The Population Debate Gets Personal

Let's be honest, babies aren't known for being camera-shy, but they've really been hogging the spotlight as of late. There's that new Focus Features film, Babies. And then last week The New York Times Sunday Magazine explored their morality in a cover story chock-full of images of cartoonishly big-eyed infants.

But don't be fooled by their innocent appearance. While fertility rates have been consistently dropping worldwide over the last 10 years, we're still way over budget when it comes to those chubby little humans. Last year, according to the Global Footprint Network, 6.8 billion of us consumed the renewable resources of 1.4 Earths.

Overpopulation is a controversial topic for a slew of reasons, not the least of which is that those who've taken up the cause have often been racist, classist, xenophobic, and sexist. I won't belabor the history here; Mother Jones' recent cover story, "The Last Taboo," and related online forum (of which I was a part) are good places to find a more comprehensive background.

But another, less discussed reason that conversations about overpopulation are so explosive is that they're inherently very personal. This topic is one of the most extreme reminders that some of our most private decisions have real and lasting public consequences. Even when a Prius-driving, bottle-recycling, Sierra Club-donating woman is deciding whether to have a baby, she is rarely focused on the environmental consequences, and yet, an American baby born today adds an average of 10,407 tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of the mother -- according to Oregon State University statistician Paul Murtaugh.

This kind of personal-political dynamic is different than individual moralizing or religious values. This is not the stuff of the culture wars -- Is it wrong to have an abortion? Is it right to censor sexually explicit art? These are, ultimately, questions that are interpretable and value-driven, the stuff of philosophy classes and religious sermons. My yes may be just as defendable as your no.

The question of overpopulation is different. While one may quibble with Murtaugh's calculations, one can't really argue that it's environmentally sound to birth another child into our resource-depleted Earth. In fact, author Bill McKibben argues that we've changed the quality of the planet so drastically that we can't even call it Earth anymore. We're now living on Eaarth, as he calls it in his latest book, Making Life on a Tough New Planet, and our job is to figure out how to not screw this one up, too.

Of course there are big-picture, non-coercive solutions to overpopulation. Improve girls' education, and fertility rates automatically drop (an approach dubbed "the girl effect"). Make sure that contraception is cheap, abundant, and culturally acceptable. Give women economic opportunities. These are libratory, First World answers to Third World problems. Educate a girl and, voila, the world is saved!

But what about Americans? As of 2005, women in 18 of the 24 wealthiest nations were having more babies than in previous years. No one has posited any big theories on why this trend has reversed in countries where women are largely well educated, the U.S. included, but there's no question that babies born in wealthy countries consume a disproportionate amount of resources.

So where do we draw the line in our own procreating and consuming habits? No self-respecting environmentalist drinks out of disposable plastic water bottles, but does she unapologetically have a few kiddos? Murtaugh told Mother Jones environmental correspondent Julia Whitty: "The ecological costs of that child far outweigh even the combined energy-saving choices from all a mother's other good decisions, like buying a fuel-efficient car, recycling, using energy-saving appliances and light bulbs. The carbon legacy of one American child and her offspring is 20 times greater than all those other sustainable maternal choices combined."

I haven't yet been faced with the ecological realities of my own capacity to procreate, but I can only imagine that the prospect of co-parenting, funding diapers and a college education, and losing my long, lazy Sunday mornings will loom far larger in my mind than Murtaugh's calculations. Perhaps this is the inevitable selfishness of human nature, or maybe I -- like so many privileged Americans -- let myself off the moral hook too easily.

I've already made smaller-scale versions of this calculation. I've held off on buying a new iPhone, for example, until my old BlackBerry dies. Part of this is thrift, but part of it is also a general environmental value -- I try not to replace anything that isn't irreparably broken. When I make this decision, I don't imagine the trash pickers of Rio hiking over the discarded whims of wealthy folks, but I do have a general sense that I'm making a choice that's better for my budget and better for everyone else, too.

An iPhone, as coveted as it may be, is not a baby. I get it. But in terms of personal choice, consumption, and global interdependence, the two are on a relevant continuum. Americans, most of them anyway, live in a time of relative abundance, even in this economic recession. We are faced with daily choices that impact the rest of the world in very concrete ways, and this new reality requires what Daniel Goleman calls "ecological intelligence" -- the capacity to analyze what we consume so as to make the most sustainable decision.

Thus far, consuming via baby-making has been a no-judgment zone for most Americans, even the most "green" among us. Babies sure are cute. And creating a family is a complex, highly personal art. Many mothers I know say that having a child is the most miraculous experience they've ever had. Turns out, harsh as it sounds, that it's also one of the most environmentally irresponsible.

It's easy to understand why we don't weigh these public ramifications in our procreation decisions, but it doesn't make it right.