Kids: how many are too many?

By Olivia Rose-Innes

What is the optimal number of kids? Two? One? None? Is Three just plain irresponsible? Many would say yes, it is, highly. These days, if you're planning a family, it's not just about whether you can financially afford to have children - you must factor in the environment too. After all, your kids are the ones you're leaving it to.

We have a cool little population counter tucked away in the depths of Health24: it ticks along quietly day after day, imitating the real world as it inexorably adds four lives and subtracts two every second - tick tick tick tick... the effect is quite hypnotic.

Or paralytic. It gives me that helpless rabbit-in-the-headlights sensation of a huge, unstoppable object moving ever nearer.

Like real population growth, we forget about our ticker-timer until it gets round to World Population Day again each July. Then we dust it off, and see how much it's grown.

Each time, the result is both shocking and pretty much exactly as predicted. In 2006, we stood at 6.5 billion. Now, just a few years later we've zoomed past 6.9 and will hit the “Day of 7 billion” within a few months - the United Nations reckons around October 2011. The “Day of 6 Billion” was a mere decade ago, in 1999.

In terms of swelling our total numbers, human reproductive biology is very, very effective. We'll get to 9 million around mid-21st century, and probably top out and start to level off round the start of the 22nd at 10-12 billion people. This wouldn't be a problem if we had a few spare habitable planets to expand into. We have, of course, only the one.

Not just big feet, but many feet
There is still some tiptoeing around making connections between overpopulation and the greatest threat ever to face that one finite planet - human-induced climate change. Reproductive choice is often skimmed over when we discuss ways to shrink our personal carbon footprints; the emphasis is more on reducing emissions through home energy use and personal modes of travel.

Sensitivity is certainly called for on the population issue, given that it deals with such fundamental and emotive aspects as our children and reproductive rights. Nonetheless, we must include these in the discussion: climate change, as some environmentalists have quipped, is not just about the size of our carbon footprints, it's also about the number of feet.

A statistical study at Oregon State University, United States, uses the term “carbon legacy” for the amount of carbon dioxide each one of us bequeaths the earth in our lifetimes. Each child born into a life of privilege (i.e. into a first-world context) adds about 9441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to one parent's carbon legacy, which is 5.7 times that parent's lifetime emissions.

One of the persistent myths about overpopulation is that it's a problem primarily of poor nations where families have more children than they can financially support. It's true that most of the ongoing population growth is occurring in developing countries, but per capita, the developed world makes a far greater contribution to climate change through "consumption overpopulation".

A child born in the United States equates to almost seven times the carbon emissions of a child born in China, and 168 times that of a child born in Bangladesh.
It is not a viable option for all, but remaining childless (or “childfree”, as some prefer to label it) is one of the most potent choices you can make to decrease your footprint; it far outweighs recycling and cycling to work. As the study's authors put it: “the potential savings from reduced reproduction are huge compared to the savings that can be achieved by changes in lifestyle.”

'Breeders' vs 'non-breeders'
Why is it, then, that people (especially women) who are essentially doing the world a favour in this respect by not having kids, still get challenged (or pitied) for their choice more than those who decide to procreate?

No one ever asks a parent at a dinner party: “So why did you decide to have kids? Do you ever regret it?”

That's not to say that people with kids don't get and feel criticised too at times. But the societal pressure to have children, and the assumption that true life fulfillment can only be gained this way, is still very powerful. This can cause unnecessary unhappiness in people who choose not, or who are unable, to be parents.

There are many ways to nurture and support the next generation. Parenting your own biological children is still the mainstay of this, but not everyone is in a position to fill this role, nor is everyone suited to it. There are many other valid and invaluable ways to contribute - adoption, fostering, mentoring, volunteer work with kids, or helping to raise them as an involved aunt, uncle or godparent.

There really doesn't have to be a rift between the childed and the childless, when there are in fact so many opportunities for the two camps to join forces in making this the best world into which we can welcome new members of the great, extended and interconnected family of humankind.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated July 2011

Murtaugh, P and Schlax, M. (2009) Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals. Global Environmental Change.

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