Media are abuzz these days about women not having enough kids in order to grow economies. It’s an odd thing to hear, given that others are rightly pointing out that world population will continue to explode by billions of people in the decades to come, exacerbating the population-driven climate crisis and causing untold suffering. It’s also odd given that overcrowding and poor population health set the stage for the COVID-19 pandemic and the dismal reaction to it, and it’s setting the stage for the next pandemic.
The debate centers on profound differences in values regarding what the differing camps want the world to look like in the future.
Are we missing a more important conversation about family planning and population growth?
Prior family planning approaches have primarily framed having children with a narrow focus on what parents want more than what future children need. This ignores the intergenerational nature of that decision — the ethics of which probably matter more than any other area of human behavior. Thinking in terms of what parents want keeps our focus on the here and now, rather than on the future, and excludes the interests and needs of the future child, the communities we inhabit, and the world our children will impact. This short-term thinking and framing is hurting kids, animals, and the environment, furthering inequity, and preventing us from reaching modest sustainable development goals.
Right now, the way we think about population hides the way we are hurting kids. What if we could protect our future by giving children what they need?
Can we choose a better model that gives everyone more of what they need? The way we currently deal with population does little to protect our future, drives inequity that threatens everyone, and reduces the quality of our lives by ensuring an overcrowded world filled with people who did not get what they needed as they grew up.
Want something better? The key, discussed more below, involves interpreting our Constitution in an intergenerational way and shifting away from family planning systems that focus more on what parents want than what future children need.
This new approach involves a child-centric model that both recognizes the implications of our previous flawed family planning approaches as well as our obligations and duties to the children we are bringing into this world. If we don’t fix our fundamental conception of how we plan families, we will continue to create social and ecological crises that could have been averted. We can reframe the discussion away from population.
Let’s start with the premise that framing is crucial.
Whether we think about population or start from a different concept, framing could change everything about how we perceive the subject. Framing is the act of first defining, through the choice of initiating language, how people think about the subject matter under discussion. What does the word “population” bring to mind? The debate surrounding “population” tends to focus on quantity, and falls prey to the common human coginitive dissonance of temporal myopia by framing the issue as static – as a noun. This is misleading. Shouldn’t we think of people in the world, and the act of having kids, as more dynamic and qualitative than quantitative and static? Shouldn’t we talk about the behavior that precipitates population growth? Shouldn’t we consider future quality of life and orient our family planning laws and policies around what future children actually need? What good is talking about population change without a normative baseline, or optimum population range, against which to evaluate that change.
One way to decide how to frame or define a subject involves asking why we care about the matter. Rather than simply counting people, perhaps what really matters is how we fundamentally relate to them.
To create new possibilities and frames, we need to use new language. That language should recognize the central role the creation of new citizens plays in every social policy decision we make. Instead of approaching family planning and population in the narrow way we have, we should talk about it with a broader frame that encompasses four interconnected and inextricable things we cannot avoid in the act of having kids:
1. The quantity of the people we create.
2. Their qualities, such as empathy, and other key traits that determine how people socialize.
3. Their positioning in life relative to other children.
4. Their relation to their ecologies.
The quantity of the people we create
The current concept of population does capture well the quantitative impacts of having kids, which are enormous, acting as a force multiplier of things like catastrophic greenhouse gas emissions. But when we talk about overpopulation, the question remains: over what? How do we know what an optimal population will be? How could we know without first having decided on the ethics of having the kids that will create the population?
This is where values other than quantities of persons come in.
Right now, we tend to think of population growth as inevitable. What if we had the choice to protect our future instead?
The qualities and traits of these children
The concept of population does not capture the qualitative nature of creating another person, which includes things like the most crucial period of childhood development, such as the development of qualities that determine how well we empathize and socialize with other people. These are inextricable from personal well-being and childhood development, rights guaranteed by international treaties like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child but rarely delivered.
