If we procreate, we doom civilization through overpopulation and depletion of resources. If we don’t procreate, we doom civilization through exacerbating an aging population. What’s a potentially procreative person to do?
I don’t think it’s as bad as that, personally.
For one thing, personally speaking I don’t think an aging population is a civilization killer, if for no other reason than that in a relatively short period of time the problem of an aging population solves itself (think about it for a minute and you’ll figure out how). Nor do I think that in theory an intelligently-handled reduction in population (via natural attrition through old age, to be very clear about that) would be a horrible thing; the problem is I wouldn’t expect it to be particularly well-managed, and indeed in the places where the populations are aging and the birthrates are declining there seems to be bit of confusion on how to handle the issue.
On the other side of the coin, while personally I think seven billion people is more people than the planet actually needs to have on it, there’s no reason why we couldn’t manage ten billion or fourteen billion or even 25 billion — if again the population was managed in a way that we don’t abuse or overtax our planetary resources. This would mean drastically changing how people lived, driving down their overal energy and resource use, vastly improving their reuse and recycling processes, changing how they eat and generally getting them to keep from killing the shit out of each other. But again, the issue isn’t whether it’s theoretically possible but whether people would do what’s required to make it happen.
Or to put it another way: the issue isn’t how many people the planet has; the issue is how the people who are on it (however many there are at any given point) handle their resource management and way of living. And in point of fact we do a really crappy job of it overall. For one thing, resources are highly unevenly distributed (said the guy living in the country that consumes 25% of the world’s energy while having only 5% of the world’s population); for another thing, the lifestyles, desires and goals of the people of the whole world are too heterogeneous to make coordinated and evenly distributed resource management possible — which is a nice way of saying that your average American likes his big house and all his toys and doesn’t want to ditch them all to live a lifestyle resembling that of, oh, your average Kyrgyzstani (additionally, one suspects the average Kyrgyzstani would like to live like the average American, given the choice, which complicates matters).
This is actually something I think about a fair amount. Truth to be told, I personally have far more crap than I need and most of the time even want (thanks to being a packrat), and I live on a house with more space than I or my family use, on land we don’t really do anything with. I suspect strongly we could downsize — in terms of what we have and use — by a rather substantial amount before we felt a real change in our overall quality of life, and we could downsize rather substantially more than that before it became actually uncomfortable. This is relevant to the question at hand because in either case of a declining or rising population, a downsizing in things is likely to be a long-term result. In any event: I think the population issue really is a stalking horse for resource issues; those are what I worry about in the long run.
Nevertheless. As regards procreating, my thought on the matter is that if you are procreatively inclined but are worried about a growing population, have one kid; if you’re worried about a declining population, have two. Here in the US, the “replacement rate” — that is, the number of births required to counteract the number of people the nation loses from death, is 2.1 kids per fertile woman, so having two is doing your part, and you can assume other people having more, combined with the US immigration rate, will keep our overall population from decline. In other countries your replacement mileage may vary, but one or two is a reasonable rule of thumb here.
I wouldn’t worry personally about whether having even the one will send the overall world population spiralling into some sort of Malthusian nightmare, as US/Western world births are an overall drop in the bucket in terms of worldwide population growth, i.e., when the worldwide famine hits, it won’t be your fault for having a kid (it might be your fault for driving an SUV, however, to go back to the resource issue). But if you are worried about that but still want to have kids, well, you know: It’s called adoption, and in general I think it’s a very cool thing, and encourage you to go that route. And if you don’t want any kids at all, then don’t have ’em, of course. Kids are a good way to have a complete life, but you know what, there are other ways to a complete life that don’t include them, too.
But overall, unless you’re having a dozen or so children, and they’re having a dozen (and so on), however many children you’re having is not really going to make a difference in whether civilization collapses. What will make a difference is how you (and the rest of us) manage the resources we have. The irony is, if civilization collapses, chances are very good the birthrate will go up as well. It’s what would happen after that which would likely constitute the tragedy. So, you know. Let’s work on that resource thing.
(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else.)