Seeing the recent article in TIME on debunking the myths of only children, I thought of Bill McKibben who told us all about this and more over ten years ago in his book Maybe One. He talks about how single kid families can work and are necessary to help ensure we not exceed “planet capacity,” or the population that the earth can support.

This idea takes me to the issue of overpopulation. Some experts believe it’s driving many environmental issues and global warming. But other experts don’t agree.  There’s a range of expert positions. Let’s start with a most interesting one. Check out this video of Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Definitely worth the watch–

Rosling thinks the solution is investing in the alleviation of poverty and green technology.  One area that puzzles me is how he thinks that focusing on lowering infant mortality will somehow result in women having fewer babies. Birth control will result in fewer babies. Or does he think that if women know their babies will survive they will be more likely to use birth control thus have fewer babies?

Others start with family planning as the solution to planet woes. The Optimum Population Trust believes that good family planning in poor countries is the way to reduce the likelihood of “catastrophic global warming.” It has done a cost-benefit analysis, and claims that getting info and access to birth control in order to majorly reduce unwanted pregnancies is the cheapest way to reduce carbon emissions.

Others say no, forget population—it is not the problem. Take Fred Pearce, author of The Coming Population Crash. He says that because half the world is already at below-replacement birthrates, and those rates are still falling fast such that the world’s population will probably be shrinking within a generation.  He also predicts that the planet could have almost 9 billion people before population “bomb” will truly be diffused and we’ll see a population crash. He believes consumption is the problem to be solved so all of those people can live on the planet.

Two births per woman is considered a “replacement rate” for population. 125 out of 223 countries have above replacement birthrates, and 43/223 have double the replacement rate, with 4 or more children.  With these kind of numbers how can he predict that the population will be shrinking in a generation?

Ok then there’s the experts who believe the problem is the growing population and consumption. Robert Walker, the Executive Vice President of the Population Institute, is of this mindset. He believes that we’re already struggling to feed the almost 7 billion people that are here, and unless we “curb our consumption of fossil fuels and scarce minerals, the world is headed for an ecological and humanitarian disaster.”

Seems to me getting to an environmentally sustainable population is a stew of all these factors: Get better reproductive health services and family planning services to poor countries to get them closer to replacement rates; decrease consumption, not just here where we are already the biggest hogs, but in other countries who insist on becoming super consumers like us; invest in green technology to avoid climate change and keep it cheap so poor and developing countries can afford to use these green technologies.

But I still ask myself–what is the cutoff of the number of kids to have such that it will enhance the chances that they and others already here will live in a world that is sustainable?  Still more to learn on all of this, but seems a reasonable position is literal replacement–replace yourself and that’s it. You want more kids after that–adopt one of the growing millions who need a home.

What do you think?

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