The current concept of population hides the way our creation determines much about who we are. This includes qualities about us that impact our ecology — such as whether we identify as consumers and workers in our economies or whether feel we should live in democracies where we have meaningful roles in making the rules under which we live (i.e., whether we see ourselves in terms of shopping malls or town halls). The former can tolerate high populations with lower levels of education; that would anathema to the latter. We need a concept and a language that captures this. It should account for how having kids changes the nature of society — and the quality of our lives — by changing the qualities of the people who comprise it.
Their position in life relative to other children
The concept of population does not capture that we cannot create children without determining their positions relative to other children. This includes the opportunities they have in life, with some kids today born billionaires and others born slaves. The way we currently think of population buries the way the act of having children creates inequity. This positioning includes the inevitable estrangement from one another that comes with population growth. We need a concept that accounts for how having kids determines how those kids stand in relation to one another. We also need a concept that connects this positioning, and economic inequality, to the other aspects of family planning, such as the environmental impact, which has been well-established.
Right now, the simple idea of population hides the way some parents exacerbate the divide between rich and poor and threaten social stability. What if everyone had equal opportunities in life instead?
Their relations to their ecology
The concept of population does not capture the simple fact that we alter the ecologies children need to thrive by the very act of having them — consider the shortening of pregnancies due to the population-driven climate crisis. What does that mean for the future ecology our kids will experience? Mass extinctions, accelerating climate change, dying oceans, increased risk of pandemics, crowded cities with drastic inequality — these are all crises we now know we and our kids will face. We need language that captures this dynamism and its impact on quality of life. We need language that also accounts for this sobering fact and that the communities where we have children (e.g., the industrialized world versus elsewhere) vary dramatically in terms of their ecological impacts.
Can we devise a way of cooperatively planning our families that improves our ecology rather than degrading it?
Taking seriously these four aspects could help us shift the frame from the quantitative idea of population to the qualitative nature of creating children, the communities they will compose, and the relation of those communities to the ecology they require to thrive. This will not happen overnight. We need to start by changing the conversation.
When population is framed with this broader set of criteria, it becomes clear that population is the central consideration for all social policy. Population is not some exogenous policy area we can choose to work in or to ignore. The people on the planet today, and how they limit what’s possible, are largely the product of what was done or not done in past family planning systems. We just have to shift and temporalize our thinking, or overcome the cognitive dissonance of temporal myopia that makes it hard for us as humans to see this. If a policy choice involves people, it involves family planning. Family planning, and the failure to plan, is the foundation of everything social. People are the first building blocks of any policy, and that which creates people, develops their traits, and gives them agency most accounts — and in free societies should most account — for the quality of life on this planet.
Replacing the simplistic idea of population with the fuller and more accurate concept of constituting gets us more.
If we care about the future, and our kids’ futures, shouldn’t we care about future generations, the conditions into which they are born, and the people they will become?
Given that the population is always changing and is the product of our actions, it’s more accurate to use a verb and to focus on the cause (having kids) before the effect (population growth). The concept of “constituting,” as in the reference to “We the People” in the United States’ and other constitutions, could be ideal. Just the way the climate crisis is not a thing but a process, and more relational than individualized, we are not a static people historically constituted, but a people who are constituting their own nation in a dynamic and ongoing way.
Notice how constituting gels with the ideal of “child-centric” family planning — as in, “We the people constitute our future.” The thinking is qualitative, forward-looking, committed to freedom, justice, and equity, and the most effective way to deal with many of the crises we face today. Contrasted with the simplistic concept of population, which hides what’s at stake, the idea of constituting speaks to the dynamic and overriding question of intergenerational justice.
Constitutions derive from the idea of people coming together consensually, as free and equal people, to make the rules under which they will live. Constitutions, and the act of constituting, are emancipatory, and meant to capture the complex idea that we can become free by coming together if we do so under very specific conditions. If we apply the idea of constituting intergenerationally, to the act of having kids, it can capture the values and meanings the concept of population cannot. “Constituting” as a concept is ideal for another reason – it’s the perspective, lens, or frame we would use when justifying the power other people – in the social contract – have over us.
