The baby question

The baby question

Is childbirth bad for the Earth?

By Amanda Witherell

I remember exactly where I was — sitting on a BART train, reading yet another magazine article about global warming — when it hit me harder than ever before: the year 2050 is going to suck.

Predictions suggest it’s going to be hotter, colder, drier, wetter, and stormier in all the wrong places. Sea levels will be up. Resources will be down. The view from 2007 is not good. So how can I, an educated, middle-class American woman, reasonably consider having a child with such a future to offer?

To have or not to have is the baby question everybody asks. I’ll admit I’ve been on the fence for a long time. A survey of my female role models reveals that exactly half took the motherhood plunge (including my own mother), yet the other half refrained. I’m clearly drawn to the childless life for a number of reasons, and reading the International Panel on Climate Change reports released this year has given me one more.

By virtue of our existence, we’re all contributing to global warming, and my impact will be at least doubled by every child I have. According to Al Gore’s carbon calculator (at, I’m emitting 2.35 tons of carbon dioxide per year, well below the national average of 7.5. But that would certainly increase if I were to have a baby. I’d need a bigger place to live, and that would require more heat and electricity. More flights back East to see Grandma and Grandpa would be in order, and I’d probably buy a car, not to mention all that crap that babies need.

I would become more like the average American, who has a life span of 77.8 years and, according to estimates by the Mineral Information Institute in Golden, Colo., needs 3.7 million pounds of minerals and energy fuels to construct and support a lifetime of stuff — from cars and roads to batteries and soap.

It seems like an effective way to cut our impact on the earth would be to cut population, yet such a strategy almost never comes up.

“In the entire discussion of climate change, there’s been no mention of population,” Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, told me.

The IPCC’s fourth assessment, released in November, discusses mitigation measures but never suggests decreasing population — except as the unintended result of a natural disaster. Historic attempts to limit population growth have never been popular. China has been chastised for its one-child policy, as were environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which called for limiting immigration in the 1970s to curb population growth in the United States.

“It’s an incredibly personal decision,” environmentalist and author Bill McKibben told me. “In our culture it’s not one that’s easy for people to talk about.” He addressed it in Maybe One (Simon and Schuster, 1998), in which he explains his decision to have a child after years of saying he and his wife wouldn’t.

McKibben says he wrote the book to uncover the weak mythology that only children are spoiled, myopic brats, to show how religious beliefs have been manipulated, and to point out that an increasing population is really an economic advantage.

Ehrlich, who thinks the US should at least have a population policy, also had one child with his wife, Anne. The realization that having more would contribute to an unsustainable future for their daughter led them to author numerous books on the subject, including The Population Bomb (Ballantine Books, 1968), one of the bellwethers on the impact of unchecked population growth. Since then the issue has essentially disappeared from public consciousness, and Ehrlich thinks that’s because the world’s total fertility rate has, in fact, dropped — from five children per woman to three. In the US it’s decreased even further, to less than the replacement level. This has created the impression that population is no longer a problem.

But that’s not entirely true. While birthrates may be down, the overall population has still grown, because life expectancy has increased. Most of us don’t die when we give birth. We go on living, breathing, eating, drinking, shitting, idling in traffic, jetting between cities, and consuming more and more of the dwindling resources we have — with a child or two at our side.

And the equation is simple, right? The more people, the bigger the problem.

“Well, it’s not a direct multiplier,” McKibben said. He offers as an example an Amish family of eight “living simply” and having less of an impact than the average American Brady Bunch. “In global terms it’s so much more about consumption.”

Ehrlich and McKibben agree that’s really the problem. “An important point, which is usually missed, is the next 2.5 billion people are going to have a much bigger impact than the last 2.5 billion,” Ehrlich said.

According to his research, we’ve surpassed the earth’s carrying capacity, and Americans are only able to overconsume because Africans, Indians, Asians and other developing countries are underconsuming.

If the entire world population ate and drank and drove around like Americans — which is the aspiration of many — we’d need two more Earths.

“The current population is being maintained only through the exhaustion and dispersion of a one-time inheritance of natural capital,” the Ehrlichs and Gretchen Daily wrote in the 1997 book The Stork and the Plow (Yale University Press), in which they grapple with the question of a sustainable population for Earth.

Their answer: about two billion. How many are we now? Worldwide, 6.5 billion, which will rise to about 9 billion by 2050 — with most of the growth slated for developing countries. Family planning and education are largely considered the primary factors in keeping the US population under control, and that’s where international efforts have focused, according to Kristina Johnson, population expert for the Sierra Club.

This has required an artful dance around the Mexico City Policy, in place in one form or another since 1984, when Ronald Reagan refused aid to any international agencies that use any monies for abortions. So while we’ve managed to handle our head count at home, we’ve done the opposite abroad.

As for how to deal with our enormous abuse of natural resources, technology has long been hailed as the solution. The guiding principle has been that our children will be smarter than we are, so we’ll leave it up to them to figure it out. However, as the Ehrlichs conclude in their most recent book, One with Ninevah (Island Press, 2004), “The claim that ‘technology will fix the problems’ has been around for decades — decades in which the putative advantages of claimed technological ‘fixes’ have often failed to appear or proved to be offset by unforeseen nasty side effects.”

For example, we essentially avoided large-scale famine by figuring out how to reap more crops from our soil. But we haven’t mastered how to do this without the use of pesticides and, increasingly, genetically modified organisms that have transformed diverse farms into precarious monocultures.

Today we’re counting on technology even more, but some of the proposed solutions still raise questions. Do we have enough acreage to grow biofuels? What would be the long-term impacts of capturing carbon emissions and burying them underground? Ditto for spent nuclear fuel.

And all of these variables factor in those 2.5 billion people to come, without suggesting people consider not having children.

If there’s a mantra for any concerned citizen to adopt, it should be less. Use less. Buy less. Be less of a draw on the system. But as Richard Heinberg writes in Peak Everything (New Society, 2007), “People will not willingly accept the new message of ‘less, slower, and smaller,’ unless they have new goals toward which to aspire.”

Cutting carbon emissions is a serious goal, and it looks like leadership is going to have to come from within. The Bali talks have produced no binding agreement except … more talks.

Our elected representatives have finally raised US fuel-economy standards for the first time since 1975, to the slightly less shameful level of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. Environmentalism is peaking as a popular movement, but the credo to consume less has been divorced from its consciousness.

“Green” products are now the fastest-growing consumer market. In fact, this holiday season you can buy a pair of chic Little Levi’s for your kid. They’re just $148 at Barney’s, and “a portion of proceeds” will go to the Trust for Public Land. How much? Who knows? The company isn’t saying. Just shut up and shop and don’t worry about it — they’re organic.

Originally published December 18, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian