The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.


Agriculture was humanity's solution to the problem of overpopulation --- a farmer can Graph of grain production during the Green Revolutiongrow ten to 100 times as much food in a certain area as a hunter-gatherer can collect from the same amount of land left in its wild condition.  But in the early twentieth century, it looked like even agriculture couldn't save us from starvation.  In the United States, we were farming all of the arable land, but people kept having babies --- clearly, we needed to find a way to increase the yield per acre.  So modern science came up with hybrid corn and dwarf wheat that could be combined with chemical fertilizers to feed our growing population.

The Green Revolution is only a short term fix, though.  One day, humanity will find the limits of our planet's ability to support us --- unless, that is, we can discover a method of bringing our population growth under control.  That's a tough order since every introductory biology course teaches that the basic evolutionary urge of reproduction lies at the root of all animals' actions, including humans.  That urge --- to have as many kids as possible so that our genes will spread across the world --- led us to agriculture and our wars of conquest.

The ThinkerBut humanity has a saving grace.  We are able to use rational thought to decide when and how to override our ingrained evolutionary urges.  For example, since males of most species spend so little energy creating sperm, it's understood that the most efficient male reproductive strategy is to have sex with as many females as possible.  And yet, in modern society, most men have found a way to sublimate that urge --- in fact, some men even choose to practice monogamy and are quite happy with that anti-evolutionary choice.

All of us are probably familiar with another way that we buck our genes on a daily basis.  We've evolved in a world where salt and sugars are scarce, so most of our bodies tell us to eat more potato chips and candy.  And yet, we somehow manage to listen to nutritional advice and keep our salt and sugar intake within reasonable bounds --- human rationality wins over bodily urges yet again.

I believe that modern humans must make another ethical decision and choose to limit our own birth rates, just as hunter-gatherers once limited their own population growth.  If we each opted to have only one child (or no children at all), we could halve our population at the same rate the first farmers doubled theirs.  Of course, that would mean directing our societies away from "growth economics" --- living within our means as a nation, saving more since we won't have so many young workers to support us as we age.  In short, choosing to limit our birth rate would mean living sustainably.

Mark and I chose the no-children route years ago, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.  If I had been completely honest, I would have put Mark's vasectomy on the list of factors that turned our fourth year on the farm into the best year ever.  Being child-free by choice gives Two is enoughus a lot of benefits besides unprotected sex, though --- lack of children is one of the reasons we can live so happily on very little income, and we also have lots of free time to research permaculture, shoot photos, and travel.

Neither Mark nor I have an overwhelming urge to rear children, which isn't as unique as you might think.  I've spent a lot of time in the last few years feeling out my friends and acquaintances about their decisions to reproduce.  Leaving aside those whose religion or laziness forbade them birth control, the reasons people cite for having kids are varied --- societal pressure, an assumption that having kids is simply what adults do, a way out of an annoying job (a surprisingly common reason among women), a way of bonding the spouses together, an urge to find meaning in a currently unfulfilling life, etc.  I suspect that none of these reasons feels quite as important after those new parents spend two years without adequate sleep, and I pity the children who are reared by people who looked at kids as a means to an end rather than as the full time, lifelong commitment they really are.

Sometimes I dream of a utopian world where the only people who embark on parenthood do so out of an urge to raise a child to the best of their abilities.  From my informal poll, it seems like these people make up perhaps a quarter of the population, if that, which makes me feel like these true parent types could actually have three kids apiece and the world's human population would still plummet.  In this real world, there are a lot of options for those who feel called to the path of parenthood but who don't want to clutter up the world with more humans --- fostering and adoption are at the top of the list.  In fact, I feel like I got all of my parental urges out of my system by being an informal nanny to Mark's cousins for a few years.

If you have already become a parent, you can still be part of the solution.  Why not teach your kids and grandkids about birth control (and pass out condoms like candy?)  Various studies have shown that having the ability to choose if and when to have kids is especially important for women who may opt to have kids at an older age, preserving the mother's health and allowing her to attain a higher standard of living.  (There's a reason the terms "barefoot" and "pregnant" go together.)  You might even consider cluing in starry-eyed young men and women about the realities of parenthood seldom spelled out on mainstream television shows.

Just as overpopulation initiated poverty, wars of conquest, and ill health, I think that voluntarily reducing our population can solve many of these problems.  Choosing a route other than childbirth is the biggest contribution most of us can make to environmental protection and world peace.

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This post is part of our History of Agriculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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This is the path that my husband and I have gone down too. If only more people would follow suit, the world would certainly be a better place! This post was very articulate and thoughtful - thank you.
Comment by Jessica Thu Sep 23 13:28:28 2010
Thanks, Jessica! I keep waiting for this post to start a flame war, but I think that it's too important not to talk about. I'm glad to hear from someone who agrees.
Comment by anna Thu Sep 23 14:52:21 2010

If more people choose to have no kids, it would surely alleviate the problem in due time. Of course if we don't, nature has its way of dealing with that, but that isn't pretty and best avoided.

But there is indeed a huge role played by social factors. Comprehensive sex ed for teenagers is a big factor. The US e.g. has by far the highest teenage pregnancy rate of the developed world. And as you said this is negatively correlated with wealth and education (more pregnancies in less well-off and educated people). It seems that the favorite strategy of trying to get teens to abstain from sex isn't working very well. What a surprise! Whomever "genius" thought that up should get some real biology and psychology education (not from a bible)!

It seems to me that generally the decision not to have children is usually an informed decision (leaving aside those unable to have children), while the opposite is not always informed nor even a conscious decision.

So it should be made easy not to have kids.

Maybe people willing to undergo a vascectomy or tubal legation should be able to have it done for free and receive a substantial financial reward?

Comment by Roland_Smith Thu Sep 23 16:10:18 2010

I totally agree with you on every point. The state of sex ed in the US is extremely sad (especially here in the South where very religious parents often opt for their children not to even participate in the already very watered down sex ed class.)

