With Australia’s population heading towards 40 million people by the middle of the century, and global figures growing by 80 million every year, some people may find themselves wondering whether they should have children.
The impact our growing population has on the environment — from polluted city air and dying rivers to cleared forests and disappearing species — is something that can keep you awake at night.
So how many children should you have if you care about the planet?
We sought out five perspectives on this thorny question.
Tapan Sarker, political economist
As many as you can afford – probably two
Dr Sarker was born in what is now the eighth most populated country in the world — Bangladesh. He became a refugee when he was three months old when his mother fled with him to India, after his father was killed in conflict.
He began his career in forestry and biodiversity conservation, but has since studied economics and spent time in developing countries working on the challenge of sustainable growth.
Dr Sarker views having children as an essential service: you’re providing the tax-paying workforce needed to keep the economy going.
“We need more economic growth and to have that we need population growth,” he says.
The challenge, he says, is to work out how best to do this given the constraints a country like Australia faces, such as limited water resources.
Dr Sarker says when considering how many children to have, it’s important to think about the broader issue of affordability. Society needs educated and skilled citizens — and these cost millions to rear.
“It’s about quality not quantity.”
While Dr Sarker was once a fan of Peter Costello’s famous call for people to have “one for mum, one for dad and one for the country”, he says times have changed and now thinks, “two is probably the best number” (assuming both parents are working).
It turns out Australian women are having, on average, just under two children each.
“Countries that have more younger people are doing very well at the moment, and those with more older people are facing a lot of challenges.”
He points to the example of Japan. It’s low fertility and famous longevity means a population highly skewed to the aged.
Not only does this mean the country’s tax base has been eroding, but it is having to use robots for aged care, Dr Sarker says.
“They don’t have enough people to look after their ageing population,” he says.
“We don’t want this to happen in Australia.”
Dr Sarker is deputy director, Griffith Centre for Sustainable Enterprise at Griffith University’s Business School
Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick: climate scientist
There’s no easy answer
For Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick, who recently had her first child, this is a very personal and uneasy question.
“I would love to have three kids and it’s really difficult to convince myself one way or the other whether it’s a good idea environmentally,” she says.
Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick, who researches heatwaves, remembers being pregnant in scorching summer heat and struggling to put out the washing.
“I remember thinking, ‘What life is this child going to have?'” she says. “The future is pretty bloody awful. Everywhere across the world is going to see increases in heatwaves.”
Not only does Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick fear for the type of world her children might inherit, but she thinks about their environmental impact — their greater reliance on energy-guzzling air conditioning, for a start.
On the flip side, she is the youngest of seven kids and enjoys being part of a big family, with 17 nieces and nephews.
“That side of me would like to have that for our own family.”
Her internal struggle is made worse because she finds herself locked into an unsustainable lifestyle by circumstance.
“We’re currently renting a house that is not very energy efficient,” she says. “We’d love to have solar panels but there’s no incentive because we’re renting,” she says.
“And we would love an electric car but unfortunately with the cost of living in Sydney it’s not feasible to go out and buy a new Tesla.”
Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick is an ARC Future Fellow at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales
Don Clifton, sustainable business expert
It’s not just about how many kids you have but how much they consume
Dr Clifton suggests a limit of “two or less” kids per family might be good, but says this can’t be considered without the impact of our lifestyle on the environment.
“A family could have six kids and have less impact than a family with no kids,” he says.
He recommends people play around with a footprint calculator to get an idea of what kind of behaviours can help reduce their impact on the planet.
But he says some changes will only be possible once government and business make more significant shift
s towards sustainable transport, energy and urban design.
Dr Clifton says we also need to be part of a global solution because Australia will not be immune to the mass uncontrolled migration that could result from people fleeing hunger or low-lying areas inundated by rising sea levels.
Dr Clifton challenges the idea that we need to keep growing the population to make the economic system work.
“You can’t keep doing that forever. It’s going to go belly up at some point,” he says.
“What’s missing from the dialogue is how can we live a prosperous and sustainable lifestyle without using population growth as the fuel to make it work.”
Dr Clifton is a lecturer in the University of South Australia Business School.
This excerpt was originally published by ABC.net.au. Click here to read entire article.
Interested in learning more about the future of our cities?
The 2018 Liveable Cities Conference will focus on sustainable transport solutions, greening and redesign of cities, renewing regional areas, integrating community decisions, government policy, health and wellbeing, and strategies for environment implementation.
Find out more about the program, including keynote speakers, sponsors and networking events here.