pandering to the fearmongers who jump to sound the alarm about someone using coercion to get lower birthrates everytime you mention the very world “population” — China is the ONLY example of this in all of human history. (Other than a few episodes in India 35 years ago.) Meanwhile, in almost every nation where contraception was simply made available, birth rates have dropped dramatically without any coercion or pressure at all.

    Simply because, if given the choice, most people will prefer to have fewer children than the 8 to 15 nature would foist upon us.

    3) As far as examples of populations which have voluntarily and spontaneously reduced population growth over a long period: EVERY SINGLE DEVELOPED COUNTRY.

    A few are now spontaneously entering or will soon enter the realm of declining population, too: Most of Europe, most of the Former Soviet Bloc, Japan, HongKong, South Korea, even China.

    Why are people having trouble finding examples?

    Every country which has become wealthy, except maybe Saudi Arabia, has first reduced their birth rate. Most civilized countries will soon have declining populations, despite the fact the lag between a drop of the birth rate under replacement and actually declining populations is about 50 years.

    4) Be sure to consider the documented effect that high birth rates and the consequent “youth bulge” have on frequency of wars, civil unrest and violence. (Google Gunnar Heinsohn) It is large numbers of uneducated, unemployed young men which cause war; war ends development and leads to poverty and misery.

    This is probably why all peoples who have become rich have first cut birthrates — that is necessary to escape from the trap of violence and war which a too-young population will fall into, destroying everything in their paths. Out of simple stupidity.

    It’s not just for our sake that we should wish population growth in poor countries would decline — it is a precondition of their getting out of the trap of poverty.

    Jan VanDenBerg

  46. Weaseldogon 25 Jul 2007 at 4:27 pm

    Here’s a very good video explaining where money comes from and why perpetual growth is essential to our local and global economies.

    Without permanent energy consumption growth, our economies will self destruct.

    As long as we continue to require infinite growth, we cannot adequately prepare for a time of zero or negative growth. This is because we continually have to consume energy and resources at increasing rates, to stand still.

    Though there are a few examples of nations with declining populations, they are not the norm. Even nations in which the established citizenry is set to decline in population, immigration whether legal or illegal, is still wide open. so these nations are still increasing their populations.

    I believe that a sustainable path is possible, but it doesn’t include infinite population growth and it requires sacrifices from all of us. Because of this, the folks with the most power, have the most to lose and they will fight against sustainability.

    On the whole I expect small groups to make great strides, but populations as a whole to sleep walk into disaster.

    Until the whole system collapses, we don’t have the option of copping completely out of the current system.

    Keep up with learning new skills and doing the hobby farm stuff. It helps. I believe in it myself, and have been on the same path for years. It makes good sense from an individual and family perspective.

  47. Weaseldogon 25 Jul 2007 at 4:31 pm

    Ok, that URL again….

  48. <a href="">OnlinePharmacy</a>on 26 Oct 2007 at 9:43 am

    qqdy7n Your blog is great. Articles is interesting!

  49. <a href="">uk viagra sales</a>on 26 Oct 2007 at 6:08 pm

    d9ANM9 Nice Article.

  50. <a href="">cheap meridia online order meridia now</a>on 26 Oct 2007 at 7:20 pm


  51. <a href="">credit cards with bad credit<</a>on 26 Oct 2007 at 7:45 pm

    Please write anything else!

  52. nameon 27 Oct 2007 at 7:21 pm

    actually, that’s brilliant. Thank you. I’m going to pass that on to a couple of people.

  53. <a href="">bus tours in march</a>on 27 Oct 2007 at 8:10 pm


  54. <a href="">atlanta celebrity home tours tyler perry</a>on 28 Oct 2007 at 2:52 pm

    Nice Article.

  55. <a href="">truckers insurance</a>on 30 Oct 2007 at 6:22 am

    Hello all!

  56. <a href="">ringtones</a>on 30 Oct 2007 at 9:37 am


  57. <a href="">Money to loan classifieds<</a>on 30 Oct 2007 at 1:27 pm

    Wonderful blog.

  58. <a href="">cialis generic viagra</a>on 31 Oct 2007 at 6:40 pm

    nyFvyN Wonderful blog.

  59. <a href="">codes for free ringtones</a>on 31 Oct 2007 at 7:09 pm

    actually, that’s brilliant. Thank you. I’m going to pass that on to a couple of people.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply