Mom and childThe 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):

    pop and ed chart

    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.