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

Just One Child

Air Date: Week of

A few years ago, writer Bill McKibben and his wife agreed that their daughter, Sophie, would be their one and only child. He discusses this decision in his book, "Maybe One." Mr. McKibben tells host Steve Curwood, population is the most important ecological issue of our day, yet one of the least discussed.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A few years ago writer Bill McKibben and his wife Sue Halpern made what they say is the most important decision in their lives. They agreed that their daughter Sophie would be their one and only child. Bill McKibben then decided to write about it. Population, he says, is the most important ecological issue of our day, yet one of the least discussed. His book is called Maybe One.

McKIBBEN: For each of us, there's probably no more fundamental decision then whether or not to have kids and then whether or not to have another kid. Because each one is so important. And in terms of our environmental impact, there's certainly no choice we make in the course of our lives that's as important as how often and whether we reproduce.

CURWOOD: Was it difficult for you and your wife to decide to stop at just one kid?

McKIBBEN: Well, on the one hand it was hard because Sophie is so wonderful that we were sort of eager to see what might come next. And on the other hand it was kind of easy, because Sophie is so wonderful.

CURWOOD: And you got out the scissors, right? You went snip?

McKIBBEN: Well, I didn't actually do it myself. I had a doctor do it, which I highly recommend. But that's right; I had a vasectomy and it was an odd feeling. And in some ways sad to put yourself out of the evolution business.

CURWOOD: If you consider this the most important decision that you've made, Bill McKibben, what were the factors that went into making this decision?

McKIBBEN: Well, I'll tell you. I'm not such a good environmentalist that if I'd thought that it was going to do damage to Sophie, it's not a decision I think that I would have made. So I began by making sure that those myths and stereotypes about only kids, that they're spoiled, lonely, unhappy, asocial, to make sure that those really were myths. I mean, the most interesting part of the whole book, Steve, was going back and figuring out where these myths had come from. At the end of the 19th century there was a man named G. Stanley Hall, the first child psychologist. And he did this big study of what he called "peculiar and exceptional children." He collected a thousand case studies. Some of these were children he'd met, some of them were children people had described to him, some of them were children that he had read about or people had read about in novels. And he broke them down by what their peculiarity was. Some of them were ugly. Some of them had birth marks. Some didn't like to share their candy with other children. So on and so forth. He just grouped all those children together as peculiar and exceptional and then he said, "What can we tell about these children?" Well, the two things he thought stood out were that there were a lot of children of immigrants in that group, and that there were a lot of only children. And from this he drew the conclusion, as he put it, that "being an only child is a disease in and of itself." Well, needless to say, this was about as useless a study as one could possibly have done, but it was the only study anybody did on this topic for the next 35 years. And newspaper after newspaper, I mean hundreds of them, quoted this study and its findings, and over the course of that time the series of myths and stereotypes were embedded deeply in our culture. So deeply that the flood of studies that have come since have done little to dislodge them, because they've all been in obscure psychological journals and things. What I want to do is get some of those findings out to people, to show them that only children achieve at as high or higher a rate than other children, probably because they have a certain amount more undivided parental attention. And then in terms of personality, they're no more spoiled, selfish, bratty, unhappy, than any other child. In terms of personality adjustment, they're indistinguishable.

CURWOOD: So you decided it was safe psychologically for Sophie to be an only kid. What else went into your decision?

McKIBBEN: What really brought it home to me was just understanding that the way in which we live made population in some ways more of an issue for us than it is even in places with much faster growth rates, places like sub-Saharan Africa. You know, a Somalian can cause all sorts of problems in Somalia by having lots and lots of kids. And you run out of firewood, you run out of cropland, there's not enough school buildings for all the kids, so on and so forth. But they live at such a low level that they don't do fundamental damage to the world's ecosystems. They're not, among other things, releasing the vast clouds of carbon dioxide that trigger global warming. They're not -- you don't meet a lot of Somalians driving Ford Explorers.

CURWOOD: You're on the record, you've written in the New York Times and elsewhere, as being in favor of stricter limits on immigration. Isn't it true, in fact, that virtually the entire projected rise in the US population really is a function of immigration rather than people having babies?

McKIBBEN: No, it's about half and half.


McKIBBEN: I've taken a kind of middle position on this. I don't think that we need or should have the severe cuts to virtually no immigration that some people, including some environmentalists, have called for. That strikes me as somewhat piggish. On the other hand, we cannot let unlimited numbers of people in forever. Our country is a great idea. It's also a physical place that can support so many people, and it lives, exists on a planet that can support so many people. There's a real environmental cost that comes with making other people into Americans.

CURWOOD: What if we follow your advice and have just one child per couple here in America? Or many people do. How would things change?

McKIBBEN: In some ways what would be most obvious is that things wouldn't change so much. Instead of going to 400 million people our population would plateau. We wouldn't have to build the next ring of suburbs, the next, you know, 2 or 3 rings of malls and everything else. We'd be pretty much where we are, still in a hard place, still coping with a lot of environmental problems, but have some margin to deal with those.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

McKIBBEN: Well, Steve, thanks as always.

CURWOOD: Bill McKibben's new book is entitled Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families.



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