To Breed or Not to Breed?


This article is from the Earth Island Journal.

At least since the time of Thomas Malthus, people have worried about when the planet will be too full of people. Today there are more than 7 billion Homo sapiens on Earth, a number projected to grow to 9 billion by 2045. As the ecological limits of growth become more apparent, the debate over the need to reduce the number of humans becomes more urgent. Can the planet sustain a population of 9 billion people, especially if they all aspire to live as Americans? And if the answer is No, what does that mean for our personal choices about becoming parents? Environmental journalist Erica Gies says she won’t have children and says people should consider adoption. Naturalist and illustrator Julie Zickefoose believes having children and raising them to love the natural world is one of the best things we can do to protect the environment.

Raising Good Kids Is Part of the Solution

By Julie Zickenfoose

Julie Zickefoose is a writer and illustrator who has contributed to The New Yorker, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and NPR, where she was a regular commentator. Her latest book is The Bluebird Effect.

We’ve done it. My husband and I are replacing ourselves with two children, a towheaded boy and a willowy, redheaded girl. When we go, they’ll take our places. We started late. It took a while for my husband to talk me into having kids. I was 37 for the firstborn, 41 when our son arrived. So I’m smiling wryly as I build a case for conscientious reproduction on an already overburdened planet. I’ve got no statistics to bolster my argument, no worldwide trends to report, nor do I have the energy to dig any out. I have no desire to see my rather hazy ideas strung up a flagpole as exemplifying anything. All I know is what seems to be true: Having children, and raising them to appreciate the natural world, is one of the most powerful ways to affirm your love for life on this planet.

Married at 35, I was afraid. Afraid to add to the world’s masses. Afraid to give up my freedom to travel or do whatever I wanted. Afraid I wouldn’t be up to the challenge of raising good people. Afraid I’d let them down. I closed my eyes and we took the leap. I’ll never forget what my doctor said when the pregnancy test came back positive. “Get ready for the best ride of your life.” When he saw the raw terror in my eyes, he added, “There are people coming into my office every day who can barely tie their shoes, and they still make the most beautiful kids. You’ll do fine.”

Here’s what I’ve figured out, 15 years later, that I didn’t know that day in the doctor’s office: Having a child rang a bell in me never before struck. It brought me into a much vaster and richer reality than the one I’d inhabited. It awakened me to the blindingly fast progression of infancy to youth, adolescence into maturity. It placed me in a larger context, served me notice that I’d have to pass on what’s good and discourage what was harmful and maladaptive. Not only that, I’d have to save a place for them to live, too. I felt bigger, more significant. This felt like a real job.

Hope for Earth’s future resides not so much in us but in our children and their children, in the continuum of caring that starts with parenthood. If I hadn’t had children, I’d never spend every Wednesday afternoon teaching Science Club at my son’s elementary school. These are kids from the Appalachian foothills. Most of them have never been on a plane. Some start their day with a candy bar and a swig of Mountain Dew. But their passion for learning more about the natural world burns hot. Thirty pack a classroom after school to hear about box turtles, snakes and bluebirds, to comb through the meadow across the road and bring me insects to identify. Their eyes snap with curiosity. They cheer loudly when I struggle through the classroom door bearing field guides and a dozen pairs of binoculars and whatever hapless critter I’ve brought to show them. When they see me treat a mantis, a spider, or a beetle with tenderness, I sense them recalibrating, then copying my technique. When they hear me crow with delight as a flock of migrating nighthawks floats over, they smile and throw their heads back to watch, too. I’m acutely aware that they’re modeling their behavior and attitudes toward nature on mine, and that feels good. It feels right.

I know that being a mother has made me a better person and a better conservationist. It has opened me to the needs and viewpoints of others, mellowed the shrillness and self-righteousness that dogged me when I had no one to care for but myself. My husband and I scratched together the money to buy 80 acres of woodland and field, and we’re letting it recover from the overgrazing and timbering that’s the norm all around us. We will leave the place in better shape than we found it, for our sake and for our kids’. I’d rather hand our self-made nature sanctuary over to Phoebe and Liam than to anyone else. And by extension, my husband and I are proud to replace ourselves with two citizens in whom conservation, recycling, organic gardening, and mindful consumption are ingrained because it’s the only lifestyle they’ve ever known. I believe in kids. I believe that most of them want to do the right thing, and need only to be shown the way. If every conservationist opts not to have them, to whom will we pass the torch?

