18 July 2008

Three Reasons Population Control Doesn’t Help the Environment

My wife and I had a baby boy several weeks ago – our fifth – so I have been pondering and meaning to write this post for some time. Apparently some environmentalists favor having no children or using sterilization as a method to lower the earth’s population. Additionally, some governments have mandates in place to control the number of children each couple has. As a father of a large family I am not advocating for people to have large families. Nor am I an advocate for not having any children. I believe that the most appropriate response is what has been given by LDS Church leaders – it is up to you. “The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord. Church members should not judge one another in this matter.” (1998 Church Handbook of Instructions) What I will address is the lack of correlation between the number of people on the planet and how eco-friendly we are. Unlike Paul Simon, I do not agree that “the planet groans every time it registers another birth.” (Born at the Right Time) So here are my reasons for believing population control doesn’t help the environment:

1) Fewer people don’t equal greater stewardship. Even if there were only one person on the earth, that doesn’t automatically make mankind environmentally conscious. As early as Cain, “all the forests of the earth rapidly disappeared, while that hero wandered through the earth with his bow for 130 years, looking for anything to kill—‘a human angel of death.’” (Nibley, Man’s Dominion, or Subduing the Earth) A single person could travel the world cutting every tree down, or killing every animal they see.

“If large parts of our country are polluted, it is not because we are too numerous, but because we pollute. The way to stop that disgrace is not to stop having children, but to start cleaning up. The growth of the GNP, sometimes now referred to as gross national pollution, gives us the resources for the job.” (Henry Wallich H. C. Wallich, Newsweek, June 29, 1970) This quote was found in an Ensign article by Philip F. Low from May 1971 titled, “Realities of the Population Explosion.”

2) It is impossible to determine how many people the Earth can sustain because social organization and technology continue to affect the number of people an area can sustain. The change from hunter/gatherer to farmer to city dweller to suburban life has changed the density of living. This will continue to change over time. Next on the horizon are potentially vertical farms in a single skyscraper that can feed an entire city. With technology and social arrangements changing every generation, how can anyone possibly say a specific maximum number that the earth can sustain?

Where people tend to get hung up is projecting our current levels of consumption, pollution, and sprawling cities into the future. What is involved is rethinking what it means to live in a city, how large our cities should be, the role of nature in our cities, how much we consume, where and how we use our energy, what types of fuel sources we have, living locally, and growing our own food, etc. It is a lack of knowledge, a lack of faith, a lack of dependence on God, and a lack of understanding why we are here. If fewer people are better for the planet, then natural disasters, disease, famine, and plagues are ultimately good things since they rid the planet of excess people.

3) Having children is the most human and natural thing we do here. “The first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife. We declare that God's commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.” (The Family: A Proclamation to the World) This doesn’t say anything about the number of children, but does say that it is human and natural for us to have children. “It takes faith – unseeing faith – for young people to proceed immediately with their family responsibilities in the face of financial uncertainties.” (Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle) Fertility rates in developed countries are already at the lowest they have ever been in the history of the world.

If the planet has too many people, then ‘replacing yourself’ doesn’t solve the problem of over population. Actor Jason Alexander (George on Seinfeld) is promoting this. He says, “This planet was never intended to support the number of human beings we currently have residing on it…So our family talks about responsibility in family planning. We talk about replacing ourselves on this globe, rather than doubling or tripling our numbers.” That is fine if he chooses this for his family. I have no problem with that. But he is advocating for far less people on the planet than we currently have, and the solution he states is for us to replace ourselves only. But this does not get us to the goal of far less people on the planet. He continues by stating, “We will never be able to really get control of the destruction of our planet's valuable resources until we realize that we have an enormous responsibility and obligation to control the size of the human population.” So even though there already exists far more people than the earth can sustain, in his opinion, all we need to do is get control of the human population, and everything will be fine. What is clear to me is that the number of people is not most critical to control, but the over-consuming, irresponsible, polluting lifestyle that is most critical to control.

People are the solution
Barring epic destruction, we cannot lower the earth’s population. Replacing ourselves or only having one child per family will not solve any problems, but create additional problems. I choose to have children, and do not feel guilt or feel that I am being irresponsible or increasing my carbon footprint in this regard. One error of the popular carbon footprint calculators is that they assume a high number for a large family. This may be true, but doesn’t have to be. In fact, in many cases larger families are more frugal and responsible out of necessity. It is as difficult for a family of six to be carbon neutral as it is for a family of one. There doesn’t need to be any extra burden on society. Education and environmental responsibility is the key. A sheer large number of people doesn’t equal irresponsible anymore than a small number equals responsible. If each individual is independently carbon neutral, then all of humanity is also – no matter what the number of that population is. Moving away from finite resources such as oil and towards infinite and renewable resources, such as solar, hydrogen, and electricity will ensure a bright future for all.

Looking at people as part of the solution gives us hope and a positive outlook on the future. “Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world…” (Ether 12:4) Good things happen when we think optimistically. Interestingly, those who choose not to have children, which tend to be the wealthy and educated, are naturally selecting themselves to extinction. As such, the poor and uneducated are increasing rapidly. As an educated and not low-income family, I feel it is my responsibility to be a part of the solution by bringing intelligent, thinking humans to the earth who will make a positive difference in the future of this planet.

