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Eco Etiquette: Should We Stop Having Children?

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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

I have a friend who always brags about how green her family is, yet she's now talking about getting pregnant with her third child. Wouldn't it be better for the planet for her to not have so many kids? Or not have any at all?
-Leni

The issue of population control is the environmental elephant in the room. We can buy hybrid cars, we can urge people to shop for organic food -- heck, we can even push elaborate carbon trading schemes through Congress -- but there's one solution that would stop climate change dead in its tracks: We could stop having children.

Or at least so many of them.

Once, mankind's dilemma was its very survival. At the time of Christ's birth, a mere 300 million people walked our planet; nearly 1,000 years later, that number had risen by only 10 million. Plagues like the Black Death in the 1300s threatened to wipe out the human race altogether, and life expectancy hovered under 30 until the Industrial Revolution.

Now, we're facing a new crisis: The improvements in living conditions, nutrition, and health care over the past couple hundred years -- including the discovery of antibiotics in the early 20th century -- have let mankind survive too well, leaving us with an exploding population and an ever-decreasing supply of natural resources.

It took millions of years of human existence to reach the 1 billion mark (that happened in 1800). Now, we're adding that amount nearly every decade.

It's projected that by the year 2050, the population will be nearly 9 billion.

Once again, the survival of mankind is at stake. Whether or not you believe in global warming, you can't argue with other types of environmental degradation occurring because there are just too darn many of us: the extinction of thousands of species due to habitat loss; widespread pollution; and dwindling access to vital natural resources like clean water.

That we may have to take steps to reduce our population is a very inconvenient truth -- who wants to be denied the right to have a family? -- but it's one we have to consider. How to accomplish this, though, is not so clear.

I personally know environmentalists who have chosen not to have children. There's even an organization to this effect, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. I, however, am not a member. As I write this, I am five months pregnant with my first child.

Call me a hypocrite, but I don't think it's realistic that 7 billion people will voluntarily stop procreating. Reproduction is an impulse hardwired into our genetic code. Also, I'm selfish. Life is short, and I'd like to enjoy it to the fullest. For me, that vision includes having a family. I also like to believe that my progeny will work to better the planet, thanks to an upbringing that will emphasize respect for the natural world.

If I (an environmental advocate) feel this way, then what is the likelihood of the average person willingly agreeing to not have children?

A mandate hasn't proven viable, either. China's one-child policy may have curbed population growth in the short term, but it has also led to moral quandaries like forced abortion and infanticide. And thanks to a preference for male children, the country is now facing a serious gender imbalance that could have far-reaching implications for societal and political instability.

We could compromise by encouraging families to have no more than two children, but there's an important component to this approach that we're going to have to face unabashedly if we want to save our planet, and that's birth control.

Rather than focusing on reducing the pregnancies that people do want, we need to first focus on preventing the ones they don't want. Grist Senior Editor Lisa Hymas (who, unlike me, has decided to go childfree) wrote this week that approximately 200 million women worldwide don't have access to reliable methods of contraception. If they did, nearly 52 million unwanted pregnancies -- and the environmental footprint of those additional people -- could be avoided every year.

A lot of those women are in developing nations, where gender inequality is prevalent and opportunities for education and career, as well as the most basic reproductive health services, are scarce. But many are closer to home: The United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world, thanks in part to our insistence that abstinence-only education works, despite evidence to the contrary.

Proclamations such as Pope Benedict XVI's that condoms increase the AIDS epidemic don't help, either. If the Catholic Church wants to perpetuate the survival of the human race, not just its sheer numbers, it might do well to consider reversing its edict on birth control.

It sounds ironic, but if we want to sustain human life on this planet, then it's time we put our money toward increasing access and education for reproductive rights -- including the right to not have children.

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