A potential pledge: no change, no grandchildren

Planet earth’s future cannot be bright with 8 billion people: our future depends on how seriously and quickly we change our materialist culture, social organization and technologies. An immediate action plan is offered for the generation centered around Greta Thunberg: young women, and just as importantly young men, should avow not to have children until their parents and grandparents take significant steps to deliver the world they promised.

By Ralph R. Sell

The same week 16 year old Swede Greta Thunberg shamed anyone older for lying about her bright future, I belatedly read the second edition of British ecological economist Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth. Professor Jackson argues that we must substitute for economic growth less materialist social goals if humanity is to truly prosper, or more ominously, survive. Most of the world’s religions have argued this over the same millennia which accompanied the triumph of materialist overconsumption. After some background, this essay offers a way out of this contradiction between the moral imperatives of the “should” and how people have and most likely will react to the allure of material plenty. Perhaps gratuitously, I also offer an immediate action plan for the generation centered around Ms. Thunberg: young women, and just as importantly young men, should avow not to have children until their parents and grandparents take significant steps to deliver the world they promised.

Both Thunberg and Jackson passionately call attention to the disasters soon to overtake us if multiple corrections and changes fail to be made in the way too many of us consume. By now books with similar messages would fill a library; warnings about global over-exploitation started 50 years ago (the first Earth Day occurred in 1970). Over these years the narrative moved from academic computer models about what was coming to Youtube visuals of what has already arrived. Clear to everyone who pays attention to anything beyond their own ego, the outcome of the Darwinian experiment nature is running on humanity, if left alone, will have disastrous and deadly outcomes.  But humans are not drosophila genetically expanding to the limits of their bell jar environment; rather we are sentient humans who eventually look into each other’s eyes and souls, understand that we are all in earth’s bell jar together, and start to ask “What the %#@$ can we do?” I will first present a more organized way to think about all this, and then concentrate on a neglected element for saving our future. Uncharacteristically this offers just a hint of optimism in an otherwise depressing saga of human excess.

Many discussions of what to do about climate change get frustrated by the interconnectedness of the structures which have led us to where we are. These structures interconnect in complex ways and we need a simplifying framework. A borrowed acronym POET from human ecology, offers a start: Population, Organization, Environment, Technology. Changes in any one of the four components interactively induces changes in the other three.

The POET model by O.D. Dunchan (1964) Source:https://people.eou.edu/soctech/resources/thinking-about-change/

For most of the 100,000 years of human existence, populations were small and stable; social organization, simple and direct, the environment, save for an ice age or two and a couple of human-induced extinctions, was essentially stable; technology, simple. Exactly when, how and in what order the balance among the factors changed need not divert us here, except to say that after a fairly languid 100,000 years, by about 1800 the world’s population topped 1 billion; the surface of the earth would soon be organized into competing geopolitical units; the environment, excepting some deforestation here and there and a couple of nasty mining scars, remained a self-regulating Gaia; and the first replacement of human and animal power by the fossil-fueled steam engine had just been commercialized. 220 years or .2% of human existence later a population of almost 8 billion; globally-organized production with the positive feedback loop of mass consumerism; an environment on the brink of inducing either an unimaginably nasty population culling led by an impersonal Grim Reaper or a context for human life generational spokesperson, Ms. Thunberg, finds insufferably inadequate. All this accompanied by technological changes which, while sometimes amazingly attractive, have more often been used by a small number of us for personal profit and control.

I taught university courses in social demography for most of my career, and in a way I return to my roots in this essay with a focus on the Population part of the POET framework.  Returning to Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth, he assumes that prosperity must accommodate 9 billion or more people because projections tell him this will be our demographic future.  But his less consumerist world, which I applaud, could just as well work, certainly far better, with say 4 billion people. It is simple arithmetic that whatever individuals’ resource consumption, overall consumption would be less with fewer people. To be blunt there will be fewer of us than 9 billion because the planet cannot support this many people with anything close to our “developed world” standard of living. The only relevant questions are how and how soon the reduction occurs: “naturally” by war and disease, or “unnaturally” by human interventions. The good news is that the case for human intervention is much stronger than many people realize and in fact has been at work for some time. And the good news includes a concrete and actionable suggestion of how the many younger people motivated by Ms. Thunberg can take part and push for real, that is beneficial, climate change.

