Why We Deny the Realities of Population Growth

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

On a recent trip to Mexico, I sat in the central square in Guanajuato watching a lively scene of children at play. Adorable as they were, I couldn't help but notice how many of them had pregnant mothers with two or more children already in tow.

Scenes like this bring to mind the question of whether we have not only reached but already gone over a tipping point where the world's finite resources will no longer support our growing population. Some "birth dearth" experts like Jonathan Last would say no, but others, like David Paxson, the President of World Population Balance, would say we are already long gone, and must -- must -- do something now to reduce births not just in the United States, but globally.

To say no is to deny the sobering realities of continued population growth. As evolved as humans are, one could argue that our ability to deny the truth is not so evolved. In fact, it could be one of the strongest forces that will lead us to our species' demise.

As humans, we have evolved as social creatures, and have a need to belong. And to belong, we want to be seen as "normal," as society defines it. These needs are reflected in our reproductive choices. Over generations, social and cultural conditioning has so strongly influenced us to believe that the human species is wired to want children. Our social evolution has bred staunch reproductive conformity, which did serve society at one time, but at 7+ billion and counting no longer does.

We all live with the right to have children, whether we are ready to become parents or not, and to have many children as we want. -- Laura Carroll

The current bedrock of social and cultural conditioning rests in pronatalism - a set of beliefs that is pro-birth, encourages reproduction and exalts the role of parenthood. Pronatalism promotes the denial of the realities of population growth today. Over many generations we have been influenced to believe, and I stress believe, that having children is the natural progression in life, that it reflects our entry into adulthood, and represents our identities as men and women. We all live with the right to have children, whether we are ready to become parents or not, and to have many children as we want.

To step out of denial and face population realities means questioning pronatalist beliefs that don't reflect reproductive responsibility today, and adopting post-pronatal mindsets that do. When it comes to biological births, once such mindset would put one's obligation to our planet and the beings already on it first.

What if we made our first obligation to the planet and those already here, and that means not just humans, but as conservationist Dave Foreman calls them, "wild things" (all other living beings on earth)? In Paxson's words, it would mean we have come to terms with "the fact that a person's biological right to have children must be mediated by his or her social responsibility not to have too many." It would mean we would understand and act on the reality that the world needs to reduce biological births.

As paleoanthropologist Louise Leakey so rightly puts it, as humans we have evolved to "have the tools and the technology to communicate what needs to be done." To move past pronatalism and the denial it creates to a post-pronatal society will not only promote population stabilization but bring new meaning to the word humanitarianism.

We have an obligation to leave future generations as healthy a planet as possible. And the most powerful thing we can do to this end is reduce our reproduction. Seen in this way, having fewer offspring is not the selfish, but the selfless, act. Having fewer, not more, biological offspring can be seen as the true humanitarian act because it ultimately lessens the suffering of people already here and the world's natural environment.

When we choose not to have children or to limit the number we do have because we're mindful of the impact of each child on the planet's resources, we show our loyalty to the future of our world... and to the continued evolution of our human species.

Laura is the author of The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World.

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