How are people the solution?
The solution to all of this is for the poor to be exalted and the rich to be made low. The creation was given to us as an “earthly blessing,” a portion to provide the necessities of life. “I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine. And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine. But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low. For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare…” (see D&C 104: 11-18)

Regardless of how many people are on the earth, there will always be enough and to spare as long as the rich are made low in attempting to exalt the poor with the necessities of life. Those whose portion is in abundance, for the sake of the creation and all living on it, must give to those who do not have a portion in order to preserve the earth. If we don’t do this “in [God’s] own way,” then we will lose the blessing of an earth full of life with enough for all and to spare. God’s own way is to limit the sin of overconsumption in order to protect and preserve His creation as well as provide for all His children. Everyone will have enough if there is social equality and we all share what is here. This is what governments and religions should be promoting, rather than worrying about the number of children someone has. The warning for not sharing our abundance with the poor is clear. “If any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.” (vs. 18)

In conclusion, the number of children you have has little to do with how environmentally conscious you are. Whether you have a small or a large family is a personal decision and matters little in the grand scheme of things. Overconsumption, not overpopulation is the real problem. If you want to be more eco-friendly and lower your carbon footprint in a real and meaningful way, the best move you can make is to give to the poor. This is the Lord’s plan for reducing, reusing, and recycling.


Mr. Fob said...

After watching An Inconvenient Truth it became clear to me that overpopulation is a huge problem, but not because the number of people on the planet is intrinsically too high for its resources to handle--rather, we do a crappy job of using those resources well for the number of people we have. Sure, cutting down the number of people could be one way to solve the problem, but probably a better solution is to use our resources more efficiently. And then you don't have to decide which two of your five children you want to keep.

Mr. Fob said...

(Though if you did have to, the choice is pretty clear. We know your daughter would be safe, being the only girl, and the youngest, of course, being named after me and all. I'll miss the three other boys.)

Claudious said...

I have so many ideas on limiting population growth in order to help the environment... most of it involves eliminating the major polutors (is that even a word?) and instead of calling it population control, I think they call it something more "shady" but population control works for me.

I agree with what you say though... from a more gentle way of approaching the problem.

Steve said...


Hey I have five kids too! And I'm an ecologist. When I was in graduate school I told my advisor that we where going to have our fifth child. He said dryly, "We are going to have to teach you some ecological responsability."

My father a social worker said it best though, "If only wanted childen came into the world the population problem would be solved."

There is some wisdom in this and I believe that reproductive choice is deeply personal and we should judge neither the childless or those with ten children. It's a matter between husband, wife and the Lord.

Joe O said...

Thoughtful post. As I've thought about the issue, I find myself agreeing with much of what you say. The self-righteous in me often thinks, "The more children I have the better, because I'll teach each of them to be responsible." Of course, I'm setting myself up because surely two or three of my kids will grow up irresponsible to spite me. Whatever.

L-D sus said...

Thanks for the post. Great points.

It occurs to me that raising peace loving, environmentally aware children cam actually be a net positive for the earth.

Complaining about overpopulation is all about finger pointing. Rather than looking outward and blaming others, we should look inward and change ourselves.

Allan Stellar said...

I disagree with you. But at least you are aware enough to contemplate your position.

Hopefully, someday soon we will have a paradigm shift, and folks will restrain their gonads a bit. If not, the Earth will take care of us and shake us off like some fleas off a dog...


Tom said...

It is true that technology changes how many humans the planet can sustain but hopefully we agree that for a given set of technologies each human needs a finite amount of land for substance. With finite land there is a race between technology and population growth. Necessity breeds invention but if every family had 5 kids we'd need a lot of invention every generation, eventually producing all a human needs in a plot of land as wide as their arms. Maybe we'll do it but too many people on unarable land has been cited as a cause of famine in the past.

Thankfully for the future generations most families are much smaller.

Pete said...

"The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ would take the slums out of people, and then they would take themselves out of the slums.
The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature."
— Ezra Taft Benson

The real solution is for people to live Gospel, especially the Law of Chastity.

If children were born only within the bonds of marriage, we wouldn't be having this discussion on population control.

Tom said...

Pete, solely estricting child birth to married couples sounds like a form of population control and I fear wouldn't be enough to provide bread and water when there is little land per capita. You have a lot of faith, a strength at a personal level.

Thomas Gail Haws said...

If we want the whole earth land surface (60 million sq. mi.) populated as densely as Hong Kong (16,000 per sq. mi.) due to miraculous sustenance technologies, we can fit nearly 1 trillion people on earth. At a growth rate of 1% per year (less than historic and current rates), the earth would thus "fill" with people in 500 more years. Obviously we at some point ought to stop having 5 children each. What held true about the earth in 1840 does not hold true in 2500.

I believe the question is, at what point, should the earth not yet be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory, do we call it prudent in the name of holiness and the golden rule to voluntarily preach forebearance?

Mr. Fob said...

