I’m not sure why the population question reared its ugly head Wednesday in two unrelated articles, but it wasn’t long into reading them before I found myself in an all-too-familiar muddle. Both stories — Slate’s “Global Swarming” and AlterNet’s “Does Our Planet Have Too Many People?” posit that controversial link between baby breeding and environmental responsibility. Both articles attempt to distance themselves from the pop control freaks — the doomsaying Paul Erhlichs and the followers of groups like the U.K.’s Optimum Population Trust or the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement — but in the end, both venture into uncomfortable territory. With the global population predicted to grow over 25 percent, an additional 2.5 billion by 2050, does it make sense for the environmental movement to continue to leave the issue of population growth off the table?
With the average American spewing more carbon dioxide per lifetime than many a village in rural Africa, it’s clear that we’re burning up the planet with SUV emissions, not baby farts, but at some future time, could the population become an important factor in the environmental health of the planet? Sure. I’m not recommending authoritarian laws like China’s or finger-pointing at the continued population growth of developing nations. Still, in the First World, where affluence allows people to “naturally” use more resources, it’s worth arguing about along with discussions about the virtues of public transport and fluorescent lights. However politically incorrect this may sound, having children is a lifestyle choice for those women free enough to determine their own reproductive destiny. But that’s a very specific subgroup of women — and typically the one that has already decided to have smaller families. As any women’s rights worker will tell you, the quickest family planning method in most countries is women’s rights and education: As women’s education levels rise, the birthrate naturally falls.
Still, discussions about overpopulation leave me unsettled. In part, because I know how these self-righteous arguments sometimes disguise all sorts of unrelated personal baggage. My oldest friend, who is finally trying to have a baby at 43 after waiting for the right guy, recently went on an environmentalist tirade about the unbelievable selfishness of women who dare to have three children: “I just look at them and I’m so disgusted: Who do you think you are to reproduce yourself like that?” Feeling a tad defensive with my two children, I found myself citing observations from Phillip Longman’s “The Empty Cradle” (which argues bizarrely that depopulation is the real global problem) that the fastest-growing sectors of the population are religious fundamentalists of all stripes. “Some non-fundamentalists need to have kids, right?”
My own history offers a case in point for why big theories are so difficult to disentangle from very personal decisions. A decade ago, my husband and I used to declare that we wouldn’t have children for environmental reasons. But, of course, that wasn’t the whole story: We were both scared to death of having children at all. Then we decided to have kids and first pursued a public foster-adoption program — again there were unspoken personal issues: My abiding fear of childbirth, my husband’s fear that he would feel as alienated from his own genetic children as he did from his parents. But after a couple of years of our social workers quitting and losing our files, we decided to have kids the old-fashioned way. Did we scuttle our higher principles? Did we get off our high horses and grow up? Frankly, I can see it either way.
Even though reintroducing overpopulation as an environmental issue may foment yet another mommy war, probing the complex relationship among biological birthing, first-world family culture and environmentalism is worth the discomfort. Becoming a parent has made me downright schizoid environmentally speaking. I drive a veggie-oil car, shop almost exclusively at the farmers market and try to buy all used toys and clothes. I also buy little plastic sandwich bags and do revolting piles of laundry almost daily. Should this have made me a candidate for the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement? Only time (and no doubt in the voices of my future teenagers) will tell me for sure.