The Elephant in the room

So, we’ve kinda got this big fat animal in the room and nobody has really had the courage to speak up about the fact that it’s there, because hey, we like to think we can ignore elephants and they can just go away.

But it won’t go away. We like to talk about our support of parents- I know I can’t resist cute little kids, and I really do want parents to have the best information and resources we can give them to raise their kids… but not qualifying that with anything is ignoring our elephant again. Global population is nudging seven billion people, with no signs of deceleration. And New Zealand is one of the nations that has quite impressive demands on the world’s resources, not to mention the fact that we’re still committing to trade to develop nations like China, and to lift poor pacific and african nations out of poverty.

So in a nation with such a loaded consumer culture as New Zealand, the choice of whether to have kids or not transcends the personal, even if that is where the largest motivation is going to be. Not only will your decision to breed impact our population, but also our resource use, our energy demands, our fuel imports, our demand for immigration to relieve overcrowded countries especially in Asia, and finally, the state of the climate.

While as a committed feminist with some international scope, I certainly can’t condone any sort of hard family size limits1, I do think that delaying parenthood and committing to a small family are two of the most important decisions someone who’s thinking of breeding or adopting can make.

Delaying parenthood a little will, ideally, help you stay economically and socially secure and ensure you have the resources you need to properly look after any little ones. Education on this matter is important- the idea is not ignored because people like to have children young, but rather because those who don’t have children accidentally often don’t consider the full effect of their decision. This is a matter for encouragement towards an ideal, not condemnation of a mistake.

Limiting family size makes sure that your time, emotional support, and financial resources aren’t spread between more children than you can reasonably handle. It allows us to slow down global population growth, and frees up resources so that everyone can have a slice of the pie. Some terribly, terribly rounded maths suggests that we could all live like your average Canadian if we cut the global population by a factor of six to seven.

There’s actually some profound ecological and economical wisdom in the phrase: “Great! More for me!” When you reduce the amount of people sharing a resource, your quality of life goes up. And we can get rid of the damn elephant. 😉

1We’ve seen how disastrous this sort of policy works out combined with any sort of pervasive social bias in China, where it lead to widespread abandonment and mistreatment of girls due to sexist judgements on their “value” as a child.


12 Responses

  1. This is a tricky one given the fact that New Zealand is currently not even replacing its own population through live births. I think a lot of parents and people here generally have followed the suggestions you outline and women are even coming under fire for not having children more often and earlier. Low birth-rates means NZ is in a position to take more people from other countries whose reproduction cup runneth over, but how this could even begin to impact on over-population in somewhere huge, like India, is questionable though – we’re just so tiny we can’t support mass immigration.

    However, evidence suggests that advocating and supporting aid for the education of women in other parts of the world would make a big difference to birthrates. Studies of many kinds in different places have reliably shown that the more educated a woman is, the later she first becomes pregnant, and the fewer children she has. There’s no consensus about why, but it’s as true in New Zealand as it is in rural Africa. Birthrate changes have to come from the bottom up. If women are given the ability to control their lives and are valued, the issue tends to sort itself out.

  2. Also – congrats on your continually raising these interesting issues. Obviously I approve, otherwise I wouldn’t be over here all the time yakking my ass off 🙂

  3. I have lots of interesting issues to raise! I think it’s part of living in a time when feminism and gender issues are really coming into their prime. Regular people everywhere are exposed to gender and reproductive rights debates about birth control, sex education, social attitudes of women and men, and everything- and if it weren’t for that fact, I probably wouldn’t even be a feminist. But I’m glad you think I’m identifying good subjects! 🙂

    I hadn’t actually looked into New Zealand specifically, (thanks for informing me on that) but I did know we certainly weren’t the crux of the problem in terms of birth rates. That said, I think there’s a lot of onus on us regardless because we’re a developed nation, (even if we’re on the lower end of that spectrum) and thus we consume a lot of resources per person, making our birthrate far more important at the moment than less developed nations’. I also think this issue does really highlight the importance of education for good life-skills, especially including education about the wider consequences of parenthood as part of sexual education.

    I think it also has big implications for charity- if we bring birth control and build up the economies of poorer countries so that parents don’t need to have many kids as insurance for when they’re old, then we can really put a dent in their populations, and make them good places to migrate to.

    I think stabilising or dropping the birth rate is going to be one of the biggest political issues of our time, and it ties into quality of life and feminism and almost everything, really- which is why it snuck into the blog, despite the fact that until recently I’d always thought of it as a Green issue.

