More Than Two Children = “Environmentally Irresponsible”?

Editor’s Note: Please welcome RH Reality Check’s new blogger, Joe Veix! Joe is joined by three other young bloggers – Micah Steffes, Kathleen Reeves, and Elisabeth Garber-Paul –  each of whom will offer their perspectives in our Real Time Blog every week.

On Sunday, Jonathon Porritt, chairman of England’s Sustainable Development Commission, said that couples who have more than two children are environmentally “irresponsible.” The issue of overpopulation is loaded and complex, and puts the well-being of human existence at stake. Our environmental footprints are already large, even for the most sustainable of us, and having children further eats up our dwindling natural resources.

Mentioning overpopulation forces us to think of possible solutions, some of which are anti-choice and anti-democratic. I’m talking here about laws that limit our population growth, similar to the ways in which China limits its citizens to having just one child per family. It gets more complicated when we consider the reasons why people procreate, and the vast differences between procreating in developed countries versus procreating in developing countries (in many developing nations adults have children as an insurance policy of sorts, as the children take care of their parents as they age). To demand that less developed countries simply have fewer children without considering the negative effects on their lives is deeply unfair and misguided. 

The broad solution to the problem, without even getting into all of the aforementioned complexities of the subject, is to first support basic human rights. If people are living better worldwide, the need for having more than two children is decreased. Included in any consideration of human rights, is the need for women to occupy an equal place in their respective societies, with control of their reproductive health – and this includes unrestricted access to contraceptives.

How does this affect the United States?

Ultimately, if Obama’s administration is serious about helping the environment, it means they must address the issue of overpopulation. If they are to do so, it means they must engage the country in a dialogue about both human rights and reproductive rights. The time is right, too, with overwhelming national support and statistics suggesting that birthrates are already on the decline, as is typical during recessions. If we think of the issue of overpopulation from this perspective, we have yet another great argument for reproductive rights: To help the environment.

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  • invalid-0

    Oh spare me…

    Three sons here…and we tried (and failed with heartbreak) twice for daughters. If this is the mentality that Reality Check wishes to promote, count us out.

    Reproductive freedom is about having the freedom to choose family size. Do not even suggest that RH is or should be about critiquing the reproductive choices people freely make.

  • invalid-0

    Welcome to RHReality Check, Joe. It is nice to see a young male voice on the blog, for sure.

    But I strongly disagree with your argument. Check the CIA World Factbook: worldwide fertility rates are on the decline, and have been so since well before the recession. Many Western countries have significantly below replacement rate fertility, and the US is at exactly replacement rate, 2.1 births per woman. Women giving birth is NOT THE PROBLEM.

    The overpopulation argument is at least 10 years outdated. I thought we all woke up and realized that it is Western over-consumption of resources, combined with poor distribution of resources due to the failings of global capitalism, that leads to pollution and 3rd world starvation.

    ‘Cause it isn’t Africans making all the pollution and taking up all the resources. It’s Westerners, like Americans and Europeans. A life style change is in order, not yet another call for women to restrict their reproductive choices.

  • invalid-0

    Joe, you look a little young. Are you sure you want to pay all those social security taxes, never mind everything else by yourself? At least this county is pretty near replacement rate but look at Europe. God, look at Russia. In many cases young people are having a difficult time getting out of Russia unless they bring their parents with them, because there’s no one left to support them. The childbearing rate in Greece is so low now that its fallen below the level from which a nation has ever recovered, ever. This is a disturbing article.

  • amie-newman

    RH Reality Check is happy to encourage and promote the voices and work of young writers and advocates. We are a community of voices exploring what reproductive health and rights looks like for all women, everywhere, and the roads that will get us there. You may not agree with all of our bloggers but I’m thrilled that you made your thoughts known. You (and Joe :)) are a valued member of this community and I encourage you to continue speaking up!

    Amie Newman

    Managing Editor, RH Reality Check

  • invalid-0

    Joe – your blog may be disturbing but most things are when big change needs to happen. Over-population is a dialogue that needs to be discussed again and again. Unfortunately, we tend to deal with the issue on an emotional level rather than a rational level. The science says we cannot continue to increase population and maintain our standard of living. Finite resources dictate that we can do one or the other, but not both. Our planet is not going to survive just because we ‘want it to’. We aren’t going to be able to give our great-grand children a decent standard of living just because we ‘have the right’ to have as many of them as we want. Since this is an emotional issue, we need to start refocusing our emotions. We need to start thinking about the world we are leaving our great-grand children. Do we want them fighting over scarcer and scarcer resources spread over more and more people? Or do we want to try to conserve what we have and spread resources out over fewer people?
    Idyllicmollusk states that you are so ninetys because fertility rates are on the decline and western consumption is to blame for pollution. I say we didn’t do enough in the ninetys and you are very much needed today because population rates are still on the rise – going from 6.1 to 4.3 or whatever may be a decrease in fertility rate but it is still an increase in population. And every developing nation wants what the west has. No matter how much we save, if we have more and more people, each person will have less and less. As a planet, we are still in trouble unless we get fertility rates everywhere down to replacement levels.
    Unless we do so voluntarily, we will at some point be forced into China’s one child policy. We can help ourselves by making sure everyone has access to contraception – both physical access as well as financial access. And that includes teens, some of whom will have sex regardless of what we try to tell them or how prohibitive we try to make it.