I admit to not having statistics to back this up, but it seems to me that there are few enough people having 5 or more children nowadays that those who do can't be making that significant a contribution to overpopulation. Regardless of what the Mormon church does or doesn't preach, there are far fewer Mormons who have the large families previous generations did. I think population problems are much larger than can be attributed to those Mormons who choose to have large families--I'd certainly rather someone like GMA, who's going to teach his children to be environmentally responsible, have five kids than someone who doesn't care about the environment have two.

Thomas Gail Haws said...

If I understand you correctly, Mr. Fob, you are proceeding on the assumption and hope that Mormonism will 1) not grow appreciably faster than 1% per year so as not to exceed 0.1% of the world population and 2) not change its tradition of large families. You hold to this rather than the idea that the earth will be renewed long before 500 years should pass.

The question that comes to my mind is whether Mormonism can mathematically mantain the large family tradition while staying under the population radar. My math says at a 4-kid-per-family rate every thirty years (2.4% growth), Mormonism alone reaches 1 trillion in 475 more years.

Maybe you are saying that even Mormonism as a whole might eventually throttle its growth rate to 0 (2.5 kids per family??), but that any given family might be free to have 5 or 14 kids? Are you mainly standing up for the large family as an odd case that's under the statistical radar?

Mr. Fob said...

Maybe you are saying that even Mormonism as a whole might eventually throttle its growth rate to 0 (2.5 kids per family??), but that any given family might be free to have 5 or 14 kids? Are you mainly standing up for the large family as an odd case that's under the statistical radar?

That's my assumption--though I would add that even if Mormonism as a whole is a little above the 2.5 kids per family range, this is likely to be balanced out by society as a whole, or at least not have such an impact that we can point to large Mormon families as a significant cause of overpopulation. But again, I admit to not having statistics to support this claim. It's just that in my personal observation, I see far fewer Mormons having very large families, so I'm not concerned by the ones I do see.

No, I don't hold to a belief that the Millenium will come within the next 500 years, or ever, or any other belief of Mormonism for that matter. I don't believe that those who fall back on this belief as an excuse not to care about environmental issues are behaving as responsible citizens of the Earth (or "stewards," to use Mormon terminology). If church leaders are actively encouraging members to have large families regardless of their personal situations and desires, then I do believe that's a problem, but my concern goes only to the extent that members take such counsel seriously. And, to be clear, I believe that anyone who has a large family not because they want to but because they believe they should is not behaving responsibly as a planetary citizen, a parent, or even a human being.

I'm just saying that when it comes to solving problems caused by overpopulation, it's more useful to focus on using our resources wisely than on limiting the number of children any given family can have, or condemning families that do have a lot of children.

Mr. Fob said...

Apologies if I come across as overly defensive. It's just that I like GMA and I like his kids, and I'm uncomfortable with any argument that claims that some of them should not exist. Or, for that matter, that I, as the seventh of seven children, should not exist. :)

Thomas Gail Haws said...

I'm glad you exist. And I'm personally aware of the emotional power of childhood understandings. I love large families! I wish every child could grow up in a home of 8 or more children.

Mathematically, however, no tradition (Mormonism, Islam, Catholicism, or the Chavez clan) can persist having on average 6 children per generation (3.7% annual growth) without eventually being not only statistically significant, but dominant. Years to 1 trillion at 3.7%: Mormonism=300 years, Catholicism=190 years, Islam=175 years, my grandparents' family=650 years. World domination is simply a matter of time if family size is large. Maybe there is a dash of partisan booster-ism in large families as well.

Mr. Fob said...

Which is exactly why we need people who care about the environment having large families. :)

No, I really do see your point. And you clearly have done the research, whereas I'm just making lazy, subjective observations. If not my argument, then my hope would be that enough people in the world have small families so that those who want large families can have them. I, personally, am not one of them. My wife and I are currently at 2.5 and I'm perfectly happy here--though inevitably that .5 will turn into a 3rd, and I suppose I'll just have to get used to it...

Thomas Gail Haws said...

"Which is exactly why we need people who care about the environment having large families. :)"

I love it. Tee hee hee. Freedom is good. Thanks for the talk.

Anonymous said...

exactly the sort of self-justifying bullshit I'd expect from someone who also defends the environmental practices and basic geo-theology of the Mormon church.

You watched "Saturday's Warriors" too many times.

For every reason that population control doesn't help the environment, there are a hundred for why it does.

You're wrong, and in your heart you know it.

Seriously: how many disposable diapers are in a landfill because of you? that's sustainable? that's green?

People are right to judge and condemn you and your selfishness.

shame on you.

Anonymous said...

The simple fact of the matter is that the earth only has the resources (food, water, etc) to support a finite number of people. With this in mind, it is hard to rationalize having a large family, even if you try to lower your family's carbon footprint. I feel like, because of people who make the choice you did to have many children, I shouldn't get to enjoy the wonders of having a child because I should be helping to offset the population growth you helping to cause. That's what makes me sad. I would love to have a child. And I would feel fine about that if people around me were chosing to have only 1-2 children. But when people like yourself have 5, it makes me feel guilty for even having that one or two. It's a very sad thing.