Last year 143 million babies were born worldwide. For something so commonplace, the act of making babies is indeed a miracle, but one fraught with profound consequences for individuals, societies and ecosystems.
For individual parents and couples, bringing a baby into being can be a path to ineffable joy and fulfillment, though of course it runs the risk of deep disappointment or the worst kind of suffering should things turn out badly due to accident or disease.
At the level of communities and nations, the numbers of aggregate births portend everything from future classroom sizes, levels of economic activity and unemployment to the size of a nation’s army and migratory pressures. In terms of ecosystems, each new human is a resource consumer and a waste maker, exerting a load upon ecosystem services from her very first meal at mother’s breast to the very first diaper she fills.
Yet the single most profound consequence of all is for the baby herself, who is given the one-time gift of a unique life, with all its promise and peril. As the group Pearl Jam sings:
I know I was born and I know that I'll die
The in between is mine
I am mine.
Because organisms age, wear out and die, reproduction is essential if our genes are to survive more than a single generation, and if our species itself is to endure. Life has always been a dangerous game; merely one slip, one mistake or one bit of bad luck can be fatal. Those populations and species that survive and prosper – until they don’t anymore – must stay at least one step ahead of the Grim Reaper.
Until the industrial and scientific revolutions started nearly two centuries ago, and we began a wholesale liquidation of Earth’s resources to support our booming population and consumption, Homo sapiens stayed barely one step ahead of the Reaper’s scythe. Since the early 1800s, we have pulled well ahead. In 2013 there were nearly three times as many births than deaths, and global births outnumbered deaths by 86,661,000.
The foregoing reflections are prompted by recent news items. The L.A. Times reports that a Gallup poll of adult Americans found that 58% believed women should start bearing children in their early 20s or late teens. Only 3% said 31 or older is the ideal time for a woman to have her first child. The average age at which women first become mothers is closely linked with how rapidly a population grows – the earlier the age, the faster the growth. In recent decades here and elsewhere, this age has crept upward. According to the poll, while 72% of adults 65 and older said that women should have kids by 25, only 60% of adults ages 18 to 29 agreed, so perhaps younger generations continue to become more accepting of later motherhood, which bodes well.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, about half (49%) of 6.7 million annual American pregnancies are unintended, and one in five (19%) is actually unwanted. There’s a lot of room for improvement in these statistics.
Elsewhere in the world, Population Media Center (PMC) president Bill Ryerson recently emphasized that the mere prevalence of contraception will not result in population stabilization if the desired family size is five or more children. PMC has worked in more than 50 countries developing serialized radio and TV dramas showcasing the benefits of smaller family size.
Making babies is good – very good – but there can also be too much of a good thing.