Blessing or a Burden: Population, Reproduction and the Demographic Imagination

Sharon April 21st, 2009

Note, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the degree to which as a society, we erase the economic elements of our human relationships – in marriage, to children, to extended family. I’d actually intended a now-lost post, about the economics of marriage, to be the first piece on this subject, and this one to be the second, as I argue that while we repudiate economic relationships between people who love each other, we have not successfully erased those economic relationships – we have simply made it taboo to what I think of as the “economics of love.”  Since “economics” actually refers to the “household economy” it seems only appropriate to ask whether we can go on denying that our love relationships are economic in nature, indeed, that we depend fundamentally on them.  And if they are, are love and economic entwinement really in opposition to one another, as modern western society postulates, or is it possible that there really is a functional place where, “love and need are one?”

I recently visited Sturbridge village, a 1830s living history museum that we stop at frequently when we go to visit my family.  We happened upon a village worker hatcheting up kindling, and my 7 year old started chatting with him, and asked if he could take a turn.  Unfortunately, he was told, the answer was no – there were legal risks if he hurt himself.  We assured the gentleman we understood, but noted that my son (with very close supervision) is permitted to cut up kindling at home.  The man we spoke to acknowledged that that was one way they were unable to be really authentic - in 1830 if your son, by eight couldn’t keep the woodbox full, or your daughter make a meal from scratch over an open fire, this would be a scandal in the neighborhood.  But because of liability issues, and the way we raise children now, this isn’t possible to show.  I observed that in Nigeria, I’d read that the average child begins to contribute more to the household than she eats by the age of 6.   I wondered at what age most American children contribute more to the households they live in than they consume?  For many blue collar households, I’d imagine it is 16-18.  For the most affluent families, who subsidize graduate education, it might well be nearly 30 – or later.

This got me thinking about the larger question of how we view each child that comes into the world.  I have been troubled for a long time about the ways in which we commodify children in our society – everything from the sense that parents have a “right” to a perfect, healthy child made in their image to the judgements we place on people who cannot keep pace with our increasingly expensive account of what minimum items a parent “must” give their child. 

The question that arises for me is how far this worldview can take us, in what I think are inevitable and necessary discussions (and policies) that will come out of it.  No matter what your view about population issues, the combination of fossil fuel depletion and climate change mean it is very likely that we will struggle even more deeply than we do with questions of equity, and simply to feed the world.  In _A Nation of Farmers_ Aaron and I came to the conclusion that the question of whether we could materially feed 9 billion people in the coming decades could be answered with a very qualified yes.  Even with dramatically fewer fossil fuels invested in the system, small scale agriculture can probably meet the needs of the world population to its expected peak around 2050, and for at least some time after that.  The wild card on this subject is climate change – unchecked, climate change will rapidly and deeply undermine our ability to feed world populations.  We are definitely going to be discussing population at a national and world level sooner or later, and I care very much about how that discussion goes, and what world we get from it.  I’m not at all convinced, however, that we can have a productive discussion until we reconsider the terms that underlie it.

Once, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a graduate student in English Literature, writing my doctoral dissertation on the subject of what I called “the demographic imagination” and its impact on early modern literature, from Shakespeare to Malthus.  By “demographic imagination” I did not mean the accurate summing up of population data, which even in the present (when the data is much more readily available and presumed to be of public interest than in older times) and even among people who take an interest in such things, is rarely the sole basis of their reasoning. 

Instead, my interest was in the ways we think about populations of all sorts, the way we interpret our practice of counting – not just the formal counting of censuses and tax rolls, but our general perception of ourselves and our neighbors as too many or too few, our nations too crowded or too empty, and thus vulnerable to someone on the other side of the border,  our families as waxing or waning.  I was intrigued by the ways that we can simultaneously experience our lives as too crowded and too empty, our own families as depleted while our neighbors are too many, and how easily poets and writers, and ordinary people held in their minds simultaneously contradictory beliefs about the others they were quietly counting around them.

Over the years, my interest moved from Renaissance populations, weary from waves of plague, living in a world that seemed increasingly expansive (the new world and all), and depopulated; to the present, a world that both is and feels full in many ways, but also, where modernity operates to assimilate and empty out cultural identities, leaving many peoples losing population rapidly.  I admit, I have not found the demographic imagination to be a less useful concept in the present than I did when writing about 16th-18th century British literature.

One of the best illustrations of the role of the demographic imagination in our thinking about the future is how we think about children and their role in the world.  Without taking a particularly assertive stand on the subject of population over all (in this particular essay at least), I do want to consider here the way we have changed our thinking about children and reproduction in a very populous world.  In the absence of a fully realized awareness that yes, we are thinking these things, and yes, some ways of thinking are more productive than others, we tend to assume that we don’t actually have any particular assumptions. But social policy consequences always descend from our perceptions of things, at least as much as the facts.   Thus, we must think about how we consider our children, and choose ways of thinking about them that lead to the policies and outcomes we desire.

The totalizing world view that accompanies industrial modernism says that children are fundamentally one thing, and one alone – they are an economic commodity, something that you have if you can afford them, something that small nuclear families are responsible for alone.  They display your status in how they dress, what school you send them to, what activities they do, what college they get into, what sports they play, and they are increasingly, aware of their status a commodity and invested in it – that is, our children increasingly see themselves as here to shop. 

One thing I think is always true about the nature of demographic imagination,  that multiple perceptions can be simultaneously true.  Thus, when I had my first child he was simultaneously my parents’ first, blessed grandchild, another child added to the consumptive west’s absorption of resources, revenge upon the Nazis who tried to exterminate my husband’s family, a disabled child probably destined to consume more resources than he produces, a candidate for the 6 billionth person born on the planet (we crossed that threshold shortly before his birth – a little girl from India won the dubious prize), our adored and deeply desired son, a gift from G-d…and a host of other things.  There is no point in trying to filter out which of these things is “true” – they are, for good or ill, all true in some ways, and through some lenses.  And none of them is all the truth – but that doesn’t mean we can full extricate these simultaneous perceptions.  Industrial society, however, tells us constantly that there is only one meaning – that children exist in only one valence, as expressions of status, or at best, costs to us.

Nations, peoples, regions after all, have demographic imaginations as well, and they tend to try, with varying degrees of success, to superimpose them over the imaginings of smaller groups.  The stories we tell ourselves personally and collectively shape our policies.  The world we get if we see ourselves as a beleagured outpost of justice in a world surrounded by rapidly breeding barbarians is very different than the one we get if we see ourselves as integrated with the surrounding populations, able easily to sustain ourselves by opening our borders.  A small indigenous people, or religious faith, losing its children to assimilation may be told that the world is overpopulated, and simultaneously and accurately experience themselves as dramatically underpopulated.  Our military, economic and social priorities depend on population – both literally, and in our perceptions.  Ultimately, our worldview about reproduction, population, biology matters in a whole host of ways.  And on this subject, I think we have managed to get ourselves into a particularly troubling way of thinking about children – troubling no matter how you look at it.  That is, we’ve transformed children from economic assets to burdens, from beings who are fundamentally productive to beings who are fundamentally consumptive of resources.

What do I mean by this?  Historically, children have certainly had economic value – you could make the case that for most of human history, the one continuous reality was that families had a strong economic incentive to reproduce.  It is worth noting that in most societies, the economic value of children was not the only or even primary rationale – that is, generally speaking, children were held to be a blessing and pleasure in their own right.  Most religious cultures considered them a sacred blessing.  You could make a case that the sacredness of reproduction was a later add-on to what was fundamentally an exploitative relationship, or you could argue that the perception of sacredness and blessedness preceeds and supplements the economic relationship – at least for today, I’ll stay out of that one.  But while children were always an economic asset, hope for the future, security in one’s own age, someone to preserve assets for, they were rarely only that.

