One for the Planet

In China they’re called Little Emperors. In Europe they’ve been
blamed for the population decline. And in certain corners of the
United States, they’re considered tragic — even vaguely

Only children, and the parents who bring them into the world,
have historically been viewed with suspicion. In the past, when a
family’s survival depended on the number of hands available to
plant and harvest food, big families were prized. While that’s
still the case in certain parts of the globe, technological
advances for the most part have eliminated the need for (and the
inevitability of) multichild families.

Still, demographers tell us that the majority of Americans,
given the choice, would have more than one child. Single-child
families have nearly doubled in the United States over the past 15
years. (See chart, p. 14) Yet despite this startling increase in
only children, the negative stereotype of the spoiled, maladjusted
loner continues.

Bill McKibben, environmentalist, author, and father of a
4-year-old daughter, debunks these prejudices in his new book
Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for
Single-Child Families
(Simon & Schuster). For personal and
environmental reasons McKibben and his wife, writer Sue Halpern,
were inclined to have just one child. But like many parents, they
worried about the emotional and social repercussions. McKibben did
some research to answer his own personal questions and came away
assured that single-child families don’t harm kids. (Indeed, dozens
of studies point to the fact that only kids actually fare better in
measures of achievement motivation and social adjustment.)

In addition, McKibben concludes that families stopping at one
kid may be the best — and only — way to counteract a world
population explosion that is spiraling out of control. While
certain industrialized countries – among them Japan, Spain, and
Italy — are seeing negative population growth due to dramatically
shrinking family size, McKibben notes that global population
continues to boom. More American women, for instance, may be having
just one child, but the population base from which these
single-child families spring is so large (and the percentage of
only children still so small) that at current rates, the number of
people in our country alone will double by the year 2050, creating
greater pressure on the earth’s natural resources.

The answer, he says, is simple: People — and not only white,
educated people like himself — must commit to actually reducing
the population by voluntarily limiting themselves to one child per
family. And everyone must work to turn the negative attitudes about
only children on their ear.

Toni Falbo, professor of educational psychology and sociology at
the University of Texas at Austin, has studied only children and
their families since 1973. What she’s found over her years of
research is surprisingly unsurprising: ‘By 1998, we can conclude
that, on average, only children are just like everybody else,’ she
says. ‘They are no more lonely, maladjusted, or selfish. They are
no more likely to divorce or have trouble making friends than
people raised in larger families. There is no big disadvantage,
apparently, to being an only child. Nor are there stunning

Charles White, publisher of the newsletter Only Child,
attributes the rise in single-child families in the United States
more to the high divorce rate and fertility problems in older
parents than he does to McKibben-style eco-activism. ‘Only children
are planned in just one in ten households that come across our
doorstep,’ he says, explaining that his own single-child family is
a result of secondary infertility, the inability to conceive after
a first child. ‘Having an only child is so out of the norm that in
our experience, the majority of single-child families are planned
by default.’

But Falbo, herself an only child, is uncovering evidence that
perceptions are changing. ‘I think people are beginning to look at
this in a different way,’ she says.

Not soon enough, according to McKibben. ‘We live on a planet
where 3 billion people don’t have clean water, where species die by
the score each day, where kids grow up without fathers, where
violence overwhelms us,’ he writes. ‘And the energy freed by having
smaller families may be some of the energy needed to take on these
next challenges, to really take them on to make them central to our

McKibben’s message may inspire many to ponder their role in the
population explosion, but will he reach the parents whom
demographers tell us are most likely to favor larger families-those
of Hispanic and Asian desents in the United States, and various
other minority groups throughout the industrialized world? Issues
of race and ethnicity invariably arise in any debate involving
population-reduction strategies. In certain industrialized nations,
for instance, educated white parents are having fewer children
while the population continues to grow at a faster pace among
people of color. At the same time, zero populationists and
birth-control advocates have often focused their efforts on
developing African nations, saying that the key to reducing the
world’s population is educating poor people about how to limit
their fertility.

But the population debate is about the use of natural resources
as well as family size. While the citizens of industrialized
nations make up only 22 percent of the world’s population, we use
two-thirds of the world’s resources. In other words, a single child
born in Europe, Japan, or the United States essentially occupies
more space on the earth than an entire village of African children.
The answer, then, may lie not so much in restraining Africa’s or
South America’s or India’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of
children, but rather in controlling our own insatiable demand for
the earth’s resources.

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