The hot-button topic of population growth is feared and avoided by politicians and enviro-minded folks alike. Contraception, abortion, family planning, religious beliefs—yikes! Even if you believe that curbing procreation is key to solving our environmental and climate woes, who’d want to touch that powder keg of issues? But Robert Engelman in the current issue of Scientific American says it doesn’t need to be that way, and in fact, if we really want to shrink human reproduction rates, those are the wrong things to focus on.
Before we even get to discussing population growth, we seem to get tangled up and sidetracked in talk about consumption rates. The idea is that while families in poor, developing nations usually have more children, they consume so much less energy, food, water, and other resources per person than developed countries that what we really need to deal with is cutting consumption rates in rich countries. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story.
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While poorer countries consume less than we do now, they’re striving for more comfortable, resource-intensive lives. Who can blame them? And US reproduction rates are on the rise, with American women averaging 2.1 children leading to a growing nation, immigration numbers aside.
So if we want to slow climate change and save the environment as best we can, we’ve got to get back around to reproduction.
And Engelman says that the answer isn’t in punitive actions: legally limiting couples to a single child, sterilization, or creating a tax structure that rewards small families. Instead, the solution lies in investments that make women smarter, employed, and more equal to men. It’s the same case that Sightline Institute founder Alan Durning made back in 1997 in the publication Misplaced Blame: The Real Roots of Population Growth: “If we take care of people, population will take care of itself.”
Consider these arguments from Engelman:
- “(E)vidence suggests that what women want—and have always wanted—is not so much to have more children as to have more for a smaller number of children they can reliably raise to healthy adulthood…
- “Women with no schooling have an average of 4.5 children, whereas those with a few years of primary school have just three… With one or two years of college, the average childbearing rate falls even further, to 1.7…
- “(W)hen women enter the workforce, start businesses, inherit assets and otherwise interact with men on an equal footing, their desire for more than a couple of children fades even more dramatically.”
So how does our region measure up? Check out this lovely fertility rates map from our own Cascadia Scorecard. Most of Washington, Oregon, and BC are below 2 kids per woman, with a couple of counties in Washington and Idaho at higher rates. Looking at education rates alone, do Engelman’s correlations hold for our region? For the most part, yes.
Here’s a breakdown for a couple of counties with more extreme birthrates (keep in mind this is just a simple correlation and doesn’t control for factors such as race and income, which could also play significant roles in birthrates):
We know what to do, but will anyone take the necessary steps to address the issue? Engelman says he hopes that current US leadership will support programs “likely to encourage slower population growth.” He continues:
“Like almost all politicians, however, Obama never mentions population or the way it bridges problems from health and education all the way to food, energy security and climate change.
Bringing population back into the public conversation is risky, but the world has come a long way in understanding that the subject is only one part of most of today’s problems and that “population control” can’t really control population. Handing control of their lives and their bodies to women—the right thing to do for countless other reasons—can. There is no reason to fear the discussion.”
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Mother and child photo courtesy of Flickr user cromacom under the Creative Commons license.
“And US reproduction rates are on the rise, with American women averaging 2.1 children leading to a growing nation”I’m pretty sure 2.1 is considered replacement level fertility. Obviously demographic trends and immigration affect this, but in the long run if the US really is at 2.1 kids per couple then we should be good to go. Please correct me if new research has come out to dispute this. See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7834459http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sub-replacement_fertility
Well, it’s just a tick over a rate that would simply replace folks (going out another decimal point, it was 2.12). I think there’s also some worry is that this could be a continuing upward trend. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from a March newsletter: “The U.S. TFR in 2007 marks the second consecutive year in which the rate has been above replacement.”
