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Big families equals big trouble

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, September 14, 2006

He had a fantastic British accent. And with that British accent, he told us to think about having small families – maybe just one kid.

That is what I remember about Dominic Chaloner, my Environment and Evolution professor from my first semester at Notre Dame. Three years later, his “one kid” schpeal is what stuck with me.

After all, in the years since Professor Chaloner’s class, I have come to some conclusions of my own. Terrorism will not bring about the death of humankind, nor will weapons of mass destruction. The culprit? Too many people.

Humanity was supposed to go extinct in the mid-19th century – or at least, that was the projection of another man from Britain, 18th-century demographer Thomas Malthus. He said that by 1850 the population would outgrow the food supply, thus setting off the demise of humankind.

Clearly, humanity outlasted this life expectancy. But how much longer do we have?

This summer, Al Gore shed light on the issue as he shared “An Inconvenient Truth” – the imminence of global warming – with America. Because of skyrocketing carbon dioxide levels, the death of the world may be impending. And America is one of the leading killers in the ongoing murder of Mother Earth.

But of course, America refuses to be bullied. If you insult America, it will always have a comeback. Wage war on the country, and floods of patriotism will follow. Tell the country that it is killing the world, and the “greening” of America will ensue.

Recyclable products, hybrid cars and “sustainable” houses are now on the rise. But if the population continues to soar as well, these changes will hardly make a difference.

People talk about reducing their “ecological footprint” (the amount of land and water that a person needs to support himself and to absorb his wastes). What we really need, however, is for there to be fewer ecological footprints in the first place.

For example, the city of Austin, Texas, was praised for reducing its garbage per household from 1.14 tons in 1992 to 0.79 tons in 2005. But if the number of households in Austin continue to grow, these numbers can hardly be considered a sign of progress.

More than six and a half billion people currently live in our world. That is more than five times the world population (1.2 billion) in 1850, the year previously slated for humanity’s funeral.

Just as current global conditions dictate that liquids can no longer be brought on planes, global conditions of a different sort dictate that parents now be more responsible when it comes to family size.

Out of love, parents want to give their kids as much as they can. But if you are a parent with six kids, and you give your kids everything that you can, you are utilizing a lot of resources. So in a sense, having six kids is selfish. While your family of eight may be happy, you are actually adding to the unhappiness of the world; you are hastening its death.

No, America should not become China and mandate that there be only one child per family. But as Americans, we should take our own initiative to be socially responsible. Having six kids is no longer socially responsible.

No, the United States does not have the highest birth rate in the world; that title belongs to countries like Niger and Uganda. But Americans do have one of the heaviest ecological footprints. Thus, each person in America contributes more to the death of the world than does each person in a Third World country.

So let us be the America that we know and love. Let us not go down without a fight. If Al Gore wants to bully us, then we must have a comeback. So go plant a tree. Recycle more. Have fewer kids. And by all means, give those kids every ounce of love that you have. But just have two kids instead of five.

As for Professor Chaloner, his British accent is still intact. He and his wife plan on having a family – one with just a few kids. And when he encouraged this year’s freshmen to consider having small families as well, what he described as a “palpable disquiet” fell upon the classroom.

But if the population continues to grow at its current rate, there will be less than a disquiet in the classroom; there will be absolute quiet – humanity will be extinct.

Liz Coffey is a senior American Studies major and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy minor. Her column appears every other Thursday. She can be reached at ecoffey@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.