Monday, May 19, 2008

Eco-nomics: Children and Resources

I have been sitting on this one for a while, trying to decide whether to touch it with my 10 foot pole. A few weeks ago, the Oregonian profiled a few families that have, for environmental reasons, decided to have only one child. My first thought was: why not zero? But my second thought was: why so pessimistic about children?

Most people who worry about the environmental impact of large families think of children solely as resource depleters. More children means more people which means more energy demand, more bodies to fill with water and calories, more people to pollute and ravage the landscape. But children are also resources in and of themselves: they are the ones who will have to come up with the solutions to the resource issues and I have faith that they can and will do it. Within each child comes the potential for being a vital part of the world's human capital resource that will solve global warming, find new renewable energy technologies, will invent more efficient ways to produces goods and services that use fewer resources, and so on. They are the ones that will create the new resources with which humanity will thrive. In fact, during the recent explosion in human population, living standards have risen considerably.

I must admit that I find the view of children as resource drains quite depressing. People don't just use resources, people also create new resources, so the question comes down to whether the new children you bring in the world end up consuming more than they create. I like to see children as potential - as the hope of humanity, not a drag on society and the source of humanity's downfall.

Besides, it is not at all clear to me that the most efficient way to bring people into the world is a bunch of one-child households. It is probably a lot more efficient to have 11 zero child households and one 12 child household - cheaper by the dozen indeed.

And as a moral aside, it seems funny how we celebrate life once it is here, but fret about new lives being created. We cheer for each new medical breakthrough, but are concerned about new babies? I can't quite articulate it, but that just seems odd.


Jeff said...

This is an interesting issue. I have sympathy for the small family argument because everyone else seems to be against them.

Governments like population growth because more workers mean more payroll taxes. Being a "world power" requires having a large population (U.S., Japan, China). Sweden may have a terrific system but their small population keeps them from center stage. Many governments subsidize having larger families.

Wall-street and main-street types like population growth because more consumers mean more demand.

Economists typically believe that technological change will always save us. History has proven them right (so far), but now it seems we have a chance to test the theory again.

There's unprecented pressure on available arable land and (more importantly) water. I think that technological change can save us, but worry that it won't occur fast enough, i.e., before too many people suffer (I'm thinking more of developing countries, not the US). If resources were priced appropriately (accounting for the negative externalities of use), maybe we'd be in better shape.

Steve Buckstein said...

Julian Simon put it well in his classic book, “The Ultimate Resource.” Human creativity, the human mind, is the ultimate resource. Therefore, more minds = more resources for humans to use and benefit from.

Strayer said...

Human overpopulation is a concern. I suppose many problems on earth would vanish if there were fewer people. Children born to industrial nations use more resources than those born to third world nations. Look at China with their one child policy due to overpopulation.

And yet children represent hope for the future, too. I don't believe kids born to one child households are as well adjusted as those in big families.

A said...

Sorry, I love this blog but this argument just doesn't hold any water in my view.

Less people can solve just as many problems as more people can, but with less people there will be less problems to solve.

Smaller families can devote more resources to the children, making it more likely that they achieve high levels of personal development (many exceptions duly noted) and be able to help with existing problems.

Also, it probably wouldn't be more efficient if one family was large and many others had no children because there are social benefits to having a diverse gene-pool and having a population that has a common understanding of raising children. Specialization is not efficient under the surface.