Bill McKibben

Three’s Company–Four’s A Crowd
PHOTO: Bill McKibben with daughter Sophie

When Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature in 1989, his Malthusian vision of global warming was met with considerable skepticism. But his prescience has been proven by a panel of international climatologists, and witnessed by victims of drought, flooding and bizarre weather patterns all over the world. Now, the former staff writer at The New Yorker, prolific freelance writer and author of Hope, Human and Wild takes an in-depth look at family size and overpopulation in his latest book, Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families. He warns us that if moderate action is ignored now, future overcrowding may become a dire global event.

From China’s coercive family planning programs to Africa’s voluntary family-downsizing, the world’s explosive population growth is slowly declining. But McKibben notes that America continues to be the land of excess, and with 2.1 children born per woman, our use of resources and global destruction outweigh many a Third World family averaging four to six children.

McKibben argues that, to prevent future space and resource conflict, families should consider having just one child. But, he adds, “I’m not saying that single-child families are a permanent solution. Clearly, they’re not; eventually they would yield populations smaller than almost anyone would want.” But he clearly wants to open the topic to debate.

McKibben believes that education and discussion—not coercion—will help Americans overcome their long-held misconceptions concerning only-children. From psychological testing to his own personal experience, this self-proclaimed “Christian environmentalist” touts the wealthy relationships in single-child families and how, by even discussing the issue of having just one child, Americans will have begun to move toward a more sustainable concept of family for the coming millennium.


E: What inspired you to write a book about having only one child?

McKibben: When environmentalists have discussed population issues before, it has usually been in quite abstract ways, about birth rates and things. I wanted to discuss it in very real terms—about how many children one might have. And I had one child of my own, and wanted to find out whether it was going to damage my child to be an “only.” There was a professional and personal interest combined.

You mentioned in your book that you and your wife debated a long while over whether or not to have the one child that you have now. What really made you decide to have one after all?

Just how much we wanted a child.

You mention immigration throughout your book as a major factor in population growth, particularly for the U.S. But globally, isn’t immigration really just a moving around of people, not true growth?

Well, it is. As I say in the book, I don’t think it is the major problem. But I do think it’s a component in all this. It’s true that immigration moves people around. The problem—if you’re worried about things like global warming—is that when you turn someone into an American, you turn them into a uniquely large part of global problems [because of consumption patterns]. Why do people want to move to America? So they can become, in many cases, better off, which is completely legitimate.

But which also means greater consumption.

Becoming an American means using resources at a level greater than in any other country. It means becoming almost a member of a different species in terms of consumption levels.

If people discussed family planning with their spouses or partners and commit to having a limited number of children, will that push them towards taking more permanent birth control measures?

I would think so. I hope that in as many cases as it’s possible, that it’s men who decide to do it, because it’s a very easy operation; it really isn’t so much for women.

Why do you think the topic of family planning is so intimate and so difficult to discuss? What is so taboo about deciding how many children to have?

Good question. It’s one I don’t completely understand, but a section of my book is spent tracing some of the religious interests in this topic. And since I’m religious myself, it was of great interest to me.

You mean the “be fruitful and multiply” concept?

Well, that certainly. That’s the one commandment in the Bible that we’ve managed to fulfill, so maybe we can go on from there and check it off the list. But there’s also a long history of New Testament and church dogma about contraception, and things are still evolving. It’s not really caught up in the “be fruitful and multiply” philosophy, but it is caught up in questions about body, spirit and personal selfishness. And these are important questions—not to be taken lightly. The Catholic Church, and even the Pope and others, are not entirely crazy, I think, in their discussions of [family planning]. They just come down in different places then I do.

How do you feel about fertility drugs and technologies that are bringing six or seven babies to a family at once?

Statistically, it still remains unimportant. But, it is important for environmentalists or anyone else thinking about these things to not overlook the basic fact that kids are great. It’s an incredibly joyful thing, when a child is born. And when six kids are born—that’s kind of neat in some ways too. I understand why people feel that way. And in a perfect world, in a different time or place, I might have had a dozen myself—and enjoyed it immensely. There’s nothing more fun than having a kid and bringing him up. But we don’t live in a perfect time or place. We live under certain constraints. And one of the points of my book was to show that having one child can be just as wonderful, just as much fun, and just as good for the child.

You say that the biggest reason parents give for having more than one child is to provide siblings for only-children. Why is it that many parents, after having one child on their own and experiencing pregnancy and childbirth, don’t consider adoption more often for providing siblings to first-borns?

That would be a fine idea. There are people who certainly do that. If you feel that you want another child, that’s a wise thing to do. But the point I was trying to make is that you don’t necessarily need another child. One child will be just fine by themselves.

