Octomom Nadya Suleman is a bogeyman to moralists of all breeds. Religious fundamentalists may approve of big families, but a husbandless woman with fourteen children epitomizes feminism gone wild. To proponents of small government, she is a modern-day reincarnation of the Reagan-era welfare queen. And to environmentally-friendly progressives, she is something else: the human equivalent of a Hummer.
“For me the fundamental issue is one of what, for lack of a better word, I’d call planetary responsibility. I don’t care if it’s a poor single mom or Melinda Gates: I don’t think anyone has the right to make reproductive choices that result in overpopulation,” says Peaco Todd, a cartoonist, who lives in Boston. “There are too many people already and the planet just can’t support more of us. The result will be dwindling resources, vanishing habitat, all of which will cause unimaginable harm and suffering.”
Suleman is not the only woman whose reproductive choices are inciting eco-anxiety. Last November, Alex Kuczynski wrote a cover story for The New York Times Magazine about hiring a surrogate after multiple miscarriages and the failure of many rounds of in vitro fertilization. The article reeked of class privilege, and not only because the author noted that she and her successful investor husband spent $25,000 to rent the womb of a less economically advantaged woman, who hoped the money would help pay for her children’s college. But it wasn’t just the references to her vacation homes in Idaho and Southampton or her twice-daily Bikram yoga sessions that hundreds of commenters on the Times‘s website castigated Kuczynski for.
“You’d think with nearly seven billion people on this planet, a couple might think of it as a blessing that they can not add any more ‘consumers’ to our Earth’s already overstretched resources,” said one.
Of course, Kuczynski, like Suleman, is an anomaly. (Women who make use of fertility treatments may have some means, but most don’t own a Steinway piano.) But the reactions to both of their stories illuminates a conversation that is happening about the relationship between women’s childbearing choices and the environment. It’s certainly not uncommon to hear women in their twenties and thirties say that they are not sure they want to have children partly because they’re worried about being earth-friendly.
In February, a group of eco-activists and concerned scholars joined together for a Global Population Speak Out. The Global Footprint Network is one of many environmental organizations that tracks the overpopulation issue. Last year, in the best-selling The World Without Us, Alan Weisman suggested that we cut the birth rate to one child per couple for at least a few generations. And though these discussions have happened in the past, the current targets are not always the usual suspects – women of color (particularly black women) and poor women – but also middle-class and white women.
At the heart of these debates are a number of questions: What is the relationship between individual women’s reproductive decisions and environmental degradation? Can we really help save the planet by having less children? Or is this just a modern form of green-washed eugenics? And in what ways does the rhetoric and ideology of population control affect women?
Americans have been debating overpopulation in earnest since Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb exploded on the scene in 1968; that best-selling book claimed that humans were far outpacing the earth’s natural resources, and that unless population was massively curtailed, hundreds of millions would soon die of starvation. At the time, population growth was the highest it had ever been in human history. Today, population growth has slowed and some countries, like Japan, now have below replacement-level fertility; plus, better agricultural technologies have made Ehrlich’s worry about mass famine moot. Still, the statistics sound dire: About 6.7 billion people live on the earth today and that number is expected to go up by three billion by 2050.