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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Modern Nativity

Air Date: Week of

In the season celebrating the birth of one important figure, Katie Davis reports on birth trends in the United States among citizens concerned with the future well-being of the planet.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood with an encore presentation of Living on Earth.

Here in the heat of August, more babies are born than in any other month. In August of 1994, the last year for which figures are available, 350,173 babies were born in the United States. But even with this annual baby boom, birth rates in general in the US have dropped dramatically since 1950, by 60%. There are a host of economic and cultural reasons for this. Among them is that more and more people are weighing their desire to pass on the gift of life against their concern for the environment and those already here. Reporter Katie Davis talked with some couples who share those concerns.

DAVIS: Jessica Beals was 5 years old when she started tagging along with her mother to pick up litter in the streets of New York City, and she quickly became a champion recycler.

BEALS : And we had this wonderful time squashing things, as the older kids really got into that. But I remember my parents really talking to us about why we were doing that.

DAVIS: And Jessica Beals has never stopped giving new life to old objects. The Washington, DC, apartment she shares with her husband is filled with used furniture. "I'm not interested in new things," she says, jiggling her 5-month-old daughter Anika on her knees.

BEALS : Yes, she's a new thing. We couldn't get a used one, at least not yet.

DAVIS: Jessica, who's 32, met her husband, Chuck Berg, an environmental policy analyst, 7 years ago. They felt a certain synchronicity when they discovered they both came from 2-child families, and that their fathers had vasectomies to keep it that way. Chuck, who's also 32, says he'll have the same operation after they have one more child. "We only want to replace ourselves," he explains.

BERG: I know that a lot of the reasoning that went into my decision, and my feelings about this, is that every extra child born in a Western country has far greater impact on the global environment than a child born in, say, India or China. Food, we eat far more food per capita than a child in China or India does. Especially protein. Animal protein, and the amount of grain that goes to fatten our cattle in this country is enough to feed a Third World nation easily. You have to take those things into consideration.

BEALS : I know that by raising her in our house, we're teaching her kind of by osmosis some of our values. We're feeding her organic baby food when we can, you know, we're using unbleached paper, recycling stuff. And I think, we're hoping that she will grow up thinking that that's a normal thing to do, and just incorporate that in to her own life and her own way of thinking.

DAVIS: Jessica and Chuck fit an emerging pattern in the country, a pattern of smaller families. The number of children per woman decreased from 3.6 in 1960 to 2.0 today. And nearly 1 potential mother in 10 now says that she never expects to bear a child. Compare that to the 1880s when the normal American family had 7 children. And while these numbers are not hard to read, it is more difficult to explain why this is happening. Almost no research has been conducted on why couples are choosing to have fewer children, although some analysts mention the fact that more women have joined the workforce and that it costs more to raise children these days. Certainly the global perspective that Chuck and Jessica brought to their decision is rare. But if you came of age in the 1960s, it made a lot of sense. At least that's how Sharon Pickett remembers it.

PICKETT: I decided to only have one child, and it's been a good decision for me. I think it's been a good decision for my child. I'm certainly very proud of her. She's a wonderful, wonderful girl. She's 21 years old and she's becoming an elementary school teacher, and she majored in Spanish. And she seems to be the kind of person I would want to go out into the world and make a difference.

DAVIS: Sharon Pickett is 46 now, and works as a communication director of Zero Population Growth in Washington, DC. She says she began to worry about all of this when she was in high school and read a book called Limits to Growth. And then there was college, and it was 1967 and Sharon Pickett says she couldn't get a slogan out of her head -- if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem -- so she decided she would only have one child.

PICKETT: Well, there are so many people in the world who are having more than 2, that unless some people have less than 2 we're not going to achieve population stabilization, which is something that's very important. And it was really my decision not to have any more. My husband would have wanted to have more. But he was fine with the fact that we didn't.

DAVIS: As Sharon Pickett raised her only child, she worked as a teacher, and then in the anti-nuclear movement, for Physicians for Social Responsibility. Back in the 1970s, she says, her overriding fear wasn't so much the amount of people on the planet but the number of bombs.