Specifically, I think that our sex education needs to be more sex positive. I know that sounds like an odd thing to say, but if kids weren't told "don't have sex!" and were instead told "sex is great fun! Here's how to do it responsibly and make it even more fun", I suspect we would have a much lower teenage pregnancy rate. I think that very few people except the extreme religious right think that kids having kids is a good idea. (On the other hand, I am actually a conspiracy theorist to some extent on this point --- the wealthy actually have a lot to gain by tempting the poor to have more kids. A copious work force of unskilled labor means that they don't have to pay their workers much.)

I think that if we didn't have such a Puritan history of not even wanting to talk about sex, then people would actually put thought into whether or not they would have kids.

We also have tax credits for having kids. Not only do you get to write more off on your taxes if you have a larger family (somewhat understandable), you get a one time tax credit of some huge figure (a thousand bucks or so?) just for having a child. This is the one part of our tax code that makes me a bit nuts. It would make my day if it was replaced by a tax credit for having a vasectomy (preferably combined with a free clinic so that you don't have to save up nearly a thousand bucks to prevent becoming a father.)

Stepping down off my soapbox now... :-)

Comment by anna Thu Sep 23 16:25:20 2010

I think your readers are too intelligent to disagree with you on this point... so hopefully you needn't fear a flame war.

I also totally agree with your points about providing a financial incentive to procreate. I feel that the incentive should instead be given to those of us who, year after year, exhibit responsible reproductive choices. Alas, I fear that we are too outnumbered for that to ever happen but a girl can hope!

Comment by Jessica Thu Sep 23 18:16:25 2010

I'm not sure that I fully agree. Choosing not to birth children is a little like choosing not to litter. You don't contribute to the problem but you're not really solving the problem either. I agree that education and empowering women are steps toward a solution but I also think that raising the next generation to know better than the one before will make an impact.

As a long time follower of your blog it also makes me a little sad to know that your knowledge and experience will one day be lost instead of handed down to the next generation who might expand and evolve (and enrich) your way of life. I've always thought that of Helen & Scott Nearing too though.

As a former foster parent and now an adoptive parent I can tell from my experience that the true need for parents is exhausting and overwhelming. The world IS overpopulated but at the same time it's full of children without parents and childless couples.

Comment by Fostermamas Thu Sep 23 18:23:48 2010
But if we can't change the tax code, at the very least your friends should throw a nice "vasectomy shower" for you complete with a cake and lots of nice gifts (or at least some compost). I hope more examples of happy childfree couples like you, versus the endless TV shows of mom plus baby makes 19, will have a positive effect on the next generation.
Comment by Lisa Thu Sep 23 18:39:32 2010

Jessica --- I always forget how open-minded our readers are. I guess I measure the general homesteading public by Mother Earth News's readers, and I can't help remembering how many wrote in letters to the editor in response to population articles saying "I can't believe you printed that! I'm unsubscribing!" Of course, anyone willing to slog through some of my longer experimental posts clearly are head and shoulders above the average Mother Earth News reader.

I like your idea of getting a tax credit every year you don't reproduce. (And I think, to link it in with Fostermamas comment, you should also get a tax credit for taking care of other people's kids through fostering and adoption.)

Fostermamas --- I really appreciated your very thoughtful response. We actually have a contingency plan that looks a lot like your reality --- if my biological clock starts ticking, we'll foster a child. If that doesn't cure it, we'll adopt. I think that's unlikely, though, since I've really got a lot of parenting out of my system in other ways.

I've had several people say something similar to your second comment, that it's a shame that I'm not willing to be a parent and share my knowledge. But my experience watching other peoples' kids is that you're very lucky if you happen to get a child who's interested in learning what you're interested in teaching. Instead, I figure I get a lot more bang for my buck by blogging --- about 650 people come to our blog every day, along with another hundred who subscribe via RSS, and I think that has more of an impact than I would have by teaching one child (who I would inevitably resent since I'm just not cut out for childcare.) I think that Helen and Scott Nearing did the same thing through their books --- I know that I got a lot out of reading their books, and suspect that thousands of others did too. Isn't that just as powerful an effect on the world as raising a child?

That said, I think that you are clearly one of those people who is drawn to parenting, and I'm so glad you found your niche both as a foster parent and as an adoptive parent! I totally agree that we need far more foster and adoptive parents in the world, and that everyone should consider that route before giving birth to a biological child.

Comment by anna Thu Sep 23 18:44:19 2010
Lisa --- I wasn't interested in the vasectomy shower...until you mentioned the compost. :-)
Comment by anna Thu Sep 23 19:02:42 2010

I'm with ya on this one. It drives me crazy when I see couples with more than a two kids. Unchecked population is one of my gravest concerns for the future of this planet. I can remember when the world population was only 4 billion, and I'm not that old.

As for growth economics, I'm with ya on that one too... In fact, I think that is one reason why no one can agree on immigration in the US. At present the birth rate in the US is the lowest in a century.

Comment by Shannon Fri Sep 24 01:17:48 2010

That's fascinating about birth rate declining! I had to go check it out since I'm so unplugged I hadn't seen that statistic. :-) You're right that we have a lower birth rate per thousand people now than at any time in the last 100 years (and probably ever.) Sadly, that's still a rising population, though.

I'm actually impressed that Americans are aware enough to decide that our Recession is a bad time to have a kid (which is what the analysts are giving as the reason for the birth rate decline.)

Comment by anna Fri Sep 24 06:48:44 2010

I am one of the 1/4 of people who had a child because I really enjoy children and want to pass on my knowledge, rather than for ulterior motives and in spite of the extra cost and labor especially for a two person home. We carefully chose a time that would not be too difficult with our work to have her, I don't understand how anyone educated could have one accidentally but my coworker did.

