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The day my beautiful niece emerged from the womb into this world, I was at work researching the relationship between overpopulation and climate change. To me, this was both ironic and guilt-inducing. Aside from the joy I felt surrounding my niece's birth, I felt guilty for thinking "humans really need to stop procreating!". That day, after delving deep into the world of climate projections, and all the devastation that comes with it, I was forced to project into my own future and the future of the world that my niece will grow up in.
Children born today will be my age in 2043. That's just 7 years shy of 2050, a year that is often marked as a decider for potential climate catastrophe if we don't get our act together now. Extreme weather events, flash floods, prolonged droughts, food insecurity, water scarcity, extreme heat waves and mass species extinction are just a few of the things that these children have to look forward to, not to mention the displacement of millions of people due to rising sea levels.
How did we get here?
For years, western countries have been using far more resources than the planet can handle. Statistically speaking, living in middle or upper class Australia today is one of the worst things you can do for the planet. On average, Australians have the largest houses in the world and if everyone in the world lived like us, we would need 4.4 earths to sustain humanity.
So, is it responsible for us to bring more humans into the world?
Being aware of the potential impacts of climate change means that having children isn't a biological destiny for me like it is for many of my friends and family members. Simply put, it's an environmental decision. And as much as I would like to say it's an easy one, personally, it's not.
Although I am stuck with the decision of whether or not to have kids, I am lucky that for all I know so far, I have the choice. Reproductive rights, education, access to contraception and family planning are each vital factors in curbing population growth, and each are commonplace where I live. Unfortunately though, these are not accessible to all women of the world.
Niger is considered by the UN to be the "least educated" country in the world, and it also has the highest fertility rate, with an average of 6.62 births per woman. This isn't a coincidence. Educating women is now regarded as one of the best ways of slowing population growth. A study from 1998 found there was a 31 percent decrease in fertility rates amongst women in Niger who completed secondary school. In fact, if every single woman in the world became high school educated, it would result in a 843 million population decrease by 2050.
Despite ongoing growth of the human population, the largest polluting countries per capita seem to be in self regulation mode. Likely a result of increased education of women, access to contraception and legalised abortion, birth rates in the richest countries in the world are actually plummeting. In Japan, deaths have been outpacing births for years. The country is now grappling with a potential incoming economic crisis because 33 per cent of the population is over the age of 60 and more and more young people are choosing not to have kids. Over in the USA, the birth rate has dropped from 3.65 children per mother in 1960 to 1.84 in 2015. A number which is significantly smaller than the fertility replacement rate which is 2.1 babies per mother. This is a welcomed decline for the sake of the planet, especially considering that in 2013 the carbon footprint of the average American was 16.4 tonnes CO2 per year, compared to the average footprint in India which was 1.6 tonnes per capita.
Tackling overconsumption is vital
Although population growth is fuelling climate change today, it doesn't have to be this way. As our population grows, the impacts of our culture of overconsumption are felt more and more severely. So what if instead of not having any kids, we stopped overconsumption? What if we chose to adopt? Minimised our individual carbon footprints? Educated our children about sustainability? Or stopped at 2 biological kids?
To curb climate change, it is vital that we take no more than our share of natural resources. We each need to divest from fossil fuels, say goodbye to fast fashion and fleeting electronics, reduce our waste and importantly guide our children to do the same.
I still haven't made up my mind on whether or not to have kids, but looking at my niece, I see hope for the future. I am hopeful that we can sustainably bridge the gap between the developing world and the environmentally destructive ways of the West, reduce our carbon emissions to zero, and stop climate change in its tracks.
We're in a climate emergency and it's going to take all of us to get out of it. That's why 1 Million Women is building a global community of women committed to fighting climate change with our daily actions. To join the (free) movement just click the button below!