World Population Day 2014: I’ll Have What She’s Having
Two months ago today, South Park producer/animation director Eric Stough –addressing the 2014 graduating class at University of Colorado – offered some life-saving advice (at 13:48 in this video):
“In less than two hours you’ll walk through those gates with your hard earned diploma and it’s time to think about work, getting a job, climbing the corporate ladder, looking forward to raises, maybe buying a house with a partner and having a baby or two, and for Earth’s sake keep it to two.”
– Eric Stough, Producer/Animation Director of South Park
My stepdaughter Katie was in the crowd watching her boyfriend Connor graduate. She texted me about Stough’s advice. She knew I’d be excited. Yes, I have a one-track mind, focused on the sustainability of (what must become) an elegant human civilization. Yes, I make films and speak frequently about the overpopulated state of our planet. And, yes, it’s news when someone famous backs me up on this. In all fairness, a few of the rich and famous have spoken up about overpopulation – Jane Fonda, Richard Attenborough, Jane Goodall, Ted Turner, Australian millionaire Dick Smith, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Einstein, Cameron Diaz, Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama. But that’s too few.
“No decision any of us makes will have more effect on the world (and on our lives) than whether to bear another child. No decision then should be made with more care.”
– Bill McKibben, in his book, Maybe One
I wonder if even Eric Stough understood just how utterly, world-shakingly, important his advice is: “For Earth’s sake keep it to two.”
This Friday, July 11, is World Population Day, and this year’s UN-chosen theme is investing in young people. Growth profiteers will no doubt interpret this as a call for couples across the globe to get busy making babies. Babies are the feedstock of human resources – cheap labor, consumers to buy their products, and taxpayers to fund their growth subsidies. There will surely be a huge return on an investment in young people.
But no, I don’t think that’s the kind of investment the UN had in mind. It’s hard to tell, because the UN never steps up and boldly declares that the world is overpopulated and we ought to be doing something about that. No. Yet that is exactly what World Population Day ought to be about. Instead we’re stuck with a politically correct tap-dance around the issue. “Investing in Young People.” What the hell does that mean?
Here’s what it should mean: The most loving, compassionate thing we can do for young people, to ensure they have a shot at living good lives, is to conceive fewer of them. And start now.
“You know, I have often thought that at the end of the day, we would have saved more wildlife if we had spent all WWF’s money on buying condoms.”
– Sir Peter Scott, founder of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)
So, yes, I was thrilled to hear a South Park creator suggest stopping at two. I stopped at two. I was paying attention back in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich appeared on The Tonight Show and didn’t do a fancy side-step around the issue. I did not want my kids to have to carry an AK-47 to the market to get groceries. I did not want them to starve. Or live in climate hell. Or be a number. Or stand in ridiculously long lines to get a latte or see Avatar.
So anyway, here we are, approaching World Population Day 2014, and once again it falls to me to offer the unvarnished truth about the subject of population. We’re sitting at 7.2 billion. Scientists who’ve done serious work to figure this out tell us a good number, that would allow us to live modest but decent lives without robbing future generations of the resources and biocapacity to live decent lives, is probably close to 2 billion.
“[T]here are only two kinds of solutions to the population problem. One is a “birth rate solution,” in which we find ways to lower the birth rate. The other is a “death rate solution,” in which ways to raise the death rate – war, famine, pestilence – find us.”
– Dr. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb
It ought to be pretty obvious to us what we should do about it. Have 8 kids? No. 4? Not anymore. 3? Not at this time. 2? Maybe a few us could. The most loving, responsible family-size decision we can make, knowing what we know today about our overpopulated world, is to conceive zero or one child. Those who want more children can adopt all they want. If you aren’t satisfied with conceiving one child and adopting more, then you might want to ask yourself exactly why you are conceiving.
“If the world is to save any part of its resources for the future, it must reduce not only consumption but the number of consumers.”