Now my claim is not that most of us have ceased to view our children as a blessing – how could we, because we experience them that way (most days ;-) ).  But while we experience our children as blessings, industrial society is very clear that some children are, shall we say, more blessed than others. 

In modern western society, we have divorced ourselves entirely from the idea of valuing children for the later return of your investment in them.  That is, we routinely repudiate the idea that we should be at all dependent on our children (even though I’ve never met anyone, except those who dropped dead while in full possession of health and faculties who didn’t end up dependent on someone at some stage in their lives) – this is seen as an unjust burden, to be avoided at all costs.  The idea of being “dependent” on one’s children approaches the status of taboo, if it doesn’t have it already.

We equally repudiate the idea that children should contribute to the household economy.  And, as mentioned above, we extend out as long as possible the period during which children are an economic burden.  Thus, children become something to be afforded, and only for those who can afford them.    And over the years, the measure of what you are required to supply to your children has increased – that is, it is now not uncommon for families to have children taken into social service custody if their families lack electricity, or running water, things that just two generations ago would have been common.  Children are expected to have clean clothing, rather than a set of play clothes that are usually dirty and torn, and good ones that aren’t.  Safety standards mean that paid childcare or a parent is required at home until children are 12 or more (depending on the state).  These, and a whole host of other requirements conspire to make having children more and more expensive.  Now I don’t deny that some parents deprive their children of these things in ways that are truly harmful – not having safe water or warm clothing can be a sign of neglect.  But industrial modernity also serves to homogenize and normalize the culture of childrearing in ways that push families into the formal economy and create the idea of children as an economic burden – then punish poor families that cannot meet those standards for having “too many” children, or for dependence on state services when the increasing burdens have often shifted people into the category of “people unable to feed their kids.”

In this version of the story, children are not a blessing in and of themselves, and they are not an asset because of their ability to sustain the family.  Instead, children are a lifestyle choice with a means test, and a hook to keep us tied to the formal economy -  if it was once enough to provide children with food, sheler, warm clothing and love – things that can be achieved in either the formal or subsistence economy, now the requirements for “good” parenthood – grid tied energy, paid childcare, lots of clothes and toys, etc… are only available in the money economy, only to people willing to be fully tied to service to the formal economy.  The penalties for not being a “good” parent can be as high as losing custody of your children.

It is from this place that we begin our discussions of population.  And it is in this place that discussions are particularly unfruitful.  Thus, most population discussions begin with the implication that children are a burden on the environment, and must always be equally burdensome, at least in the west.  Here children are just one of many ways you might use your resource allotment.  Here the question becomes how we can make every child a “wanted” child through increased use of birth control, and how to encourage or enforce this policy.  But the difficulty is that the category of “unwanted” children is itself a product of modern industrialism’s emphasis on the child as commodity.  

I’m troubled by this for several reasons.  First, because I think it flattens a complex discussion - if everyone is entitled to a fair share of children, and only a fair share of children, there is no bioethical issue with any of the measures people having difficulty reproducing might take to have children, and it does not matter whether a child is Kenyan, and consumes 1/30th the resources of an American child, or an affluent American child who consumes double the average share.  Consumption, we are told, isn’t the issue - equity here is transformed into a “we all get the same” - except that children don’t mean the same thing in Kenya that they do here – Kenyan children are still an economic asset, and the only hope of security for their parents in old age.  This is unlikely to be successful.  The Western, Industrial means of viewing children permits no real dissent, and while many population activists have more nuanced views, the public discussion finds itself dragged down one narrative.  Thus, every child’s meaning is transformed – and not, I think in a good way.

I’m also troubled by the idea that children are fundamentally a choice like any other, not just because I think there are important philosophical reasons why that’s not true, but practically, because so many pregnancies are unintended.  The standard answer given to that point is that the solution is more birth control, more medicalization of women’s bodies.  And I have no difficulty with the idea that women who want access to birth control should have it.  But it is worth noting that birth control comes with costs – economic costs to women and families – no solution except perhaps NFP (which is not feasible for some women, and not for some religious groups like Jews practicing niddah) or celibacy is low cost over a woman’s whole childbearing years.  They come with dependency on a medical system that is only inconsistently available to many people.  They come with physical costs, as any woman who ever got a yeast infection from a spermicide, had a reaction to a latex condom, side effects from birth control pills, etc….   These costs may be worth paying, they may be absorbable in the society as a whole.  But as yet, I do not feel that the larger discussion has taken them fully into account.  In China, for example, their solution has included the transport of many of their children to Western families – the one child policy has plenty of failures, and those children who are disabled or female and thus not able to meet the family’s need for one perfect boy, then either spend their lives in orphanages or are sent abroad to other families in other countries.  This is not a solution to the world’s population problem.  And its outcome is utterly predictable – a society in which children who are disabled, the wrong sex or unintended are disposable.

Moreover, few people like to admit that even expansion of birth control will not fully solve the problem.  People like to observe that X or Y method is 99.999 percent accurate.  But, of course, this implies the removal of the human factor – the failures to use it, the failures to use it correctly, the failures of the birth control (that last is the one for which I am the poster child ;-) ). Unless we are willing mandate abortion and sterilization – physically intrusive and painful acts that IMHO should never be state-required or sponsored – the problem of “unwanted” children will always be with us.  That is, there will never be a society in which all children are fully and consciously chosen – and that’s another issue in this question of how we view children.  If children are fundamentally about our intentions at conception, if their existence and value is fundamentally about our choosing and wanting them, rather than adhering fundamentally to them, what does that say about the value of human beings?  If a society that fundamentally believes that children are a blessing is hard on people who don’t want them, and worse on people who do, but can’t get pregnant, a society in which children are commodified at every level, and emerge primarily as a social choice for the affluent is one that creates two classes of living human beings at the end – the valued and the not valued. 

Now it would be completely ahistorical to suggest that all children have always been valued.  This, of course, is nonsense.  There is considerable historical debate about how certain historic societies viewed their children, but there is no question that the children of the poor have often been perceived as valueless.  The 18th century slum children of London, or the slum children of India, for example, were always seen as extraneous, a burden.  But while there have always been “unattached” children who were enslaved, abused, mistreated, there is a difference.  The first is that indigenous culture generally (not always, but generally) have had few unattached children – the problem with orphans is that they reveal the cracks in the idea of a blessing – they are an economic burden, because they return nothing to any household, unless adopted in.  They are a larger problem in industrial and urban cultures than they are in smaller agrarian ones, where family ties tend to be complex, and where fewer children are “outside” relational boundaries. In urban societies, where there are many such children, either orphans or from poor households with no family ties in the area and no tribal or community identity, the children as a whole are seen as a burden, and we get Ebeneezer Scrooge’s famous question – “Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?”  That is, are there no industrial solutions to this fundamentally industrial problem?

To me this illustrates how tightly tied the idea of children as a blessing and the idea of children as a future measure of security are.  We seem to be most convinced that children are truly a blessing *regardless* of whether they are perfect, if we experience them that way, that is, if most children and parents really do have reciprocal relationships.    It is hard in our society to make a case for children as an economic asset - we really are dancing on the edge of taboo, and many people regard this as a kind of slavery, as fundamentally destructive.  The sense that filthy lucre, always involved in familial relationships, ought never, ever be acknowledged is both powerful and pervasive.

 And yet, that doesn’t change the fact that most people *do* end up dependent on their family members at some stage in life – whether dependent for day to day assistance and care, or dependent on regular nursing home visits to ensure humane treatment.  Most of us will end up taking care of our parents, and struggling with that burden – in part, perhaps, because we are so badly equipped for it, and so unprepared.  What the “I must retain a separate household, I must not be a burden” narrative does for most of us is put us at long distances from aging family members, with frequent long car rides and disruptions of family, and deny us the benefits of combined households, resources and strong connected families.  It does not spare us the difficulty of someday depending on someone – it does not change the fact that at various times in our lives we all become people who are not productive, not perfect, perhaps disabled, and that the devaluation the disabled, of the non-productive, of our reciprocal and inevitable dependencies undermines our ability to rely on one another.  Ultimately, this hurts everything but the industrial economy, which will happily supply you with a nursing home and the gas to drive to visit Mom.