  • invalid-0

    I’m responding to both the blogger and to idyllicmollusk.

    It’s inaccurate to say population is THE problem or that resource consumption is THE problem. Both issues are wreaking havoc on our environments.

    The fact is that we DO indeed have more people on the planet than it can support indefinitely. Our current population is ONLY possible because of the Green Revolution–using industrial agriculture with its pesticides, herbicides, and fossil-fuel based fertilizers which temporarily increase our carrying capacity. But when our topsoil is destroyed and we no longer have fossil fuels to increase agricultural yields, we’re going to be in trouble.

    BUT, make no mistake that 1 American person uses 100 times the resources and energy as 1 Indian or Congolese person. So Westerners and those of us living in industrialized nations are doing by far, the most harm. Americans choosing not to have children makes a much bigger difference than Congolese choosing not to have children.

    But the problem isn’t one or the other.

  • invalid-0

    Good points annonymous.

    Regardless, people should be able to have as many children as they desire, whether it is 0 or 6. Importantly, people need access to affordable family planning so they can plan their pregnancies and families, every human deserves that much……….

  • invalid-0

    Is there evidence that Western women are having so many babies that there is a population bomb in the wings? No. The evidence is the opposite, as I stated above. The only reason Western countries are experiencing population increase is due to immigration, not births.

    Since, as a poster stated above, Westerners use exponentially more resources than the 3rd world, where the highest birth rates are recorded, what Westerners need to do is to lower their consumption and pollution rates. Having fewer children makes no sense, because we already are doing that- most Westerners have 0,1 or 2 children. Those arguing Westerners should have fewer children (Karen & Anonymous), what number would you suggest that is lower than that?

    Regarding 3rd world birth rates: They are higher than Western birthrates, but they are decreasing over time. Also recall, those birth rates sound really high, but infant mortality and a host of other dangers mean that far fewer people reach adulthood.

    I also find it really problematic that we Westerners are essentially calling for 3rd world women to stop reproducing to solve a problem that WE CREATED. That is the height of arrogance and entitlement- the suggestion that 3rd world women should pay for our sins.

  • invalid-0

    “what Westerners need to do is to lower their consumption and pollution rates.”

    Absolutely. When I was a early teenager, I read Alvin Toffler’s “The Third Wave” and was completely taken by the concept of citizens as “prosumers”…that is, people would produce as they consume, raising and preserving their own food, educating their own children, reusing and recycling, reinvigorating home based cottage industry, etc.

    As small farmers, it was certainly easier for us to put “prosumer” concepts into practice, including producing some of the energy powering the homestead…long before it became hip to be “green.”

    Again, I have no interest in critiquing anyone’s family size, and I consider any such effort to be detrimental to the cause of reproductive rights.

    But if we want to engage on what families, communities, states and nations can do to decrease consumption and pollution…I’m all over that!

  • jodi-jacobson

    Dear IM,

    I appreciate what you are saying and hear what others are saying as well.  I wanted to try to untangle some of these things, from the perspective of someone who has been working on these issues since 1985 and has done a lot of work and research professionally on womens rights and population and demographics.  In fact, so much so that sometimes I am really blown away by how much the conversations remain the same.

    Fertility rates in the "developing world" are in fact declining, but not very fast in most places, and certainly not fast enough to reach population stablization any time soon.  Infant mortality also, thankfully has dropped, so even with lower overall fertility rates, there still remains rather high population growth rates in many countries.  This is especially true in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa.  In places like India, the base population is so large that even a much lower fertility rate results in continued population growth for a long time—something known as population momentum.

    So this is an issue I think we need to consider, along with consumption.

    In the past, we focused on "population control" to reduce population growth rates.  It is a highly complicated history, but in fact one that involved the abuse of women’s rights in many settings.

    Right now, there are many places, populations, settings in which women the total fertility rate (the number of children a woman bears on average in her reproductive lifetime) is much higher than would be desired.  In sum, women are having one or sometimes two or more children than they want to have.  This is because we have neglected to promote women’s rights, girls education, women’s economic and legal empowerment, and a host of other issues in those places.  It is also because they lack real access to basic reproductive health and family planning services and to secure supplies of contraception.

    I believe there is a need to slow population growth, but that that must be done from a human rights and public health approach, and the best way to do this is to start by enabling women who desire to have fewer children to have the option of exercising their choices by accessing contraception, and having access to safe abortion when necessary from their own vantage point.  Just reducing the rate of unintended pregnancies will make a major dent in this problem to start.  Small family norms are then reinforced in what is usually a self-reinforcing effect.

