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.
“There is a lot of research showing a connection between population and a variety of environmental problems,” including greenhouse gas emissions (especially carbon dixoide), deforestation, depletion of fisheries, and loss of biodiversity, says Richard York, a sociology professor at the University of Oregon who researches these issues. “The consumption of energy and materials is fairly closely linked to population – although there are many factors, especially economic growth, that are also important – and thus in general population plays an important role in resource depletion and waste generation.”
York doesn’t use the term “population control” because “it sounds of something coercive and nefarious”; nor does he advocate the kind of coercive measures that have given that phrase such a bad name. Indeed, global attempts to control population have a sordid history that includes forced abortion, sterilization, and infanticide. The most well-known example of population control’s unintended consequences is in the case of China, where many families have aborted female fetuses in order to comply with the nation’s one-child policy and the culture’s preference for males; the country now has a deeply skewed gender ratio. Still, York, like many other scientists and eco-activists, believes that the relationship between overpopulation and environmental degradation needs to be discussed.
But Matthew Connelly, a professor of history at Columbia University, and the author of Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, disagrees with the fundamental premise of population control – or whatever you want to call it – not to mention its rhetoric. The issue, he says, is not influencing how many people there are in the world, but how those people are living. “It’s not a population crisis, it’s a consumption crisis,” he says.
According to the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, industrialized countries, with only twenty percent of the world’s population, are responsible for eighty percent of the accumulated carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere. The U.S. is the worst offender; in 2002, it was responsible for twenty tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person, compared to only 0.2 tons in Bangladesh, 0.3 in Kenya and 3.9 in Mexico.
Industrialized countries, with only 20% of the world’s population, are responsible for 80% of the accumulated carbon dioxide build-up. Connelly notes a study that found that large households generally consume less than small households. “That is the thing we should be worried about,” says Connelly. “Instead of launching a campaign telling people to try to have fewer kids, we should point to the fact that we now insist on having more bathrooms per household than people.”
It certainly made sense for readers of Kuczynski’s Times article to assume that her offspring would be a participant in this flagrant culture of consumption that celebrates ten-room mansions and thirteenth birthday parties more ostentatious than most weddings. In that sense, the commenters who lambasted the author as an environmental menace were correct. And, in fact, the consumption issue explains why discussions about population control are focusing more and more on Americans, including those that are white and middle-class.
York adds that we should think about the global consequences of reproductive technology in terms of consumption. How we prioritize resources “is a legitimate issue to be concerned about,” he says. He wonders about “all the research and money that go into increasing fertility for a handful of rich people. It’s a question of whether this is a good use of the world’s resources.”
A question that many of the country’s singles and gays who want to have families, or the 7.3 million people in the U.S. who are struggling with infertility, would probably rather not think about.
It’s easy to see how the moral condemnation lobbed at the ur-privileged Kuczynski or the mentally unhinged Suleman could quickly translate into a more general critique of many American women’s reproductive choices – and it has. Certainly, the rhetoric of personal responsibility that many proponents of environmentalism use to make their point sounds eerily familiar. The idea that women who have not followed the laws of biology – that have dared to put off childbearing while in pursuit of a PhD, a corner office, the right mate, a nest egg – are selfish has been around at least since the backlash to the second wave of the women’s movement. The ideology of population control is “a way of blaming women,” says Betsy Hartmann, director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College.
And this time, some of the same race, class, and gender-sensitive Americans who enthusiastically voted Obama into office are among those doing the finger-pointing. After eight years of an environmentally tone-deaf president and a runaway big business culture that has our country’s finances in ruin, they now see an opportunity for change. But this new frugality isn’t just directed at Wall Street minions or banks, but is being projected onto the bodies of individual women – those who have more than one child; have many children; or want their own genetic children, whether via reproductive technology or not. (“The vanity of having a baby who is genetically attached to the parents who raise it escapes me,” said one Times commenter, typical of the many who seemed to think that all families who want children should adopt.) They are looked upon by some as not all that different from overpaid executives looking to use taxpayers’ stimulus money for a joyride on a private jet, embodiments of a bloated age of conspicuous consumption we would rather forget.
Of course, not everyone thinks that a thriftier approach to childbearing is the answer. “Why do so many people remain convinced that it is the job of infertile couples to ‘save the world’? The only thing that’s smug is someone with biological children insisting that others adopt orphans or not add to the population problem,” said one Times commenter. Hartmann agrees that there is a pernicious effect to shifting a social issue like environmental degradation onto individual women or couples. In fact, focusing on controlling births “is diverting attention” from enacting other policies to improve the environment, she says.
There is a pernicious effect to shifting a social issue onto individual women or couples.And though they may use different language to talk about it, many population control advocates and adversaries agree on some of those measures. Like many other concerned scholars, York thinks that the best ways to reduce population on an international level are to improve the status of women and give them more access to education and to paid work; to improve health care, which would help reduce the infant mortality rate so that families didn’t feel they need to have so many children; and to ensure that everyone in the world has access to safe, effective, affordable birth control. All of these measures have been shown to lower fertility rates without state coercion.
Connelly agrees that, globally, we need comprehensive reproductive healthcare. He also notes that infertility is a huge problem in the developing world and believes that treatments should be government subsidized and more available globally, so that people in all societies have equal access to choosing when to have families. And he notes that the Byzantine rules governing adoption here and abroad put off many of those who might want to otherwise; making adoption easier is an issue he thinks could bring people on the left and right together.
Hartmann suggests enacting a sane environmental policy, which would include putting caps on carbon emissions, shifting from private automobiles to public transport, bringing back local agriculture, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and making investments in alternative energy. “People concerned with the environment need to get involved in pressuring the administration to enact good policies. There’s a real political opening with the new EPA director and the administration’s decision to get involved again in international climate policy.”
She also suggests that we focus not on limiting how many children individual women have, but on raising those children in a green way. “We should try to have a more positive attitude: yes, have children, but have a more healthy environment, a more sane lifestyle.” That’s a solution that sounds down to earth.