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On Population and Sustainability: Should We or Shouldn’t We Keep Having Children?

On Population and Sustainability: Should We or Shouldn’t We Keep Having Children?
Written by Amanda Lopez

In 1804, Earth’s human population was 1 billion. This figure reached 2 billion in 1927. Then, it soared to 3 billion in 1960. It proceeded to hit 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, and 6 billion in 1999.

As the years passed, it’s taken less and less time for this headcount to increase by a billion. 123 years went by before 2 billion was reached in the 1920s, for example, but it took only 33 years for this 2 billion to shoot up to 3 billion by 1960. The journey from 6 to 7 billion took all of 12 years to complete.

In July 2015, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs revealed that there were currently 7.349 billion human beings on the planet. Estimates show that if birth, death, and population growth rates remain constant—278 babies born as opposed to 109 people dead per minute, with 1.18 per cent annual growth—we could reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100.

Life After Death

Life on Earth for us Homo sapiens folk wasn’t always peachy keen. Before the advent of sterilisation, and mechanized farming techniques, the average life expectancy was about 35, and around 1200 women would die per 100,000 childbirths.

However, when the Industrial Revolution came in the 1760s, human life began to flourish: machines made previously arduous tool and food manufacturing tasks easier and faster to do, medicines and treatments cured heretofore deadly illnesses, and vaccines prevented one from contracting formerly unavoidable diseases.

On Population and Sustainability: Should We or Shouldn’t We Keep Having Children?

In the early 1960s, when starvation ravaged many of the world’s neediest countries, American biologist and Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug came to the rescue. By developing disease-resistant, high-yielding crops, and teaching farmers in Mexico and India modern agricultural methods, Borlaug taught many poor nations self-sufficiency in their food production.

Because of these scientific and technological breakthroughs, millions of lives were saved, and as time went on, billions more lives were created.

Crowded House, Growing Pains

In this great celebration of prolonged and bettered existence, however, what many who came before us have failed to consider is that the earth has physical limits as to how many people it can support, and that operating above this threshold will drive it to the point of collapse.

Soil, for example, is a distinctly non-renewable resource, and already, we’ve blown through most of whatever available land we have for agricultural purposes.

To boost output and meet ever-increasing demands for food, Western manufacturers often acquire forests and arable land in much poorer countries, displacing countless native communities and animals and employing unsustainable planting methods that cause soil degradation and erosion.

On Population and Sustainability: Should We or Shouldn’t We Keep Having Children?

Still, even with the materials and devices to grow crops at lightning speed, without soil, we can’t produce food at a large and fast enough scale to keep the world’s constantly growing contingent of hungry people fed.

Furthermore, the global supply of fresh water at any given time is limited, with some areas naturally freshwater-rich, and others the complete opposite, and the wasteful consumption of over 7 billion water drinkers and users has caused droughts to persist, reservoirs to dry up, and deserts to sprout across the world.

When British primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall said, “It’s our population growth that underlies just about every single one of the problems that we’ve inflicted on the planet,” she wasn’t exaggerating. Resource depletion, deforestation, habitat loss, pollution, climate change, species extinction, starvation, poverty—these issues are all strongly linked to our having reproduced so much and so fast, with no thought of how to live in ways that could sustain our environment as well as ourselves down the line.

Population Quality Over Quantity: A Life of Consciousness, Minimalism, and Activism

To preserve both our species and our planet, so that we can each enjoy fulfilling lives while allowing future generations to do the same, we need to start taking collective action toward helping keep world population growth at a minimum.

Deciding whether or not to have children is perhaps the biggest environmental choice we’ll ever make in our lifetime, because each additional human life created and brought into this world equates to even greater ecological impact and resource consumption.

There are plenty of benefits to life without children of your own, and choosing the childfree path takes a considerable load off the earth’s already beaten shoulders.

On Population and Sustainability: Should We or Shouldn’t We Keep Having Children?

Another way to stem population growth is adopting from an orphanage or home. There are children and youths all over the world who, due to either parental death or unfortunate circumstances, are no longer in their parents’ custody. When you adopt, you are simultaneously actualising your parental yearning while providing a loving home and family to a vulnerable individual in desperate need.

Now, if none of these options appeal to you, that’s perfectly understandable. The urge to procreate is instinctual—this is just how living beings are. If one of your biggest dreams is marrying the love of your life and raising a family of your own, you can still contribute to the cause by settling on a small family of just one to two kids.

Making an enlightened, ethical population choice of either staying childfree, adopting, or breeding modestly earns us a fighting chance at a livable planet in the years to come. Add to this the habits of minimal and mindful consumption, standing up for women’s rights to education, fair employment, reproductive health, and birth control, and helping eradicate poverty via running or supporting sustainable business, and we can altogether create happy, meaningful earthly lives for as many beings as possible.

