In July 2019, Prince Harry announced that he and the Duchess of Sussex will not be having more than two children for environmental reasons [Source: New York Times]. Many praised the decision, especially following the creation by Blythe Pepino and Alice Brown of BirthStrike, ‘a voluntary organisation for women and men who have decided not to have children in response to the coming “climate breakdown and civilisation collapse”’ [Source: The Guardian]. Many argue that it is immoral to have children in this context, given the environmental impact of having children [Ref: Population Matters] – or even that it is wrong to bring children into a world where they will face the results of climate disasters [Source: The Guardian]. However, many argue that population control will not make much of a difference to world emissions [Ref: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] and that it is an authoritarian step, with colonial undertones, and with problematic implications for women’s freedom [Ref: Spiked].
DEBATE IN CONTEXT
Population and the environment
Concerns about population growth have been around for centuries. Most famously, at the end of the eighteenth century, Rev Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) predicted that ‘population would eventually diminish the ability of the world to feed itself’ [Source: BBC History]. Many claim that his predictions were disproven by rapid population growth and technological advances that he did not predict [Source: Worldometers] – but his ideas still have resonance today. In 1989, the United Nations created World Population Day to try to ‘focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues’ [Source: United Nations].
Today, the major source of concern about population is about the damage done to the environment. The advocacy group Global Footprint Network calculated that ‘the world’s population is currently using not one, but one-and-a-half Earths’, when the capacity of the earth to absorb carbon dioxide was taken into account [Source: BBC]. As well as CO2 emissions, growing populations have been blamed for deforestation, water and air pollution [Source: Sciencing], the increasing extinction of animals [Source: The Guardian] and for rising unemployment and living costs [Source: Active Sustainability]. However, some worry about the possible effect of trying to implement drastic demographic change. If people are encouraged to have two children or less, then the replacement fertility rate is unlikely to be met, and this could lead to a society with more grandparents than grandchildren, which would have ‘profound social and economic consequences’ [Source: BBC].
Contested claims about ‘population crisis’
Some contend that it is consumption rather than population that is the real issue. Levels of consumption vary dramatically depending on a country’s wealth. A report by Oxfam found that the world’s richest 10 per cent produce half of carbon emissions, while the poorest 3.5 billion account for just a tenth [Source: Oxfam]. The average American emits 15.6 metric tons per year, whereas people in Sri Lanka and Ghana emit less than one ton per capita. [Source: CNN]. In this context, it would be better to focus on how much people consume rather than how many babies they have.
Moreover, some people argue that blaming population has problematic implications. David Roberts, an environmental journalist, wrote: ‘In practice, where you find concern over “population”, you very often find racism, xenophobia or eugenics lurking in the wings. It’s almost always, ahem, particular populations that need reducing.’ Blaming population would then be a shorthand for blaming poorer countries for the problems created by rich ones [Source: Vox], or an unfair restriction on some countries enjoying standards of living and consumption that are enjoyed by rich nations.
Is humanity destructive?
Some say that the focus on overpopulation – and perhaps even overconsumption – betrays an unduly negative view of human beings. One commentator, Frank Furedi, suggests that the ‘estrangement of sections of Western society from motherhood is underwritten by an anti-humanist doctrine – one that regards humanity not as the solution to the problems of the world, but as the cause of them’ [Source: Spiked]. This, Furedi and many others argue, is underestimating humanity. Marian L Tupy, editor of HumanProgress, points out that ‘the total number of atoms on Earth is finite, but the ways in which those atoms can be combined and recombined are infinite’. She suggests that humanity has the ‘creative energy’ to come up with new ways of using our resources, pointing to the desalination used to make salt water into drinking water in Israel as an example [Source: CapX]. Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University, points to ‘forces of modernity’ such as ‘societal prosperity, wisely regulated markets, international governance and investments in science and technology’ as things that will help us come up with solutions to climate change [Source: Breakthrough Journal]. On these views, whatever problems thrown up by population growth are solvable, and likely to be solved.
However, some disagree and argue that whilst technology is a helpful tool to reduce the effects on the environment, it is not enough. Michael Huesemann writes that ‘we witness a parade of techno-fixes such as the green revolution, and now genetic engineering. Which have not, and will not solve the problem, but only provide temporary fixes while the environmental and social problems caused by human overpopulation grow larger’ [Source: Ratical].
Another aspect of the debate is about female autonomy. Some have argued that limiting population is a positive side-effect of expanding access to contraception for women across the world. When women have better autonomy over their bodies, they will be less likely to have so many children. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which provides sexual education and contraception, says what they do ‘rests on the commitments to sexual reproductive health and rights for all’ by providing people with a choice as to what to do with their bodies and their lives [Source: United Nations]. Population control and female autonomy would then go hand-in-hand.
However, others point out that the notion of ‘choice’ in sexual education risks being undermined when organisations are telling women how many children they should have, or if the reason for funding contraception initiatives is that it will reduce birth rates. Some suggest that the number of children a women chooses to have shouldn’t be linked to what is perceived as best for society or the environment, as we ‘will always end up putting women’s wombs on the political frontline’ when this should not be a political issue [Source: Spiked]. Some point out that ‘the idea of limiting births has historically been informed by pseudoscience and leavened with racism and classism, often brought up by the powerful as a way to limit less desirable peoples’ [Source: Vox]. Is it possible, therefore, to safeguard women’s autonomy while advocating limits on the number of children people can have?