Moreover, and mostly ignoring (and these deserve attention but aren’t my primary focus) the cultural and national implications of such an attitude towards children, and the costs to families and children themselves, I’m not convinced that the erasure of the idea of children as a blessing – and the actual experience of it – does any real good to those who would like to see population questions brought to the table.  I would argue that one of the reasons we cannot talk about population, as the advocates so often complain, is that we have no terms to talk about population.  All of us are burdened by the totalizing industrial discourse that attempts to transform complex family decisions with multiple meanings into one meaning – that of children as economic and ecologic burden.  All of us know that this is not all our children are to us, or all our dreams of family are.  And yet, we are given no other language to speak in – only religious communities seem to have an alternative, which is why, as I’ve noted before, there is such a resounding silence from everyone between “population is the only problem” and “we must be fruitful and multiply.”  The complexities of demographic imagination are necessary to speaking on this subject – without them, as long as children are just a commodity to be capped and traded, the terms don’t allow us to begin.

How would a discussion about population, the future and reproduction that began from the premise that children have complex multiple meanings, that in most societies, and at most times, we do depend on our children, as they depend on us, and that a baby is more than an asset or an expression of Mommy-Chic?  How would a discussion of our very real plight proceed if we were to begin with the assumption that children are a gift and an asset?  Would it lead, as many people seem to fear, inevitably to everyone running out and having a dozen children, to the end of restraint?  Many population limitation advocates seem to believe religion is their enemy – rather than acknowledging that with “be fruitful and multiply” come traditions of self-limitation, of celibacy and personal restraint, of ties to land and place that required careful restraint.  It is true that these multiple narratives are in tension with one another, but that tension does not mean they are not present.

Most of all, I cannot imagine a case for self-limitation that does not begin from the presumption that children are a blessing and an asset – any declining population society is going to struggle to support its increasing number of elders from a smaller base of children.  Ties that once were spread among several children in a family for one set of parents may now have to encompass multiple parents and extended childless family.  To deny that this is our reality is fundamentally false.  There are real worries to fear the burdens we are placing on our children, but we do not serve them by pretending those responsibilities will not exist, only to spring them on them when the old models fail.  At the root of however we deal with our collective crisis, whatever methods of restraint we eventually enact – and I think we will enact them, so let them be good ones, that lead to a just and honorable society –  we must begin from this – every child that we have, every birth is a gift, and if our gifts are fewer than in past years, we must only treasure them the more.


62 Responses to “Blessing or a Burden: Population, Reproduction and the Demographic Imagination”

  1. I’ve been very frustrated at the repetitive nature of discussion about population. It’s the same arguments again and again (re-heated from the 1970s).

    Thanks, Sharon, for moving us forward.

    - Bart / EB

  2. galacticsurfer says:

    pretty long post. I agree kids are an economic burden and then disappear so the argument n many people’s mind is made easier when they can hardly afford the demanded consumer lifestyle anyway so that they just don’t have kids. the rest of us suffer and just hope we don’t fall into severe poverty due to first job loss. Relocalizaion and the endo fconsumer industrial society can perhaps bring us back ot more family oriented culture where mulitgenerational households or greater community feel is available and where traditional work can be done by kids in the household, not just a warehousing of children from kindergarten to college then they are gone so that the whole thing is an impersonal assembly line for us all.

  3. Fern says:

    All of which got me thinking of a poem from the Harlem Renaissance. “The Young Ones”, by Stirling A. Brown….

  4. Brian M. says:

    I think there are a lot of reasons why the “child as asset” narrative is so hard to get going, and that the key ones are tied to industrialism.

    If I think of a child as an asset, I think of them working, and entering the workforce. So much of the imagination that used to be focused on pure demographics, how many people are we? Have shifted to imagination about jobs and consumption. How many customers are there that this will appeal to? How many jobs are there availible. And here, at least in my lifetime, and the places I’ve been, the answer has always been not enough job! not enough jobs! Sometimes the “too many people” narratives are bound up in environmentalist issues (too much consuption! Not enough space!), but I think often I think at least as often the real underlying worry is job-based (not enough jobs! Too many competitors!). So a cute cuddly kid with a toy bear, well that codes as no threat, but a cute little cuddly kid with an ax chopping wood! Damn, now he’s a competitor for when I get reduced to trying to chop wood for food! Maybe he’ll learn to grade papers next and I’ll be hosed! :) That is as the industrial economy gets more “productive” it needs fewer workers to keep the gears going, and the more workers there are the more each worker’s wages decline. The “children as economic burden” metaphor is clearly a key one, but the “children as economic threat” metaphor is hiding under there too. So we put LOTS of taboos on child-labor. And not just child-labor. We do everything we can to delay entry into the workforce. We pile on mandatory high school education, to keep people out of the workforce, and minimize the young’un’s threat to the status quo. The US went from like 6% high school graduation rates to 67% over the 20th century (with nearly 100% at least attending some high school). College rates have shot up to. Why? And, of course, when one sees the population rates of other countries and tries to engage in coherent discussion, part of the mind is thinking “environmental concerns” but part of the mind is thinking “global wage arbitrage.” But we don’t talk about our globabl wage arbitrage worries, without sounding like racist assholes, so we just talk about our “ecological worries” in ways that are torn by the double duty of being themselves AND economic worry coding in disguise. That also explains why a child richer than you is so much less threatening than a child poorer than you, it is far less likely to bring your wages down, or compete against you. It also explains why children are so much less threatening in a declining population society. If it feels like there aren’t enough people for the jobs that need doing then people are assets, if it feels like there aren’t enough jobs worth doing for the people that need them, then people are threats. And indeed, if there really are far more people than jobs, then those people probably need to turn to crime or violence if the safety nets aren’t strong enough, and we have a more direct “threat.” We have the Malthus forms of demographic imagination too, these Hobbesian ideas of the war of all against all, mellowed just slightly into the competition of all against all and survival of the fittest. I think those visions are part of why the demographic imagination recoils away from the “child as asset” narrative too. Then, of course, there is also the view that seeing a child as an asset, only makes sense if you can control that asset. And anyone who rebelled against their own parents controlling ways is going to be uncomfortable with filling out that line of reasoning. We generally hope that our children will eventually have more freedom to choose a life for themselves, than we would allow our bank account to have. We can’t exactly keep them in our pocket. And we wouldn’t really want to.

    So the “child as asset” or “child as blessing” narrative has several quite different counter-stories, the “child as burden” narrative, you mention, but also the “child as threat” “child as future-self-determiner” and even others like “child as mini-me” or “child as reflection of parent’s prowess.” Notice also that “child as investment” captures a lot of both the “child as burden and the “child as asset” metaphors.

  5. Christine S says:

    The last few lines really struck me: “Ties that once were spread among several children in a family for one set of parents may now have to encompass multiple parents and extended childless family. [...] we do not serve them by pretending those responsibilities will not exist, only to spring them on them when the old models fail.”

    It seems very tough on the next or next-but-one generation that they don’t know what their burden will be, i.e. having to nurse lots of old people, if you subsribe to the scenario of peak-oil-related population crash (or fast decline), due to hunger, disease, war, etc., as well as the choices made by (Westernised) adults who only see themselves getting poorer and poorer, so deciding not to have children.

    Unless of course elder-mortality due to hunger/disease/neglect outstrips infant mortality, so that their will be no such age imbalance.

