Polygamy & Population

Published on October 22nd, 2010

TLC, the channel that’s brought us behavior outside the norm (breeding too many children) with Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar in “19 Kids and Counting,” now has added the icky-sounding “Sister Wives” to its roster. Legally married to Meri, but calling three other women his wives too by way of spiritual unions, Kody Brown is the head of a polygamous household in Utah through which he’s sired 13 children with four women (there also are three stepchildren from the newest wife). Some of the four Brown women work at jobs outside of their homes (at least prior to the airing of the show), and none wears the fundamentalist Mormon costume of choice, the prairie dress, in this latest reality show. The intent of the producers seems to have been to show a “normal” family – except that they practice plural marriage. Thus, TLC has opted for the Bill and Barb Hendrickson polygamy model from HBO’s “Big Love,” rather than the Roman Grant model from the same show, the latter more closely portraying those living at the real-life Texas polygamous compound, Yearning For Zion, site of a contentious 2008 raid sparked by concerns of child endangerment. Although seldom prosecuted, bigamy (the act of entering into a marriage with one person while still married to another) and polygamy are illegal in the United States, as they are in most areas of the world, excepting parts of Africa, the Middle East and India. Utah was granted statehood on the condition of banning polygamy. The official Mormon church – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), headquartered in Salt Lake City – has “worked very hard to persuade both the modern church membership and the American public that polygamy was a quaint, long-abandoned idiosyncrasy practiced by a mere handful of 19th century Mormons,” wrote Jon Krakauer in “Under the Banner of Heaven,” a look at extreme Mormon fundamentalism in the United States. Yet, the polygamous legacy of religious zealots Joseph Smith (34 wives) and Brigham Young (55 wives), the founders of Mormonism, lives. There are possibly as many as 40,000 people that identify themselves as Mormon fundamentalists today and live in polygamist households in the United States. It seems reasonable to assume that those indoctrinated in a lifestyle as children would be predisposed to adopt that lifestyle as adults. In fact, some of the women in “Sister Wives” talk about their familiarity with the polygamist lifestyle and actively seeking it. Underlying “Sister Wives” are enough themes to write 50 blog posts (obfuscation of law, the boundaries of religious freedom, the impact of excess males in a polygamous culture, etc.), but the population impact of polygamous reproduction choices is what interests me as a “populationist,” a person concerned about overpopulation and interested in stabilizing population. Replacement level fertility (the level of fertility at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next) is an average of 2.1 children per woman. The Brown household has blown well past this rate. If their family fecundity is indicative of practicing fundamentalist polygamist Mormons, clearly, the production from polygamous unions well exceeds replacement level fertility rates. Perhaps not surprisingly, Utah has the highest birth rate of any state in the country. In other words, this lifestyle choice is no model for sustainability and environmentalism. To put the population impact of large families in perspective, let’s revisit a column written last year by CAPS’ former president, Diana Hull, in which she enlisted the assistance of Ben Zuckerman, CAPS VP and UCLA professor of physics and astronomy, on some population projections for large families. They took a look at the aforementioned Duggar family, which at the time had 18 children (a number which I suspect the Brown family will reach). According to the calculations of Zuckerman and Hull: “If five generations of Duggars followed Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar’s lead, they would have 1,889,568 descendants and in ten generations they would have 3,570,467,000,000 descendants. That’s approximately 3.6 trillion or 553 times the current world population. But not to worry, because after that point, I am assured, the Duggar family would have run out of other members of the human species to marry.” Hull continued: “The point illustrated by this hypothetical exercise is the exponential nature of population growth, and that the longer we wait to practice seriously containment, the faster the nation will grow …The time for mass importation of people and for huge family size is over.” Factor in that Americans have the largest carbon footprint, and there’s really no defense for super-sized families in the United States – if you want to view this from the lens of creating a sustainable world for future generations.

You are donating to :

How much would you like to donate?
$10 $20 $30
Would you like to make regular donations? I would like to make donation(s)
How many times would you like this to recur? (including this payment) *
Name *
Last Name *
Email *
Additional Note