The Population part of POET must become more complex to explain this.  Real populations come with different amounts of old and young people, over and under consumers, etc in all the variety of humanity.  Crucial for population forecasts are women and men’s future baby making.  Well known is that for a stable population the average couple over their lifetime needs to have about 2 children to replace themselves.  Less well known is that it matters a great deal at what age these average couples have babies.  Generational overlaps will be greater and stable populations will be larger if mothers have babies around age 20 rather than around age 30.  Sophisticated calculations have lots of complex interactions—this is what demographers and computers deal with—but a simple example should make this point.  Currently, about 100 million babies are born and about 40 million people of all ages die each year, thus adding about 60 million to the existing population of 7.7 billion.  10 years of this will add 600 million people to the 7.7 billion or 8.3 billion.  Now suppose 16 year old Ms. Thunberg and others pledge “NO CHANGE, NO GRANDCHILDREN!” for 10 years, perhaps believing that the future as offered to their potential children would be far too bleak.  10 years of no babies and in 2030 the world would have about a billion fewer people consuming a billion units less of planetary degradation.  Fewer people will not solve over-consumption, but will make solutions more manageable.

This initiative would support several existing social movements from around the world who have already pledged to forgo childbearing until governments take concrete steps to halt and reverse climate change.  Two notable examples include: #BirthStrike “a worldwide movement of people who have decided not to have children because of climate change” and #No future, No children which collects pledges to not have children until governments ensure their babies a safe future.  Similar movements, such as Conceivable Future directly link the climate crisis to failures of reproductive justice while making clear that these actions are not directed against children, but rather at increasing the chances that babies enter a livable world.

Birthstrike in London, 2019. Source: https://birthstrike.tumblr.com/

As always the real world remains far more complex and, frankly, this is as it should be.  However, for some time now and in most parts of the world women and men already have been having fewer babies, at older ages or remaining childless.  In fact by most measures well over half of the world’s entities have birth rates below replacement.  In terms of population size and thus overall impact, the fertility of China’s 1.43 billion people is below replacement (1.7 babies per woman), India’s 1.37 billion just above replacement (2.2), and 3rd in size USA below replacement (1.8). Ms. Thunberg’s hypothetical call to action would fit existing trends, but has the dramatic potential to speed up other consumption changes which must occur as well.

TFR largest countries
Total Fertility Rate of the most populatios countries. Data source: World Bank

How did these rapid and far reaching changes to patterns of behavior in something as personal as having babies come about? The three largest countries just mentioned offer three different pathways. The most direct in terms of policy remains China where in 1979 rules were set in place and enforced to limit most couples under most situations to one child. The policies explicitly aimed to lower population growth, were highly effective, and thus were relaxed in 2015 toward the goal of a stable population size. The USA has never had an explicit population policy regarding itself, but education and encouraging women to pursue careers outside of motherhood induced the same reduced baby-making result. The USA and many other places clearly show that on average if given options, especially those which reduce patriarchal influence if not outright control, many couples forego childbearing, have children later in life and have fewer of them. India’s efforts fall between these two poles with episodes of coerced vasectomies intertwined with significant investments in human development, but with the clearly demonstrated result of lowered overall fertility before, rather than after, well-distributed economic well-being. As demonstrated by these three large and diverse societies, the options to halt population growth can take many different paths.

Under all scenarios, accommodating and/or moderating climate change and its effect on our Environment will not be easy. Technologies to withdraw carbon from the atmosphere, produce and use energy more efficiently, and many others, must be developed and exploited. The Organization of our lives must be directed away from excess material consumption while simultaneously directing some of that excess toward those who need more. But at the same time as attention gets directed at three-fourths of POET, Population the final fourth has the potential to make a sustainable accommodation sooner, rather than catastrophically, later. Planet earth’s future cannot be bright with 8 billion people; exactly how fewer depends on how seriously and quickly we change our materialist culture, social organization and technologies.

