Robert Walker: As it turns out, this may be a case of a “reality show” actually imitating reality. In the past few years, birth rates have been on the rise in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Russia and a growing number of other industrialized nations. If population continues to rise, but resource availability declines, we could be headed for disaster.
"18 Kids and Counting." That’s the name of a popular “reality” television show about a couple, Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, who last fall had 18 children. This week, it was announced that Michelle is pregnant again … so now it’s 19 kids and counting.
In a world consumed by issues like war, global recession,and climate change, should we care how many children Michelle is having? Maybe not. But if Michelle’s story is a reflection of a trend towards higher birth rates in the U.S. and other advanced countries, we absolutely should be paying closer attention.
As it turns out, this may be a case of a “reality show” actually imitating reality. In the past few years, birth rates have been on the rise in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Russia and a growing number of other industrialized nations.
What’s going on? A few years ago, many demographers were concerned that a “birth dearth” could shrink the population of many economically advanced nations like Germany and Japan. Those concerns still exist, but recent studies suggest that as incomes rise in advanced nations, many couples are deciding that they can afford to have a larger family size … and do.
Historically, rising birth rates were a cause for national celebration. More children theoretically translated into more workers, more consumers, and a more prosperous economy.
But that was before global warming, shrinking grain reserves, and renewed concerns about possible limits to growth. Today, the decision to have a super-sized family may have different implications, particularly in the U.S., where our population is expected to grow by 40 percent over the next 40 years.
Researchers at Oregon State University recently found, for example, that a woman in the United States could save about 486 tons of carbon dioxide emissions during her lifetime by taking such steps as driving less, increasing her car’s fuel economy, and replacing single-glazed windows with energy-efficient windows. But if she chose to have two children, she and her descendants would eventually add nearly 40 times that amount of carbon to the earth’s atmosphere.
And it’s not just the environmental consequences of big families that should concern us. With global population now projected to rise from 6.8 billion today to 9.4 billion by mid-century, a growing number of experts are warning that a major food crisis could be on the horizon.
While food production kept up with, or exceeded, population growth through most of the last century, the reverse has happened in the last decade. And future efforts to boost food production will have to contend with some major problems, including the effects of climate change, rising energy prices, and the continuing loss of topsoil and farmland.
Experts also warn that global oil production -- if it hasn’t done so already -- will peak in a decade or so. If that’s true, rising demand for oil from countries like China and India will only result in higher oil prices, not higher oil production. The same may be true for other resources like natural gas and scarce minerals.
If population continues to rise, but resource availability declines, we could be headed for disaster. It’s not a question of whether Michelle Duggar and her husband can care for another child. The bigger, and more urgent, question is, “Can our planet handle an additional 2.5 billion humans by mid-century?
As Americans, we have been raised to believe that bigger is always better. And maybe that’s why "18 Kids and Counting" has been such popular show. But in a world beset by critical environmental challenges and a shrinking resource base, bigger is not better. It is, in fact, a whole lot worse.
Robert Walker is executive vice president of The Population Institute, a nonprofit organization working to achieve a world population that can live in harmony with the planet. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.