‘I am the problem’
IN the United States, population growth tends to get blamed on other people: Africans and Asians who have “more kids than they can feed”, immigrants in America with their “large families”, even single mothers in the “inner city”.
But actually the population problem is all about me: white, middleclass, American me. Steer the blame right over here.
Well-meaning people have told me that I’m “just the sort of person who should have kids.” Au contraire. I’m just the sort of person who should not have kids.
Population isn’t just about counting heads. The impact of humanity on the environment is not determined solely by how many of us are around, but by how much stuff we use and how much room we take up. And as a financially comfortable American, I use a lot of stuff and take up a lot of room.
My carbon footprint is more than 200 times bigger than an average Ethiopian’s, and more than 12 times bigger than an average Indian’s, and twice as big as an average Brit’s.
When a poor woman in Uganda has another child – too often because she lacks access to familyplanning services, economic opportunity, or self-determination – she might dampen her family’s prospects for climbing out of poverty or add to her community’s challenges in providing everyone with clean water and safe food, but she certainly isn’t placing a big burden on the global environment.
When someone like me has a child – watch out, world! Gear, gadgets, gewgaws, bigger house, bigger car, oil from the Middle East, coal from Colombia, coltan from the Congo, rare earths from China, pesticide-laden cotton from Egypt, genetically modified soy from Brazil. And then when that child has children, wash, rinse, and repeat (in hot water, of course). Without even trying, we Americans slurp up resources from every corner of the globe and then spit 99% of them back out again as pollution.
Conscientious people try to limit that consumption, of course. I’m one of them. I get an american steps up to offer her personal solution to the problem of overconsumption in the West. around largely by bus and on foot, eat low on the food chain, buy used rather than new, keep the heat low, rein in my gadget lust. But even putting aside my remaining carbon sins (see: flying), the fact is that just by virtue of living in America, enjoying some small portion of its massive material infrastructure, my carbon footprint is at unsustainable levels.
Far and away the biggest contribution I can make to a cleaner environment is to not bring any minime’s into the world. A 2009 study by statisticians at America’s Oregon State University found that the climate impact of having one fewer child in the United States is almost 20 times greater than the impact of adopting a series of eco-friendly practices for your entire lifetime, things like driving a high-mileage car, recycling, and using efficient appliances.
And so, for environmental as well as personal reasons, I’ve decided not to have children. I call myself a GINK: green inclinations, no kids.
Most people won’t make the same decision, of course, and I don’t fault them for that. Everyone has different circumstances and values, and environmental issues are not the only ones worth considering. I believe in choice, and that means supporting choices different from mine.
But it needs to become easier for people to make the same decision I have, if they are so inclined.
Here in the US, the Pill has been available for more than 50 years. It’s now almost universally accepted that women will use birth control to delay, space out, or limit childbearing. But there’s not so much acceptance for using birth control to completely skip childbearing. At some point, you’re expected to
grow up, pair up, put the Pill off to the side, and produce a couple of kids. Deviate from this scenario and you’ll get weird looks and face awkward conversations with family members, friends, coworkers, and complete strangers.
Many American women have found that it’s difficult if not impos-impossible to find a doctor who will perform a tubal ligation if the woman has not already had children (and sometimessometimes even if she has). Doctors warn that sterilisation is an irreversible, life-altering decision. But having a child is an irreversible, life-lifealtering decision and you don’t find doctorsdoctors warning women away from that. The broadly held prejudice, in the medical profession and much of the rest of society, is that becoming a parent is the right and inevitable choice.
Over recent years and decades, it’s become more acceptable for mixed-race couples to have children, and single women, and gay couples, and women over the age of 40, and that’s all good. Acceptance has been slower to come for the decision not to have children. There’s now a fledgling childfree movement, but some who are part of it say they still feel like they’re violating a taboo.
Real reproductive freedom has to include social acceptance of the decision not to reproduce. When we achieve that, it will mean less pressure on women and men who don’t feel called to become parents. It will mean less of a stigma on people who may have wanted to become parents but didn’t get the chance. It will mean a wider array of options for people who haven’t decided yet. It will mean fewer children born to ambivalent or unhappy parents, getting us closer to the goal of “every child a wanted child”.
Finally, it will mean fewer Americans making a mess of the NO one knows what circumstances the world’s seven billionth baby will be born into, but India’s Uttar Pradesh – a sugarcane-producing state with a population that combines that of Britain, France and Germany, in a country expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous by 2030 – provides a snapshot of the challenges it could face.
Pinky Pawar, 25, is due to give birth in Uttar Pradesh any time now and is hoping her firstborn will not join the estimated three billion people living on less than US$2 (RM6.30) a day, with little hope of an education or a job.
“I want my child to be successful in life, so I must do my best to make this possible,” she said, her hands over her swollen belly as she sat outside her mud and brick home in Sunhaida village for this interview last week.
In Sunhaida, poverty, illiteracy and social prejudice mark a life dominated by the struggle for survival that mirrors millions of others across the world.
The world is in danger of missing a golden opportunity for development and economic growth, a “demographic dividend”, as the largest cohort of young people ever known see their most economically productive years wasted, the United Nations population report warned last Wednesday.
The potential economic benefits of having such a large global population of young people will go unfulfilled, as a generation suffers from a lack of education, planet, and a little more breathing room for those of us who are already here or on the way.
I recognise that I am the population problem. I’m trying to be part of the solution. Let’s make it easier for others to join me. – grist.org n A version of this article appeared in The Guardian newspaper. Lisa Hymas is senior editor at Grist (grist. org), where she writes on politics, population, and green issues. She won a 2010 Population Institute Global Media Award for her writing on the childfree choice. and investment in infrastructure and job creation, the authors said.
“When young people can claim their rights to health, education and decent working conditions, they become a powerful force for economic development and positive change.
“This opportunity (for) a demographic dividend is a fleeting moment that must be claimed quickly or lost,” says the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), in its Global Population Report, published last Wednesday, ahead of the UN’S forecast that the world population will pass seven billion today.
Of this seven billion, 1.8 billion are aged between 10 and 24, and 90% of those live in the developing world. – Agencies