Viewing a child as nothing more than another burden on Earth’s resources does a great and sad disservice to human potential, both that of the child and the prospective parents. I wonder if there’s an unconscious hands-over-eyes fear like mine at the root of this view, a fear of being inconvenienced by suddenly having someone around who depends on you for everything. Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Goodall, and John Muir were poopy, squally babies once. So were we all. The phase is sweetly fleeting; all too swiftly those babies go on to run and draw and sing and think and write, to look around and wonder if they can improve on things. To become something much more than a simple draw on limited resources – someone additive. Someone you’d throw yourself in front of a bus to save. I watch my son lost in concentration, bent over his drawing of a lumbering tiger. I look down at my sleek laptop and remind myself that Steve Jobs was given up for adoption. A genius unbidden, arriving at an inconvenient moment. Orphaned waxwing, gentian seedling, hatchling box turtle, or red, squinch-faced human infant: It is always worth the time to raise a young thing up.

A thoughtful person’s child is not going to cause the poles to melt; she’s not going to bring down the world’s ecosystems. If you’re game to climb on and ride the best ride of your life – if you model the behavior that’s good – she may someday be one who saves them.

Next page: Even conscientious people have an eco-footprint


Even Conscientious People Have an Eco-Footprint

by Erica Gies

Veteran reporter Erica Gies has covered the environment for The New York Times, New Scientist, and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications. She writes a regular column about energy and water for

As biological creatures, our raison d’ętre is to reproduce. Cultures worldwide reflect that purpose: Children are celebrated, and those who don’t have kids are pitied or distrusted. It’s time that changed.

We humans are an inordinately successful species – perhaps too successful. Our world population hit 7 billion on October 31, 2011. In my lifetime, 40 years, the population has nearly doubled. We are putting unprecedented demand on natural resources and are beginning to see their limits.

Some argue that this Malthusian idea has been overturned by human ingenuity. True, we have created innovations to accelerate the efficiency of production, thus expanding our growth capacity. But such progress can only go so far. There is no escaping basic biology: Our habitat has a carrying capacity. Resources are, ultimately, finite. When we go beyond that capacity, there are negative consequences. We can already see those consequences all around us: water shortages, topsoil loss, saline soil, pollution, degraded ecosystems, and of course, climate change.

Many animals stop breeding when they surpass their habitat’s carrying capacity or when they sense that conditions are not conducive to reproductive success, such as a monster drought. Environmental factors appear to be curbing human reproduction as well; there is growing evidence that the rise in human infertility is linked to chemical and air pollution. Still, our numbers are growing too fast, and the human population as a whole is showing few signs of course correction.

Others think the problem is not our sheer numbers but our consumption rates. As affluence grows, we consume more meat, more energy, more stuff. That is true. But there are also too many of us. Quality of life is suffering for us, for other creatures, for plants. The health of the natural systems upon which we depend is declining.

That decline is part of why I’ve decided not to have kids. I simply can’t in good conscience contribute to the rapid diminishment of our world. Also, given the degradation of natural resources and landscapes, children born today are likely to have a lesser quality of life than I am enjoying. I don’t want to condemn them to that.

A 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University, published in Global Environmental Change, highlighted the outsized environmental impact of having kids. It is not just the diapers, food, fuel, and other resources that a child will use in her lifetime, but the exponential power of population growth. “Under current conditions in the United States, for example, each child ultimately adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average female – which is 5.7 times her lifetime emissions,” the study’s authors wrote. Future growth amplifies reproductive choices, just as compound interest makes a savings account soar.

There is no getting around the math that a person who does not have a child has a lighter environmental footprint than one who does.

We have the intelligence to understand concepts like the future and exponential growth. The conclusion is obvious: Some of us should stop breeding. Surely the brain that has pushed the boundaries of resource supply and dramatically increased life expectancy, allowing our population to boom, is likewise capable of a little restraint as a balance.

What surprises me is how often I’m called upon to defend this decision. The mere topic of population control threatens the biological imperative and invokes strong emotional reactions in people. For example, when I wrote about this topic on, one reader told me I could solve the population problem by offing myself.

Well-meaning people tell me I’m missing out on a core life experience. And while I surely am, if that’s my choice, why are they fussed? One person told me I was selfish because I was “unwilling to share my life with a child.” But he could also look at it this way: My not having kids is an act of generosity that leaves more resources for his children.

Julie Zickefoose makes a compelling case for how important it is to raise kids with conservationist values. I agree, and I have no doubt that Julie’s kids are going to be excellent citizens of Planet Earth. But it’s worth remembering that kids have an uncanny ability to grow up to be their own people, who don’t necessarily live by your values or have the number of kids you’d prefer.

Also, you don’t need to have kids to have children in your life. I spend time outside with my nieces and nephews, hiking and looking at plants and animals. I talk to my friends’ kids about topics I cover as an environment reporter. When I was an elephant seal docent at Point Reyes National Seashore, I educated many kids about seal biology, introducing them to the beauty and excitement of critters.

