Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Do we need to have a kinder, gentler one-child policy in Western industrial countries?

Posted 23 Nov 2015 / 0

The Chronicle of Higher EducationWhy Two Kids Are Too Many

This article has a provocative title that makes you believe that it is going to make a persuasive argument for public policy that encourages smaller families, but it is more like a meandering survey of the very confused landscape of the “baby culture wars”. I am amazed by how emotion — rather than reason and facts — dominate the debate over whether having a certain number of children (or children at all) is environmentally irresponsible.

I get the general argument: that if you live in an affluent culture, having children has a lot more impact. But affluence itself is already bringing down family sizes, so if population growth was the only issue we faced it would seemingly take care of itself. But the problem is this: those of us in wealthy countries — whether or not we make babies — continue to propagate a culture of consumption that is not sustainable. And guess what: if you don’t make babies to come and live in this culture, someone else will. In fact, that is the pattern I expect to uncover in my book-in-progress Breeders, Propagators, & Creators: the cultural success of environmentally-damaging large-scale societies creates a net movement of people from poor, high-reproductive-rate countries to affluent, low-reproductive-rate countries. New immigrants adopt both features of their adopted culture: they have fewer children and they have larger environmental impact.

If that’s what is happening, we face a vexing dynamic: we won’t fix our population “problems” simply by dis-incentivizing the making of babies in affluent countries. So long as affluent economies are successful, they will attract new people to fill in whatever void is left by a birth rate below the magic “2.1 per couple” that creates a stable population. What has been shown to stabilize population is access to birth control, education, and basic wealth. If you really care about halting population growth, you should be addressing global poverty, not looking down your nose at parents. And maybe we should try to actually lower the impact of our lifestyles here in the affluent “Western world”, as this would make it possible to have a stable and sustainable population.

Oh, and in case all these population doom-sayers did not get the memo: world population is expected to stabilize by the end of this century. That’s no guarantee that we will stop growing at a sustainable population size, but it is also a good reason to face the fact that our ever-growing consumption is a far more looming issue than our dwindling population growth.

A Minor Post, Activism, Belief, Breeders, Propagators, & Creators, Environmental Justice, Ethics, Population Pressure, Public Policy

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