How many kids are enough?
Oh, boy…this is a loaded question, amirite?
Well, let’s at least be biologists for a little bit—start with minor league controversy. For decades, the “population bomb” criers have urged high birth rate regions of the world to find solutions—contraceptives, education, etc.—to bring down their birth rates (see “When Will the Bomb Explode, Dr. Ehrlich” below for an in-depth critique of this idea). What has become increasingly clear (see Hans Rosling video) is that birth rates come down when economic wealth and resources go up. But when people have fewer children, those families, on average, actually consume more than families with lots of children. See article on Reproducing in Cities. This means that lower birth rates actually lead to increases in consumption, at least initially.
So, how does this apply to today’s world. We know that some high consumption countries nowhave birth rates less than 2.0 (less than two children per woman) meaning they are in negative population growth. Italy, Spain and Japan are extreme cases, but most of Western Europe is in this category, and China as well. Other countries, like the U.S., have birth rates that are under 2.0 but immigration keeps population growth positive.
As a population, or a country, it’s hard to know which comes first—low resources or high birth rates. We are highly imprinted, at least in the U.S., with the idea that higher resource consumption is always better. But are we sure that the only goal in life should be more consumption, more economic wealth? Increasingly, we see indicators that show life satisfaction, fulfillment, happiness—whatever you want to call it—is maximized at some mid-level of resource use. Some would argue that bigger families and more children are more valuable than high levels of economic wealth.
So, that brings us to the personal side—the loaded side—of the question. How many kids are enough? No one wants to be handed an answer to this question, and past attempts to control human fertility, through sterility programs and other means, are seen as morally repugnant. But how do we decide, on a personal level, how to answer this question. Is it even right to ask it—some people, some cultures, view having children, and how many, as something the higher powers, or just fate and chance, determine. Other people and cultures find that leaving this to chance is morally questionable, and that each child should be born from a conscious decision by its parents.
What’s your answer–leave it in the comments below.
Please respond with a comment essay. Your essay should be a well-thought-out and rational article. Your essay, which should be a few paragraphs long, should address all of the following:
- A point of view–what is your answer to the question of how many kids are enough? This might, probably should, be a detailed answer that tells us from a personal, as well as a societal, point of view why you answer the way you do.
- What is the evidence that supports your point of view? Use at least two of the references in the intro above, or any other sources. .
- I recommend writing your essay in a Word document, and then copy it into the Comment box below so that you don’t lose your work and you keep a copy for yourself. Be sure to put a title at the top of your response, and your name in the “by” line.
Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want the class, and the whole world, to read.
This is worth 5 points extra credit towards your final lecture grade. Must be posted by Saturday, April 22 at midnight.
When will the bomb explode, Dr. Ehrlich?
Ever since publishing The Population Bomb (1968), Paul Ehrlich’s ideas have dominated many approaches to sustainability, despite the fact that many of his predictions have proved wrong. Admittedly, they contain a compelling logic: human populations (or those of any species, for that matter), cannot continue to increase at exponential rates—eventually they will outstrip their resource base, or even their physical environment space.
Thus, this way of thinking has argued, let’s see where human populations are increasing most rapidly? Answer, obviously: in the “Third World.” Then, let’s recognize that this is also where people are apparently suffering the most from famine, and work towards bringing their population growth under control so these poor, breeding-like-rabbits people have enough to eat.
Layer onto this primary argument the wonderfully humanist goal of providing social and economic “equity” and we have a convincingly compassionate set of solutions for achieving resource sustainability.
Except that I don’t buy it.
Turn the logic around
In an update article, Daily and Ehrlich (1996) argue for social and economic equity—within and among households, among regions, and among nations—as a solution to lowering fertility rates. This is the focus of the article, although they also first also look at how the same factors might increase food production. The same old problem Ehrlich has been facing for years: need to provide more food for over-fertile poor people. Maybe, though, the problem is not in controlling fertility rates. Pure ecologists rarely think about fertility as a primary cause of anything, but rather focus on those environmental conditions that determine fertility rate. The food (and other resource) supplies that Daily and Ehrlich want to help increase may be exactly what determine fertility and population growth rates. Factors such as education, access to contraceptives, and whether women consciously choose to have each child, may be secondary (see Moses and Brown, 2003 for an ecological scaling analysis of the strong correlation between energy use and fertility rates). Daily and Ehrlich admit that data about these soft social factors are hard to interpret in terms of their relationship to fertility.
