Monday, February 11, 2008


I’m spending this week making some small changes to this blog, including updating the links on the right, which I will cover over the next few days. But one of the elements I am adding is a list of books that I’ve been reading or have recently read. I’ll keep the list updated as I can, adding new ones and eliminating old ones. I’ll try to keep the list to around ten.

One of the books is a Christmas Gift, The World Without Us; most have heard of it, if not read it. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it deals with the collapse of the built environment, ruins, and the ephemerality of our artifacts – all topics that interest me – so my liking it should come as no surprise. The book primarily uses all of that fun stuff to hide a more aggressive environmental message, going so far as to end with a chapter covering the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement and the One Child Policy. So, for instance, if every human female from now on would have only one child, by the end of this century the global population would be a quarter of what it is today, with the corresponding reduction in consumption and pollution, goodness and light.

It’s a radical but not-new idea. It’s also little too Malthusian in scope – if consumption of resources is the problem, then eliminating people is not the necessary solution. Cutting consumption obviously is; and if everyone in aggregate consumed a third less, then you wouldn’t have to get rid of a single person to reduce consumption and pollution by a third.

But children do consume, and it’s a surprisingly unaddressed issue in our land of massive consumption combined with an awareness of the evils of that consumption. In short, which has a more positive future impact on the environment – a household getting rid of a car (taking mass transit, walking more) or a household deciding to not have kids (with the corresponding elimination of food consumption, diapers, plastic toys and whatnot)?

That question will most likely remain unanswered because it’s too emotionally fraught, and questions of consumption remain addressed at the fringes only; people use canvas bags instead of plastic, but they still buy the same amount of crap to fill them. Anyone who talks about getting rid of their car in this country is viewed as a freak, unless you are fortunate, like me, to live in a city with abundant mass transit; New York City is one of a very few cities in this country that provide that option, and 80% of the population of Manhattan doesn’t own a car.

So heaven help anyone who chooses not to have a child for such ethical reasons. They are perceived as well and truly mad, if not as downright selfish individuals.


One of the many and various reasons people have kids is a fear of loneliness in old age; a feeling that, once it’s too late, you’ve missed the boat. Many people look at their lives with feelings of accomplishment and think, ‘Hey, raising kids sounds cool, but so does leaning how to wind-surf, and I’ve got a lot of other things that I’m doing that I would rather do than deal with child rearing.’ But then the doubts set in; you look at images of grandparents and think that, damn, that looks cool. I’d better get going on all of this right now, before it’s too late. I don’t want to end up alone rocking on the porch of the nursing home.

Unfortunately for those who proselytize that everyone should have kids, that’s not how it works; several studies indicate otherwise. People’s happiness in old age vis-à-vis children is independent of whether or not they had them. It’s dependent on whether or not they wanted them. The highest rates of happiness and lowest rates of loneliness are among those who decided they really want kids, and had them, and also those who decided they really didn’t want to have kids, and didn’t have them. The ‘happiness’ rates of those two groups were identical. Less happy are those who wanted kids, and were unable to have them. At the very bottom are those who ended up discovering they didn’t want to have kids, and had them anyways. Life sucks for them at the nursing home.

These studies also show that among the elderly who had kids when they were younger, happiness is entirely dependent on the relationship they have with them currently as adults, and not the relationship they had with them when the kids were young. But the rates of happiness are no different than with those elderly who didn’t have kids but have a large group of adult friends and other family to hang out with.

And, yes, not having kids is statistically selfish: Childless couples are happier:

'...Besides, what some parents gain in intimacy with their children, they lose in intimacy with their partners. Hanson says, "Research has shown that on the average the greatest challenge to a couple is becoming parents. Many marriages hold together for a few years when the child is young, but they've been strained beyond repair by everything that comes from having kids and the couple divorces, maybe by the time the kid reaches first grade. Some people think they will save their relationship by having children. It almost never happens." He cites a study by John Gottman, a renowned expert on marriage at the University of Washington, which estimates that couples have eight times more arguments after becoming parents. Hanson says he's seen this in his life as well as his practice. "Many couples overcome all this and having children brings them closer together. That's certainly true for my wife and myself. But during the early years -- our kids are now 15 and almost 13 -- boy, we quarreled and were emotionally distant and troubled in our marriage like we'd never been. We argued about all the issues that new parents commonly argue about -- how to raise the children, who is doing more, the inevitable lack of time for an intimate relationship."

Cain reprints one of those 1975 letters sent to Ann Landers in her book: "I am 40, and my husband is 45. We have twin children under 8 years of age. I was an attractive, fulfilled career woman before I had these kids. Now I'm an overly exhausted nervous wreck who misses her job and sees very little of her husband. He's got a 'friend,' I'm sure, and I don't blame him. Our children took all the romance out of our marriage. I'm too tired for sex, conversation or anything."

Such alienation is less likely when people don't have children. "Statistics show childless couples are happier," Cain says. "Their lives are self-directed, they have a better chance of intimacy, and they do not have the stresses, financial and emotional, of parenthood." ...'