Should, therefore, people think seriously about limiting the number of children they have? And should we generalise this to a moral principle: that it is wrong to have more than two children? As well as scientific and economic questions, like what policies would reduce emissions, the debate raises obvious moral questions, like the nature of female autonomy, whether some choices are private and not up for moral debate, and whether human beings are inherently destructive. Should we heed the warnings of the birthstrikers and take serious action to avoid climate catastrophe? Does the scale of the problem require big personal sacrifices? Or are such claims based on faulty science and, worse, bad morals?
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
No Children Because of Climate Change? Some People Are Considering It, Maggie Astor, The New York Times, 5 February 2018
Do Not Fear the Population Explosion, Chelsea Follett and Tirzah Duren, Human Progress, 2 November 2016,
BirthStrikers: meet the women who refuse to have children until climate change ends, Elle Hunt, The Guardian, 12 May 2019
Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children, Damian Carrington, The Guardian, 12 July 2017
Want to save the planet? Don’t have children!, Colin Fernandez, Daily Mail, 12 July 2017
How many Earths do we need?, Charlotte McDonald, BBC, 16 June 2015
Having kids won’t kill the planet, Ella Whelan, Spiked, 18 July 2019
How progress turns scarcity into abundance, Marian L Tupy, CapX, 15 June 2018
Climate change is worsening, but population control isn’t the answer, Tess Eyrich, University of California Riverside, 14 November 2018
Overpopulation isn’t causing climate change. Blame capitalism, Eleanor Penny, RedPepper, 17 August 2018
Enlightenment Environmentalism, Steven Pinker, Breakthrough Journal, 13 February 2018
Global inequalities in CO₂ emissions, Hannah Ritchie, Our World in Data, 16 October 2018
The turn against motherhood, Frank Furedi, Spiked, 2 August 2019
Liberal Societies Have Dangerously Low Birth Rates, Trent Macnamara, The Atlantic, 26 March 2019
Our population has become so large that the earth cannot cope, Population Matters
The Environmental Impacts of Overpopulation, Rick LeBlanc, The Balance small business, 31 August 2018
Why Prince Harry, Meghan Markle’s ‘maximum’ 2-kid plan won’t help the environment: expert, Meghan Collie, Global News, 31 July 2019
Prince Harry Plans 2 Children ‘Maximum,’ for the Sake of the Planet, Palko Karasz, New York Times, 31 July 2019
What Happens When the World’s Population Stops Growing?, Joe Pinsker, The Atlantic, 31 July 2019
To Save Itself From Population Collapse, Hungary Offers Couples $35,000 For Having A Third Child, Emma Elliott Freire, The Federalist, 26 July 2019
Alarmism will not help us tackle climate change, Chelsea Follett, CapX, 13 June 2019
Ridley: Rejoice, the Earth Is Becoming Greener, Matt Ridley, Human Progress, 8 July 2019
Global population of eight billion and growing: we can’t go on like this, Robin McKie, The Guardian, 7 July 2019
The latest consideration for would-be parents: climate change, Laura Paddison, Grist, 2 July 2019
BirthStrike: The people refusing to have kids, because of ‘the ecological crisis‘ , Stephanie Bailey, CNN, 26 June 2019
Climate Change Is the Symptom. Consumer Culture Is the Disease. Emily Atkin, The New Republic, 12 June 2019
All the World’s Carbon Emissions in One Chart, Iman Ghosh, 31 May 2019
‘Birth strike’: Women are refusing to have children to protest climate change, Rob Waugh, Metro, 13 March 2019
We need to talk about the ethics of having children in a warming world, Umair Irfan, Vox, 11 March 2019
I’m an environmental journalist, but I never write about overpopulation. Here’s why. David Roberts, Vox, 29 November 2018
Why climate activists can’t agree if we should be having fewer children, Jessica Brown, The Independent, 4 August 2018
Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’, Damian Carrington, The Guardian, 10 February 2019
What Are Environmental Problems Due to Population Growth?, Melissa Mayer, Sciencing, 11 June 2018
8 ways AI can help save the planet, Celine Herweijer, World Economic Forum, 24 January 2018
Population Control: A Solution in Search of a Problem, John Clark, National Catholic Register, 7 May 2017
Overconsumption, not overpopulation, is killing the planet, Mandi Smallhorne, FIN24, 7 November 2016
Could the Climate Crisis be a Reproductive Crisis? Wesley Haverlah, Earth Rising Blog, 20 September 2016
Pope Francis said it: Climate change is not a population crisis, Charles C Camosy, Crux Now, 23 August 2016
Should We Be Having Kids in The Age of Climate Change?, Jennifer Ludden, NPR, 18 August 2016
Though climate change is a crisis, the population threat is even worse, Stephen Emmott, The Guardian, 4 December 2015
Michael Huesemann: Why Technology Can’t Save Us, Ratical, 24 October 2014
Can technology save the environment?, Leo Schlesinger, World Economic Forum, 11 September 2014
Head Count, Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, 14 October 2013
Population is just a sidekick to the real big baddie – consumption, George Monbiot, The Guardian, 27 October 2011
I Am the Population Problem, Lisa Hymas, Rewire News, 25 August 2011
Too big for the planet?, Joanna Moorhead, The Guardian, 12 July 2007