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About the author

Amanda Lopez

A writer, thinker, feeler, and yogi, Amanda bravely navigates the adult world—despite her countless neuroses and chakra imbalances—by being in the present moment, and engaging her core.


  • Thanks for a thoughtful post 🙂
    Personally I aim for 1 child, and always have to defend that. Our reason is divorce rates, that duble after the second child, but now i can add climate concerns on the list 😉
    Though I’d share this documentary with you if you haven’t already seen it.
    It is in no way contradictory to what you write, just really good, and about population growth.

    • Hi Johanne,
      That’s a super interesting (if sad) divorce statistic, and a very compassionate personal reason to limit childbirth, it makes so much sense for everyone involved. 🙂 Good luck winning future debates now that you have more material! 😉
      Thanks for this link, I actually did watch this one in my research, I agree, it’s really good! I think Hans Rosling (speaker) said that since the global average family size (in 2013) was already at 4 (2 kids), and that we’d probably start to plateau at 11 billion, we shouldn’t worry. I’m scared about even reaching 9 billion though, seeing how things are at 7.6 (?) billion alone!
      He actually also made a point to view climate change and pop growth almost as two separate issues, because his findings showed that some of the highest average GHG emissions come from some of the world’s richest nations/continents, despite their modest population sizes and growth rates (US, EU, Japan), and that the the highest birth rates belong to some of the world’s poorest nations (the current top 12 fastest growing populations are actually all African).
      I’m not too keen on separating climate change and pop growth rate, since all economies are interconnected anyway, and three of the biggest GHG emitters are still China, India, and Brazil (both huge populations all with steadily positive pop growth rates). But he concluded that realistic solutions still point to strict national climate change policies at both macro and micro levels to address the former, and poverty eradication, education, and empowerment in developing nations, so that people understand that smaller families result in a higher quality of life, to address the latter.
      As for us, well, we do what we can ourselves to make individual changes while inspiring others around us. Here’s to a future of fewer but happier humans, more animals, and a still thriving, lush as ever planet (let’s be optimistic!).
      Sorry for the novel, and thank you for reading! I look forward to more of your comments here. 🙂

    • Hi Johanne, for me children are a “nice to have” not a “must have.” My fiance and I aren’t all that fussed if we do have a child, but if we do, I’d be happy to stop at one. Time, energy, finances, my sanity, climate change. I would need to factor all of these in hahaha! Thanks also for the doco recommendation! 🙂

  • Thanks for the wonderful and very thoughtful article Amamda. As a by-choice childless person it can be difficult to come up against a world that still pushes the ‘need to breed’ agenda. As you mention, the crux of our environmental problems comes down to overpopulation, and while everyone should have the right to choose how many children (if indeed they choose to have children) the decision is ultimately up to the woman or the couple. Outside parties should respect every individual’s right to choose rather than ‘other’ or shame them for their decisions. As adults we should understand that people make decisions based on their own values and in this case lifestyle preferences. Just because a person chooses to be child-free, have fewer children (below replacement rate), adopt or foster, it shouldn’t indicate they are selfish, thoughtless or unfair (which is sometimes the shaming case with parent of only children), or missing out on something by not experience of childbirth. People just take different paths in life. Decisions should be respected because diversity is interesting! Can’t imagine living in a world where everyone all followed the exact same path in life. Would be a tad boring… 🙂 Thanks again for such a great article

    • Hi Katie,
      You’re absolutely right, we do need to accept and respect each other’s lifestyle choices, even if we don’t fully agree with or understand them—it’s called maturity and common decency! And like you’ve said, this is how we cultivate diversity! Unless said choices are harmful to others, or even to the decision maker, however, in which case we try to intervene the best way we can (or you know, call the cops). Otherwise, live and let live!
      Also with you on the smaller family/childfree lifestyle-shaming. See, here in the Philippines, people had huge families up until maybe Gen X because:
      1) Like other largely agricultural nations, people used to breed according to how much help they needed on the land, i.e. saying you had five brothers and four sisters was no big deal.
      2) Having been a Spanish colony, we’re primarily Christian and Catholic, and there’s always been blurred lines between church and state. Both abortion and divorce are illegal here, and up until our first ever Reproductive Health Bill was passed last year, proper public school sex education and access to cheap, effective contraceptives were just extremely exotic ideas.
      Today, we Filipinos stand, 102.5 million strong, with a density of 334 of us per square km, and far too many poor people than our government cares to admit (Margaret Yarcia writes about poverty on here too!).
      So kudos to you for being childfree; how considerate and pragmatic of you. 🙂 There’s so much happiness and fulfilment and beauty to be found in this life, and as long as these paths bring joy, allow growth, and aren’t causing others to suffer, they’re really all worth celebrating!
      Thank you for reading, and hope to see you again here soon!

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