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The population problem is all about me: white, middle-class, American me. Well-meaning people have told me that I'm "just the sort of person who should have kids." Au contraire. I'm just the sort of person who should not have kids.

Written by Lisa Hymas for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

This fall, world population will reach 7 billion people at a time of  accelerated environmental disruption. This article part of a series commissioned by RH Reality Check and with Laurie Mazur as guest editor, to examine  the causes and consequences of population and environmental change from  various perspectives and the policies and actions needed to both avoid and mitigate the inevitable impacts of these  changes.

Here, Lisa Hymas explains how for population and personal reasons she has decided not to have kids. All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Both local and broad scale environmental problems often are linked to population growth, which in turn tends to get blamed on other people: folks in Africa and Asia who have "more kids than they can feed," immigrants in our own country with their "excessively large families," even single mothers in the "inner city."

But actually the population problem is all about me: white, middle-class, American me.


Steer that blame right over here.

Population isn't just about counting heads, although by this October we will be counting 7 billion of them worldwide. The impact of humanity on the environment is not determined solely by how many of us are around, but by how much stuff we use and how much room we take up. And as a financially comfortable American, I use a lot of stuff and take up a lot of room. My carbon footprint is more than 200 times bigger than that of an average Ethiopian, more than 12 times bigger than an average Indian's, and twice as big as an average Brit's.

Well-meaning people have told me that I'm "just the sort of person who should have kids." Au contraire. I'm just the sort of person who should not have kids.

When a poor woman in Uganda has another child, too often because she lacks access to family-planning services, economic opportunity, or self-determination, she might dampen her family's prospects for climbing out of poverty or add to her community's challenges in providing everyone with clean water and safe food, but she certainly isn't placing a big burden on the global environment.

When someone like me has a child watch out, world! Gear, gadgets, gewgaws, bigger house, bigger car, oil from the Mideast, coal from Colombia, Coltan from the Congo, rare earths from China, pesticide-laden cotton from Egypt, genetically modified soy from Brazil. And then when that child has children, wash, rinse, and repeat it all (in hot water, of course). Without even trying, we Americans slurp up resources from every corner of the globe and then spit 99 percent of them back out again as pollution.


Conscientious people try to limit that consumption, of course. I'm one of them. I get around largely by bus and on foot, eat low on the food chain, buy used rather than new, keep the heat low, rein in my gadget lust. But even putting aside my remaining carbon sins (see: airplane flights), the fact is that just by virtue of living in America, enjoying some small portion of its massive material infrastructure, my carbon footprint is at unsustainable levels.

Far and away the biggest contribution I can make to a cleaner environment is to not bring any mini-mes into the world. A 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University found that in America the climate impact of having one fewer child is almost 20 times greater than the impact of adopting a series of eco-friendly practices for your entire lifetime, such as driving a hybrid, recycling, using efficient appliances and installing compact fluorescent lights.

And so, for environmental as well as personal reasons, I've decided not to have children. I call myself a GINK: green inclinations, no kids.


Most people won't make the same decision, of course, and I don't fault them for that. Everyone has different circumstances and will balance their values in different ways. I believe in choice, and that means supporting choices different from my own.

But it needs to become easier for people to make the same decision I have, if they are so inclined.

The reproductive-rights movement focuses on the legal, logistical, and financial hurdles standing between women and control of their fertility. It's essential work, needed more than ever in today's hostile political climate.

But the cultural hurdles too often get ignored.

Here in the United States, the Pill has been available for more than 50 years. It's now almost universally accepted that women will use birth control to delay, space out, or limit childbearing. But there's not so much acceptance for using birth control to completely skip childbearing. At some point, you're expected to grow up, pair up, put the Pill off to the side, and produce a couple of kids. Deviate from this scenario and you'll get weird looks and face awkward conversations with family members, friends, coworkers, and complete strangers.

One 30-something woman I know who works for a reproductive-health NGO says that her colleagues pester her about her decision not to have children, telling her she needs to get started on that family or she'll regret it. And these are people whose careers are dedicated to making birth control and reproductive health care available to all women! Pro-natal bias runs deep.

Many women who have not already had children find it difficult if not impossible to find a doctor who will perform a tubal ligation. Doctors warn that sterilization is an irreversible, life-altering decision. But having a child is an irreversible, life-altering decision and you don't find doctors warning women away from that. The broadly held prejudice, in the medical profession and much of the rest of society, is that becoming a parent is the correct and inevitable choice.