In other words, what matters most is not the idea of population as numbers, but the formation of groups of people at the most fundamental level, where other people have power over us. That is what we have to first account for: who the “We the People” are and will be. The social contract, and the legitimacy of government, meant that we should be coming together as free and equal people. But that opportunity actually happens all the time — with every child born. The process is not static; it’s dynamic. The key source of justified governance is not some antiquated document or written constitution to which most people have no relation. It is the constant constituting or re-creation of actual people through family planning. And the key will be moving past a system that treats people as economic inputs to one that creates truly democratic communities where people control the rules under which they live.
Remember, framing matters. Technically, we were not constituted as a nation; if we value each person equally, we have to believe that we are constantly reconstituting as future children enter the word. “Constituting” captures, much better than “population,” the antecedent, relational, normative, dynamic, and endogenous nature of the thing, because it proceeds from a perspective of needing to justify the social organization (or the social contract) around us or the power others have over us. That’s the perspective from which free and equal people would orient.
“Constituting,” as opposed to “population,” captures the fundamental human rights-based lens or perspective that free people would have when thinking about the people with whom they share communities: How is the power others have over us justified? Are we constituting a community of free and equal people, or something else, such as a hierarchical economy? What control do you really have over the rules under which you are forced to live? Aren’t you worth more than being one vote lost in a sea of millions of votes for presidents and other antiquated figureheads with massive control over our lives?
If we think in terms of the value-heavy verb of constituting and the four facets above that it captures, we are changing the frame and the way we think about the creation of the people with whom we share the world. This changes the debate. Notice how George Monbiot dismisses the relevance of population growth when critiquing Michael Moore’s new film “Planet of the Humans.” But how can humans be irrelevant to an anthropogenic climate crisis? If we unpack the idea of population, as discussed above, we find a concept that is more qualitative than quantitative, dynamic than static, endogenous than exogenous, normative than descriptive, and multifaceted rather than one-sided and numeric. Monbiot could reframe his thinking on this issue and much more effectively advance the environmental values we all share.
Why does this framing change matter?
For some, a shift in framing lets them see past myths, such as that population, or the people with whom we share and will share the world, is amorphous and out of our control. Or the myth that some kids are born into fortunate conditions, with what they need to succeed in life, while others are simply not. That’s not the case. Our birth conditions have nothing to do with fortune, God, or some invisible force at work. That is what the wealthiest among us, many of whom inherited and did nothing to earn their benefits, want us to believe. Inequity at birth is simply humans’ failure to ensure fair start family planning
And for others, moving past the concept of population, and toward constituting, goes past simple myth-breaking and will lead to effective ways to promote human freedom.
The U.S. Constitution was born of a revolution to ensure that people could constitute independent, or free and equal, people. That meant both freedom from others, and the freedom to choose valuable options in one’s life, or freedom of opportunity.
But for many reasons, the Constitution was never applied intergenerationally.
And there is no way to be free from other people, or for each person to have equal opportunities, without accounting for the quantities, qualities, and relative positioning of people entering the world. How we are experiencing the COVID-19 crisis is a perfect example: The chances of us contracting the disease, of the resources each person has to avoid the disease and get help if we contract it, how we are changing our environment to increase the risk of the next pandemic, etc. — all are first and foremost contingent on our quantities, qualities, inequities, etc. Population density, vast inequities in how the disease impacts people, the presence of underlying health conditions and other vulnerabilities, the way anthropogenic environmental impacts are setting the stage for the next pandemic, and more all flow from our family planning systems.
And because we have ignored those factors, as well as for other reasons, human rights and democracy are in decline today. Instead of constituting communities of people where everyone has a voice over the rules, we have media pushing women to have kids in failing social systems, and in the face of ecological crisis, to further inflate the economy. Instead of seeing communities as free and equal people in town halls, the politicians, pundits, and companies pushing women to have babies envision a world of crowded shopping malls. But how you would see people and want them to be in a democratic town hall, versus a shopping mall, is very different.
People who want to grow economies push women to have more kids, with less investment in each child, and no minimum level of welfare, or equity, for each child born. In these schemes, people are just economic inputs, rather than citizens who must be sufficiently developed to co-rule their democracies. In these constant-growth schemes, it’s OK to push more and more children through failing educational, welfare, healthcare, and other systems. In this worldview, it’s perfectly acceptable — if not desirable — that the average American adult reads at the level of an eighth-grader.
