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To Breed or Not to Breed?

To Breed or Not to Breed?
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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


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Photo from maybemissions via flickr

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6:06PM PST on Feb 14, 2013

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

11:25AM PST on Dec 29, 2012

Thank you for sharing.

7:47PM PDT on Sep 29, 2012

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

7:39PM PDT on Sep 29, 2012

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!

8:43AM PDT on Sep 28, 2012

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. :)

7:18PM PDT on Jun 14, 2012

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

2:40PM PDT on Apr 2, 2012

Well said:)

9:06AM PST on Mar 8, 2012

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.

6:05AM PST on Mar 8, 2012

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...

5:18AM PST on Mar 8, 2012

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.

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