  4. NZ may be tiny globally, but when it comes to getting involved we can do huge stuff in the Pacific Island nations. Specifically education, but also sensible aid and so on. One thing we need to be careful of is skimming, where we take their best and stagnate the originating population. Happens with rugby all the time 🙂 Anyway, the trade+aid+education etc is something NZ has traditionally been strong on, but the govt does need periodic reminders that we appreciate them for doing it.

  5. Yeah, skimming is tricky. Hopefully we give more in aid than we take in immigration- it’s hard to know for sure of course.

    We also take a few immigrants that aren’t necessarily highly skilled through long-distance relationships turning into marriages, so hopefully that helps compensate for our emphasis on skilled migrants.

    It’s worth noting of course that New Zealand is actually one of the most liberal countries in regards to immigration and refugee status. It’s always possible that we’re not taking enough people, but I think we’re certainly doing our bit. 🙂

  6. Interesting to see how you are (more than) alluding to ones wellbeing, and that of future generations, if we have small families. More concerning though is that this is seen as the ideal, like you are in some sort of position to advise on such a personal decision made by couples.

    Re the planets resources: such a simplistic view you make. It’s not the number of people alone, but rather how we use/abuse those resources. Instead of telling people what size they should have their families, why don’t you educate on the responsible use of the planets resources? You might find it makes more inroads.

    Furthermore, on the social side, I think you should look at the benefits of larger families. I have found that children that are brought up in a large family environment tend to be more selfless and social in their personality. Is it just a coincidence that the nuclear sized family of 2.4 kids of the past few decades has led to the “me” generation of today? I bet you’ll find that less people has actually resulted in more waste!

  7. Seán- the population size is a factor. I’m certainly not arguing it’s the biggest factor, or even the operative factor, but it’s one that’s largely not considered as in play to prevent over-use of resources, climate change, etc… I’m not being simplistic- I’m trying to focus on one thread of ideas at a time and explore how it reacts with others. 🙂

    All options should be considered, don’t you agree? Whether an individual chooses to reconsider their own personal wants in view of the bigger picture has to be up to them, though.

    As for your guess that family sizes have social repercussions? I’m sure they do, but the degree to which we can influence that, or even what social pressures larger or smaller families introduce, are both things I personally know nothing about, and don’t plan to talk about without finding some good theory and data first. 🙂 The specific problem you talk about has lots of other factors driving it too, so there are probably a lot of better ways to prevent it than just having large families- although knowing the social and psychological consequences of our family decisions is important, I agree.

    Also, this is one of the few things I would say is actually much more urgent than most social problems. Sustainability, especially in resource use, waste reduction, and renewability is something that takes a long time to make progress on. The faster we move, the more resources we conserve for the long run. 🙂

  8. Lyn – on your initial paragraph in the first comment I agree. In your second paragraph you state “that the more educated a woman is, the later she first becomes pregnant, and the fewer children she has.” I believe this to be true, but I would not be holding NZ up to be a model. While a more educated woman gives higher opportunity for a career, thereby delaying childbirth, that does not explain NZ’s worst-ever teen pregnancy rates today. Here I blame NZ’s liberal approach to sexuality and sex education. Too much emphasis on the right of the immature child and not enough on the responsibility of adults and family. Hard to know who to specifically blame here as it’s a societal thing, though the strategy of the current government has not helped matters. “Hubba rubba” anyone?

  9. I’m calling a can of worms on teenage pregnancy and sex education. I think I’ll have to put that on my posting agenda rather than reply in comments. 🙂

  10. You put a lid on that can I opened pretty quickly ;-). But fair enough, it was somewhat of a tangent to the post.

  11. Ari – re the first two paragraphs of your 10:12 comment – I didn’t read you saying that absolute population wasn’t the only factor. You didn’t mention that it wasn’t. Yes it has an impact but I see it a minor in the whole scheme of things, and certainly wouldn’t classify it as an ‘elephant in the room’…but yes, it does have some influence on resources.

    “so there are probably a lot of better ways to prevent it than just having large families” – probably, but my point is that there is good to come from bigger families as well, and I wanted to raise these to counter your negative comment re the planet’s resources.

    Agree with last paragraph.

  12. Unless I otherwise mention, I’m not necessarily saying that any issue I raise here contributes to the problems I mention in isolation. Life is complicated and I don’t claim to have all the answers- we should assume other factors are involved whether I mention them or not 🙂

    I certainly don’t think large families are all bad- I come from one, in fact. 😉

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