I will say that the cost of having a child is much higher than the tax credits that the government gives. For example, Childcare in this area is $800-$1000 per month while you can only write off $3000 for the year, also even with haunting yardsales and searching for other bargains we have probably spent something like $1500 on furnature, childsafty measures, carseats, clothing, bottles etc. much of which expire/wearout and will need to be purchased again if we have another kid. We have used cloth diapers so have saved money that way (only $500) but the water and power bills are crazy. I feel it is all worth it though and we would do it again. As a matter of fact I am starting to wonder if it would be a better career path for me to run a daycare, and be able to spend time teaching many small ones, rather then be a professor teaching at a college.

I am glad that more people are choosing to limit or eliminate their child bearing but, I would point out that if all educated people did that, it would mean an entire generation of kids who all came from undereducated backgrounds, which I think would be bad in general for society. You know if we did not have immigration into the USA the population would actually be shrinking, apparently this has been true for many years. One of the reasons I am for immigration (I feel that this creates a environment of available jobs that immigrants will fill wheither they are legal or not and at least if they are legal they get treated better).

Ok Hope I did not offend anyone.

Comment by Rebecca Fri Sep 24 10:56:06 2010

Rebecca --- I don't see how your comment could have offended anyone. I used to think that nobody should have kids, but in the last couple of years I've mellowed and realized that some people are really called to parenthood. Clearly you are one of the few --- anyone who considers opening up a daycare definitely has a passion for kids. I'm curious to hear what you think about the percentage of people who are actually called to have kids --- was I on track with my 25% estimate?

The only point I disagree with is that if all of the educated people stop having kids, we'll have "entire generation of kids who all came from undereducated backgrounds" (or, rather, I disagree that that would be a bad thing.) I've heard this argument from several other college-educated people, and it doesn't hold any water to me. I don't think there's anything inherently less smart or good about people who come from undereducated backgrounds --- Mark's parents never went to college and he didn't finish college, but he's one of the smartest people I know. Although I went to college, I was raised dirt poor and probably at least partly fit into that category --- my high school was shoddy and most of the learning I did there was on my own.

Intelligence and creativity do have a genetic component, but everyone knows that nurture makes up a very large part of those factors as well. I suspect there are just as many stupid college-educated people as there are stupid college-dropouts. The former just came from the elite and so were sent to college despite not being college material --- they probably passed and graduated too. On the other hand, there are scores of college dropouts who became autodidacts and went on to make a huge difference in the world. In fact, I would argue that having to struggle a bit to get to college or to learn through an alternative method makes you more serious about education. I know that I felt a lot more compelled to get serious knowledge out of my college classes since I was paying for every penny myself (with a hefty dose of financial aid, of course.)

Comment by anna Fri Sep 24 12:02:37 2010

Hans Rosling has been doing studies for years on the relationship between economies of various countries in the world and fertility levels. This is much broader than the choice of individual couples who choose to have children or not. He talks about the numbers of children born in each country, their survival rates (health conditions), and how well the overall economy of the country of their birth is. US Citizens have an image of third world countries being so different than conditions here, but that is rapidly changing.

Here is one of his presentations:

Comment by David Fri Sep 24 17:05:37 2010

Thanks so much for sharing that! I very rarely watch videos online, but that was definitely worth watching.

What's almost more fun is visiting his non-profit's website and playing with the data yourself at It's intriguing to see that he's right --- "developing" countries are catching up remarkably fast with the richest part of the world. On the other hand, you still see a linear relationship between number of kids per woman and life expectancy:

Life expectancy versus reproduction

Comment by anna Fri Sep 24 19:08:21 2010

I can't remember how I stumbled across your blog--but I've enjoyed reading about your adventures and learning from them. We have had a garden for 4 years now and it has been such a learning process and so worth it. I do want to tell you that I am mother of 3 beautiful girls. I stay home with them--teaching them, working with them, and picking green beans with them. Parenthood is a challenge; but one of the most rewarding challenges there is. I respect your decision to not have children. Everyone needs to do what is best for them.

I believe the earth was created for families--that's why it is here. God created man in his own image and asked us to have families and to care for the earth. We're here to learn and to grow; and there is no better way to learn how to be patient and loving than in a family. It truly tests you. You learn about giving more than you take.

One day when I'm too old to pick up my garden hoe or if my husband has already passed on, I won't be alone. I will have my children, and their children, and their children. Family is what lasts and I believe I will get to enjoy my family for eternity.

Good luck with the garden. You're both doing some great things!

Comment by Andrea Wed Oct 20 22:06:57 2010
Thanks for sharing, Andrea! I think that you're one of the few people, like Rebecca, who is really called to parenthood and who dives in with both feet. We definitely need people like you to be in the parenting business. I just feel like you are in the minority, and most people think of kids as something they can squeeze in between a high paying job and their copious hobbies. With the world already overpopulated, I think it would be great if society gave people who aren't really interested in having kids approval to skip reproducing.
Comment by anna Thu Oct 21 13:21:03 2010

Hooray! I found the post I was looking for and I AM SO ANNOYED!

Just kidding, of course. I'm responding to the general sentiments of the post and the comments here:

Kids don't inherently increase a family's expenses by any huge number. As far as childcare and costly furniture, toys, etc... we don't pay for much of that. We don't have the room to house a lot of stuff for ourselves or our child and so we don't. The garden and the library are sufficient places to entertain a child. A child raised at home doesn't incur daycare expenses and it turns out that parents are humans, too, and so socialization is absolutely possible without running all around town to hunt down playdates and such.

Now I agree with you, having a kid demands creative time management and definitely cuts in on "me time" but with a cooperative parenting relationship, even that is hardly a problem. It turns out that short, focused intervals of reading/writing/research are actually more productive for me than lots and lots of open ended free time. In fact, before I had a kid I hardly read at all and I daydreamed about gardening, but having my son alongside me actually inspired the passion to start working on my garden.