Over recent years and decades, it's become more acceptable for mixed-race couples to have children, and single women, and gay couples, and women over the age of 40, and that's all good. Acceptance has been slower to come for the decision not to have children. There's now a fledgling childfree movement, but some who are part of it say they still feel like they're violating a taboo.

Real reproductive freedom has to include social acceptance of the decision not to reproduce. When we achieve that, it will mean less pressure on women and men who don't feel called to become parents. It will mean less of a stigma on people who may have wanted to become parents but didn't get the chance. It will mean a wider array of options for people who haven't yet decided. It will mean fewer children born to ambivalent or unhappy parents, getting us closer to the goal of "every child a wanted child."

And, it will mean fewer Americans making a mess of the planet, and a little more breathing room for those of us who are already here or on the way.

I recognize that I am the population problem. I'm trying to be part of the solution.

Let's make it easier for others to join me.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Just watch- in a few years this will become (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Spirit of Life

    a political issue. The tipping point of white children no longer being the majority will cause a huge right wing freak out, and childless white women will be demonized as selfish, unpatriotic, godless heathens. Overt racism is becoming more and more acceptable by the day. It's going to get ugy.

    •  Well, I'm a childless white woman (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      icemilkcoffee, Marie

      as a result of infertility, so I guess I'll be condemned take my place in line with the other "selfish, unpatriotic, godless heathens". For some of us, biology is destiny. The last thing we need is to have paranoid (probably male) racists piling on and making us feel guilty.

      You cannot enlighten the unconscious.

      by cassandracarolina on Wed Aug 24, 2011 at 12:36:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  What do you think the right wing (0+ / 0-)

      freak-out about abortion was about?  Of course they couldn't figure out how to craft the message that only white fetuses were fully formed human beings.  Perhaps in the next phase when overt racism is again acceptable they'll realize their real agenda.

  •  I completely agree with this diary. (6+ / 0-)

    I will be 62 in a couple of months, and, while I've been married twice, I never had kids. I don't regret that decision one bit. I didn't have them for lots of reason--it would have been difficult for me to conceive and carry to term for physiological reasons; I like older kids but babies squick me rather than make me feel all gooey; we couldn't afford kids because we needed my salary in my first marriage; and, most of all,  we liked our life just fine without kids. When I remarried at 38, my husband had already has a vasectomy which made life much easier.

    The ones I despise are the Quiverfull people--like the Duggers and their eldest son who seems to want to follow in Dad's footsteps.  They have 19 kids. Someone tie that woman's tubes, already.

    And while India at the moment isn't contributing that much to the carbon footprint problem--it will start to be part of it, just as China is.  As the educated and tech classes expand and people start to want more stuff, the carbon footprint will increase. Right now, the birth rate is high, but so is the infant mortality  rate, and many kids don't live to adulthood.  

    I would kill to be able to take public transportation. We live out in the boonies in GA, it's a 30 minute trip to get anywhere. Buses and trains don't exist. WHen I live din Japan, we took the trains and buses all the time.  We only used our car to get to the other bases for shopping, very short trips.

    The last time we mixed religion and politics people got burned at the stake.

    by irishwitch on Wed Aug 24, 2011 at 10:35:28 AM PDT

    •  not that I'm a fan or anything (5+ / 0-)

      But if you want the option to be child free and control your body, then you need to let Michelle Duggar control (or not control) hers as well - despite your disapproval of what she does with it.  

      Looking down on her for her choices is no different than assuming she (or others "like her") looks down on you for choosing not to have children - and both are bullshit judgement calls.

      Do I think her clown car action is creepy?  Yes I do.  But it is her body and apparently she really likes being pregnant.  

      Yes, a small carbon footprint is important to some people - like myself, who has actively moved away from traditional American housing and no expectations to have children. (We are considering adoption or fostering as an alternative, since we have two already from her previous marriage.)  But that's my choice as a rational person.  I can't and won't force people to hold the same values I do.  

