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More tiny footsteps equal a bigger collective footprint. How many people can our planet sustain?

By Lisa Van de Ven

Perhaps it’s what most young girls think about naturally, or maybe it’s what they’re taught to think. Whatever the case, Jodi Lewchuk — or at least the teenage Jodi Lewchuk — envisioned a certain kind of life for herself. She was never the type to daydream about a whole brood of children, but she figured she’d have at least one, just like she assumed she’d be married when it happened, have two cars and be living in a three-bedroom house with a pool in the backyard. After all, it was the life she grew up with in Windsor, Ont.

But many years later, sitting in a Toronto café on a Monday night in January, Lewchuk’s life looks nothing like the one she once imagined. Michael Pereira, her partner of 10 years, is sitting at the table beside her; she’s 37, he’s 36, they’re not married, they don’t have a car and they live in a one-bedroom rental in the city.

As far as children go, they have none. In fact, if you ask the couple, they’ll tell you kids are no longer in the forecast.

The reasons for that, they say, are varied. They’re selfish, they insist. They enjoy the newspaper on Saturday mornings and long brunches on Sundays. It’s a lifestyle they have trouble envisioning with a child added to the mix. They also have demanding jobs that require long hours and stacks of work by the home computer; she’s a book editor, and he’s a new media developer working in environmental and social justice. But there are larger issues behind their decision not to have children, and ultimately they’re the same reasons why Lewchuk and Pereira don’t have the two cars, the three-bedroom house or the huge backyard Lewchuk once envisioned either.

Both are devoted to doing what they can for the environment, and both try daily to do their part for the cause, whether that means buying from local farmers, taking transit or, for Pereira, even travelling to Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December as part of an international campaign for climate change action. Not having kids, they believe, is just another way to reduce their carbon footprint. “We have way too many people on the planet, and the areas that don’t have way too many people go through resources like they’re magically renewable,” Pereira says.

It’s impossible to know how many people are choosing to remain childfree because of environmental concerns. What’s evident, though, is that the world’s population — 6.8 billion and growing by about 78 million people a year — is taxing the Earth’s already dwindling resources. The media, with their column inches and broadcast minutes devoted to going green, rarely suggest adopting, limiting or not having children at all as ways to do so. But maybe they should; after all, a 2008 Oregon State University study demonstrated that having one less child (in the United States) reduces CO2 emissions approximately 20 times more than a total lifetime of undertaking everyday “green” activities such as driving a fuel-efficient car, recycling and using energy-efficient light bulbs.

Experts predict that the global population will eventually stop rising and then begin to level off, as long as birth rates stay low in developed countries like Canada, and continue to decline in the developing world. Before that can happen, though, a few more billion people will be welcomed to the planet. How much more environmental pressure will that add? And exactly how many more people can the planet sustain? Keeping growth to a minimum now, Lewchuk and Pereira hope, might make the difference.

Paul Ehrlich says the experience of having a child is one he’s glad he didn’t forego. That may seem surprising, given that the father of one is also the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, the president of its Center for Conservation Biology and the author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb. An influential tome in its time, the book introduced a generation of readers to population issues and predicted some of the related environmental fallout of today.

Ehrlich is one of the most-cited population scholars and also one of the most lambasted; when the politically conservative journal Human Events listed in 2005 the “Ten Most Harmful Books of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” The Population Bomb was an honourable mention, named somewhere after Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male but before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Not everybody took kindly to being told how many kids they should or shouldn’t have.

But in an interview, Ehrlich says he never told people not to have children at all. “We want an average of about 1.5 kids per family,” he says. “I think that means that people who don’t really care about children ought to have none. And sure, if people are really great parents and the population size is right, you might want to have three. But ‘stop at two’ is a good motto.”

Now is an important time to be talking about population, Ehrlich adds. Of course, he’s said that before. In The Population Bomb, written when global population was roughly 3.5 billion people, he predicted that famines would wipe out hundreds of millions as early as the 1970s. What he didn’t count on were advances in agriculture that increased crop yields to feed the growing population. But those advances are also reliant on cheap oil, and ever-increasing oil prices might mean that new farm technology can’t keep pace with the burgeoning population. And so, Ehrlich’s famines may be happening later than scheduled; according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1.02 billion people went hungry in 2009, part of a trend that has seen more and more undernourished people over the past decade. “We have the largest number of starving people that the planet has ever seen,” he says. The next two billion people, Ehrlich predicts, will be particularly difficult for the Earth to sustain as arable land becomes increasingly degraded or disappears.

Then there are the ties between population and climate change. Copenhagen represented the first global climate conference where population was even discussed in a serious way, says Kathleen Mogelgaard of Population Action International, a research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “We saw a new kind of interest that we hadn’t seen in any previous international meeting on climate change,” she says. Data shows that interest is probably needed. Although the average per-person ecological footprint has remained relatively constant since 1970, according to a 2008 World Wildlife Fund report, what has changed in that time is that the Earth’s population has nearly doubled, making for a much larger overall footprint.