The choice of whether to have kids is emotionally complex and intensely personal. Careful reasoning and logical arguments won’t “win” the debate. There will always be couples who have more than the replacement level of about two. Exhibit A is the Duggar family, whose extreme fecundity has been rewarded with a TV show. This is the wrong message: The exponential implications of one couple producing 19 kids are staggering, and to celebrate such choices is outdated.

To counteract that arithmetic, I challenge people who want to experience parenting and to provide a child with a loving home to consider adopting a kid already here on the planet rather than passing on their own genes. And I ask people and governments to recognize that my choice is helpful to the ongoing success of the human animal – and therefore valid. We need to shift our dialogue and incentives to reward smaller families, not larger ones.

I’m not having kids, and that’s OK – for me, for you, for the world.

These articles originally appeared on the Earth Island Journal.


Related Stories:

Which Party’s Policies Really Push Population Control?

The Overpopulation Problem

Welcome To The World’s 7th Billion Person


Photo from maybemissions via flickr

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Karen L.
Karen Lorentzson2 years ago

Good article from both sides of issue, we are over populating the planet and war seems worse than ever it is painful to watch news and the destruction of other species at alarming rates. The people that must have oh I have 5 and now on number 6 have got to stop! and also the ones that love to say I cant imagine a world without my children! You don;t know what you're missing! the lack of resources, education, increased war, pollution just look at ancient countries like ChinaQ The usa was already inhabited by people when europeans came and look what they did either assimilate be conquered or die! wish people would stop killing the last rhino to feed children because they dont use birthcontrol or we have to chop down rainforset so we can feed our families cause our country is so underdeveloped all we can do is this, or war is big business esp for large corporations, etc etc

Duane B.
.2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Joy Dantine
Joy Dantine3 years ago

Come on, Geneva; is that all you have to say? What do you do when you are not writing?

Joy Dantine
Joy Dantine3 years ago

Why would we want selfish humans like this couple? Let us devide them - not multiply them or add to them...
They obviously are child minds in adult bodies - that's dangerous!

Jennifer Peterson

Here's where I take issue with this article. As someone who will never have kids through birth (for medical reasons) I love kids and hope to adopt some day. Finances, or lack there of, are the only thing holding me back at the moment. But when I read articles by seemingly intelligent women reminding all of us who will never give birth that a 'bell' in us will never ring, do you know how that makes me and others feel? Well, I'll tell you, AWFUL! Or as the writer states, "It brought me into a much vaster and richer reality than the one I’d inhabited. It awakened me to the blindingly fast progression of infancy to youth, adolescence into maturity".

Again, really? It's this I'm a deeper person than you because I have given birth attitude that drives me nuts. I swear , sometimes I feel woman just have to tell themselves this to rationalize bringing more kids into this insanely overpopulated world. And frankly, as someone who worked as a nanny for years and saw all types of women having kids (most who shouldn't have) I firmly believe too many people have kids for all the wrong reasons. And replicating (.e. cloning) oneself is the worst reason of all. This article sounds as if the writer's number one goal is to clone she and her husband. Well, as a liberal raised by two hard core republicans, keep in mind, parents don't always get what they wish for. :)

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

Something in nature will balance this out. Until then, educate teens and use birth control. Use resources wisely, recycle, and conserve energy. If we all hadn't been so greedy (by all I mean the entire human race since the beginning) we wouldn't have quite so much to worry about. Our predicament now is that we not only have to negate OUR footprint, but the footprints of all humans before us who took more than they left

Latonya W.
Latonya W.3 years ago

Well said:)

Mary B.
Mary B.3 years ago

Excellent article and I agree whole heartedly with both viewpoints.Some people make excellent parents, and some really do not want kids for a variety of reasons. Both ideas deserve respect.There certainly is no reason to fight over it. We need quality, not quantity, and the fewer children you have, the more focused attention you can give each one.

Hanna Barney
Hanna Barney3 years ago

personally, i think that a lot of people should consider adoption. i understand a lot of people want that special genetic connection with their child, however you dont need genetics to have a special connection with your child. i know for a fact that despite not being related to my parents, i have a connection like i am.
having a child (hopefully) isn't just for selfish reasons, however i know several people who want kids for the experiences. but i hope that that's not the only reason most people have kids...

Renata Goulart
Renata Goulart3 years ago

Well... I'm childfree since I was a kid, and I try to minimize my bad impact on the environment. Planet is already overpopulated and people still think about having more and more kids because of their selfishness. that's just nonsense.