  6. winston smith says:

    I disagree with Sharon 101% and she is bias as she has i think 4 children? Its 2009 and Ozzie and Harriet left the building in 1959 .
    We are too many . Net 1 every 13 seconds !!!!
    Mother Earth is Angry and is telling Us Daily. Contintue to Contaminate Your Earth and Some Night you will Die in Your own Waste! More humans = more traffic= more bio solids=pollution =crime=war= noting good except, being Selfish wanting to reproduce and Not Caring what one is Doing! Sharon is using metrics 100 years old!The population of Mother Earth has at least doubled in 50 years !
    Oh yes Autism is 1-80 now and it didnt exist 50 years ago! I’m involved daily!
    It’s 2009, The End of living the beginning of Survival! Look Around You can Hope? all you want but, live in REALITY! Case Closed

  7. Sharon says:

    Winston, I don’t get the sense that you fully understood the essay. Yes, I’m biased. You are too, in different ways. And the subject of the essay *is* overpopulation.


  8. Sharon, a nicely thoughtful post. Odd, I actually posted about overpopulation on my own blog, but with a more open-ended take on the subject from a cosmobiological sense.

    My sister has 9 kids in a suburb of Denver. (Odd little detail, but on April 20, 1999 she had dropped her (then 3 in number) kids off at their grandma’s house on Ken Caryl Road in Littleton and later, when she got out of class at Arapahoe Community College she saw all these people with worried looks on their faces and asked what was going on. They told her “there was a shooting at the high school.” Grandma lives right across the street.) Her kids are delightful, and while I feel not a little resentment that I, as Unka Richard, can’t really afford to send gifts to NINE kids, I don’t really know what to think of the fact that she has all them young’ns.

    I am their gay uncle living in upstate New York, and I haven’t seen my sister and family since 2003, when we had a family reunion. My partner and I haven’t talked about kids–we gingerly tread on the “m” question as our LAT lifestyle seems to suit us. But I am a person who needs to be around kid energy. I recently had the opportunity to teach a playwriting Master Class at Albany High, and I am actually feeling rather sad since the week I did that, because I had such a good time. It’s great to be around kids who are eager to learn and try something out.

    Seeing as I’m one of your more oddball posters (and I will try not to cry when y’all choose to ignore me–sniff, sniff, brave smiles, Frostwolf), I wanted to reiterate the essence of my post at troyalbanytrance, that perhaps all 6+ billion of us and counting are here for some Gaia-only-knows-what purpose, as perhaps a “cellular level” development–that is, “cellular” on the scale of a planetary organism that needs to go through some sort of evolutionary process–which requires as many of us as possible. I’ve heard it said that “Nothing is wasted in divine economy.” I don’t think there’s a simple answer, just as you wisely posit, and that while I don’t understand how or why, I need to make space for other perspectives. You seem to be one who is attempting to open a safe container for some healthy argument, and I respect that.


  9. Lil One says:

    Live every day like your hair was on fire.

  10. Emily says:

    I confess this post makes me uneasy. I’ve not unpacked it all yet, but a big part of it is the concern that viewing children in terms of their “economic value” brings to mind visions of child sweatshop labor and other exploitative practices. Framing the argument that way gives a very different impression than saying, “too many Americans coddle their kids into their 30s then don’t expect any support back,” which I believe is a big part of your point here.

  11. MEA says:

    Are we dealing with the uncomfortable fact that unless our children are productive the human race will end (given that the last 50 years or so were in affluant cultures an oddity)?

    It’s a heck of an uncomfortable idea, for me at least. I don’t deny the fact that my older child is very self-sufficent — mends her own clothes, cook for us at time, has been the deciding factor in getting certain garden jobs done — yet I’m not comfortable with the idea of her doing jobs she doen’t enjoy (beyond the make your own bed, put your own shoes away sort) and while I’m happy for her to clean the table while I have the energy to be working on something else, those nights when I’m so tired or ill that it would be a help for her to do that, I do it myself so that I’m not taking advantage of her.

    I think it’s party that we have gotten very used to thinking of a household as a collection of indivituals, and not a working unit.

    I also think, in my case at least, the fear of overworking a child comes from the idea of 12 hours down a mine or at a loom, not from the more common (I hope) and humane idea of working along side adults at a level that isn’t too hard.

  12. ChristyACB says:

    Still digesting parts of this post but some of the premise isn’t quite right or even factual. And though I generallly like your posts, I had a hard time following the thread here since it meandered all over.

    The stratification on richer having fewer and poor more isn’t correct at all. Just a quick reach into the easiest pick in history demonstrates that. Rich in ancient Rome (meaning the recorded families) had about 3 children each, most aiming for 2. They had very low infant mortality, partially because of the cleanliness and partially the dry climate. The poor, while mostly unrecorded, showed signficantly higher numbers in the urban areas where records still exist.

    It is quite likely a fundamental difference that those who are wealthier will tend to have fewer, regardless of our state of development thus far.

    As for burden v blessing, investment v dependence and so on, children are a burden now financially and they’ve always been a burden in effort (which can be turned into financial). It is only a matter of how long they remain a burden that has changed. Now, it is basically forever. Even my own mother would never bring up the question, “Okay, I’m ready, what are you going to do with me?”, even though she knows she has 2 daughters who totally subscribe to multi-generational, wide family living. It is sort of taboo in our society to assume you’ll be cared for unless you’re a child.

    This rosy idea of children having always been celebrated as gifts is completely ridiculous too. So far as I know, that has never been the case and never will. Why would babies dying from being rolled over on and accidentally suffocated become so epidemic that laws had to be enacted regarding it during the Middle Ages? Abandoned children are a fact of life, it is just that people who are safe and snug had no reason to know of it. No radio or photo essays by newspapers before industrialization.

    As you are totally forgetting the biological part of this. To say that any child is as good as any other assumes the person has no vested interest. Because reality dictates that every Mother and Father thinks their child is more important than any other and to say otherwise totally disregards biology. They should think that way. So those hordes coming over the border, bring TB into school, using medicaid and emergency rooms and overcrowding schools because they don’t pay taxes SHOULD be thought of as less than their own child. After all, it is your child you are investing in, not theirs.

  13. Brian M. says:

    I also think that our attitudes towards our children, and the narratives we tell about children often reflect attitudes and narratives about our parents.

    Number of children per family is part of the population issue, but so is increasing life-span and ever extending health care costs.

    But also the narratives share many of the same features. We have a “parents as burden” narrative, but also a “parents as blessing” one. (And for that matter a “parents as competitors,” a “parents as controllers,” a “parents as asset” etc.

    For most Westerners, at least Americans, it is vital to deny the “parents as assets” model, at least from getting too much force. Yes, yes we needed our parents to grow up, and get where we are, but we also need to feel that we have EARNED our place in society. A strong sense of individual entitlement seems key to getting the whole industrial Capitalist thing to work, emotionally. If my parents are really serious assets, then maybe I am where I am now because of their CLASS, rather than because I have meritocratically earned my way to where I am now, and that is a very threatening line of thought. Similarly, if my children are really assets, then maybe my parents are too, and thus maybe I am not really entitled to my place in society, or at least I didn’t really earn it as much as luck into it. “Parents as burden” however allows me to glorify my own ability to support them in recompense for them raising me. Oh its hard but I do it anyway because I love them …

    The 1-child policy of China, destroyes the Confucian family, at least as much as it reduces population (its not just that there are fewer kids, and few girls or disabled kids, but that kids almost never have siblings, and in a generation almost never have aunts uncles or cousins, and thus that the extended family tie, which has been the main competitor to the loyalty to the government in China for 2.5 thousand years is unravelled). But the Western industrial culture also works to unravel extended families, even if not quite so thoroughly. But I think that that means that attitude towards children, is related to attitude towards parents, and even attitude towards uncles or cousins. Are my cousins a blessing, or a burden, or competitors or assets, or just these people I vaguely know?

    The “child as blessing” story is just the beginning of a whole lot of related stuff.

  14. Cathy says:

    I’m one of those women who in the 70′s decided that I could only afford one child. I wanted to be able to give that child a college education and all the other opportunities (sports, riding lessons, camps, etc) while I continued building a career. So I only had one child.