Dr. Sell received a Ph. D. in Sociology from The Pennsylvania State University and has taught at Penn State, the University of Rochester, the American University in Cairo and the Rochester Institute of Technology.  He retired from academia in 2006.
Disclaimer: Dr. Sell has one grandson.
Email: RalphRSell.2020@gmail.com

8 thoughts on “A potential pledge: no change, no grandchildren

  1. A clearly stated regulation issued by the ‘patriarchy’ that ‘human female reproductive rights are limited to two live births per woman’ would one suspects generate a storm of protest.

  2. I have been studying and active with the population for 25 + years and agree with everything but find one glaring omission.We are asking people to reduce their fertility and consume less but, at the same time, people in the developed countries feel it is important to actively help other non-citizens to come to their countries and increase their carbon footprint. Our excessive immigration rates create social problems for many citizens and it is estimated that the average immigrant increases their carbon footprint some 400%. We hear a lot of hype about how this helps the economy (ignoring a lot of externalities) but never anything on how this helps the environment. My late partner (an immigrant from Iran) was extremely concerned about this issue and once asked her 2nd graders: What is more important people or dirt? We can never be more important than the system that sustains us. In the end everyone will suffer, immigrants and citizens alike. We need more ‘honest’ and independent (not subsidized by industry) studies on this critical issue.

    1. I agree with your carbon footprint comments 100%, but how to address the issue humanely is a tough one. Probably if a country’s fertility is below replacement, “allow” immigration to fill in perhaps part of the difference. But given that richer and more powerful countries and corporations are at least partly to blame for the global inequality inducing the desperation to move elsewhere, international solutions are needed.

      1. Yet most nations like france, germany, UK and USA experience population growth yet they would already been in population decline if we had sticked to a net 0 migration policy.

  3. In my years in ZPG the idea was that we either deal with the overpopulation issue ourselves or nature will do it for us. There is a theory called the “Trolley Problem” which states we need to aim for the least amount of pain. Some need to be sacrificed for the common good. Do we worry about ‘humanely’, meaning some or a humanely which includes all. On several occasions my partners and I had to chose to sponsor family members or friends to immigrate here. After a lot of discussion and weighing the facts we chose not to. In the end all those people actually ended off very well. We do need some immigration but it should be such that we minimize their carbon footprint and give them a chance to move back and forth. Other issues that are actually making the problem worse are birthright citizenship (my step-son did some of his medical practice in El Paso and he was astonished at the number of people coming across the border to have their kids in the US. Another is chain migration and a syndicated editorial gave an example of from one person some 96 others were able to get in through chain migration. Another fact most don’t know if is that churches sponsor immigrants. This is done to bolster their numbers. My late partner was an elementary school teacher. She got caught up in an issue where a man from Africa, his 4 wives (one was the wife and the other 3 became ‘family members’) and 32 children came to the US under a church’s sponsorship. When I was working 2 of my co-workers came from Cambodia under the sponsorship of the Mormon church. What happened to the idea behind Ellis and Angel Islands? We still have the issue of disease, crime and other issues people would not be allowed in. We used to have a legal immigration quota of 250K but now it is over 1 M and the business lobbyists want that number even higher. I just read something in the National Geographic that spoke to me: “But if we give up seemingly unresolvable problems, the world will grow more miserable, not less so. We can do better.”

  4. Maybe retired men should not be driving this issue, especially since that in the developed world this group is among the highest in consumption. Education and economic liberation of women will is still the best way to slow down population growth in a way that is socially acceptable.

    1. I am a retired person and am anti-consumption. A major issue for me is to reduce my carbon footprint. I also live in a place that is very active in the environmental arena and the most active are mostly retired. This weekend will be a 3 day program dedicated to carbon free bty33. One cannot and should not generalize. It is people lime myself that have the time, knowledge, experience and experience that people with growing families and jobs often don’t. Already, it seems the polarization has started – my tribe but not other tribes.

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