There are a lot more aspects to this than statistics. Raising children is a way for a culture to sustaining itself, which is why you get into storm-raising issues of race and religion as well as educational levels. Personally I think targeting consumption via birth rates is a distraction from learning and teaching sustainable living. It’s easy to say “the world can’t survive with x billion people living like [c.2009] Americans!” It’s hard to get down to complete societal change for sustainably in both agriculture and urban life. I recently read a feature article about one attempt, Hammarby SjÃ¶stad in Stockholm: A place that makes sense: On not living too large. “None of it is outrageously high-tech; it’s just all thought out… to live, more or less, at a level calculated to be sustainable for all of the world’s 6 billion humans” The irony: it’s very popular with families with kids.
The decades-old debate between the “it’s population” camp and the “it’s consumption” camp is a source of frustration to me. Because it’s both.To achieve a sustainable global future, we need to slow population growth (which is best done by following the philosophy Lisa describes here) and we need to develop and adopt a different, super-efficient, low-impact pattern of consumption.And we can do both of these things in ways that are deeply respectful of human rights, cultural differences, and religious beliefs. And we can do both of these things in ways that share real prosperity widely and create opportunity for a high quality of life worldwide.
I agree with Mr. Durning. But back to the issue of being factual that report you mentioned Lisa is”A replacement rate is the rate at which a given generation can exactly replace itself, generally considered to be 2,100 births per 1,000 women. The TFR had been below replacement from 1972 through 2005.” Seeing at the estimated TFR for 2007 was 2,122.5 births we were only 22.5 over, which is a very small amount. If you want to look at why our population is growing it really isn’t due very much to our TFR but to immigration (which I support, but that opens a whole can of worms). I just think that the claim in this article that 2.1 is above replacement level simply isn’t true. I guess that’s the problem with blogging vs. a new source that does fact checking.
Again, the US Total Fertility Rate for 2006 and 2007 were both above the replacement level—the CDC says so explicitly. Sure, it’s not a lot over it, but it is over it and trending upward. Those are facts. The fact-checked Scientific American article said the same thing: “Even if net immigration ended tomorrow, continuation of that fertility rate would guarantee further growth in U.S. population for decades to come.”Enough said on this point…
While we’re discussing the fine points of replacement-level fertility, let me raise two additional mathematical issues.1. The total fertility rate(TFR) is a good, but not perfect, measure of family size. The TFR measures births at each age of mother of the age structure in a given year. It is then calculated by statisticians (or Sightline) to yield a composite picture that’s a pretty good reflection of the final family size. And it gives us a pretty good, but not perfect indicator of where we stand in relation to replacement fertility.The ultimate measure of family size (and replacement fertility) is, unless I’m misremembering my demography, the “completed fertility rate,” which tallies the number of live births per woman by the end of her reproductive years. It’s not a composite; it’s retrospective. And—consequently—it’s a very slowly lagging indicator. It tells you what’s happening to fertility about two decades after the fact. Still, it gives the final answer on replacement fertility—whether we had enough babies to replace, one for one, their parents.The difference between these two figures is immaterial when fertility patterns are static. But when they’re changing, TFR can be a little off. For example, if each generation of women is choosing to wait a little longer than their mothers did to start families, the TFR will underreport family size. It will also, therefore, give the impression that we’re closer to replacement fertility than we would think. This is the situation the United States has been in for the past decade or two.2. Ultimate population size has as much to with age structure and life expectancy as it does with birth rates. Replacement fertility + a youthful population = growing population. Replacement fertility + lengthening lifespans = growing population. In Cascadia, we have a bit of each of these factors at work.And, of course, migration plays a giant role in Cascadia’s population size. But that’s another subject./End of fine-points lecture/
Good discussion.I’d be interested in knowing how much of this population uptick can be attributed to the sanctity of REmarriage. Since, many divorced couples with children from a previous marriage choose to procreate and give birth to AT LEAST ONE CHILD with their NEW spouse.
This is useful (and not new) information. But as someone (part of the lunatic fringe?) who considers the planet already vastly overpopulated by humans (by at least an order of magnitude), and sees that excess of “us” as a significant contributor to all the problems we face, it sounds awfully tepid.
