Sustainability 101: the fertility factor
Ever since my youth, I've been a numbers type of guy. As a teenager in the 1950s, I discovered that the typical American woman was having three or four children and I calculated that the U.S.A. was in for a big population explosion.
By Ben Zuckerman
At about the same time, Chinese women were having even more children than Americans. In fact, partly because of the population increases engendered by these high fertilities, these two countries together are now responsible for half of the entire anthropogenic contribution to increasing atmospheric carbon.
Unfortunately, fertility is a forgotten player in today's "global warming guides" from Al Gore, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Defense, Outside Magazine’s Green Issue, Time Magazine's Global Warming Survival Guide or, indeed, the entire mainstream U.S. environmental movement. You will find that the number of children a couple has is not a component of anybody's "environmental sustainability" equations.
This omission introduces dramatic errors into a major new international poll, "Greendex 2008," commissioned by the venerable scientific and educational organization, the National Geographic Society. A total of 14,000 people in 14 countries were queried on a wide range of topics to determine their environmental footprints and "to promote environmentally sustainable consumption."
To determine how sustainable your personal behavior is, according to National Geographic, answer 12 multi-part "Greendex" questions.
The last question asks about the number of people in your household who are adults (18 and older) and children. My wife and I have no children, so I put "two" for the number of adults and "zero" for the number of children. Out of curiosity, I then increased the number of children first to one, then to two and so on all the way up to six, but leaving my answers to all other survey questions the same. I fully expected my Greendex score to go down because, all other things being equal, surely a couple that has, say, four non-adopted children creates a much larger environmental impact than a couple that has none.
Imagine my surprise, then, when my score improved substantially as the number of children living with my wife and me increased. Remarkably, the National Geographic survey rewards those who have lots of children! Thus India is rewarded for its high fertility, while Japan is penalized for its low fertility.
How could such a carefully constructed survey get something so important so wrong (and so backward)?
Ultimately, the fault must be attributed to the mainstream U.S. environmental movement that, for decades, has abrogated its responsibility to address in a politically meaningful way the environmental harm caused by population growth both here and elsewhere.
Clearly, it's impossible to tell from anyone's list of "50 simple things you can do to save the Earth" that arguably the most important life decision a couple can make to achieve environmental sustainability is to limit their number of non-adopted children to two at most.
Zuckerman, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and the Board of Directors for Californians for Population Stabilization. It also recently appeared in the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore.
Published: Wednesday, August 13, 2008