Where does their argument go wrong (and immoral)?
First of all, treating population growth as a problem rarely succeeds as a biological control policy. It might locally contain a pest problem—rat poison, pesticides, open hunting on rattlesnakes, deer, wolves, bears and other ways to bring down population of “wild” animals can make a local difference. And this can greatly improve human quality of life. But direct population control rarely works as a comprehensive program for increasing, decreasing or eliminating populations of animals. It almost always has secondary consequences that might be worse than the initial problem. China has quickly and dramatically brought population growth down. But they are facing serious environmental consequences in terms of resource use and pollution.
In the case of humans, if our goal is to achieve resource sustainability, and we want to apply a “control” approach to the human population “problem,” the solution quickly becomes obvious. And it is not one that I think Daily and Ehrlich would like. Just the idea of selective culling of the human population is morally repugnant. But worse yet, where should we cull? Obviously where resource use is greatest. So, a typical biological pest approach to human overpopulation (relative to resource use) means heading out to the Northern suburbs, starting in the U.S. Where do Paul Ehrlich and his colleagues live? Palo Alto, California, which must rank high on the list of per capita resource use, might be a good place to start.
Secondly, Ehrlich, perhaps because of the cultural bias that informs his worldview, believes that humans worldwide take the same kind of careful decision about conceiving each and every child that he and his culture might. I have a hard time refuting the notion that each child should be a “wanted” child. But I doubt the way this value is understood and applied in Northern suburb culture will work throughout the world. And, in fact, its promotion starts to make Northerners look rather heartless. Is this coincidence?
I don’t think so. Because, thirdly and perhaps most ironically, Ehrlich’s relentless pursuit of population control strikes at what might be a universal human value: children as our most prized possession. Northern suburb culture has largely over-ridden this universal value, and this over-ride allows intellectuals like Daily and Ehrlich to form a worldview that starts with population (and its most obvious and bountiful gift—children) as a problem. It’s hard to disagree that people experiencing famine should have more to eat. But I would hate to be the one to tell them that the solution lies in not having children, or even in having fewer children. And I would have to think that the bearer of this message might well be suffering, psychologically and emotionally, as much or more than those who are in famine. Which leads us to what is most ironic about the Daily and Ehrlich approach: should not the barely fertile, high-resource consumers in the North consider their own level of satisfaction, welfare, and non-economic well-being first; and then decide how to regulate population and increase food resources in the South, and among the economically poor? Or perhaps decide it’s none of their business.
The “caveat” proves the point
Daily and Ehrlich do provide a “caveat,” although they don’t discuss how it might be achieved. The caveat is that the “equity” they promote must come about, not only through increases in economic wealth among poor, but concomitant decreases among the wealthy. Nonetheless, the scant data they provide on how fertility rates might relate to economic and educational levels are all from “Third World” countries. They never look at how these same factors affect fertility among wealthy countries.
The article should start with the caveat and then turn the entire argument on its head. It is not a question of the Northern wealthy sacrificing something about their lifestyle in order to meet the economic equity goal midway. It is about the Northern wealthy recognizing the values which economically poor Southern cultures might teach them. These values include the recognition of children as a sacred gift, not just another statistic that we can push around the chessboard. Then, changes in Northern behavior might lead to resource distribution that will allow for population growth to slow, not through forced behavioral changes imposed on Southern poor, but through Northern wealthy populations realizing that their non-economic welfare might be improved by changing their own behavior.
(Note that logically backward solutions to problems that seriously deplete human satisfaction are common when facing the real logic might be initially painful for the power class. Addictive drug use is a classic example where blame is placed on economically poor suppliers, often without facing the problem of demand from economically rich, but spiritually poor, consumers.)
The reason food supplies are limited where people are poor is probably because the wealthy North has, historically, controlled access and use of capital, both physical and human, in those regions. Searching for and promoting equity in the distribution and use of capital might bring down population growth, or it might not. But it should allow for an increase in human welfare if the Northern, wealthy, power culture recognizes that its own psycho-spiritual-emotional, non-economic welfare and satisfaction depends on it.
Save thyselves first, Drs. Daily and Ehrlich.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His
arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
— The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran (1923), On Children