      And we sail and we sail and we never see land, just the rum in the bottle and a pipe in my hand...

      by Mortifyd on Wed Aug 24, 2011 at 10:57:13 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Sorry, I am ALLOWED to crticize (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Michelle and the Quiverfull women as much as I damned well feel like. Yes, she has the right to make that choice (but I don't think she should be allowed to deduct all those kids, because it means I am forced to contribute to their upkeep when they are being raised in a particularly nasty form of fundy Christianity in which they are taught to despise and hate gays and anyone who doesn't agree with them). I've also avoided watching her show--but I got to see the clan in action on an episode of Say Yes tot he Dress, and those kids were horribly behaved and Dad and the older ones just sat there while they turned cartwheels and made a racket--in a STORE.

        Who said she didn't? You read things into my comment that I didn't say.  My college friend was one of ten.  They were Irish Catholic and TRIED to use rhythm. Those children were terrific kids, polite and well-mannered. Mom and Dad didn't have much money but their kids were going to college and had been taught manners--and sent to Catholic schools.  I loved visiting them. The Duggers? If I saw them coming I'd run in the opposite direction.

        The reason I disapprove of the Quiverfull types is that I loathe their version of Christianity. This woman was raised into it, and I doubt she's ever seriously questioned a word her preacher ever said. And this woman wouldn't have one moment's regret about telling me how awful; I am for NOT having children or not being Christian. I know their "Christian Love" all too damned well. I have a SiL just like her--she only had two because she physically wasn't able, but if she could she'd have produced a dozen--and had the gall to ask us why we hadn't, and didn't have any sympathy for my husband pointing out that with their abusive father, he thought NOT having them was a wiser choice (her kids are a mixed bag; the gay son went to San Francisco and never came back and the daughter is a self0--righteous pain in the ass like Mom).

        I obviously struck a nerve with you.  For that I apologize--but I maintain that I have a right to criticize Michelle Dugger as long as she has a right to attack me as a selfish immature woman unwillign to make sacrifices (yes, I've had that tossed at me).  You chose to have children. I am happy you love them. ANd I wouldn't deny the Duggers the right  have a 20th kid---but I maintain I ahve a right to point out that if EVERYONE did that, we'd be in a bigger mess than we are.

        The last time we mixed religion and politics people got burned at the stake.

        by irishwitch on Wed Aug 24, 2011 at 02:56:12 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  actually.... (0+ / 0-)

          If you want to criticize her then she gets to do the same - as do I.  

          She wasn't raised in it, they used birth control at the beginning of their marriage.  I don't know a tonne about them but I do know that is a fact they have both talked about.

          Your disapproval doesn't mean anything.  Your dislike of their "brand" of Christianity doesn't matter.  It doesn't to them, it doesn't to me and it's not a valid argument.  If you want freedom for yourself, you have to give it to others as well.  Period.  They will make choices you don't like - just like you will. They may even question your decisions - just like you do theirs. That's called reality.

          More than that, your philosophical dogma is no better than hers either.  Your personal experiences and reasons are not a justification.  She wants 20+ kids, and they can afford them.  They can and could before they even got into double digits.  Even if you took away their tax breaks which I think is frankly selfish of you - they could still afford it.  They aren't poor by any stretch of the imagination, yet they still live frugally.

          You want to justify your disapproval of them and the feelings YOU have from your own issues dealing with people who question your decision.  Not having any of it.

          I do not have any biological children and likely never will due to a birth defect. I am happy with the two my wife has,  we want more children in our lives.  For us, adoption and fostering is a way to do that because we like kids - and hey, they're already here.  But it doesn't give us a platform to claim moral and ethical superiority over the Duggars and their odd but wanted 20 something kids.  

          And we sail and we sail and we never see land, just the rum in the bottle and a pipe in my hand...

          by Mortifyd on Wed Aug 24, 2011 at 06:13:57 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Interesting diary - 2 observations (3+ / 0-)

    1) It's not immediately clear to me what the consequences are of the top consumers failing to replace themselves.  Conceivably it might just allow more people lower down to consume more which would be good from a social justice perspective but not particularly helpful in reducing humanity total ecological impact.  Presumably others have thought more about this than I have.  This isn't a criticism of your argument but more a request for more detailed information if anyone has it.

