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It also means fewer consumers, which upsets standard notions of economic growth.
"Politicians are obsessed with GDP and growth as metrics for their own success and a healthy economy no matter how unhealthy it is for the environment," Feldstein said. "There's this disconnect in our economy and in politics where they insist on this belief that infinite growth is possible even though we live on a finite planet."
Japan illustrates why. Although the causes of its woes are manifold, its economy has been in recession for more than 20 years, since around the time the country's birth rate first plummeted. The Japanese government has promoted campaigns to boost childbirths, but there seems to be no turnaround in sight. Projections show there could be as few as 100 million Japanese citizens by 2050.
If the entire planet were to follow this trajectory, there would be about 6 billion people in 30 years, rather than the expected 9.8 billion.
"If the population declines, it will take some rethinking of economic structures," Feldstein said. "Right now, that structure is based on growth. ... It seems impossible because we've only ever seen our population grow."
Mathis Wackernagel, founder of the Global Footprint Network, in Oakland, said the problem with perpetual economic growth is that it physically can't continue forever.
"It is a Ponzi Scheme," he said. "We are overusing resources of the future to pay for the present." Such schemes, he said, must be "maintained or they collapse. That's why we are so tied to this rat race. We cannot jump off so easily."
Zetland believes economies can prosper even if their populations stabilize or begin to drop.
"It's a total fallacy that the economy needs constant growth and a growing population," he said, noting that individual retirement accounts can potentially lift the burden of supporting the retired generation off the shoulders of the younger workforce.
Feldstein believes that leaders and policy makers should consider alternative metrics for measuring the success of societies.
"A few countries are measuring things like happiness indexes, and how we are providing for people, because it's not just about whether the economy or capitalism suffers, it's about whether people are suffering," Feldstein said. "If we shift our focus to that, then there doesn't need to be a decline."
It would alleviate pressure on the environment allow for smaller-sized families to better support each other.
'It's Kind of a Taboo to Talk About Population'
On a warm June afternoon in North Oakland, Nik Bertulis sat on the roof of his home, wondering if he would ever bring a new human into the world.
The 44-year-old would like to be a father. But he is among many people in their early middle age questioning the ethics and wisdom of having children. His concerns include subjecting children to an uncertain future as well as contributing to that uncertainty by adding another mouth or two to feed.
Bertulis and his partner live in a small community of tiny homes, with a dozen other residents, on a leased property converted from a vacant lot eight years ago into an urban garden space and artists' community. He views his living situation as 'regenerative,' which he defines as living "in a deeply reciprocal relationship with nature." They call it PLACE, for People Linking Art, Community, and Ecology. It's within the most coveted urban area in the West, with culture, music, and people as nearby as green space, trees, and gardens. In many ways, there could be no better place to raise a child.
"But because of the ecological destruction all around us, I've really leaned away from it," he said. "I don't know that my child would take up regenerative habits, and it could have negative impacts on the planet. Each new human added to the planet usually is going to have degenerative effects — there's no way around it."
Discussing such matters openly can be a delicate task.
"Reproduction is such a strong drive, biologically but also socially and culturally," Bertulis said. And older relatives often pressure their children and grandchildren to settle and have families, he noted. "Any time you start talking about the environment and population, it's like an immediate threat to that entire part of life," he said. "It's kind of a taboo to talk about population and its impacts on our environment."
The debate over how population trends affect economic vigor indicates our society's misplaced values, he said.
"Gross domestic happiness is a much more relevant indicator of how we measure wealth," he said. "If physical and emotional well-being is wealth, then let's measure true wealth rather than obscure, abstract concepts that destroy our environment."
Taken one person at a time, such personal decision-making is more symbolic than Earth-changing, and may not significantly alter the fate of our world. Because while Americans may not be reproducing as prolifically as they once did, they are still voracious resource hogs. Environmental constraints are not slowing us down.
Americans' per capita carbon footprint remains dozens of times greater than that of many other nations. That begs the question whether Earth is suffering more from overpopulation, or human consumption patterns. Ecologist Peter Raven, a San Francisco native and president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, believes it is both.
"People sometimes try to say it's consumption that's the problem, not population, but those two things are like two sides to a rectangle," said Raven, who has studied the impacts of the growing human population on wild plant communities. "The more people you have, the more consumption, and the more consumption you have, the more impact. They're directly related. We need a level population."