Now we’re getting somewhere! Educate women. Help us to understand that our ability to create is our power. Imagine if all the women of the world stopped having children for 5 years! We wouldn’t be ignored, that’s for sure. So glad that we’re all finally discussing this topic of over population as it is indeed at the crux of so many prominent issues, pollution, dwindling resources, immigration, etc. Thank you and Here’s a bit more on my take:http://chowe-ibelieve.blogspot.com/2007/11/over-poplulation.html
Yes, I completely agree. It’s about educating and empowering women. This thought, on pg. 5 of Robert Engelman’s article that Lisa linked to, spoke the most to me:”Women left to their own devices, contraceptive or otherwise, would collectively ‘control’ population while acting on their own intentions.” Yet, I would also add, while each individual woman needs to control her OWN reproductive right, she also needs to acknowledge that “it takes two to tango.” BOTH the woman and the man need to be listened to here. That’s where the true DISCUSSION begins.(By the way, CAHowe, that’s a great blogspot! 🙂
Thank you, thank you all. Having been in the thick of the Sierra Club blowup over the immigration, population, and consumption (mid-nineties and ongoing) I am very appreciative of the reasoned and informed approach by all here.Alan or Lisa, could you address the concept of replacement and longevity a little more. There appears to be a simplistic sense of entitlement to replacement that doesn’t factor in the number of live generations possible in one’s lifetime, continual reduction in “early” deaths due to “better” health care and a better educated population that extends life through preventive behaviors and healthy lifestyles. And is it possible to explore/portray Cascadia’s commonly held – hopefully evolving – concept of optimal population level relative to a population level that comports with the commonly held concept of a sustainable environment inclusive of a robust human+non-human population? I have the impression that these two concepts are not adequately connected. A third line on the graph could be total population, and the fourth could be immigration. The gap between these last two would represent reproductive behavior. The Scorecard makes a stab, but the connections/disconnect may benefit from being teased out a bit more. I understand that there is a wide continuum of ideas about what a sustainable human population in Cascadia should be. Does Sightline have a valued source of research/modeling in this area? I admit I haven’t explored your online archives. So do not hesitate to chastise me. There are so many aspects of reproductive choice in our lives. The heart and genes overwhelm the rational. Educated friends seem intent on replacement. Remarrying entitles/obligates? couples to cement the relationship with yet another child. Altering one’s own behavior to compensate for effects of those with higher birth rates or immigration raises a strong emotional backlash and a bunker mentality in the tribe. And a destroyed environment and vanishing species sap the spirit. . . . making procreation one sure ray of hope available to us.
“Again, the US Total Fertility Rate for 2006 and 2007 were both above the replacement level—the CDC says so explicitly. Sure, it’s not a lot over it, but it is over it and trending upward. Those are facts. The fact-checked Scientific American article said the same thing: “Even if net immigration ended tomorrow, continuation of that fertility rate would guarantee further growth in U.S. population for decades to come.” Enough said on this point…”It’s above replacement level, because its above 2.1. Thus the article is incorrect when it says that population is growing because “American women [are] averaging 2.1 children leading to a growing nation.” That’s all I’m trying to say. TFR may not be the best way to measure it, but regardless saying that 2.1 leads to a growing population is wrong (the report says 2.1225>2.1 =growth, not 2.1=growth. Decimals matter in this case.)
Interesting discussion. I do wonder though, why it is so often assumed that women will continue to have children in the absence of education or equality in the workplace. For some people, at the end of the day, the enjoyment that they receive from having children might be beyond the normal ‘rational’ reasons that academics like to propose. So, a person who has access to both education and career opportunities might also find that he or she also wants more than the replacement level number of children. Perhaps this person is in the minority, but I find it absent from many discussions of population. In many circles “three is the new two” seems to be the norm and this is often voiced by people I know who are liberal-minded and highly educated. I would hazard to say that they are also empowered women who just so happen to enjoy the presence of small children.
