Lobsters, Sitcoms and Sustainability

Have you ever heard this argument, “If we don’t keep growing our population, there will be no one to take care of and pay for older generations.”? Presidential candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry calls Social Security a Ponzi scheme. Everyone seems, in their own ways, to be worried about shafting either upcoming or older generations.

Not many, however, seem the least bit concerned about leaving future generations one mess of a planet with all its associated problems, including financial and emotional stress as well as general upheaval.  Ever-increasing population around the world and human-induced climate change present terrible contingencies for the surface of our Earth and for the organisms that dwell on it.

We usually insert this disclaimer here: For those who do not believe that human behavior is a cause of global warming, we respect that opinion. But it is folly to deny that expanding population and increasing numbers of more financially well-off worldwide populations will lead to the
depletion of natural resources, freshwater supplies and biological diversity.

“Anyone who takes these environmental problems seriously has good reason to oppose the efforts of politicians, economists and the media to
promote higher birth rates – as well as those religious leaders, members of extended families, and others who urge pregnancy on women who have not chosen it for themselves,” asserts Worldwatch Institute official Robert Engelman in the institute’s 2010 State of the World edition.

While politicians appropriately worry about reductions in population making it problematic to support aging populations, such risks are more manageable challenges than combating human-induced environmental problems.

Engelman, in his essay, “Environmentally Sustainable Childbearing” evaluates the influences of modern culture on human reproduction. How is it that women in Afghanistan and Uganda average more than six kids each, while those in South Korea and Bosnia and Herzegovina average one? Is it the influence of culture or simply chance pregnancies from unprotected sex? Since China is the only country that discourages parenting large families, and since there is a general worldwide belief that parents have a basic human right to determine the number of children, what is influencing these choices?

Parts of the answer must lie with culture and economics. Worldwide fertility is currently at 2.5 children per woman, which is a bit higher than the 2.3 births per woman that would maintain current population. It’s interesting that those countries that offer potential parents a variety of  contraception along with an abortion option have fertility rates low enough to stop or reverse population growth (not including increases due to immigration in any particular country).

According to Engelman, the higher a woman’s educational level, the lower the number of children she produces. A survey published in the November, 2008 Pediatrics, indicates that the higher the exposure to sexual content on television, the greater the chance of teen pregnancy. (This should make MTV very proud – Jersey Shore anyone?)

“Combating such cultural influences thus can play an important role in lowering fertility and contributing to slower population growth. Moreover, there is evidence that media such as television and radio may contribute to lower fertility just as easily as to higher.” A study in St.
Lucia showed that when a radio soap opera advocated family planning, those who listened to the show were more likely to have smaller families. In other words, cultural influences have a meaningful impact on family size.

On the other hand, there is some evidence that economic incentives can influence fertility up or down. In the few years before 2010, American fertility was on the rise while families with kids were getting breaks like tax rebates and credits as well as increased education benefits.

Engelman uses the example of a study done in the Mexican fishing village of Quintana Roo. As lobster harvests declined, contraceptive use became universal in the village. The reason? The people of the village decided to preserve their fishing resource for future generations.

And how’s this for a kicker: villagers ascribed their own reproductive approaches to the influence of U.S. soap operas that depicted small families. Satellite TV, surprisingly, “may play a constructive role by spreading an idea – a small family norm – that contributes to environmental sustainability more powerfully than the messages about (how) wealth and consumption might undermine it.”

Our point is this: If we have leadership in America that is willing to step up and introduce economic incentives to reduce fertility and urge the glorification of sustainability, the United States will help the world make significant first steps to turn around our headlong rush to overpopulation and consequent unsustainability.


  1. Television—actually doing something useful? You could knock me over with a feather.
    But seriously, I find some hope in all this. Your website gets a bit gloomy at times and this piece shows a glimmer of hope.

  2. To Aaron who thinks our site gets a bit gloomy at times:
    Thanks for visiting our site. We must be slipping. We thought it’s always gloomy. With so much pro-reproduction propaganda out there,we try to be one of the few voices in the wilderness.
    As for TV, there is a lot of great stuff available, you just have to know where to look. Here are some suggestions:
    PBS – Frontline and The News Hour
    MSNBC – The Dylan Rattigan Show (4 pm Eastern time)
    Discovery and Animal Planet (you’ll need to look around and find stuff)
    National Geographic Channel.
    In addition IFC and HBO carry very good documentaries from time to time. The great thing about TV is that you get to SEE what the discussion is about.

Speak Your Mind