    Biggest mistake I ever made.

    I’d give anything to be able to go back and have two or three children. I think he would have liked to have brothers and sisters too so that today the entire burden of mom doesn’t fall on his shoulders.

  15. ForestMime says:

    Very thoughtful post, Sharon. Thank you.

    I do not have children, but I believe that, too, is more accident than intention. Off-place/off-person/off-time…note, I do not say “wrong place/wrong person/wrong time”…we live and we learn, at least I hope we learn. I’m not upset that I have not had children as more of me is in the money economy, less of me in the informal economy you wrote about in a past post. Certainly, I probably could have “afforded” one child from a monetary standpoint, but I could not necessarily have afforded one from a psycho-spiritual standpoint; I just was not mature enough, I think, to have a child. And maybe that’s part of the self-restraint side of the accident/intention equation. Because if you really value children and value the complexities that they bring, then you probably realize that you can only accommodate the complexities of one or two.

    When I hosted my younger niece for five weeks last summer, I found myself keeping her separate from the work that needed to be done. Only when we were visiting my SO did I ask him to show her how to use a knife (he’d spent many years in the restaurant business). I was reluctant to let her do this, because of concerns about safety. And I didn’t show her how to wash clothes, either. This probably stemmed from both my utter exhaustion (I worked full-time and she was in camp part of the day and every weekend, we’d go visit some place new) as well as my lack of patience in teaching. Upon reflection, it occurred to me that aside from my grandmother, neither of my parents ever showed me how to do much of anything. I either learned on my own or I took classes (cooking, sewing…we didn’t have a garden, but grew citrus and no one showed me how to care for them).

    In industrial culture, so much gets off-loaded onto the back of money, hence the classes that you mention…people who are valued the most are the ones who can bring in money and the informal economy gets (misguidedly) devalued.

    I don’t agree with Winston Smith…too many people IS a problem from a resource standpoint when those people consume at the level we in the West have consumed/wasted for the past hundred or so years. In other words, resource depletion is relative to the rate at which resources are consumed — and how they’re consumed. If what we’re talking about is nutritious food, decent shelter and clothing, then Earth can support more. (Of course, I say that from the perspective of having had access to much of the other “stuff” that eats up resources so that fewer resources are available to others, so I’m guilty of that.) I just can’t ascribe “anger” to Mother Earth. She’s been here much, much longer than we have and so, I suspect, she has a different intelligence, one that’s not invested in emotions the way Homo sapiens is.

    Our main challenge is to locate and fill our niche…and that involves the kind of self-restraint/self-limitation that’s involved, I believe, in acknowledging every child, even every human, as an asset beyond his/her economic (or status) value in the current culture.

  16. ceridwen says:

    Ermmm…this seems to be rolling round in circles with the phrase “children are a blessing and an asset” coming out at intervals throughout. It is not disputed that children are a blessing to those who want them – but the parents arent the only ones concerned with the fact. People (including parents and would-be parents) are all a part of Society as a whole. Children are not a “blessing and an asset” to Society as a whole – they just “are” – no value judgements in either direction implied.

    I thought I saw the idea lurking too of “my children dont consume as much as THEIR children” – therefore its okay for ME to have more, but not THEM…..A child/any child is one person more – one person that requires space to move around in/a home of their own to live in (once they reach adulthood)/etc. It is the sheer physical space that is required by the 7 billion people on this Planet that is much of the overpopulation problem. I guess some of us are much more aware of this than others – some of us live in one of the areas where the overpopulation is hurting personally each and every day (travelling along roads where there are too many other people also trying to travel/walking along urban streets where too many other people are also trying to walk/going off to the countryside for a chance of a bit of peace/quiet/being solitary and finding too many other people have also done the same thing and that quiet bit of countryside you travelled to is also crowded and noisy). Looking round in my own Society – the highest proportion of people who are actively trying to do what we can to curb overpopulation are those that are in areas where we are suffering the effects. It is easy not to be too bothered about it if one lives in an “empty”/rural area – those of us living in crowded areas dont have that luxury – we live with the effects daily of always/always/always having too many other people around us…

    I think it is very difficult for those who dont live in the more crowded parts of this World to appreciate just how stressing it is to the rest of us to have this constant pressure from too many other people around us all the time.

  17. Robyn M. says:

    Emily–I think you’re right, but that this is exactly the problem with our notion of “economic value”. Almost everything we do in a household is a matter of economics (as Sharon points out), and yet when we discuss economic value, somehow it all gets reduced to “bring in more cash”. Hence, the visions of child sweatshops dancing before our eyes (I had the same visions, too). But it goes much further than this. I have friends who disagree with our decision to have our children to do chores around the house, or that they might help me with a project that could make money for the family. Any picture of child-rearing that is not all and only “childhood is for nothing but pure innocent joy and intellectual stimulation” starts sliding straight into the sweatshop picture for them. They will not participate in one of the local Amish CSAs because they believe the Amish participate in unacceptable child labor–by helping the family run the farm. It’s exactly this inability to articulate the economic value of children in non-child-labor terms that I think forms so much of the problem with this discussion. (I take this to be mainly Sharon’s point, too, but I am also working on unpacking her post.)

  18. MEA says:

    I think that historically people were very aware of abandoned children — Greek myth, the Roman believe that unwanted infants be left outside the city to avoid spiritual polution from their ghosts, the last name Esposito, laws separating infancide from murder… and they didn’t need TV or newspapers to be aware. It was part of life.

    I also find horrifying the idea that my children are more entitled to life than any other children, regardless of who their parents are, where they were born, and if the have TB or not.

  19. mat noir says:

    There is no way around overpopulation.

    The global military-industrial complex loves babies as fodder. The pope loves babies so he can afford his red shoes. The rich want their maids, and the poor want cheap entertainment.

    No amount of analysis, hand-wringing, or guchi-guchi-goo oozings of love is likely to change that – unless there is that burst of evolution that takes us to homo-wisecracking-sapiens.

  20. Greenpa says:

    So have you ever watched the old schlock horror flick “The Killer Shrews”?

    Marvelous education, and it’s all about population. Sort of. Viewed through the eyes of some liberal arts major who was forced to take one biology class, and half-listened. And yes, there’s one black actor, and he gets eaten first. Oy.

    Seriously, I showed it to some eco friends of mine once, and they haven’t stopped laughing about it, years later.

    As far as a serious response; I’ll wait until we meet some day. If I started writing, it would wind up longer than Brian M’s. Or yours, maybe. :-)

    Just one comment- it is a field where logic has limited leverage; as Winston Smith illustrated nicely.

  21. Uncle Yarra says:

    No sarcasm intended, but I’d be interested to hear how 9 billion people could be fed with the water situation as it is.

  22. Uncle Yarra says:

    Oh yeah, I’m probably teaching grandma to suck eggs, but when you have your kids split some kindling, I trust they don’t hold the wood, i.e. push the hatchet and wood onto a block with their other hand well out of the way?

  23. Mark N says:

    Like Uncle Yarra, I have a hard time envisioning a human population of 9 billion hungry and thirsty individuals. I think it would be most unfortunate for all the earth’s inhabitants, people included, if it did occur. I’m not overly worried about this happening though. Considering the current trends, it would be more realistic to envision declining populations of people.

    That said, I don’t have a problem with some folks having large families, provided they are raised with good values.

  24. EM says:

    How can you (as a scholar who studied “demographic imagination”, aware of “traditions of self-limitation, of celibacy and personal restraint, of ties to land and place that required careful restraint”) blithely go forth and disregard all available information on population? Four kids don’t happen by mistake. What were you thinking? “when I had my first child…” but then? …Reproducing wildly may not be such a good idea for others, but its ok for me?..

    You and many other “wealthy” first world citizens seem to take what you want (lots of kids in this case) regardless of the consequences. Yes, I to fall into this trap. But I don’t add other lives to the mess we’re in.