I'm not saying all this to convince anyone to have kids, but just to say that the diversity of parents is just as great as the diversity of childfree people. Based on my experience, I could easily say that people in our culture who don't have children have a lot more spending money and therefore may be more likely to purchase goods and behave in ways that are environmentally destructive. Couples who can freely eat out at restaurants or purchase a lot of their food on-the-go may also be more inclined to waste, whereas a family of 5 or 10 or 15 or even more must train themselves to become very frugal in food management and very reluctant to waste. A relatively large house for a family of 7 who uses one big van to move around town is probably more energy efficient and space efficient than 4 houses housing six childfree adults and their 12 vehicles.

None of this is really valid, because these are all based on stereotypes about what a family is and what a family chooses to do with the resources available to them. In the end, there is lots of room in our society for creative living and we can make all the assumptions we want but they may be meaningless in the end.

I actually agree that our population is out of control but it is partially because of advances in healthcare which are keeping more people alive than has ever been possible. I can't really argue against that, for the sake of the people whose lives have been spared by medicine.

In the end, I support reproductive freedom absolutely. I also recommend to anyone who is open to seeing other points of view to look around for them.

Anna, I know that your post is about making a personal choice, but in the comments I am seeing a lot of the same kind of attitudes toward large families, poor families and uneducated families that I find troubling about the Malthusian cry of overpopulation. In naming these groups of people, we're picking from among our fellow humans targets that need to be controlled. This, to me, is scary.

Comment by Sara Wed Dec 29 14:57:11 2010

I'm glad you found that on your own (and I'm impressed.) I've been meaning to go back over to your blog and link to this post for you to get annoyed. :-)

"Kids don't inherently increase a family's expenses by any huge number." This is a good point, especially when you mention later how a large family by necessity has to cut corners and get by on less per person. And it's very true that a couple without kids has more expendable income. I'd be very curious to see a study determining whether childless couples spend the equivalent of what they would spend if they had kids (which is supposed to be about $10,000 per kid per year on average, if I recall the study right.) I can't imagine spending $10,000 a year on non-essential stuff, but maybe that's possible.

I think that the healthcare factor isn't as large as it probably appears at first, since increasing longevity will increase the population linearly while increasing reproduction will increase the population exponentially. In other words, if we live twice as long as we did a century ago, that doubles the current population. But if we each have twice as many kids as we did a century ago, that doubles the population in each generation. Assuming a generation is 20 years, that will multiply the population by 32 in a century, I believe. So, clearly, we would be better off having fewer kids that killing off any old geezers. :-)

I think that you and I are on the same page about some parts of the debate that we find troubling, though. You say that "in the comments I am seeing a lot of the same kind of attitudes toward large families, poor families and uneducated families that I find troubling" and I tend to agree. You mention in your comments that you find it troubling that our government gives tax credits for daycare but not for stay at home moms (which now that you mention it, I think is just as absurd as you do), while I find it troubling that our government gives tax credits for having a child. In a perfect world, our government would get out of the reproduction issue in both cases! I totally agree with you that nobody should mandate how many kids we have, whether telling us to have more or to have fewer. And, for the record, I think you're one of those mothers who should have as many kids as she wants because parenthood is clearly your cup of tea. :-)

Comment by anna Wed Dec 29 15:18:39 2010

Your blog is well-organized, so finding the post was no problem! I just had to assume you were "musing" about it :)

I think the $10,000 a year estimate makes tremendous assumptions about a person's lifestyle. I don't know what it's based on, but for one thing it's certainly based on the kind of family that actually makes over $10,000 a year to start with, and assumes that every drop of that income would then go to the child. In reality, the number of children in our country who live in poverty is huge, and for those families in which poverty is really just another number based on assumptions, those children may not necessarily be living without their needs being met. My husband and I, for example, live on an income that might not support a family of 3 in a big city without threatening their quality of life, and it is defined as a poverty-level income, but for us it works just fine. My son gets to spend a lot of time with both of his parents, with animals and pants and wildlife and a beautiful, starry sky at night. For that, I'd hope that he wouldn't rather take $10,000 a year worth of whatever it is that other parents are buying for their kids.

I understand what you're saying about medical care, but it's really hard to separate successful birth rates from quality medical care. This is where my head starts spinning. Without good medical care, large families would presumably be kind of rare. I read a statistic that prior to the 20th century, 8 in 10 children would die before the age of twenty, with about 5 of those 8 dying before the age of six. With better hygeine and health care, plus the Green Revolution, fecundity didn't necessarily have to change in order for the population to double and then triple in the same century. Good medical care alone couldn't have changed the population without children being born, but it appears that it did contribute to the overall growth of the population.

Looking at history, I find it hard to come up with one good solution for the problem. We know the causes, and we see the symptoms of population growth, but we don't really know beyond hypothesis how to really solve the problem of environmental destruction through manipulating the populations.

I tend to think that humans have an innate need to control their own reproduction. You mentioned this, and I remember reading specifically about pacific islanders using birth control, abortion and infanticide to control their own populations when scarcity threatened. In some cases it was the community, not the parents, who would make the decision for the parents. In modern, post-industrial societies birth rates are dropping, and this is true even in some of the less wealthy nations. It's as if there is an inherent control mechanism, where generally healthy and prosperous people are not as inclined to burden themselves or the planet with more children.

This is where I feel like I can put some faith in human nature to respond to the needs of the environment. That people are making the choice to be childless and are empowered by that choice is a great thing. On the other hand, struggling against a strong desire to have kids can be heartbreaking. I've read some blogs and heard some friends talk about limiting the number of children they'll have because of concerns about the environment, when they admit that nothing would make them happier than to have more children.

It takes a lot of faith to trust in the decisions that families are making, but ultimately I think that if people follow their own path and discard forceful outside opinions, then society in its entirety will benefit and find some level of balance.

So... I agree that we seem to agree with each other more than we disagree! :)

It's been fun to try and drag out my opinions with clarity, because this topic is difficult to talk about and not just emotionally. I've enjoyed reading your perspective also.