– B.F. Skinner, Behavioral psychologist, author of Walden Two
It isn’t breaking news that the human race has overshot the carrying capacity of the planet. Estimates are we crossed that threshold some 40 years ago. So why have we done so little about it? Sure, we have outstanding global efforts to make affordable contraception available to anyone who wants it. We haven’t accomplished that yet because we don’t fund these programs adequately. Sure, some excellent efforts are underway to ensure women (who should have the final say-so about what’s going on in their wombs) are empowered to be in charge of the spacing and number of children they conceive. But even with these efforts, we are still adding about 80 million new hungry mouths to the planet every year. We don’t hear of an overpopulation crisis. There doesn’t seem to be an emergency.
In fact, we are lulled into complacency by several phenomena:
- We are told fertility rates are declining and population growth is going to come to a stop. We don’t have to do anything.
- Besides, we apparently have a sacred right to conceive as many little consumers as we desire, and you have no right to even suggest that moderation could be wise.
- We are told that declining fertility rates are going to make it hard to grow our economies and fund our pension systems, so we’d better make more babies.
- Population growth is still pursued and celebrated by cities, states, provinces, nations and the growth boosters who profit.
- We are told the amount of population growth for the next 100 years is already baked into the cake. It’s predestined.
A quick note about #5: News stories tell us we’re going to add over 3.5 billion more people to the population by 2100, and scientists are working very hard to figure out…
- How we’re going to grow enough food to feed them
- How we’re going to provide them with water
- How we’re going to keep the fisheries from collapsing
- How we’re going to preserve enough habitat to avoid mass extinctions
- But not how we can humanely stop that population growth before it reaches this super-crisis level
Yada yada yada. You’ve heard the saying, “shit happens.” Well, apparently that “shit” is “population growth.” Whether it’s in your town, your country or the world, there is a universal assumption that those people are coming and we’d better damn well be ready for them.
My good friend Dave Paxson, who founded and has been running World Population Balance for over 20 years, recently slapped me in the face with this crazy notion:
“World overpopulation is solvable.”
We know the problem. We know how to fix it. We have the means. And we don’t have to wait 100 years to see results. It might surprise you (unless you’re an obstetrician) that we can start seeing results in 9 months. Several number-crunchers have crunched, and we are told that if we have a global average fertility rate of 1, world population can be under 4 billion in 100 years. A world population in 2100 of 10.9 billion is only destined if we sit on our hands and continue to assume that cake is baked.
But it’s not, so I’m doing my part this year with an idea I think will accelerate the “cool” factor of having a small family. Ten years ago it was common to see big Chevrolet Suburbans (the state car of Texas) swinging through the Starbucks drive-thru with huge stick-figure families on their rear windows, declaring 6 kids a source of pride.
When I set out to make this video about stick-figure families, I was pleasantly surprised at how difficult it was for me to get shots of big stick-figure families. They are already becoming passé, much to the chagrin of growth profiteers like Rupert Murdoch and Sam Walton’s heirs. Smaller families are in. Romney-style, quiverful families are out.
The video introduces Think Small Family Stickers, which allow those of us who have chosen to have small families to express pride in that. If these stickers catch on, we can have a worldwide wave of small-family popularity – exactly what we need in an overpopulated world. See how/why others are using their stickers, learn how to get your own, and share your story at our Think Small page.
We shouldn’t have to work so hard to make small families cool, but we do. On top of that list of phenomena that encourage our inaction on overpopulation, we also have to overcome a longstanding social norm that women have a prime directive – to make babies. This is so strong that, even in this day and age, women still feel tremendous social pressure to start a family. No particular reason is needed. It’s just what you do. Just as South Park’s Eric Stough intimated: graduate, get married, buy a house, start a family.
There’s a surprisingly long list of strong women who are working hard to put that expectation to bed. Grist Senior Editor Lisa Hymas has written brilliantly and extensively in defense of a woman’s right to choose to be childfree. London Times columnist Caitlin Moran has written quite humorously about it:
“Particularly First World babies, with their ferocious consumption of oil and forest and water, and endless burping-out of carbon emissions and landfill. First World babies are eating this planet like termites. If we had any real perspective on fertile Western women, we’d be jumping on them in the streets, screaming, ‘JESUS! CORK UP YOUR NETHERS! IMMUNIZE YOURSELF AGAINST SPERM!”