    Yes, I am sure you are raising them to be good eco-citizens, and yes I am sure your family consumes less than the average US family. But the fact remains four kids must eat, drink and shit daily and its likely that at least some of them will grow up and reproduce.

    Do the math – 3 kids who each have 2 kids, 3 kids who each have 3, 4 with 1 each, 2 with 3 any way you figure …. it adds up pretty quickly. Especially after the second or third generation.

  25. Greenpa says:

    Actually, EM; you’re wrong all around. Most of Sharon’s children happened when they were on birth control, carefully implemented.

    And, no, NONE of Sharon’s children will ever reproduce. They’re all boys.

    FACT: from the world of biological study of population dynamics; the number of males in any population is IRRELEVANT. The only thing that enters into the equations is females, and their reproductive practices.

    Sorry guys; we don’t count.

  26. Uncle Yarra says:

    “..and their reproductive practices”
    Which is why they should have control over them.

    “Sorry guys; we don’t count.”
    But we sure have fun frothing up the gene pool:)

  27. Fatima says:

    My grandmother refused to come and live with any of the family when her health was poor. She didn’t want to be a burden. Her love and conversation would have made our lives so much richer….

    Here’s a link to another blog I enjoy. You may enjoy reading this.

  28. GeekyGardener says:

    Editing note: This post was a little too long for me to maintain attention throughout (some good headings to break it up would be massively appreciated).

    Content feedback: If people start focusing on kids as resources, where does that leave the ones with special needs? Do we start allocating resources based on the likelihood of getting a return on that investment? If so, there are a lot of kids in the school systems that will lose their services, and we’ll have a new class of “super-students” who we’ve built into narcissists. I look forward to those people wiping my drool when I’m 90!

    My husband and I don’t have kids (first by medical reality, then choice). So I might be biased or naive in my assessment. But I think the child-free movement encourages the idea that parents should not be burdens on their kids. Partly because so many of us child-free folks have been told we SHOULD have kids because otherwise there will be no one to take care of us when we get old. To which we reply that this is a crappy reason to have kids & parents shouldn’t count on that anyways (kids could become ill, disabled, or complete wingnuts who live in a commune with 5 wives each).

  29. anne says:

    I resonate with your take on children. I do think we are doing children no favours when we do not allow them to participate fully in the family economy. I wonder if some of our adult sense of entitlement comes from enforced indolence as children. Reading on another blog recently about a family of mango vendors in Mumbai, how the children participate in the family business, being fully part of the family life and business. Although these children cannot go to school as a result, still, it seems to me that in an affluent society like ours we could figure out ways for children to participate in the family economy and still get an education.

    Overpopulation is a serious and complex issue, I’m not convinced that Americans limiting themselves to a single child per family will make much of a dint in it. True liberation of all women will be a far more effective solution.

  30. Mari says:

    I’m all for child labor, provided that the conditions are no more unacceptable for adult labor. My parents ran their business out of the house so around about 12 or so I was the receptionist and assistant secretary, in addition to the household duty of dishwasher and occassional cook. I’m okay with 7 year olds being trapped in cublicles for 8 hours staring at computers or attending droll meaningless meetings.
    Heck around here (major city) we have children engaged in child unpaid labor with volunteer projects of cleaning up the river, cleaning the sidewalks, feeding the scary homeless, and the like. Then there are the arts and sports, where child actors, dancers, singers are pushed by stage parents. Growing bodies are damaged by overdoing repetitive movements in practicing a swing, a shot, a move over and over in sports and all that is acceptable because the kids aren’t paid.

  31. Pangolin says:

    There’s a book in there somewhere.

    I agree with other posters that the industrialization of culture places children as simultaneously an obstacle to maximum inclusion of adults into the wage-earning workforce and a source of consumer emotion that can be manipulated into creating consumer demand.

    People, adults, parents, children and the elderly who don’t or can’t participate as either wage and debt indentured servants or independently wealthy consumers are regarded with the utmost neglect and disdain. The disgust, shame, degradation and neglect we heap on people who through chance, disease, foolishness or vice find themselves without funds, assets to sell or income is telling. Much of that abuse comes in the form of child stealing by governments or threats of same to force compliance with everything from drug laws to medical care standards to religious attendance.

    Other people’s children are worth exactly what somebody making a profit can get from manipulation of their status. The children of poor people are regarded as disposable by secular and religious authorities alike. They can’t work and there is no money to extract by manipulation of child or parent; disposable. One look at schools in poor areas or religious areas and it’s clear that kids are NOT a priority. The nicest areas of most towns and cities are almost completely child-free.

    I am one of those who has fallen mysteriously ill due to god knows what industrial poisons and my two children are now a source of pain. The teen daughter disowned me when she discovered I couldn’t support her social ambitions and the pre-teen is wavering. Neither help with anything as they can run to their mother’s house where there are no consequences.

    I advise young men to get clipped as soon as possible. There is no benefit to a man anymore to fathering children. While this won’t have any effect of population growth it’s a benefit to the male in question. Fewer names on the bill come the inevitable separation from the kids moms.

    With the destruction of families as functional units children simply become a source of expense and conflict. Perhaps climate change threatening human extinction isn’t such a bad thing.

  32. rdheather says:

    I must tell my parents that I was exploited as child labor! I guess since I’m not around anyone with kids, I wasn’t aware that doing what I though of as normal household work was child labor. We had to hoe in the hot Texas sun for an hour each morning during summer break! And wash dishes! And mow the yard(even if it wasn’t growing)! And I was proud when I was 12 and judged to be old/big enough to carry the 50# bags of feed to the barn.

    So I like to think I was not a complete economic waste of time as a child……;)

  33. Brooke says:

    Wow! One of the things that strikes me as I read through the comments is how our society (as a whole) has stripped all of the dignity out of hard work. Having children who are “productive” members of a family is not equal to poor working conditions and hours that violate child labor laws. Productive members of a family grow into productive members of society.

    Because we are foster/adoptive parents, traditional definitions of “family” don’t necessarily apply to us. We have borrowed Nancy Thomas’s definition that a family is a group of people working together to make a house a home. So, we work together at chore time and chores really become less of a chore, and it is quality family time. We laugh and have fun, help each other and share in a sense of accomplishment and the joy of a job well done. Instead of breaking the children down into Cinderella-ish versions of slave labor, it builds them up into confident and capable individuals. IMHO, the false inflation of confidence that comes from telling kids that every single thing they do is fabulous regardless of the validity of that statement is a bubble that is bound to burst at some point. Not every person can win every race every time, ya know? An unsuccessful attempt to reach a goal can be a successful opportunity to teach a lesson, if you are so inclined, and can be very constructive instead of destructive.

    As I was discussing this topic with my husband, he pointed out that our generation really doesn’t value hard work because we are the first generation (of Americans, anyway) who did not have to work very hard to get to where we are. I do not think it is merely coincidence that we will also be the first generation who, as a whole, does not leave our children better off than ourselves. It seems to me that we have neglected to realize that our *entitlement* has, in fact, come at a very high cost, even if we ourselves have not had to bear the burden of that cost. We have been drawing on the resources built up for us by those who came before. But we have been living to excess and have depleted those resources and now must draw on the resources that will be needed by future generations if we are to keep up the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed. (The costs borne by the world’s poor to keep us in the latest fashions should not be ignored, either.)

    I don’t find in Sharon’s essay any implication that children should be viewed as cheap labor either within the household or outside of it. I think it is important to teach children that when you take something out, you put something back in. And hey, while you’re at it, put back a little extra. It doesn’t – and shouldn’t – mean sweatshops. But what is wrong with the vision of parent and child working side by side toward a common goal? I think that’s lovely. Our grandparents were raised that way, and I believe they are better for it.

