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I Am the Population Problem

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This fall, world population will reach 7 billion people at a time of accelerated environmental disruption. This article part of a series commissioned by RH Reality Check and with Laurie Mazur as guest editor, to examine the causes and consequences of population and environmental change from various perspectives and the policies and actions needed to both avoid and mitigate the inevitable impacts of these changes.

Here, Lisa Hymas explains how for population and personal reasons she has decided not to have kids. All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Both local and broad scale environmental problems often are linked to population growth, which in turn tends to get blamed on other people: folks in Africa and Asia who have “more kids than they can feed,” immigrants in our own country with their “excessively large families,” even single mothers in the “inner city.”

But actually the population problem is all about me: white, middle-class, American me.

Steer that blame right over here.

Population isn’t just about counting heads, although by this October we will be counting 7 billion of them worldwide. 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 that of an average Ethiopian, more than 12 times bigger than an average Indian’s, and twice as big as an average Brit’s.

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.

When a poor woman in Uganda has another child—too often because she lacks access to family-planning 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 Mideast, 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 it all (in hot water, of course). Without even trying, we Americans slurp up resources from every corner of the globe and then spit 99 percent of them back out again as pollution.

Conscientious people try to limit that consumption, of course. I’m one of them. I get 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: airplane flights), 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 mini-mes into the world. A 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University found that in America the climate impact of having one fewer child is almost 20 times greater than the impact of adopting a series of eco-friendly practices for your entire lifetime, such as driving a hybrid, recycling, using efficient appliances and installing compact fluorescent lights.

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 will balance their values in different ways. I believe in choice, and that means supporting choices different from my own.

But it needs to become easier for people to make the same decision I have, if they are so inclined.

The reproductive-rights movement focuses on the legal, logistical, and financial hurdles standing between women and control of their fertility. It’s essential work, needed more than ever in today’s hostile political climate.

But the cultural hurdles too often get ignored.

Here in the United States, 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.

One 30-something woman I know who works for a reproductive-health NGO says that her colleagues pester her about her decision not to have children, telling her she needs to get started on that family or she’ll regret it. And these are people whose careers are dedicated to making birth control and reproductive health care available to all women! Pro-natal bias runs deep.

Many women who have not already had children find it difficult if not impossible to find a doctor who will perform a tubal ligation. Doctors warn that sterilization is an irreversible, life-altering decision. But having a child is an irreversible, life-altering decision and you don’t find doctors 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 correct 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 yet decided. It will mean fewer children born to ambivalent or unhappy parents, getting us closer to the goal of “every child a wanted child.”

And, it will mean fewer Americans making a mess of the planet, and a little more breathing room for those of us who are already here or on the way.

I recognize 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.

10 Comments on "I Am the Population Problem"

  1. Donald M Maze on Fri, 26th Aug 2011 12:58 am 

    Now this is some enlightened woman. This concept has been around for decades but seldom has anyone been so clear about it. There’s always adoption for those who wish to abstain from bearing children.

  2. Mike on Fri, 26th Aug 2011 2:13 am 

    Hymas is another hypocritical uber-green ranking only slightly below jet setting Gore.

    This two-faced misanthrope says “I am the Population Problem” but clearly means – and essentially states – that YOU are the population problem. Not Somalians who have ravaged their own country through stupidity and fecundity, but YOU. Not locust-like Asian countries (in which real locusts are probably an endangered delicacy), but YOU.

    YOU. “…white, middle-class, American…”

    This self-hating white declares she begrudges no one but vilifies any one not living up to her incoherent standards of consumption. She boasts of her adjustments but in fact makes money through carbon-intensive methods of proselytizing. I guess when you’re the beknighted messenger, like Gore, you’re not expected to practice what you preach. The pseudo-morality, haphazardly and maliciously fabricated, is for you, not her. Likely, her own childlessness is a convenient, after-the-fact coincidence and not motivated strictly by green religion.

    This evolutionary dead end would have you believe that her great sacrifice is personal and environmentally ennobling and not simply selfish and opportunistic. She claims not to be encouraging others to her choice but preaches precisely that. It is no less than a moral imperative in her language of abundant condemnation. What conclusion could one possibly make other than that she is encouraging it despite the denial?

    This huckster cloaks her mission in the garbs of a human rights struggle. She has even called her public campaign a “coming out” thus linking it to the gay rights movement. Naturally, no grand rights struggle would be complete without sad tales of persecution. And she proffers many.

    The good green lefty goes out of her way not to offend other operable powers and liberal temples. Like the Sierra Club – ostensibly a national environmental group – she not only defends immigrants but finds ways to make them qualitatively superior to, in particular, those consuming white devils. Math be damned, those millions of adorable immigrants have an average smaller footprint. That the national footprint is massively higher due to immigration is not worth noting.

    One way or another, population overshoot will be addressed. But when the green fraud advocates – TODAY – against a specific class of people (“Americans”, “whites”), then her purpose is clearly and hopelessly entwined with other anti-Western ideologies.