PICKETT: I guess I reached a point where I was feeling very hopeless about the future, and overwhelmed with the problems and so pessimistic that things were just getting worse and worse. And I think some people react to that, particularly young people these days, with a sense of despair. And the, you know, the Prince song "Let's party like it's 1999," because there are so many problems we just have to -- let's escape. And have our pleasure in the moment, because there is no future. And I was -- I think I fell into that for a while. And realized that that's a pretty sad state to be in for very long.

DAVIS: To combat her despair, Sharon Pickett made small choices: not eating meat, for instance. "Maybe one less hamburger will save a sliver of the rain forest," she smiles. Mostly, though, she focused on raising her daughter to believe in making sacrifices for the common good.

PICKETT: I came from a family of 4, and my mother came from a family of 8. (Laughs) So I think we're moving in the right direction in my family, anyway.

DAVIS: Does your daughter talk about this yet? Has she asked you about it, and what your thoughts are about it? She's still quite young, but she might have already had some thoughts about motherhood.

PICKETT: Oh, she definitely has; in fact, she's getting married next summer. And she and her husband want to have 2 children. But she is strongly considering the fact that the second one might be adopted. She wants to have one of her own, but she said she wants to adopt a little girl from India. For some reason that's in her mind.

DAVIS: At the end of our talk I asked to see a picture of Sharon Pickett's daughter, and her professional demeanor melts as she leaps from the sofa to rummage in her purse.

PICKETT: This --

DAVIS: Like any good mother you're bringing your wallet over.

PICKETT: Here's my daughter.

DAVIS: She's gorgeous. She looks European.

PICKETT: And she's a dear. (Laughs) I'm very lucky.

DAVIS: So where does that leave us now? First, there were 2 children, then there was one, and then there was none. Let's meet Jim Lazar of Olympia, Washington.

LAZAR: I decided not to have children when I was still an undergraduate. I was studying environmental economics, energy economics, resource economics. I looked around the world, and I said this is not going to be a very nice place to live.

DAVIS: Jim Lazar rides his bike to work every day, as any serious transportation consultant should. He lives with his partner Karen of 7 years, and neither of them want children.

LAZAR: So it was, I guess it was my birthday present in 1976, my then-girlfriend gave me a vasectomy for a birthday present. And it was a challenge finding a doctor who would perform a vasectomy on a 22-year-old with no kids. Most doctors kind of felt like I was a little too young to make that decision. But there was a doctor in Seattle who ran a clinic called Population Dynamics, and near as I could tell he was committed to the peaceful eradication of the human race. And he was perfectly happy to take the worry out of being close.

DAVIS: Jim Lazar shared the same fears of nuclear annihilation that Sharon Pickett had. And while 1995 is not the nightmare he imagined, he says, it's still not a good place for children.

LAZAR: My world is not as bad as I expected my world to be. I'm reasonably well off financially. I have a successful business. I live in a small town in America that has a relatively good environment, relatively low crime rate. My life is much better than I thought it would be. But I look around the world at India, at China, at Africa, at what's going on in Bosnia. I'm not sure that the world is not declining at about the rate that I thought it would. The big difference is I thought that we were going to disappear in a flash of light. I now think that we're going to go down slowly and painfully from poverty and famine and pestilence. I just don't see any way that we're going to continue to feed 6 billion people on this planet.

DAVIS: But hope is an elastic word. For Jim Lazar, foregoing children creates hope for the world. While Jessica Beals feels her 5-month-old daughter's potential outweighs any fears she might have about the future.

BEALS: I have some friends who have decided not to have children because they're so afraid of what the future may hold. I can understand how they feel to a certain extent, but on the other hand I really feel sad about that, because I think if you feel you're a responsible, caring person and that you could have some, even some small impact on the environment now, having children and trying to instill those values in them makes the future look brighter for them and for yourself, if you want to be a little more selfish about it. I mean for the entire human race. You can't just stop having kids because you're afraid of things. You've got to try to influence the future in what little way you can. And you know, this could be the person who figures out the way to help the ozone layer, I don't know. There are any number of things. If she's interested enough in these issues, she could, you know, professionally or just for personal reasons figure out some way to help the world. And there's no reason to be afraid of that.

DAVIS: Jessica Beals and Jim Lazar would agree on many environmental issues. But they have both looked at this one and made different choices. And isn't that just like people: seeing the same problem and choosing absolutely contrary solutions. For Living on Earth, this is Katie Davis.



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