    I want to close by saying that I have really enjoyed the spirited banter in the comments above. There is so much value in being challenged by each other when the goal is to seek better solutions. Please, please, refrain from criticizing a person based solely on the number of children they have. It is not productive and, I think, runs counter to what any of us believe. I gather from the previous comments that everyone here honors the intrinsic value of children and I think that reducing them to a decision that their parents should have made differently only serves to devalue them.

  34. Brad K. says:

    Sharon, I know the focus here is on children as an economic unit.

    I think there are two other perspectives as well.

    In the Biblical times of David, and for the ancient Greeks as well, children, or at least boys, were seen as national security. Raising sons for the army were critical to defend against war-like neighbors. I would contend that raising a child or three to serve your nation is one measure of patriotism.

    The other perspective is culture. In struggling to understand the transition from selecting a mate-prospect to forming a family, I think that “family” must be seen as an elemental unit of culture. Families – particular expressions of culture – aggregate into communities, communities into states and nations. Which makes the child a transmission of culture and beliefs into the next generation.

    We talk about the “innocence” of children, when really what we observe is pure teachings. The young child expresses a single, simple set of beliefs and understandings, uncomplicated by tolerance of opposing views or corrupted by undesired influences.

    The Christian Church, at least in my day, was firmly invested in this. Couples of unlike affiliations or beliefs had to satisfy and obligate to the officiating clergy about what faiths the children would be raised in – clearly equating marriage with expressions of belief in the next generation. Also, clearly associating marriage with producing young.

    And I think this is the part where American society breaks down. Selecting childcare providers from outside the home and family is usually an economic choice – with little focus on what culture and beliefs the child grows up with. Any choice about culture when selecting a new residence is often incidental.

    I note that the Constitution specifically does *not* provide protection for culture, only for race, sex, etc. The implication is that a broadly uniform culture would persist throughout the nation. Personal, community, and faithful cultures permit (tolerant) deviations and focuses, and the blending of disparate communities and families and people tend to provide stability and adaptability to the nation.

    I did notice that you seem to have missed one recent economic description of today’s culture. Conspicuous consumption, conspicuous displays of wealth, or even image management (an Amish issue, according to “The Amish in their own words”), has become mainstream, instead of a class distinction. Thirty years ago, many American families found “keeping up with the Joneses” a burden, and chose to let part of the frenetic commercial one-up-manship go. It is more expected now, in the mainstream, than before.

  35. A Bartlett says:

    Bacteria grow by doubling. One bacterium divides to become two, the two divide to become 4, the 4 become 8, 16 and so on. Suppose we had bacteria that doubled in number this way every minute. Suppose we put one of these bacteria into an empty bottle at 11:00 in the morning, and then observe that the bottle is full at 12:00 noon. There’s our case of just ordinary steady growth: it has a doubling time of one minute, it’s in the finite environment of one bottle.

    I want to ask you three questions. Number one: at what time was the bottle half full? Well, would you believe 11:59, one minute before 12:00? Because they double in number every minute.

    And the second question: if you were an average bacterium in that bottle, at what time would you first realise you were running of space? Well, let’s just look at the last minutes in the bottle. At 12:00 noon, it’s full; one minute before, it’s half full; 2 minutes before, it’s a quarter full; then an 1?8th; then a 1?16th. Let me ask you, at 5 minutes before 12:00, when the bottle is only 3% full and is 97% open space just yearning for development, how many of you would realise there’s a problem?

  36. Uncle Yarra says:

    Depends on the death rate ‘abartlett’ (as anyone who has brewed beer knows).
    Whilst your cut n’ paste of something the very approachable Dr Bartlett has said is illustrative, you are probably preaching to the choir here.

    Consider the things written on this link, which Dr. Bartlett found interesting, too.

  37. Coy Ote says:


    A thoughtful and sensitive article, which sounded a lot like some of my Quaker friends.

    I too wish we could somehow put the brakes on world population, but realistically I doubt it.

    I don’t want to sound like a like a simpleton but thoughtful discussions and presentations (like yours) have little power–when compared to the heat generated in the back floorboard of an SUV. (Years ago I would have said the backseat of a Chevy Malibu)

    I suspect the same chemistry is prevalent world-wide and much more relevant-to-the-moment than serious conversations and the resultant BC programs.

    As regards to China’s 1-child policy–to those who seem to find fault with it, I have to ask… did you ever consider how difficult the task of maintaining civility and workability in a society of well over a billion souls?

  38. dapperdan says:

    great insights! you are a farmer of the mind also,providing me with nourishment of the mind, soul and more.every bit as important as a stalk of celery as it helps me navigate the undernourish and depleted stories of our culture.



  39. NM says:

    Very thought-provoking piece. One of my chores as a child was to bake all the family bread. It was a source of pride and delight, even though sometimes I was annoyed when I had to start the bread before I could go out and play. The pottery bread bowl my parents gave me for my 9th or 10th birthday still graces my kitchen, and reminds me how thrilled and excited I was to finally have my own bread bowl, just like Mom.

  40. Anna Synick says:

    Thank you Winston Smith and a couple of other people for daring to say something different from the usual fawning crowd that leaves a message on Sharon’s blog.

    I too believe that overpopulation is a huge problem. There currently is a lot of hunger in the world already, how on earth do you suppose you’re going to feed an additional 3 billion with organic practices? Apart from a very quick one liner I didn’t see any good argument that explains how this can be done in a drying and warming world.

    Sharon, I will agree that we all have our opinions and biases, but unfortunately it is becoming increasingly clear that people are totally incapable of discussing overpopulation. For the majority of people it goes against the selfish gene, it goes against all that any lifeform stands for, which is to procreate, regardless of the impact. It goes against religion and religion is never open for discussion as it is not based on facts but on feelings and faith.

    Sharon does have 4 kids, which is 3 or 4 too many, if you believe overpopulation truly is a problem. Obviously she is going to find a long argument to explain why it is that human population can keep on growing without any effect on the world around us, as otherwise she’d be in contradiction with her own actions. I have also noticed that people with kids cannot bear to think too much, or think clearly, about a horrible future — any parent would rather die than see their kids suffer. It’s very very hard to think about a post peak world and what’s going to happen to us without having the additional burden of worrying about what your happy innocent 5 year old is going to face by the time s/he is a teenager.

    There seems to be a lot of discussion on overpopulation going on at the moment. There appear to be 2 distinct sides, there are those with too many kids who think it’s ok, and since we’re grand and wonderful and superior to any other lifeform we can keep on procreating. Then there are those who see overpopulation as a valid problem that will cause problems in the not too distant future, both for ourselves and other beings around us, as well as the planet we inhabit, unless we do something drastic about it.

    Unfortunately there is no way that the two sides will ever be able to understand or appreciate the other side’s convictions, the two sides are too opposing to create a middle way to go forward.

    As a result, only time will tell what’s going to happen. In the meantime, I suppose we’ll see these arguments bounce backwards and forwards, while the majority of the population is happily popping out offspring left right and centre, until something has to give.

    Oh, and ‘greenpa’, this comment about using contraceptives and still accidentally having 4 kids… come on! That’s the biggest load of rubbish I’ve ever heard. Not 1 error, but 4?? It’s the same as people saying they didn’t really want children but they had ‘accidents’. Be a grown-up and take responsibility for your actions! If you use contraceptives properly (there are plenty to choose from if one or the other doesn’t work for you) and you really don’t want children, believe me you won’t have them.

  41. Uncle Yarra says:

    Anna Synick,
    “Obviously she is going to find a long argument to explain why it is that human population can keep on growing without any effect on the world around us,”
    I’ve heard worse. Brother & sister-in-law’s criteria for more kids is whether they had 4/5/6 kids in the play-doll family when they were growing up.
    i.e. When I was little, I always played with 4 dolls so I should have 4 children.
    In a first world country.

  42. ceridwen says:

    Well…I’m glad too to see that non-sycophantic viewpoints are being expressed.