    I suggest a new name: GIMP
    Green Indoctrinator, Marxist Persuasion.

    The fact is that “Americans” and Western “whites” possess a high-consumption lifestyle that every other country strives for. It seems then that the proclivity is human, not Western. Reducing Western consumption will delay and increasing Third World consumption will hasten the reckoning. It makes little difference. Coal will be burned, “social justice” (whatever it is) will not achieved, and the bottleneck will come.

    Then it will all be about survival. Life competes and humans are no exception. Resource pinch means population sieve. Some get through, many do not. And to that end childlessness is NOT an advantage. What number may sustained may be fixed, but which and who is not.

    In the competition for the future…

    childlessness is not sustainable.

  3. stephankrasner on Fri, 26th Aug 2011 6:25 am 

    Mike, You’re too hard on the woman. She probably thinks that there is still a lot of time left and that we can ease off a population of 7 billion over time. That argument in it’s self is ridiculous. But you certainly can’t criticize her methods. Her kids will never have to suffer because they will never be born. It will also be one less consumer in the mix to burden you and your kids. Calling her a huckster just doesn’t fit the bill. She may be a tool, but she isn’t lying.

  4. christian phillip on Fri, 26th Aug 2011 7:25 am 

    hey,stephan….but you are smart…hm…is anyone smart anymore for real?…we are reaching the corner finally and still come with dumb solutions,all of us…hm, iwas surprised to see that poor soul taking the side of the middle class…i mean,it’s not even white…dont u peopa see that time is out already?…get ready for cannibalism and shut up..enough with pundits already…and leave Gore alone…at least he tried…bye bye.

  5. Pretorian on Fri, 26th Aug 2011 7:52 am 

    Yes let’s all die so the Ugandan lady can has her 12th baby.

  6. DC on Fri, 26th Aug 2011 8:12 am 

    She does raise a valid point. To be female, today, means you are expected to produce at least one kid, and preferably more-full stop. If your female, your a breeder. We only grant exceptions if you have a medical problem, otherwise, its get in kitchen and start making babies isnt it?

    No wonder we have an overpopulation problem with attitudes like that.

    If your a guy, the same attitude applies, just slighly different prejudice. A guy with no kids, is a ‘loser’ or ‘failure’ or is less of a ‘man’ and human being, or something along those lines. For the women, its like there commiting a crime against nature and humanity itself if they just dont want to have kids.

    Now evolution itself places no hard and fast requirements for every single breeder in a given population to do so, or even try. Only enough to maintain a diverse and healthy population are required to. Animals of course, dont subscribe to evolution or eco-system balance theories, they just do what they do. Humans otoh, supposedly the pinnance of evolution and haveing all this wonderful intellect, mainly use it to find ways to destroy the envoriment with the most primitive and barbaric technologies we can dream up, and also to rationalize why we should place no limits on our ability to reproduce. Even when the evidence is right there in front of that its in our best interests to do just that.

  7. sunweb on Fri, 26th Aug 2011 8:55 am 

    We are exactly where we have to be. It is the nature of the beast. Every life form, amoeba, oak tree, aphid, mouse, will make as many of their kind as the resources in the environment permit. And they will use those resources until they are no more and they either die out or relocate to more resources.

    We are no different. We have population density because we can. Unlimited growth is written into the code of life. In the universe’s ironic wisdom, not only are we driven by this code, but also it feels good. And, oh my, we know it feels good. So we mate and we do what we can to be able to mate.

    And as any lifeform will do, we will use all the resources available to us both for propagation and for enduring in the present. Here enters the second prong of overshoot – population pressure. We are devouring our environment as fast as we find ways to use it.

    and for some almost humor

  8. zoli on Fri, 26th Aug 2011 1:50 pm 

    I met her kind before (Hymas). Typically, they are western apologists, who despise themselves and the culture they belong to, while having a romantic view of the non-western world. They secretely wish we would go extinct.
    I do not deny our wrongdoings during our centuries of global domination, but as that period is comming to an end, it is time to contemplate a few things.
    Westerners currently are spearheading human rights, and environmental responsability to a much higher degree than any other region.
    If it wasn’t for western culture, most women on this planet would not even have a voice, including her.
    Perhaps it is time for these hipies to contemplate a world without western influence. One dominated by South American, Asian and Arab culture.
    What will human rights and environmental protection look like in that not too distant future? WIll Hyman still be alowed to speak?
    Let us not forget that in the current environment, non-western culture still has some western influence in this regard, but when we will go down, we will see.

  9. Maria on Fri, 26th Aug 2011 5:39 pm 

    If the author were genuine, she would ADOPT a child. This self-important article is fortunately one of the very few “bad ones” on this site.

  10. Kenz300 on Sat, 27th Aug 2011 3:04 pm 

    The worlds resources of food, water, oil and jobs are coming head to head with an ever expanding world population. The world added a billion people in the last 12 years and will add another billion in the next 12 years. This is not sustainable.

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