Some of the most beautiful summer wildflowers imaginable festoon Copper Creek Trail, as it snakes its way through the Colorado Rocky Mountains. It was July, and one of us (Mary Ellen, a.k.a. Mel) was sharing her insights about them with some Texas ladies she met along the trail. Ultimately, one asked how many kids she had. As any proud mother would, Mel told them about her sole child, her daughter. "Well, don't worry, honey -- maybe she'll have eight or nine," came the reply. But Mel's response was almost instinctive: "I don't think so. She knows it's unethical to have more than two." A pause ensued. Then she continued to talk wildflowers.
These are just two of the many perspectives on family size that form the national conversation, but the reality is that every other U.S. pregnancy is unintended. In turn, these hopefully loved but nonetheless unintended, consuming lives will add significantly to the global warming and climate change that will plague our families' future. How much? Researchers have calculated that one additional U.S. child increases the lifetime carbon emissions legacy of either parent by nearly six times. Thus, not having children is by far the single greenest action any one of us can take, although the child-free choice is not usually green-motivated.
If we are to hope for a humane human future, we must bring our populations down to a sustainable level, as we point out in our free online book, and this involves imagining just how joyful families of one or no children can be. The good news is tha t the process has already begun.
Perhaps no other single thing highlights this cultural challenge more than the word used to describe those without children: childless. It implies that a marriage or person is less without children. And as much media coverage suggests, there are many child-hungry people who will go to dramatic lengths to have them. Indeed, not only is child-bearing encouraged by commercial media and the corresponding lack of family planning promotion or services, childless people are often made to feel they are "violating a taboo." Breeder Bingo is a board game, for example, which illustrates the many comments people with children make to those without, helping to create this unconscious taboo.
But change is slowly happening. The 2010 U.S. census shows there are now more homes with dogs than children, and the number of homes with children under 18 has declined 2.5 percent over the past decade, reports Sarah Mirk for the Portland Mercury, situated in one of the most prominently "young adult friendly" U.S. cities, Portland, Ore. This does not just reflect greater access to family planning and postponing children because of finances or career, she argues, but that 20-somethings are starting to redefine a "happy family" as one that is "child-free," a new and encouraging term. It implies that not bearing or raising children is positive, desirable -- enjoyable! It's an important cultural message that needs to be promoted, especially to counter the subliminal, but insidious commercial one that "babies are so wonderful, let's not think about how they will be supported." And we obviously don't think enough. Among adults, seniors and children, children by far make up the largest poverty group in the U.S.
What can a child-free family or life look like? Recent Hollywood versions include the subversive Sex and the City and the issue is explored more thoughtfully in Eat, Pray, Love. The reality, as Lisa Hymas, a self-declared GINK (Green Inclinations, No Kids) points out, is that for those who desire it, a child-free life can be wonderful. Without the financial and social burdens of children, one has more freedom and time to travel, pursue personal interests or simply relax. Given current financial realities, it can even mean the difference between financial solvency and bankruptcy.
New clubs and social groups are evolving for child-free people. No Kidding!, an international social club, has chapters in 29 U.S. states alone. Happily Child-Free lists these and other social groups, and links to discussion and support groups. Dinklife (Dual Income No Kids) enables child-free couples to build child-free social networks. And for many child-free people, the vision of a child-free old-age means developing a social safety net among friends and extended family -- one that can be even more meaningful and effective than can be created sometimes with children.
As our opener indicates, one-child families can also feel the heat felt by the child-free crowd, despite our obvious happiness. But we're not alone, as support groups indicate.
In the meantime, "happy with one or none" is an encouraging message to spread throughout the world -- far more than predicting an overpopulated future starved of resources and battered by climate change.