    2) I am 50 years old, married for 17 years and childless.  I can't say that we have ever gotten any negative feedback for not reproducing.  Granted we are academics and our social situation may be a bit atypical.  However the majority of our married friends have children and we both come from families outside of our current social environment.  My wife's family is pretty conservative.  The fact that we don't have kids has barely been mentioned by anyone, ever. (people we don't know do ask us if we have kids but that's about it).  While I can easily believe that our situation is a single data point I find it hard to wrap my head around the idea of childlessness as a stigma.

    "We are normal and we want our freedom" - Bonzos

    by matching mole on Wed Aug 24, 2011 at 10:45:46 AM PDT

  •  Could I get a tax break, maybe, (3+ / 0-)

    for having refrained from parenthood (now being past the age)?  I mean, farmers are paid not to grow wheat, right?

    Or some kind of guarantee on elder care, since I have no offspring to help me if I become disabled and/or addled later on?

    I'm not saying people in this country have kids for the tax break ;-), but  a decision to go another route in life is not exactly supported by our society at large.

    It would also be nice to alter the whole trope about childless people being selfish. Do people have children who don't want to, just out of altruism?  No...though children may get conceived either by intention or by accident, neither choice -- kids or no kids -- is inherently more (or less) "selfish" than the other.

  •  But what about diversity? Don't we need white (0+ / 0-)

    Americans to help fulfill a racial quota?

  •  Actually first world you (3+ / 0-)

    Will probably end up having a lower carbon foot print than your counterpart in other part of the world by 2100.

    Technology has a curve of waste and energy.  Think about how much juice your cell phones used to use to even get a signal.  Now the digital phones sip battery (the data services and screen are piggy, but basic comms? No.)

    Less developed countries will in some cases skip a middle technology and get straight to the first world stuff, but not everywhere.  And more rural people use more energy than urbanites, all things being the same otherwise (yes, people in Manhattan have a much lower carbon footprint than people in the middle of rural Utah on average).

    Technology giveth and it taketh away, but then it giveth back some.

    We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both. - Louis Brandeis

    by nightsweat on Wed Aug 24, 2011 at 11:02:24 AM PDT

  •  Having kids is deeply personal decision (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Marjmar, Mortifyd, greatdarkspot

    I congratulate you for being happy with your decision on the matter, but I think judging others for having kids, or encouraging people to make that decision for environmental reasons and not personal ones isn't something I can support.

    I think society should encourage people not to have more children than they can support, emotionally and financially, and make sure people have access to birth control so they can make those choices for themselves.

    What you aren't considering is what's best for the child, while a child in the first world has higher carbon footprint, they also have a better life, a better chance of living to adulthood, of getting an education, etc.  Are you against the next generation having those things because they increase carbon footprint?

    I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.

    by Futuristic Dreamer on Wed Aug 24, 2011 at 11:10:40 AM PDT

    •  This "deeply personal" decision (0+ / 0-)

      seems not to be working wrt world population.

      Are you for the next generation living in a too hot world with scarcity because a small minority of people were able to give their children a high carbon footprint "better life" during your days?


      •  I think we should make birth control widely (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        available in the third world, on the first world's dime.  I think the first world should conserve energy and take steps to reduce carbon emissions.  I don't think not having kids will solve the problem, people will just immigrate from the third world and live like we do, with the same carbon emissions.

        I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.

        by Futuristic Dreamer on Wed Aug 24, 2011 at 02:43:05 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I think this: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cassandracarolina, Marie
    But having a child is an irreversible, life-altering decision and you don't find doctors warning women away from that

    is perfect...and SO true.

    I have had an abortion AND twins and, believe me, my  twins affect my life FAR more than my abortion.

  •  I have two daughters. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I would probably have three kids if, when I was considering getting my tubes tied, their father had talked about a year or so instead of five or ten years.  I was 29, almost 30, when I had #2.

    My firstborn is carrying her second (a boy), and her first is starting kindergarten in a couple of weeks.  My second and her husband don't want kids.

    In both cases, it's their lives - I've never said anything other than that on the subject of reproducing.  Just like my mother never nagged any of the four of her kids.

    Strength and dignity are her clothing, she rejoices at the days to come; She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the law of kindness is on her tongue.

    by loggersbrat on Wed Aug 24, 2011 at 12:30:51 PM PDT

  •  Hmm, be careful with stats. That study is bunk. (4+ / 0-)

    From the diary:

    A 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University found that in America the climate impact of having one fewer child is almost 20 times greater than the impact of adopting a series of eco-friendly practices for your entire lifetime, such as driving a hybrid, recycling, using efficient appliances and installing compact fluorescent lights.