Comment by Sara Mon Jan 3 13:00:34 2011

You make a very good point about survival rates of babies --- I was thinking more about how medical technology extends the lives of adults. When you put it that way, of course medical technology would have a huge effect on overpopulation. On the other hand, I wonder whether most women wouldn't just stop having kids sooner if 100% of their babies survived rather than 20%.

In the end, it does seem to come down to giving women the means and right to choose how many kids they want to have. You say, "I tend to think that humans have an innate need to control their own reproduction", and I think I would change that a bit by replacing "humans" with "women." After all, in societies where religion (generally run by men) dictates how many children you are ethically supposed to have, a lot more kids are born per capita. It just makes sense from an evolutionary and power standpoint for men to want more children than women do (especially if they are in a culture where men are not expected to do much of the child rearing) --- more kids for a man means you've passed on your genes more successfully, and more kids for a religion means that your religion has more weight in the community and the world. On the other hand, if a women is responsible for her own child-bearing decisions, without a lot of pressure from her spouse or church, chances are she'll plan to have a number of children that fits her personal leaning toward childcare, her ability to feed the kids, and her energy level. I think that in most wealthier societies where the birth rate is dropping, a large part of that is due to women being given back the child-bearing reins.

Comment by anna Mon Jan 3 15:53:33 2011

One of the more uplifting solutions is the inverse correlation between wealth and birth rate (demographic-economic paradox), or "development is the best contraceptive". :-)

On the same page you'll also find an equivalent inverse relation between church attendence and offspring. So getting people to ditch superstition and follow reason instead is also a worthy cause.

Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Jan 4 15:14:41 2011
The devil's advocate position would be that you're only talking about a correlation here, which means there's no evidence of causality. For all we know, the decline in birth rate, increase in wealth, and drop in church attendence could all be caused by a different factor (perhaps education?)
Comment by anna Tue Jan 4 19:02:54 2011

I'll admit that I have no hard evidence, but education costs money. And birth control devices/medicines cost money and you need to be educated about their existence and use.

So IMO pointing to wealth as the prime mover would be a good guess.

There could be a positive feedback loop here as well. Having and caring for children takes time and resources. If these children die, those resources are wasted, which is especially hard on a society that is poor to begin with. Having fewer children enables you to spend more per child (giving them better nutrition, healthcare, education etc.) without raising the overall cost.

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Jan 5 13:59:57 2011

But couldn't you say just as easily that a declining birth rate is the cause of wealth --- cheaper to feed a smaller family?

I suspect the real root cause is the move from farming life styles to city life styles. On a traditional farm, kids are a real asset --- kids can start doing chores quite young. So it behooves you to have a slew of them to keep getting that free labor. But that's just my guess.

Comment by anna Wed Jan 5 18:21:25 2011

i have one thought-provoking article to recommend. The other side of the debate from someone who seems to be more researched than I am, and therefore perhaps more qualified to argue hard facts about population:

As far as the religious issue, I think a man forcing a woman to give birth when she is not physically or emotionally fit to do so constitutes abuse. Therefore, I think under any compassionate religion, such abuse should be condemned. I don't think patriarchy necessarily implies abuse, just as a matriarchy wouldn't necessarily release a society from abuse. Women can be empowered within a traditional patriarchy by expressing those "female" virtues within their families and communities and, unless they serve a tyrant of a husband, their needs should be attended just as well as anyone else's. We can argue that there is no inherent difference between males and females, but then it wouldn't matter whether there was a patriarchy or not-- but rather, who was in charge and whether the person is just or tyrannical. A tyrant will force submission but a just individual will respect his wife's needs and limitations. A cooperative society will, presumably, have no ruler at all and would embrace both male and female virtues.

Okay, I'm tempted to ignore the reason versus superstition argument but I have to point out that forecasting is laden with superstition. By labeling our situation as a "population problem" about which something must be done, we are putting faith in our own observations and in our abilities to solve problems, and we are discarding all other possibilities. True science, based on empiricism, does not allow for such bold statements about a future none of us have yet experienced. In fact, one cannot expect to be present in the future anymore than they can expect to be present in Heaven if they were to drop dead right now (which could reasonably happen to anyone at any time).

I guess what I'm getting at is that our ability to reason is influenced by our values, and our values are... when it comes down to it... pretty unreasonable. I have respect for reason, for science and for religion and the more that I study each of these, the less inclined I am to say that one is "more real," or more useful, than the other.

A person who reasons against his own species has adopted a religion of their own. The simplest biology says that people reproduce because they have a biologically driven desire to have sex, and because their organs are capable of creating new humans. That's reasonable. To say that that simple evidence is unreasonable, and that it's really religion that causes too many babies may be statistically supported, but is full of politics and distortion in its presentation.

I say religious people have babies because they value human life.

Comment by Sara Thu Jan 6 17:53:48 2011

Sara --- Thanks for overlooking Roland's tone. I felt I had to argue the other side there precisely because I think the term "superstition" is way too loaded to be used in a reasonable conversation. I'm glad you were able to rise above that!

I really liked the article you pointed me to --- very thought-provoking. But I felt, at the end, like it didn't go quite far enough. Couldn't we go through a difficult period where there our population is aging, then level out? If we did, I would expect the resulting world to be much richer and stronger, with more resources to go around per person. But I'm not a demographer, and that's just my gut reaction.

To respond to the rest of your post, I can definitely see your point that a patriarchy doesn't necessarily have to reduce a woman's rights. However, in practice, I don't think that I would be willing to hope that I got lucky and my husband didn't hold to the letter of the law. I just feel very lucky that I wasn't raised with a religion that told me that using birth control was a sin --- although I wouldn't go so far as to say that's abuse, I do think that making women choose between disobeying the religion they believe in and having the number of kids they want is very unkind.