– Caitlin Moran
(Moran makes an important point. Some may be tempted to point out that in the “first world” (industrialized nations) the fertility rate is already near or even below replacement level. That does not mean we aren’t overpopulated, especially when you consider our huge footprint. So, yes, much of this blog post is focused on our behavior in the Global North. Planning a small family (and carrying out that plan) is a crucial strategy in every part of the world. There simply is not a country or region that will get better with added population. Some love to question the ethics of anyone in the, let’s call it OVER-developed world who dare to suggest people in other nations should practice family planning; who are WE to preach when we are such rampant over-consumers? Well, it’s much more palatable for us to suggest a wise strategy for people in Nigeria if we are cleaning up our own back yard. So, yes, we need to educate and inspire young couples in the industrialized world to think even smaller.)
There are books about it, like Kidfree & Lovin’ It and No Children, No Guilt. There are websites like Kids? No Thanks! and Childfree Voices, Facebook pages and communities like GINK (green inclinations, no kids) and Childfree Me. There are YouTube videos: My Reasons for Being CHILD-FREE is quite thoughtful, including a brief statement about selfish reasons for bringing children into the world.
There’s an enlightening discussion of the pressures and issues surrounding family-size decisions in this episode of The Point. Host Ana Kasparian starts it off with, “as someone in my mid-20s I’m certainly feeling the pressure right now.” In this same episode, Jessica Valenti, author of Why Have Kids, sums it up nicely:
“Having children should be a pro-active decision rather than the default expectation. Right now the culture assumes that everyone wants children…it’s also part of a culture that tells women that the most important thing they could ever do is become a mother. And that if you don’t want kids, there’s something wrong with you, you’re selfish, that’s unnatural. So, instead of asking childfree people why they don’t have children or why they don’t want children, I THINK WE SHOULD BE ASKING PARENTS, OR THOSE WHO WANT TO BE PARENTS, WHY THEY DO WANT TO HAVE KIDS.”
A few interesting topics explored in that episode:
- The cost to raise a child ($291,570 for middle-income parents in the U.S.)
- Most kids, in the opinion of Jessica Gottlieb, are the result of a “drunk and horny” night.
- People most often have a second child out of concern not to “screw up” their first child. The panelists offer evidence as to why this is misguided.
I do have a few gripes with the conversation in this show. One is that the only mention of overpopulation and sustainability is Kasparian’s offhand remark, “the environment is usually a good cop-out for people that don’t want to have kids anyway.” Another is the notion that the U.S. needs to be more supportive of parents, with things like a requirement that employers provide paid parental leave. On its face this seems like a good idea, but I’d love to see journalists and policy pundits begin exploring how we can excise from our system all or most of the financial incentives to have children. It’s time. We need a national campaign to reduce family size.
There are a number of other worthy efforts to get population reduction on the radar screen:
- Take the Sustainable Population Pledge at World Population Balance
- Share your Crowded Planet photos with the Center for Biological Diversity
- And of course, don’t forget to share your reasons for choosing a small family with me, to post on our Think Small page.
If you’ve got a great video, bumper sticker, photo, book, website, facebook group or other effort worthy of sharing, forgive me for leaving you out. Please comment on this blog post and let us know what you’re up to.
I was tempted to apologize here for the long rant. As Mark Twain famously wrote, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” But no, I’m not going to apologize. All this needed to be written. If you’re still here, reading, thank you for caring. If we all care enough, we can solve the problem of overpopulation this century.
The best advice Eric Stough could have offered those CU graduates is, (my words here) “For all our sake, for Earth’s sake, for the sake of future generations, keep it to zero, or maybe one.”
Dave Gardner directed the documentary GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, is a founding contributor at Growth Bias Busted, and blogs almost regularly at www.growthbusters.org. GrowthBusters is a non-profit project that depends on your donation to keep things humming. Thanks for any support you can give.
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