Friday, June 26, 2009

Reproductive rights and small-family norms

My writing assignment for Worldwatch's upcoming State of the World 2010: Should environmentalists and sustainable cultures promote small families? Your view?

On the one hand, the countries of the world united in a 1994 UN conference around the conviction that the timing of reproduction is up to individuals and couples, not the state or a religion or anyone else.

On the other, promotion of a small-family norm takes away no one's reproductive rights -- it just asks people to think about the impacts of their reproductive decisions on the environment and on the rest of humanity.

But is there line across which such promotion become something stronger, such as coercion? Where would that line be? Is it likely that people will change the common view that reproductive decisions are intensely personal and not suitable even for discussion, let alone promotion or persuasion? Might the onset of serious environmental calamity--which is quite possibly on the way--change this view?

What do you think?


  1. Population is such a tricky thing to talk about - it's one thing to talk to someone about their car or vacation, quite another to talk about their kids! I think the word that is sticky in your question is "promote" - what does it mean to "promote small families"? Does that mean that you educate people about the benefits of having a small family? Does it mean that you provide them access to safe and effective family planning? Does it mean that you offer people incentives to keep their families small, or disincentives to having large families? And how do you account for the interplay among family size and personal lifestyle choices - for example, the average American family of four or even three has a much bigger impact than, say, the average Bangladeshi family of ten - so it can be difficult to clarify the impact of populaton in and of itself.

    For me, I consider myself to be an environmentalist, and though I agonized over my decision to have two biological children (so far!), I also know that my choice has consequences on the planet and on all Earth's inhabitants. However, I think the drive to procreate is primal and strong, and it was one that I was ultimately unwilling to deny for myself.

  2. Thanks for your comment, which I mostly agree with. My main quibble is the statement that small American families have a much bigger impact than large families in developing countries because of our currently much larger per capita consumption. This is quite true, at first glance and in the short term, but it also illustrates a fallacy of thinking short-term and assuming there will never be development in developing countries. Both assumptions are problematic. Bangladeshis have the same right to consume that Americans do, and we should all hope that they develop economically. If several generations of Bandladeshis have large families, one after the other, and they then become affluent, their influence on the planet will be more than the smaller American family -- just over time, and with the (reasonable) assumption that development will and should happen.

    And, just to be clear, I'm hardly advocating that you or anyone else deny yourself the "primal and strong" drive to procreate! I'm a parent as well. My point is that when people can chose for themselves -- at every step of the way -- if and when to do so, total (i.e. average) fertility tends to be a two or fewer, and population eventually will decline.

  3. I had never thought of it that way, but I totally see what you are saying. In the present the difference in per capita consumption is significant, but in developing countries (maybe not Bangladesh or Mozambique in the near future, but certainly places like China and India), small increases in "quality of life" means large increases in environmental impact when multiplied across a billion people.

  4. Exactly. What typically happens -- historically as well as around the world in the present -- is that relatively small population grow large with a fairly modest environmental footprint. Then the large population slows its growth, but the footprint accelerates its growth. Typically analysts say, "See? That population's not growing fast, but its consumption is. Therefore, it's consumption, not population, that's the problem." But they fail to see the time-lagged impacts of the earlier low-consumption population growth, and how it all interacts -- in time. This is one of the major messages of my book, but I have found it extremely difficult to convey. Thanks for hanging in on this little discussion, Kelly!

  5. I've handed in the draft chapter I wrote for State of the World 2010. Now I'm trying to find time to take a close look at the comments my colleagues have made in the text.

    The best way to summarize my message, I think, is that I'm not a believer in "promoting" a small child norm. (I'm not much of a promoter of anything, truth be told, except sustainability itself, the beauty of traditional Irish music, and the importance of population growth in human life generally.) Rather than promoting small families, I believe that what institutions can do in influencing culture (the book will be about cultural transformation) is promote the conditions through which small families will arise solely and spontaneously out of the realized desires of couples themselves, and especially those of women.