Be fertile and multiply no more?

Coming from a Catholic background, the youngest of 5, I was surprised in graduate school when a professor introduced us to the ethical case for not having children. I scoffed at the idea, since at the time I already had two kids  – I couldn’t very well unhave them! At the time I was still a very religious person and strongly believed in the Genesis command of “be fertile and multiply”. If you’re financially and emotionally capable of having a large family, you should have one.

Learning about material scarcity and thinking of my own children’s future has led me to question this element of my upbringing. The human race should continue, but at what rate? Can our home sustain even the population density we’re currently at? I haven’t done enough research yet to offer arguments one way or another, but I think we should be cautious rather than optimistic about future births.

I touched on this in my last post, but the West – and particularly America – consumes resources 4 times faster than a sustainable planetary pace. In 200 years of a fossil fueled economy (beginning with coal, with petroleum added into the mixture)  we’ve exhausted millions of years’ worth of organic resources. Technology can create efficiencies, but it can’t summon energy from nothing.

Reading Modern Farmer has been illuminating on the tension between returning to organic and sustainable farming practices and the need to raise food production per acre of arable land as the world’s population increases – and developing countries begin to eat more balanced diets. We can have safe food or lots of people – not necessarily both. It’s easy to romanticize farming, but instead of a constant push towards consumerism and the service economy, returning to a level closer to subsistence could probably bring loads of health and environmental benefits. 

So, what about having kids, then? I have three kids, so I’m above pure “replacement” level already. The first seven years of my parenting definitely damaged the planet. The Alchemist and I were fairly typical consumers, preferring convenience packaging and disposability unless there was a massive price premium. But kids certainly don’t have to be that way. I really enjoyed these classic MMM posts about what kids really need.

We’re currently tied down in an urban environment and realistically will continue to be so for a decade or so. That said, even on a quarter-acre lot, you can teach kids a lot about the value of being good stewards of the planet’s resources. Efficiency inside the house is slowly happening as money allows, and next spring we’re going to transform a lot of our non-edible green space into garden space. A year or more down the road I’ll start building cold frames to extend the growing season. Worst-case, we have to revert back to dumb, old grass when we sell the house – but hopefully the home-gardening revolution will have taken hold by then!

As a species we have to be really cautious with population expansion but establishing a binary isn’t productive, either. First, the most environmentally-conscious people let their genes die out instead of working to pull humanity back from the brink. I know many families larger than mine, and the vast majority have a far lighter footprint than the average consumer. It is a problem, however, with clear limit cases: intentionally dying off is a non-starter but geometric progression hits the wall eventually.

As a society we have to talk about this in a way that isn’t compulsorily limiting on fertility but doesn’t look at large families as ignorant “breeders”. No matter how many kids you have, we need to start by ending consumerism and living sustainably first. Once that happens, future generations will be smart enough to realize where the true population equilibrium lies.


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