Why We're Celebrating Smaller Families on Billboards

Cherrington family billboard in Minneapolis

One Planet One Child Billboard in Minneapolis

By Dave Gardner, Executive Director

It’s time to admit human overpopulation contributes to our most serious crises, and to thank the young people who are demonstrating the solution. 

In March and April we put up billboards in Minneapolis and Denver celebrating the choice to have a small family — a family with one or even zero children. Alas, the timing was very unfortunate, as the COVID-19 pandemic took motorists off the roads (and therefore eyeballs off our billboards) and dominated news cycles to the exclusion of any coverage of a bold, new billboard campaign.

While that’s a temporary setback, I’m confident the One Planet, One Child campaign’s message will, in the longer term, capture attention and successfully bring solving overpopulation out from under the rug.

Why applaud the small-family choice?

Two years ago, the U.S. birth rate hit a new low not seen in over 30 years. Millennials were delaying “starting a family,” choosing to have smaller families, and in many cases skipping the whole “raising a family” thing. I was facing that decision 30 years ago, newly married, not confident I could afford children, and well aware of human overpopulation concerns. I chose to have a vasectomy after my second child. Since then, the overpopulation concerns that informed my decision have faded from public consciousness — because open discussion of overpopulation became actively avoided.

Soon after 2018’s record-low birth rate was announced, a wave of warnings came from economists, concerned about the shrinking labor force of the future. Fewer workers could well result in a “stagnant economy.” In the name of GDP growth, economists implored millennials to get busy conceiving and raising the workers of tomorrow! That is ill-advised. Ignoring the perils of overpopulation in order to continue growing a national or global economy is like burning down the house to keep warm.

Syndicated columnist Froma Harrop was one of the few critics of that call for more births. She wisely pointed out, “What makes for a strong society is healthy people, prosperous people and happy people — not more people. Americans can put low birthrates at the bottom of their worry list.”

I find it offensive that number-crunchers want women to get busy incubating new slaves to serve a Ponzi economy addicted to growth. Economic growth strikes me as an inadequate, indefensible reason to bring a life into this world. We, and any children we might choose to bring into this world, are human beings, not a labor force, not economic pawns, not “consumers.”

The number one reason I’m thankful for this move to smaller families is my love for children. I want the children who are brought into this world to have a bright future, one with clean air and water, a livable climate and their needs met. For that to happen, smaller families are essential. It’s becoming more and more clear that we’ve passed the limit of the number of human beings our good Earth can sustainably support. We’ve been straining her for some time, and she’s showing unmistakable signs of serious fatigue. Report after report tells us we’re extinguishing other species at record rates, pumping rivers and aquifers dry, overloading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, collapsing fisheries, and the list goes on. We are in ecological overshoot. Earth cannot keep meeting our needs if we keep this up. 

We can’t avoid population’s role in the sustainability equation.

Our behavior and our growth-obsessed economic system play a major role in the destructive binge we’re on. Yes, we should go vegan, give up air travel, trade in our Mcmansions for tiny houses, boycott Black Friday and Cyber Monday, stop insisting that our retirement nest eggs grow — and end our society’s pursuit of everlasting GDP growth.

But guess what? With nearly 7.8 billion people on the planet, those very big steps won’t be enough to get back into sustainable balance with nature. We can perfect every conservation, prevention and mitigation practice and technology, get everything exactly right, and still we’ll be crippling Earth’s life-support systems.

One Planet One Child Billboard between Denver and Colorado Springs

We need to correct our overconsumptive behavior, and we need to reduce our overwhelming numbers. There are many activists and NGOs, and even a few policymakers, encouraging us to cut back on profligate consumption and/or rein in the appetite of capitalism. But there are few making the crucial point that human numbers are a vital part of the equation.

It’s sad we avoid that conversation, because it’s actually the sustainability solution with the best chance of success. Why? Because we’ve already demonstrated we’re willing to do what’s necessary to contract our population. We’ve been freely choosing to have smaller and smaller families. In 1960 the average family had five children. Today the average is less than 2.5. That’s great progress.

Meanwhile, we’ve demonstrated very little will to shrink our lifestyles — to fly and drive less, buy durable instead of disposable, and shrink our houses, for example. Making these changes, while needed, is going to be more difficult. And lifestyle changes will have to be much more drastic — if we refuse to simultaneously address the overpopulation issue. We’d all have to live like paupers in order to achieve sustainable balance at today’s population.

Even with today’s smaller families, we’re still adding over 80 million people to the planet every year. We’re in such a state of overshoot today, that we need to pick up the pace and further decrease the average family, and do it more quickly. Informed family-size decisions are important for all of us to make — every nation, every ethnicity, every income and every education level.

Why advertise here?

Some have expressed surprise that we put billboards up in the U.S. instead of the high-fertility nations of sub-Saharan Africa. It’s important for us to start right here, in the overdeveloped world — where each of us consumes way above our share of Earth’s resources and has an oversized carbon footprint. At current consumption levels, we have over twice the population that would be sustainable. So we cannot congratulate ourselves for below-replacement birth rates. It’s not enough. If we aren’t doing all we can to speed the correction of our overstep, why would the people of Chad or Niger accept our help or recommendations? We must, first, exercise our moral responsibility to the rest of the world.

It’s pretty clear what needs to be done, but we’re spinning our wheels because it remains too uncomfortable to discuss. It’s time we had this conversation. So the One Planet, One Child campaign celebrates and thanks today’s young people who are choosing to have fewer children. They’re trendsetters setting a good example. We want to make it okay, respectable, even admirable, to choose a smaller family. That’s the most loving thing prospective parents can do for all the children of the world.

Aside from leaving a healthy planet that gives the next generation a chance to live decent lives, the small-family choice has many other benefits. Smaller families have more financial resources — to invest in education and meet the many other needs of a child, and to be more secure and resilient in the face of hardships like the economic recession brought on by the coronavirus emergency. Parents are also able to give a single child more attention and more quality time.

I want to thank all who pitched in with financial support to launch the billboard campaign. This will be a tough year to get media attention, between the pandemic, the economy and the U.S. presidential election. We’re evaluating next steps. If you’re subscribed to our Overpopulation Update emails, and/or following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, you’ll be the first to know where we go from here.

World Population Balance remains committed to get this conversation going. There is just no downside to choosing smaller families, while the upside is big: it’s the only path to decent lives and a beautiful future for generations to come.

Dave Gardner, Executive Director

Dave Gardner

Dave Gardner co-hosts The Overpopulation Podcast for World Population Balance, in addition to serving as executive director. He worked as a professional filmmaker for over 35 years. During his career he’s directed documentaries and other award-winning projects for a long list of Fortune 500 corporate clients and PBS. He eventually found a successful career serving big business and a life pursuing the "American Dream" were not his Holy Grail. Read more about Dave Gardner, Executive Director