You write that research studies conducted in the late 1800s by G. Stanley Hall, who said that “being an only child is a disease in itself,” have perpetuated the misconception that only children are spoiled and socially mal-adept. You also note that modern studies and psychological testing conclude no such thing. Dispelling the “only-child stereotype” is another matter. How would you do it?

I don’t have any magic method; that’s why I write books. I try to get the argument out there. I do think it’s beginning to spread fairly quickly. This may be one prejud

ice that will die away. There are more only children now. There are higher percentages of people who will be married or whatever else to an only child, and begin to see for themselves that the stereotypes are not really true.

As a father who’s taken family planning decisions into his own hands, how can other American men be encouraged to accept their share of family planning decisions and birth control responsibilities?

In my situation, such decisions were very obvious and natural. But one thing men need to realize is that a vasectomy, in particular, is an incredibly easy operation and it comes with real benefits—like greater spontaneity in sex.

So why do you think most medical insurers do not cover vasectomies or other birth control measures?

I have no idea. It’s only just now beginning to be required, with the onset of Viagra, that birth control pills be covered by insurance. It doesn’t make sense to me financially because it seems that insurance companies would be only too happy to have people avoid the expense of pregnancy and childbirth. I don’t know whether this is political. The argument would be that it’s not a medical problem that you’re fixing.

I trust that Congress has finally begun to deal with this because of the incongruity of HMOs providing Viagra, but not providing birth control coverage. That is literally insane.

You mention that in certain African families, the number of children per woman is on the decline—very steeply in many places. Globally, how much of a long-term effect is that going to have on total population?

The math on that is extremely hard to do. The best guess is that the world’s population is going to top out someplace a little bit north of 10 billion—which is an enormous number of people.

PHOTO: Bill McKibben, © 1997 Nancie Battaglia1997 Nancie Battaglia

It could be more, possibly less, if we did everything right. Figuring out what fertility is going to be in 10, 20 or 30 years hence is very difficult. There’s no good track record for doing it, and it seems to be dependent on all sorts of things, like what is happening economically. It would be very interesting to see what happens in Indonesia and China as their economies tank now—and whether that sends the birth rate up or down.

China is an example for the whole world to watch right now. There, you have increasing consumption rates and improved standards of living—including increased car use and meat-eating—while the birth rate is holding steady. Do you think there will be political unrest as people with higher standards of living may demand the right to have more children, because they will be better able to take care of more?

Possibly. No one knows whether the desired family size has really changed or not there—whether the idea of one-child families is merely a matter of coercion, or if small families have really become what people want. It’s so crowded there that it would not be surprising if people had woken up—even without government intervention—to the idea of smaller families.

Environmentally speaking, if birth rates remain stable in China, but consumption rates continue to increase, how much damage, overall, is this going to do?

A lot. If those one billion people try to live like middle-class Americans, that’s way, way, way too many people. It’s not even clear that the world can deal with merely America living like this. It’s clear that we’re going to have to change our consumption patterns, or the rest of the world is going to try to live like we do.

Do you think those changes should start with the birth rate here, or with our consumption patterns?

Changes should start with both. I’ve worked harder on consumption issues than I have on population issues over the years. Trying to change our ideas about consumption is one of the hardest tasks one can take on. So far, we’ve made extremely little progress. The voluntary simplicity movement is going to affect us, at best, in incremental measures.

You write that coercion will not work, but that it’s going to take quality education to let people know what’s going on—like the fact that the increase in human population in the 1990s exceeded the total world population in the 1600s. Do you believe such scary statistics will change people’s minds, or is it going to take some other form of education?

I don’t think statistics are likely to do that because people spend entirely too much time thinking about population on some abstract Third World level—and not enough on a personal level. Much more likely, it’s the fact that one kid is okay that will convince them. A lot of people, for many reasons, might want to have very small families, but may feel uneasy about it. Reassuring them is really important.

Do you feel quality-of-life issues would be one of the most important things in deciding to have just one child, or a limited number? To be able to devote more of your resources and time to fewer children?

More of your time is the most important thing of all. That’s what we’re running short of in this country. And it’s one of the great pleasures of having just one kid—the chance to spend a lot of time with them and be better able to focus on them.

Of everything you’ve learned while writing Maybe One, what one piece of information would you want to pass on to your daughter Sophie?

The notion that we’re in extremely serious trouble as a planet. Much more so than people tend to realize. Things are happening very quickly and very dramatically. Also, that only-children and small families are wonderful institutions—just like any other family can be. And that they can be just as full of love and joy and companionship and good memories as any other kind of family.