"A person who reasons against his own species has adopted a religion of their own." I don't think you're reasoning against your own species if you think that your species would be better off at a lower population level. To go back to the analogy of cattle on grassland that I think you used earlier (unless that was someone else...), that's just understanding the carrying capacity of the pasture and lowering the number of animals on it until each one has the best quality of life.

Comment by anna Thu Jan 6 19:09:59 2011

I think we're reasoning against our own species when we pick a target number for an acceptable population, determine that our current number vastly exceeds the acceptable number, decide that the rate of birth is the underlying problem, and then propose to control the birth rates through intentional manipulation. To me this seems very plainly to be against our species, because we are artificially manipulating our genetics. I wouldn't say a family deciding not to have children is a challenge to the entire species, but attempting to prevent reproduction of a large chunk of the gene pool even on the grounds of compassion would threaten the species if the result dramatically reduced our own genetic diversity.

That's what I mean. I'm not saying that's good or bad, but if we choose that path, then we leave behind another (the "let it be" or "leave it in God's hands" paths, among others.) Therefore I think if we are confident enough to choose the self-manipulation path, and we choose it, then we establish an institution of belief that essentially becomes religion. Does that make sense?

Personally, I think it's best to let it be. If we have trouble managing cattle, and managing wildlife, and managing diseases and weeds and pests of all sorts, then I think it's best for us to humbly accept that we cannot expect to manage our populations successfully, either. If we take it on faith that we have a future at all, then I think we should also have faith that whatever it is that delivers us to that future "knows" better than we do.

The interesting thing about the cattle argument is that the numbers of animals isn't as much of a problem when the cattle are being managed appropriately. This was the real purpose of the argument. Stocking cattle on one pasture without rotation would reduce the number of cattle who could occupy the pasture, because of their impacts on soil quality and vegetation. In some habitats that have been degraded by this kind of management, adding more cattle is actually the prescription for restoration. The key is that the cattle are managed in a way that allows intense disturbance in one area, followed by a long rest period. One human equivalent is slash and burn agriculture.

This concept seems like it is also foundational in permaculture. This is not surprising to me, since this book I am reading (Holistic Management by Allan Savory) is also based on observations in stressed and arid regions of the planet (like Mollison's home continent)-- precisely the places where improper management, or social structure, creates severe problems very quickly for humans.

As for patriarchal religions, what types of religions are you picturing? Women and men are both subject to abuse by their partners, or their family members, or employers or friends or coworkers or strangers in any type of community. When you get married, whether religious or not, you are hopefully doing so with some confidence that your partner is not violent and abusive. Abuse happens in secular societies as well as religious societies. It happens in small animist tribes in Nigeria. It happens everywhere.

I simply don't agree with religious laws that force women into partnerships they aren't comfortable with and demand that they stick with abusive husbands and give birth to as many babies as possible for the sake of those husbands. If a man thinks that his duty above all is to procreate for his own glory, then he is worshipping himself not God.

Oh, and I agree with you about the article. I don't think that a population decline is anything worth worrying about, and he did give it a kind of "doomsday" spin. It is what it is. I was really surprised by some of the statistics he presented about dropping birth rates, though, and that's why I liked the article and shared it. The essay suggests what I suspect: that population growth seems to regulate itself.

I could go on and on about this, so I'll cut it off there for now.

Comment by Sara Fri Jan 7 15:02:15 2011

This is where I think we diverge in beliefs. I believe that as self-aware humans, we are responsible for our actions and have a moral obligation to be stewards of the earth. Granted, ecology is so complex that we can't hope to understand every part of it, but we do the best we can using the imperfect science at hand, just as we use the best procedures and pharmaceuticals that medical science has come up with even though the human body is so complex that we're only beginning to understand exactly how these cures work. It feels like a cop-out to me to say that since we can't fully understand the effects of human population on the world, we should just let it be. That's like saying that since we can't fully understand why a person gets sick and how the medicines operate on her body, we should just let nature take its course with no aid from the medical profession and hope she gets better.

Instead, I think we have to look at the best science available and follow its lead. The vast numbers of species which have become extinct in the last two centuries, along with extremely degraded ecosystems on the ocean, in the land, and in the air correlate with the surge in human population over the same time period. To go back to the point I made to Roland, we can't definitively assign human causation to the extinctions, but our best science suggests that is probably the case of most of them. As a result, just as we would use medicines on our own bodies without 100% understanding the illness, I believe we should act to fix the problem with the earth. To return to your original point, I think that's reasoning for our species, not against it --- we'll become extinct too if the ecosystem gets too far out of whack.

I also don't think that belief constitutes a religion. Wikipedia defines a religion as follows: "Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of life and the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency, or human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine." My belief has nothing to do with the cause or purpose of life and the universe or with a supernatural being. Instead, it's more of an ethical belief.

To go back to your argument about cattle --- I don't feel like it holds water as evidence to support your point. Even though rotational grazing is much better for the earth than non-rotational grazing, you still can't put an unlimited number of cattle in a certain paddock. Modern science has shown that populations have a carrying capacity, above which environmental degredation rapidly takes place no matter how sustainably that population is managed. Cattle farmers understand this, and I don't think that any of them would say, "We have trouble knowing exactly how many cows to put on a pasture, so we'll just put on an unlimited number."

To answer your question about patriarchal religion --- I would say almost all of the main religions are patriarchal. (They worship a male god, most or all of the people in religious authority are men, etc.) And I'm not talking about abuse, per se, or even about a husband telling his wife that he wants her to have 13 kids. Instead, I'm talking more about a gray area, where no particular man may be telling a woman to do certain things, but where the partiarchal society as a whole pushes her in a certain direction.

Comment by anna Fri Jan 7 16:48:01 2011

I feel like I've had a very hard time getting my true point across, and perhaps in seeing yours. I don't disagree with anything that you said in your last comment (except some impressions you’ve gotten about my position), and you've explained your position very well so I hope that I can state my own opinion as clearly.