The idea of endless growth proceeds from state-based, and top-down, views of people as consumers and labor, rather than a bottom-up view of people as citizens with control over the world around them. Constant-growth systems push in the opposite direction from inclusive family planning systems that would create, or constitute, true democracies of capable and self-determining people.
The constant-growth worldview is antithetical to the personal autonomy that would be promoted and protected by a human right to nature, guaranteed minimum levels of well-being for children, and limitations on the right of abusive parents to have unlimited numbers of children who will be seized and spend much of their lives in state custody.
Make no mistake: The people pushing poor family planning because they see babies as money are hurting people — and at the most fundamental level. They take no care to avoid children being born into horrible conditions, they further a culture in which women are expected to have children, they exacerbate the climate and other ecological crises, and they ensure the dominance of massive economic systems where the average citizen has no effective role in making the rules under which they live.
We can reverse the exploitation of future generations, and nature, by using Fair Start family planning to move resources from the entities at the top, both public and private, who have benefited from growth at cost to kids and our communities, and instead investing those resources in ways that give kids a fair start in life.
How does that work? Rules like property rights and tax obligations come after, and are subordinate to, the family planning rules that determine our creation. In other words, we are before we do. Because constituting comes first and involves the very first rights and obligations that lead us to become free and equal, the process overrides other rights and obligations — such as property claims and tax obligations — that interfere. The process of constituting — and thereby legitimating through the creation of our societies — overrides everything. The right to a fair start in life, and the process of constituting democracies filled with people who get what they need in their childhoods, is the first human right that puts the human in human rights. It comes first.
If the conservative-minded wish to avoid paying taxes, why not see that money be used more effectively, to constitute future generations in ways that ensure responsible parenting, and a safe and secure world for our kids? If the liberal-minded worry about the uber-rich using their wealth to oppress others, why not properly and effectively allocate that wealth based on the dynamic nature of our constantly constituting new societies?
We can truly constitute from the roots up. Our governance remains relatively preconstitutional, and illegitimate, until we do. We have a right to protect our future.
Let’s move past the concept of population, which you by now may recognize as a concept used for centralized state and corporate planning and control, rather than valuing people qualitatively, and toward the action of constituting free and equal societies. We cannot be free until we account for and include the people with whom we do and will share this world, the way we would in a democratic town hall, rather than ignoring them the way we would in a shopping mall.
Where do we go from here?
It’s time for another American revolution. But this time, it should be a bottom-up intergenerational revolution that, simply by demanding more for each child, actually ensures the constitution of capable people that democracies require. The social contract works only if it is made intergenerational and if we constitute as such. Doing so will allow us to build stable communities where we commit to one another and embrace our obligations to our neighbors, our shared political life, and the planet. It will create the opportunity for a more meaningful sense of self and a more active role in our relationships with others. It is also our best chance at avoiding many of the existential risks humanity faces.
The revolution begins with parents demanding the resources they need, and deserve, from those who are destroying our future so that parens can give all kids a fair start in life. It’s vital to understand constituting here: We have a right to take the resources at the top of our economic pyramid because the ongoing act of justly reconstituting ourselves as free and equal communities always comes first. A child’s right to a fair start is the first and overriding human right that overrides other claims, and ensuring it is the best way to protect our future and our quality of life. Parents have a right to those resources in exchange for responsible and cooperative planning, and it’s time we help parents take them.
If we are constantly constituting our legalities, rather than have been historically constituted, then no entitlements proceed the need to redistribute power in ways that assure that “we the people” are coming together — intergenerationally — as free and equal people. That simple and antecedent override would allow us to constitute free and equal communities by any means effective.
Change the way you see these issues. It’s not about population; it’s about constituting our future. It’s not about numbers; it’s about our and our kids’ quality of life.
TAKE ACTION: We can start the process of constituting free and equal communities in a dozen ways, including moving toward child-centric family planning. Choose one today by clicking here and do what’s most effective to protect your future.