    I am certainly aware that a factor that needs to be considered in the population debate is just how much currently habitable land will STILL be habitable as the earth warms up and the seas rise. I think we will lose quite a bit of habitable land between these things – so however many people Earth has will end up squashed into a smaller amount of space. Some countries in particular are likely to be “lifeboat” countries (unfortunately including mine – Britain).

    I am acutely aware of this because I live in Britain – the country that the rest of the E.U. regards as a “dumping ground” for illegal immigrants – they push them onwards ever onwards out of THEIR countries through to the “end of the line” (Britain). We are not evenly distributed throughout Britain ourselves – much of Scotland is “empty” – but other parts (including my part of the country) present daily aggravations from being visibly overcrowded already. There are good reasons for the fact of much of Scotland being pretty “empty” – no-one wants to live there – its too cold and bleak for many of us to consider it.

    Certainly I will agree with a previous “poster” that there are no such thing as contraceptive “accidents” these days – the Pill has 99.9% reliability if used conscientiously and there is always abortion or adoption if the 0.1% chance comes up. If you REALLY REALLY dont want children – you wont. I am from a very fertile family – but have never even had an “accidental” pregnancy – because I was very determined that wouldnt happen. Certainly I’ve come across several women who stated that their pregnancies had been “accidental” – but on close questioning it turned out that they had been less than diligent with the contraception and actually wanted the children. I

  43. Silverion says:

    To add an viewpoint concerning older people “who don’t want to be a burden”: that likely has more to do with maintaining a sense of personal freedom and self-determination than any concerns about burdening the children…

    I can’t disagree with valuing every child. Every child should be able to develop itself fully and get all chances. However, to achieve that resources are needed, and those are limited.

    Planning the number of children should be kept separately from the attitude towards the children. They’re two different issues: the first is basic housekeeping: you can’t keep a horse in a flat: there’s not enough space. The second one is that horses should get a decent treatment, wherever they are kept: the first one doesn’t contradict it, but makes it possible.

    So don’t be one of those who start about government conspiracies (theywillputusincampsandthentheywillshootus!!!!WITHGUNSOMG) whenever someone mentions population control. Family planning and family care are two different issues, that can be complementary.

  44. Mark N says:

    A lot of people have a strong reliance on birth control pills. There are powerful reasons for this. Unfortunately, this practice is having a serious unintended effect on other critters when residues get into the groundwater.

    If you are a male, you should be especially concerned.

  45. Sharon says:

    What fascinates me most about the responses to this is how many people assume, because of my family size, that this is a case for unfettered reproduction. In fact, it is a case for talking about population, and for finding ways to talk about it with people who don’t necessarily share all one’s assumptions about reproduction – it is a way of beginning to think about collective population limitation. But the assumption is that I must inevitably be making a case *against* limitation – that’s very interesting.


  46. Sharon says:

    Dr. Bartlett, I am an admirer of yours, and am pleased and flattered that I merited a comment on this. And yes, I’m familiar with the exponential function.

    Can I ask you a question? I admire what you’ve tried to do over several decades – I’ve heard astonishing numbers about how often you’ve given your talks. May I ask, sincerely and without implied sarcasm, whether you sincerely feel that you’ve succeeded in making a real and significant policy shift on population by giving these talks? That is, do you think that your impact has been sufficient to actually achieve some of your goals?

    I ask this because one of the reasons I wrote this piece is simply that I feel that the discussions that have happened on the population issue over the last 40 years (and I was a child during the last set), have not been productive of policy shifts, they have not been productive of getting population and reproduction on the table. They have not penetrated the public consciousness. My feeling is that for 40 years, population limitation discussions have failed to engage most of the West’s population, and have often done so in less than fully productive ways if they have – for example, some people have taken them up as expressions of bigotry against poor people in the Global South.

    I guess what I’d ask is that if simply telling people about the exponential function doesn’t fix the problem, is it not possible that you need more than mathematics to do so? That you might need a different approach? It is certainly possible that mine is not the correct one – I don’t object to that comment. But I guess what I’d like to know, and again, I do not mean this derogatorily, is what alternate approach you would propose.


  47. Sharon says:

    I’m not going to be able to answer all the comments, but I appreciate the discussion here. I’m not going to discuss the specifics of my children’s conception – I’ve written about it before, and if you search this blog or read my book, and you care enough, you’ll find it. I will note that one of the worldview issues that I think has to be dealt with in order to talk about population is how we see birth control – for example, someone observes that the effectiveness of the pill is more than 99%. It is true, however, the pill is medically contraindicated for many women – those with high blood pressure, those who smoke, those who have severe side effects, and perhaps most importantly for contraception purposes, nursing mothers – it is not possible to take the pill and breastfeed – the minipill is much less effective. Nor, for example, does everyone regard abortion as a form of birth control equivalent to prevention. There are, I think, real and legitimate questions about what personal compromises one actually owes the planet – compromises of health, of principle. For example, I know plenty of people who have said they believe they should do X or Y, but doing so would end their marriage – are we obligated to get a divorce for the collective good? Have abortions? Use medical practices that cause health risks? All of these things must be part of the larger discussion of population.

    On the question of feeding 9 billion people – it really comes down to a question of equity. We produce sufficient food right now to feed over 9 billion people, with a greater measure of equity. Will we do so equitably? Probably not – I spend a lot of time on this in _A Nation of Farmers_ and I won’t repeat it all here. But the absolute production issues are feasible – it is the problem of justice we haven’t managed to navigate. To some degree that is a population problem – the need for equity gets greater as the population rises, and the standard of living for everyone gets lower in some measure. But inequity is not solely a population problem – we’ve had it even in underpopulated societies, often quite acutely.

    As I say, climate change, with its water implications, is the wild card. And that’s where we’re in a real bind, one that can’t be dealt with without making the equity, and consumption factors the center of things – as I do the math, even if half the planet died of starvation (and ignoring how totally hideous that is for the moment), it wouldn’t really resolve the larger problem for us in the West – Kiashu over at his blog has pointed out that even if everyone but Australia and the US died, we’d still hit most of the climate tipping points. Half the population, if it is the half most likely to starve, will not get us out the resource bind. In the end the question is one of equity, whether we have 9 billion, 6 billion or 3 billion – if we don’t deal with the justice issues, and the equity issues (and as anyone who reads this knows, I make no claims whatsoever that my family models a fair share, but even if I wanted to, I can’t do anything about this at this point), we’re doomed. It isn’t just numbers.


  48. Sharon says:

    BTW, Anna, I didn’t claim I had four kids by accident. Never have, never will. You seem to believe, when you say “four too many” that no one should have any children at all – but I think you can safely say that that is not a mainstream view, and I don’t feel any real obligation to agree with it.


  49. Anna Marie says:

    Sharon, thank you for a thought-provoking essay that steered clear of extremism; population control is an emotional topic and gets polarized quickly.

    I don’t have children for three reasons (I’m 42, so likely I won’t parent). The first reason is I have little maternal instinct. I’d rather write books than nurse or change diapers. Teaching young people is enough contact with them for me. Two, family background and getting a Ph.D. meant that most of my childbearing years were characterized by poverty; I didn’t even consider having kids or getting married until I was working a professor job and had the means. So, yes for me, kids did equal big economic burdens that I couldn’t afford. By the time I had the means and got married, at 39 I figured I was too old, and well, I really didn’t want them anyhow, so the problem conveniently solved itself. Luckily I met someone who feels the same way. And the last, and least significant reason if I’m honest, is that I didn’t think it was good for the planet.

    My ranking of reasons not to parent indicates to me that for many people, their decision to parent has little to do with the collective good. Folks think about their own good; I certainly did when I decided not to parent.

    And, I also suspect why the discussion gets so polarized is that folks who don’t parent get hammered in many ways by not following a societal norm and are defensive. People who do parent and follow a societal norm get defensive when it is suggested that perhaps having children isn’t a norm but a choice.

    This latter statement is where Sharon and I will probably disagree.

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