That footprint isn’t spread evenly, either. Fertility rates in developing nations may be globally higher than in developed countries (the fertility rate, or average number of children per woman, is 1.6 in Canada — not far off from Ehrlich’s ideal of 1.5), but there are vast differences in consumption habits between the world’s richest and poorest countries.

Return, for a moment, to Lewchuk and Pereira, sharing a meal at a Toronto café. If they did have a child, little Lewchuk-Pereira — growing up in Canada — would have three times the world’s average footprint, according to the World Wildlife Fund. A child born in the United States, says the Oregon State University study, will be responsible for 168 times the carbon emissions of a child born in Bangladesh.

The biggest concern, then, is a potential double whammy of bad news coming from the developed world. Recent research has shown that fertility rates are rising slightly in the world’s richest countries (stemming from longer life spans, better education and higher incomes), while the World Wildlife Fund shows a gradually increasing perperson ecological footprint in those same countries. It’s a dangerous combination, says Ehrlich, because “we’re the ones through our per-capita consumption that put so much pressure on our life-support systems.”

Oddly, most developed countries seem unconcerned about their population size, except perhaps when it affects the workforce and its ability to support aging citizens. In 2004, when Germany’s fertility rates fell to 1.33, the government introduced new childcare benefits to try to spark a baby boom. Fertility rates subsequently rose to 1.37. Similarly, the New York Times Magazine published an article in June 2008 calling the United States’ fertility rate of 2.1 the “sparkling exception” among developed nations’ low birth rates.

Meanwhile, fertility rates in the world’s poorest countries are declining. In the 1960s, a woman in the developing world had an average of 5.94 children in her lifetime. Today it’s around 2.89 — a result of family planning and reproductive health programs.

Still, family planning programs in the world’s poorest nations are controversial. Critics charge that these programs, like China’s one-child policy, take away parents’ rights to choose their own family size. Martha Campbell, founder of the non-profit Venture Strategies for Health and Development and lecturer at the School of Public Health at the University of California, works on family planning issues for developing nations and teaches about population matters. She says the controversy around family planning programs often centres on two questions: “Is population growth a problem?” and “What is it that brings birth rates down?” She adds, “People often confuse these. If they think that bringing birth rates down may involve coercion or telling people what to do, then they’re very unlikely to want to talk about question one, the population growth problem.”

But Campbell cites examples where simply allowing the opportunity for choice — introducing family planning programs and educating women on the matter — has been enough to curb fertility rates, without state-run programs like China’s. In Iran, for example, economists feared future poverty issues when they saw in 1986 that the country’s population was growing faster than its economy and convinced religious leaders to introduce family planning programs. Fertility rates subsequently declined from 5.5 in 1987 to two in 2000.

“Couples have sex all around the world — that’s a human condition, that’s not cultural,” Campbell says. “If women cannot get contraception or get a safe abortion, then they are going to have another pregnancy. There’s nothing they can do about it.”

The average per-person global footprint risks increasing as the two most populous countries on Earth — India and China — improve their standard of living and take on the habits of developed nations. Already, meat consumption and oil usage are up in the two countries, while their water tables are dropping quickly. “Those people want to live lifestyles similar to those in the West, and indeed very poor people in Africa want to increase their carbon footprints as well,” says Bill Ryerson, president of the Population Institute, an American non-profit dedicated to promoting access to family planning programs. “The reality is that it’s going to be impossible for people to improve their quality of life unless population gets to a level that can be sustained in the long term at whatever quality of life that is.”

David Pimentel, a professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, has suggested that if everybody wanted to live a European lifestyle, the planet could sustain two billion people. By 2050, though, the world’s population will be anywhere from eight billion to nearly 12 billion. Even the widely accepted average of 9.2 billion still relies on continued declines in worldwide fertility rates, which are dependent on the continued support of family planning programs.

Even if every woman entering her child-bearing years were to decide — today — to limit herself to one or two kids, it would still take a few generations before the world’s overall population stopped growing. Another 2.5 to three billion more people on Earth are expected before the population levels off.

How the Earth will accommodate another three billion in the interim is anybody’s guess. “Nobody really knows what’s going to happen or how long we can keep it going,” Ehrlich says. “We’re living on our income, we’re burning our capital. That can’t go on forever.”

At the Toronto café, a family of four takes up residence at the table directly behind Lewchuk and Pereira. The children are well behaved and eat their meals without any of the fuss that can make a childless couple applaud their own choice. Despite that, though, there are no wistful glances, not even from Lewchuk, who once might have imagined herself with such a clan. The couple has made their decision. They believe it’s the best one — for themselves, it’s true, but also for the greater good.

“We’d be going back on so many of the things that we talk about day to day if we decided to have a child now,” Lewchuk says.

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