    And yes, for the US it is mostly, but not all a matter of consumption.  Our population is still growing, and while we have or are near replacement fertility, there still is a question of what is a responsible number of children to have.  This whole issue also leaks over into villifying immigrants.  I don’t have that answer; i don’t seek to  impose it on anyone else.  I do think however that a conversation about our own norms and responsibilities with regard to consumption and population and childbearing decisions and so forth is one that should be had, if only to make people think twice.  I am one of those people that would love to have had 6 kids, even if some were adopted.  however i could not afford to raise 6 kids, and also could not bring myself to give birth to 6 kids and put that much more additional pressure on teh planet.

    it is true that other countries want what we have.  and therein lies the problem because what we have and what how we get it is not sustainable in and of itself, never mind for 5 billion other people.


    I think this is a critical ongoing discussion, because the population growth issue is going to come up again and again with regard to climate change and foreign aid reform if for no other reasons.

    Jodi Jacobson

  • invalid-0


    I am really with you on your analysis. I feel receptive to your comments because your post was very centered on respecting women, immigrants, and 3rd world families.

    I agree that by improving the conditions for families in the 3rd world, family sizes will be smaller: prosperity tends to have the effect of reducing fertility levels.

    Also, finding away for all women to have the full range of reproductive options will give us all the tools to make the best decisions for the size of their families.


    I’m glad somebody understands what I’m saying!

  • equalist

    Limiting family size is a touchy subject.  I think the key is moderation.  One cannot be so fearful of overpopulation that they refuse to have children based solely on that fact, but I think it’s just as bad to completely disregard environmental impact and insist on procreating as much and as often as possible.  Again, the key is moderation.  If your family can easily (or even not so easily, but can manage to) support more than two, I say more power to you, but if you cannot support one, then that should be taken into consideration as well.


    Equal rights, equal responsibilities.

  • invalid-0

    There are plenty of people left in Europe. The “problem” is that, increasingly, they’re not white.

  • invalid-0

    Pro-natalist progressives are just astounding in their ability to pretend that their choices have no impact on the earth whatsoever.

  • invalid-0

    Funny the way yesterday morning my comment was third posted and now its kicked down to about sixth. Guess some commenters are more equal than others. Some genius fearless enough to describe himself as “anonymous” thinks non white Europeans are a problem. If immigration was replacing the European birth dearth they woudn’t have a problem. But, it isn’t and they do.

  • invalid-0

    Well gee, anonymous…which of my kids would you like me to off…the computer scientist, the engineer or the natural resources major?

    You do realize that that it is but a short step from critiquing family size to critiquing family productivity and societal contribution…as in…certain people should not be reproducing at all.

    Sure you wanna go there?

  • invalid-0

    I am sorry you have all missed the boat on this one. The problem is there is no survival of the fittest anymore. In nature the problem is balanced by only the strong surviving. In human world we are saving everyone due to scientific breakthroughs or “eaten from the tree of knowledge” So we are doomed either way there is no turning back. I guess we should have looked before we leaped!

  • invalid-0

    So serious! They’re even msking light of the young mother in Calif. with 14 children….so might I enlighten those who are taking this a little too seriously with:

  • invalid-0

    That’s what this argument sounds like to me. As if me limiting my family size is going to make any difference to a mother of four dying of AIDS in Africa. Why is our “greed” constantly being blamed for every nation’s problems? The fact is we are generous to so many nations in every way (food, education, defense), even when some of those nations despise us. And why can we be generous? Because we are a nation that is free–free to choose family size and free to make money through our people’s innovation. I have six children–six children who I hope will change this world for the better. In order to have six children, I have had to make sacrifices. I have had to give up my career (I have a Ph.D.; I’m not an idiot) to raise them. We don’t go out to eat much and we take few vacations. In my opinion having few or no children is the real greed. Ask people who limit their family size why they do it and they’ll tell you it’s so they can have a bigger house, a nicer car, and more luxurious vacations. They put their kids in daycare so they can have their “own life.” But yeah, I’m the greedy one. I’m being awfully irresponsible having these 6 CO2 producing kids, aren’t I? I wonder if you’ll think that when you’re ending your days in a nursing home with no one to visit you–if you even end up in one. This life-hating culture could make you dispensable when you’re old.

  • invalid-0

    I think nobody has no right to say how many children every woman should have! What about God?

  • invalid-0

    I’m rather shocked at the the level of nuance of these comments. “Eat your peas”? Puh-leaze! That was about being grateful. Children as insurance against loneliness? Just silly. The US is generous? Take away our cars and high-speed internet and we’re a third world country with trillions upon trillions in debt. In an era of global trade of resources and its attendant destruction, the choices we make here have tangible, specific effects that spread throughout the rest of the world. The West has been very slow to acknowledge this and Obama’s not nearly progressive enough on these issues. It is going to take one massive redefinition of standard of living to dig the planet out of this mess we’ve gotten into, and we all are going to go along kicking and screaming until we’re forced by law or meaningful tax disincentives to do so. Second thing on the To DO list – all forms of family planning should be subsidized and/or free to everyone. Third – remove any/all tax incentives for reproducing beyond replacement rate. But the very first thing we do – there has to be a fundamental change to the laws that protect women as equal — everything from equal and fair pay to bodily integrity/autonomy — and a willingness to back that up with the full weight of the courts. We can’t wait for the social lag and religious institutions to catch up on this. The law has to come first.