I am not arguing that the population isn't out of whack, and that it is okay at the level it is. I am only arguing that the methods we might use to force the population to an acceptable level will be very risky and may border on infringing of human rights and cultural indoctrination, the consequences of which might be worse for humanity (look at China's one-child policy) than the problem we intend to solve. This is often the case when humans go after symptoms rather than causes of what we perceive as problems.

You've stated the causes very simply, the Green Revolution and industrialization have been the latest major promoters of population growth. This growth has been stunning and terrifying for some. However, it came about as a result of an attitude where humans took it upon themselves to improve what they saw to be problems in humanity (food scarcity) and it has since invested us with confidence in our own sciences that is arguably beyond what that technology deserves, especially when we consider the unforeseen consequences.

Birth control has been practiced by many pre-industrial cultures, but often not with the type of absolute control that is possible in a post-industrial society. Many women reject chemical birth control for health reasons, many women are allergic to condoms and barrier methods, and many women are not resolved to never have children and will not opt for surgical sterilization. Birth control cannot solve all of the problems, although it is useful for women who are willing and able to use one of the methods available.

The fertility awareness method offers a great alternative, but the fact exists that people still want to have babies and though we can all fight to overcome this, whether all or most of us should be obliged to do so for the greater good is precisely where one religion becomes another.

Because wikipedia and Mirriam-Webster have different definitions of religion, I'll offer another:

" Definition of RELIGION
2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith"

This better describes what I mean when I use the term. Where one set of beliefs replaces another set, which have been passed down from a recognized religion, I think the result is a new religion. Values and ethics all come from our deeper beliefs and we should not be too quick to deny this.

I accept that this is a major ethical dilemma, but the population is a symptom and not necessarily a cause, and the cause in my opinion has been management. We have not globally changed our system of management and so we do not know if our population really has reached or exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity. Here is where the cattle analogy comes in. When people attempted to alleviate damaged caused by improper cattle management, their response was to reduce the sizes of the herds. The result of this reduction was further degradation, to everyone's disbelief. The reason population didn’t solve the problem was because the management style had to be changed, and when it was, ranchers realized that the "ideal" population size they predicted under the old management scheme was much lower than the actual carrying capacity of the land. The land could hold many more cattle than we predicted, but we were so frightened of the damage witnessed under poor management that we assumed reducing numbers was the solution.

I would never argue to pack more and more individuals of any species into any area simply because that many creatures could be born. However, I will continue to advocate turning away from number management, and focusing most intently on changing our path and insuring that those people who are alive today and their offspring, however many, can reach a new model of society that works more effectively for them than ours does today.

Much of the degradation of this Earth is the result of far smaller populations of humans than we have today (especially those of the 19th century). America's land was nearly stripped of forest because of greed and enthusiasm and a lack of restraint, not because of necessity or a large population. We no longer have virgin land to abuse and degrade, and I find it very unlikely that we will see any growth in our populations in the future that look much like those we've seen in the past as a result of society's excesses.

Growth is reaching its end, I believe. Though it was scary and brought about tremendous world problems, many of these problems can be corrected by restoring a natural process to humanity. In the end, we're not like cattle because our needs can be so creatively accommodated. For as long as a family of four can produce 6,000lbs of food on 1/10th of an acre in arid southern California, I think we can afford to find creative solutions to the problems at hand without panicking and culling our herd, so to speak.

Comment by wildhomestead Mon Jan 10 13:58:07 2011

I'm sorry to be dense --- I should have figured that when your argument stopped making sense that was me stopping understanding it. :-) I'm still not sure where you stand, though. If there was a way to lower our population without any governmentally (or whatever) mandated actions (which I agree is not a good idea), would you be in favor? In the perfect world I envision, people would simply be more aware of the realities of the world population, of how much work it takes to raise a child well, and of options for not reproducing. Getting there could be as simple as a few of our celebrities taking on the task of educating people about these issues, or a few blockbuster movies portraying these issues in a non-glamorized light. Then we would each make our personal decision with open eyes, which I suspect would lower the human population organically.

Meanwhile, each of us would also work toward living more lightly on the earth. I'm not sure that I would agree, though, that 19th century humans did more damage than modern humans, and that we can remove the link between human population and environmental devastation. I live in a region where mountain-top removal is the norm, streams are filled with acid runoff from mines, and we're still clear-cutting and watching the non-coal-containing mountains erode away. A coal-fired power plant down the road is sending vast plumes of mercury and acid-rain-causing chemicals into the air, and spills from the plant have created multiple-mile "dead zones" in a river which is widely considered to be the most biologically important one in the continental United States. From everything I've read and seen, we've just got better about putting the environmental degradation in poorer areas where the middle and upper class don't have to see it.

I think that we are too anthropocentric when we say that if we managed the earth more carefully, we could pack more humans in. Chances are you're right, and we could feed and house two, three, or more times as many people as currently live on earth, but even if we were careful enough that we kept the ecosystems we depend on alive, that doesn't mean we wouldn't continue to cause widespread extinction outside the human world. To give one example, when large scale farms replaced the small family farm, many hedge-row loving species became threatened. When we impact habitats, we tend to cause large-scale declines like this.

Since my college schooling was mostly in the field of ecology, I'm very aware that even my most permaculture-minded projects on the farm make drastic changes in the local ecosystem, wiping out masses of salamanders, millipedes, and other forest dwellers. By opening up a two acre patch in the woods, I help cowbirds spread into the surrounding woodlands, where they lay their eggs in the nests of warblers and push out the warbler's chicks (warblers who are already threatened by loss of winter habitat in the tropics where we get so much of our cheap paper and lumber.) The fragmented woods is no longer prime habitat for mammals who require extensive tracts of unbroken forest, like bears.