    That sounded extreme, so I read the study itself. A few points are worth making.

    First, the climate impact of having a child is calculated by allocating responsibility to a parent for half that child's lifetime emissions, and a quarter of the lifetime emissions of each grandchild, an eighth of the emissions of each great-grandchild, and so on. Yet this is being compared to just a "series of eco-friendly practices" of one lifetime. And assuming one's offspring make none of those similar "eco-friendly" lifestyle changes.

    Second, in order to arrive at that figure of "20 times greater", the climate impact of having a child was calculated assuming a constant-emission scenario: that is, assuming that even 50 or 100 years from now, the average American CO2 emissions will still be 20 tonnes per person per year just as it is now. That's not a likely scenario - peak oil and all.

    Third, the "series of eco-friendly practices for your entire lifetime" used in the study are, in my opinion, more like eco-whitewash. Here's the list, which does not include "driving a hybrid" as the diary indicates:

    Increase car’s fuel economy from 20 to 30 mpg.
    Reduce miles driven from 231 to 155 per week.
    Replace single-glazed windows with energy-efficient windows.
    Replace ten 75-w incandescent bulbs with 25-w energy-efficient lights.
    Replace old refrigerator with energy-efficient model.
    Recycle newspaper, magazines, glass, plastic, aluminum, and steel cans.

    That's it? Going from 20 to 30 mpg, and from 12000 to 8000 miles per year, is going eco-friendly? Not by any measure I'd use.

    So yeah, of course we should consider environmental factors in family planning, but I'd find other sources than that study. It's a hatchet job.

  •  Kids (0+ / 0-)

    Everybody who wants kids should have them - and have as many as they wish and feel they can provide for. I hope to have at least three, myself.

  •  This was the ZPG argument (0+ / 0-)

    forty years ago.  It's a highly ethical one that influenced a few people in this country.  (And have to say that the most enviable marriages among those I know are childless by choice couples.)

    The flaw in the ZPG argument isn't that relatively affluent white people shouldn't limit the size of their families, but that large families in poorer communities and countries are nothing to worry about for the simple reason that everybody wants what affluent people want.  And they will do whatever they possibly can to get it.  Either develop it at home or migrate to where it exists in plenty.  Then when those formerly homogeneous white countries become more ethnically diverse, the carbon footprint doesn't go down.  Then the white people begin freaking out about the low birth rate of white children.  

    Two or fewer children seemed to be the norm among early baby boomers for the longest time.  That began to end somewhere around 1980.  More and more people began having three or four children families.  As if others in the world weren't going be responsible, why should white folks?

  •  GIOK? (0+ / 0-)

    green inclinations, one kid.

    in our case (my sibs and myself), green inclinations were only part of the calculations.

    myself and my dear husband worked like dogs for 5 years to accomplish one very late pregnancy.  without the extra bells & whistles, a second did not occur.

    my brother and his wife were celebrating recovery from a nearly fatal heart attack when their "surprise" occurred.  As my SIL had been the eldest of 12 (or 15???), she was OK with "li'l s'prise" but had figured she'd already put in her diaper-time and had never intended to breed in the first place, so one was enough for them.

    my little sister didn't feel like she'd make a good mom, and anyone who feels that way shouldn't be pressured into anything.  And her current husband already had 2 high-school babies (HIS first wife's life's ambition, apparently), so sis has had plenty of "2d hand" kid and grandkid action.

    My husband's sibs, and the rest of both families, have much more traditional numbers, so I'm glad the three of us have done something, even if mostly inadvertently, about ZPG and carbon footprints.

    "real" work : a job where you wash your hands BEFORE you use the bathroom...

    by chimene on Wed Aug 24, 2011 at 07:11:57 PM PDT

  •  ONE CHILD (0+ / 0-)

    . . .is another option. Perhaps not as good an option for the planet but an easier option to sell to ones spouce. The need for children and to procreate is great . . .one of the greatest urges of the human spirit.

    An "only child" can be a very happy child. The only child need not be a lonely child. My son has many friends in part because we opened our home to his friends at all times. He is now 19, entering college, and I don't think there is a more better adjusted and happy young man, decent and honest, on the planet.

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