I’m all for improving womens’ education levels, etc.; however, we don’t have the luxury of improving everyone’s standard of living to the point where we’ll stop procreating at unsustainable levels.Now that we’re finally getting serious about climate change by developing tradeable pollution allowances, it’s time to start a discussion about similar allowances for children: “tradeable birth licenses.” See below, from:http://www.npg.org/forum_series/steadystate.htmlTransferable birth licenses. Obviously, population growth is a major force driving resource depletion and waste generation. Stabilizing population is therefore crucial. Daly’s suggestion, first propounded by economist Kenneth Boulding in 1964, is to issue each person, or perhaps each woman, a quantity of reproduction licenses equal to the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 births per woman. Each woman would get 2.1 licenses, which she could buy or sell depending on how many children she wants to have.Daly acknowledged that the directness of the birth license plan might put people off. “It frankly recognizes that reproduction must henceforth be considered a scarce right and logically faces the issue of how best to distribute that right and whether and how to permit voluntary reallocation.” Because limiting reproduction is a forbidden subject for many people, they prefer indirect discouragement of reproduction through expanding women’s social roles, encouraging consumption of commodities over having more children, and so on. Birth licenses, however, are more efficient. What’s more, in his view, “the direct approach requires clarity of purpose and frank objectives, which are politically inconvenient when commitment to the objective is halfhearted to begin with.”So: Cap population, allocate 2 allowances to every woman, and allow women who want only one (or no) children, to sell their extra allowances, and use the proceeds to improve her own (or her single child’s) life.It may sound nuts, but if we’re serious about stopping population growth, we need to cap it. Allowing for the trade of these rights will transfer valuable assets (2 birth licenses) to very poor women, and give them a leg up.
Disease, famine, accidents, natural and man-made disasters, natural causes and not so natural causes and of course age (when allowed to proceed as “normal succession”), odds are earth’s human numbers would ultimately be kept in the “bottle neck phase.” The human mind sees “Law of Nature” as cruel, we have nothing else to blame but our emotions which time and again convey resistance to the natural order of succession.Would be better for Bill Gates to put his money toward educating and leave the mosquitoes to carry on their objectives…
Re: Steve G’s suggestion of “tradeable birth licences”—I wonder what James Hansen would think of that? Sounds an awful lot like “cap-n-trade.” Would there be “offsets” involved? :-)But on a more fundamental level, I think the premise at the heart of this whole thing is deeply, fundamentally flawed: women’s education and empowerment are a side-effect, not a driving cause of reduced fecundity.The second part of this widely-held belief hold the nugget of truth: women’s empowerment, in the very physical sense, is the driver for reduced fecundity. Pssst! It’s access to energy that causes women to have fewer children, not access to education or political-social-economic power!Without access to energy, access to education and social-economic empowerment simply don’t happen. A woman who has to walk five kilometres for her family’s drinking water is not going to stop procreating if she learns how to read. She’s going to breed her labour force, and have a son to fetch water. Only by having a nearby well, and thus reducing her energy needs, will she not have to breed a water-bearer, and then she may even have the time to learn to read—the side-effect of access to energy.Likewise, in the industrial world, birth rates are low, not because women are educated and empowered, but because even minimally-educated women can easily drive to Mall*Wart and pick up way more calories than even a much larger family could heathily consume—spending more energy to obtain the food than is actually in the food. What will happen to these people when industrial agriculture, totally dependent on fossil fuel, crashes? They’ll have to grow their own food, and they’ll need to breed little slaves to help with that essential job.So what are we to do in the face of a coming energy decline? One need look no further than the epic Club of Rome report, and the computer model World3, which predicts sharply rising birth rates as resource availability crashes.We need to be very careful here. As energy declines, it will be tempting for those who remain energy-rich to look down their noses at the continued fecundity in the third world. We need to spread the energy around if we want lower birth rates, which seems unlikely, given human history.One can’t talk about population without invoking Paul Ehrlich, who came up with the formula: “I = P * A * T” or “Impact equals Population times Affluence times Technology.” In mentioning “affluence,” I think Paul was actually talking about energy. This formula implies that each term is an independent variable, but I think Dana Meadows and the other World3 modellers thought differently.