It's very natural for humanity to think of ourselves first, to think that if we can feed ourselves, if the air is clean enough to breath and the water is clean enough to drink, that we're doing okay. But I think we have to look beyond that short-sighted picture and realize that every living thing on the planet is just as important as we are, and that we have to minimize our impact to give them space to live too. Yes, we should be changing over to more sustainable practices, but everything I've read has suggested that the only sure way to protect those other species is to set aside more tracts of non-human-impacted land. And that eventually means we need to have a lower population.

Moving to to the religion argument (which is really just semantics, I know), I don't think Mirriam-Webester's first definition proves anything --- it gets pretty cyclical if you use the word "religious" in your definition of religion. Definition 4 looks like the one you're looking for, and to me that's more of a colloquial definition of religion (probably why it was definition 4 instead of 1.) I think we'll both be happy if we just talk about beliefs rather than using the loaded word religion.

Comment by anna Mon Jan 10 18:50:19 2011
Its all good in theory but the problem is its only the western world that looks at the problem this analyticaly. Western population is already on the way down , but all that is doing is allowing other societies to fill in the vacancy. And the harsh truth is most of teh societies doing the filling in are driven by religion and culture to have as many children as possible. The logical progress would then be that that culture becomes the majority and instills their belief system - just like agriculture vs hunter gatherer. In turning back to the familial norm of a hunter gatherer tribe we are likely setting ourselves up for the same fate. I dont have a solution for the problem. i dont think anyone does right now unless some widespread sterilising disease magically appears.
Comment by Gnarlyswine Wed Jun 29 15:59:32 2011
Potentially true, but you could also argue that the Western world is using the majority of the world's resources, so if we could get our population in line, it would do a lot more good than trying to get people who live more simply already to follow suit.
Comment by anna Wed Jun 29 19:01:36 2011

This is an old post but I'd thought I'd comment anyway.:) First- I am a Mom but I commend your decision not to have children! It isn't for everyone to be a parent for a variety of reasons. No urge to raise children, financial strain, enviromental strain,(Its very hard!) etc. I wish more people would actually make that decision sooner, instead of becoming parents and then realizing it isnt for them. There would be less children in the "system", less children meeting horrifying ends, and in general less people (and maybe happier people?). The call for my DH (also a Mark!) and I to have a family was a natural one. We have a strong relationship and a strong and loving extended family. I have polycystic Ovary syndrome, so our one and only is our miracle. It would be nice to have one more, but we're of the mind if it happens it happens. At 32, I'm only giving myself 2-3 years. After that then we will remain a 3 person family :D Honestly there are a lot of families out there who do well with large families, but I think we've come to an age where we need to rethink that. My family tree consists of several generations of 8-13 children families, while my husband's has generations of two children per family- which in my mind seems much more realistic!

Comment by MamaHomesteader Sun Apr 22 00:03:00 2012

MamaHomesteader --- I think you're one of the few people who was really called to parenting --- folks like you are worth your weight in gold! Maybe you'll end up fostering or adopting an extra kid or two if another one doesn't arrive via stork? :-)

"I wish more people would actually make that decision sooner, instead of becoming parents and then realizing it isnt for them."

This is exactly how I feel! It seems a bit nuts that such a serious responsibility would be undertaken on a whim.

Comment by anna Sun Apr 22 09:42:06 2012

One oversight is in assuming that the people who live in poverty stricken, high birthrate countries don't also wish for our same energy and consumer intensive lifestyle. They are not kind to the earth because they want to be. They are kind to the earth because they live in poverty and have no choice. Once people in high birthrate areas attain anything approaching middle class, the first things they want are cars, air conditioning, appliances, televisions, nicer clothes, etc. They are human just like us, and will choose comfort and convenience just like us.

The high birthrates in poverty areas are seen as benign right now because they don't contribute nearly as much to global degradation as we do, per person. But that will change.

Then, all of us who chose not to have any or many children will be overrun by billions of people who never cared about preserving the earth much in the first place. If they did, they wouldn't have had so many children.

Getting sterilized for the sake of saving the Earth will likely not make much difference in the long run. Now, if you just don't want to be bothered with the hassle of caring for children and the effort and expense that entails, and instead want to devote your life to pursuing your own goals and happiness, then a sterile lifestyle would work pretty well for that.

Yes, I know this is an old topic, but something about it rang false when I read it while looking for information on population. There's a certain naïve vanity implied in the idea that you or anyone in our low birthrate region of the world choosing to remain childless is going to make a difference. Our population here is already at stasis, and falling in Europe. Immigration is the only reason our population is growing in the US, which shows that we are already being displaced by the poor who are seeking a more energy intense lifestyle.

Your true chance to make a difference would be in convincing people in Africa that they should remain in poverty.(Sarcasm alert. I'm not that cold-hearted) Otherwise you are saying that people in Western, developed nations should diminish and cease to exist so that the impoverished billions can rise to our same level of consumption, because they certainly will, given the choice. Your view is self-defeating, and harmful in the long run.

Moderation in everything is key, not extremes at either end.

Comment by Bridget Wed Oct 28 05:47:39 2015

I just happened to find your webpage. It has some interesting ideas. The over population that you discuss, is a really important issue for the planet and humans. Having studied this in my spare time over about 7 years, I am convinced that the causes of over population are indeed surplus food. but crucially also: Medical advances of vaccines and the break through of antibiotics. Lack of education, and ... Religion preaching the sinfulness of birth control.

This heady mixture of the aforementioned is what has led to up surpassing 7 billion humans on the planet in 100 years.

I find it sad that people have to feel that they should not reproduce and miss out on having a family (1 or 2 children is plenty btw) because of a huge amount of people who are poorly educated, using the knowledge of others to keep them alive but not having the mass education programmes to teach them that the empowerment of women is what helps alleviate poverty, allows them to control their reproductive system and not be just baby factories. Thereby raising the floor for humanity and reducing the birth rate.

Unfortunately the are powerful religious and political stakeholders who's self interest is to keep the status quo.

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