“Don’t you know you are contributing to the overpopulation of the earth — how can you be so selfish?”

That was the content of the anonymous note, as nearly as we can recall it, which was slipped under the door of our little student-housing apartment at Harvard back in the 1970s.

We only had one child at the time, but we had mentioned our desire to have a large family. A lot of people didn’t like the idea and felt it was their responsibility to tell us that we were destroying the planet by putting too many people on it.

When we moved to London, people seemed amused and sometimes delighted by the four children we had by then, but we occasionally felt the displeasure of various and sundry idealists and zero population growth advocates.

Linda would notice it in the looks she sometimes got as she and the two youngest kids walked the older two to school and few years later at the grocery store in Washington, D.C., with six kids in tow. The condescending glances seemed to say, “Is that a whole school or is that just your family?”

It didn’t really bother us. We knew we were raising kids who would contribute much more to the world than they would take from it. But it interested us, particularly the idea that it was somehow selfish to have more than one or two children. Our perspective was just the opposite — that it might be a little bit selfish to choose to have no children in order to preserve your personal freedom and spend more on yourself.

Well, a little time has passed since those days, and the world view of some has changed dramatically. Many demographers and forecasters now feel that the real threat in most developed countries is the declining birthrate and the simple fact that we are not replacing ourselves adequately to keep our world and our economy going. In other words, it’s not overpopulation but under-fertility and under-population that we should be worrying about.

In "How Civilizations Die," columnist David P. Goldman calls population decline “the elephant in the world’s living room.” He says that if present fertility rates hold, “Two out of three Italians and three of four Japanese will be elderly dependents by 2050” and “the number of Germans will fall by 98 percent over the next two centuries.”

Goldman’s conclusion: “The world faces a danger more terrible than the worst Green imaginings. The European environmentalist who wants to shrink the world’s population to reduce carbon emissions will spend her declining years in misery, for there will not be enough Europeans alive a generation from now to pay for her pension and medical care. For the first time in history, the birth rate of the whole developed world is well below replacement, and a significant part of it has passed the demographic point of no return.”

Religious leaders are also recognizing the danger. Last week in her coverage of LDS general conference, Lois M. Collins reported in the Deseret News: “The sharply declining numbers of births and marriages in historically Christian and Jewish cultures is cause for grief, said Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve. He noted America's lowest-ever birth rate and the fact that many other developed nations, including in Europe, no longer have babies in numbers sufficient to maintain their population.”

11 comments on this story

Obviously, no one should judge families on the number of children they have or don't have. Each family and each circumstance is unique, and there are all kinds of reasons, good and bad, for having or not having a child.

We do need to collectively understand, however, that just as our children are dependent on us for a time, we are ultimately dependent on them, both in our individual families and in society at large.

Richard and Linda Eyre are New York Times No. 1 best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Visit them anytime at www.EyresFreeBooks.com or at www.valuesparenting.com.