Best wishes have poured in as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex welcomed a new baby, Lilibet Diana, this summer. The little one is presumably just as adorable as her big brother Archie (the family has not yet released any images of her). But one congratulatory greeting strikes a creepy note: Sky News reports a British charity called Population Matters has given the couple a prize worth $700 for only having two kids.
“We commend the Duke and Duchess for taking this enlightened decision,” the non-profit says. “In choosing and publicly declaring their intention to limit their family to two, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are helping to ensure a better future for their children, and providing a role model for other families.” Founded in 1991, Population Matters, also known as PM, focuses on reducing the number of humans living on Earth as the primary solution to climate change; they are also known for their activism against aiding refugees.
Presumably, to PM, families that have more than two children are the opposite of the Duke and Duchess—unenlightened, selfish, and poor role models. This unsolicited “award” is inappropriate and profoundly disrespectful, not only to larger families but to Harry and Meghan themselves. Here’s why.
Getting it wrong
First and foremost, Population Matters gets an important fact wrong: Meghan and Harry are the parents of three children, not two. In July 2020, amid COVID-19 lockdowns, the Duchess suffered a devastating miscarriage. Soon afterward, she wrote a column for the New York Times, making it explicitly clear that this was a baby who counted: “After changing [Archie’s] diaper, I felt a sharp cramp. I dropped to the floor with him in my arms, humming a lullaby to keep us both calm, the cheerful tune a stark contrast to my sense that something was not right. I knew, as I clutched my firstborn child, that I was losing my second.”
To an organization focused on population control, it’s all about the inventory. To them, the child Meghan and Harry lost doesn’t matter, because she didn’t use any resources or take up space on the planet. But she did take up space in her parents’ hearts. Given how open the couple was about their loss and what it meant to them, it’s hard to imagine the Sussexes appreciate how PM has casually erased their second pregnancy from their family’s story.
The miscarriage points to another way this so-called award disrespects the Sussex marriage: The way families grow doesn’t always go according to plan. Many couples have more children than they expected; and many have fewer than they hoped for. Culturally, there’s a certain moral superiority associated with being able to decide on a family plan and then execute it flawlessly—or, perhaps, a better word is “rigidly.”
In the dynamic marriages we all aspire to, change is always happening, and sometimes that change includes deciding to buy another crib, after all. It would be nothing short of a shame if Meghan and Harry felt somehow constrained by all the “two and they’re through” publicity, if they chose to revisit pregnancy in a different season of life. It strikes me as quite inappropriate for outsiders to think they have any right to proclaim this part of Harry and Meghan’s lives definitely over.
Prince Harry did perhaps invite public scrutiny of his and Meghan’s family planning choices. Back in 2019, he did an interview with legendary conservationist (and, apparently, shameless busybody) Jane Goodall. Harry got to talking about his love for nature and his desire to protect it for the kids he hoped to have. Goodall interjected: “Not too many!” The prince replied, “Two, maximum!” instead of the more appropriate, “Mind your own business.”
Perhaps coincidentally—but probably not—Goodall is a supporter of Population Matters. In a statement on PM's website, she claims, “It’s our population growth that underlies just about every single one of the problems that we’ve inflicted on the planet. If there were just a few of us, then the nasty things we do wouldn’t really matter.”
The media framed Harry’s brief comment about family size as a dig at his estranged brother, Prince William. After all, William and his wife Kate had just welcomed their third child, Louis, breaking with recent royal practice—each of Queen Elizabeth’s children produced only “an heir and a spare” as the somewhat brutal saying goes, with Harry himself being a “spare.”
Shortly before Louis was born, William gave a widely-panned speech blaming environmental woes on African fertility rates. “Africa's rapidly growing human population is predicted to more than double by 2050. . . . There is no question that this increase puts wildlife and habitat under enormous pressure,” he said. “Urbanisation, infrastructure development, cultivation—all good things in themselves, but they will have a terrible impact unless we begin to plan and to take measures now.” The optics aren’t great for a privileged white man blaming Black families for crowding out the animals he sees on his luxury safari trips. The media quickly hit William with charges of hypocrisy. Creepy ageist commentary on Louis’s arrival also flowed from the other direction, praising William and Kate for supposedly “doing their part” to save Europe from the “gray peril” of a large population of elders with extended lifespans—who should properly be regarded as an asset, not a liability.
The alleged tension over family size is just part of a larger feud between Harry and William that has produced massive publicity on both sides of the Atlantic. Plus, everything the Duke and Duchess touch becomes big news. Population Matters has managed to grab a bit of that attention. Indeed, PM brazenly admits to their strategy of exploiting the private lives of the couple for the sake of their own agenda. “Our statement supporting the award to the Sussexes did just that, reaching literally millions of people through the media coverage it received,” they brag. There are few things more outrageous than cashing in on part of a painful family conflict, all for the sake of raising awareness . . . or fundraising dollars. Ugh.
Population is a problem
Population Matters also gets it wrong when it comes to the fundamental question at hand. Population does matter, but not how PM presents it. Over the long term, experts actually worry there will be too few of us on the planet, not too many.
Back in the 1960s, it was trendy to fear a global population explosion that would cause worldwide famine. In the post-war era, a baby boom was underway, peace had broken out and antibiotics were plentiful—surely, nothing could reverse the growing human headcount. The most famous prophet of doom is biologist Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, who is yet another patron of Population Matters. Ehrlich notoriously predicted that 65 million Americans would starve to death in the 1970s, and that there were strong odds England would cease to exist as a nation by the year 2000. Needless to say, none of that ever happened, and nowadays about 40 percent of food winds up in the garbage in the United States alone for reasons like, “it had the wrong shape.”
But the scary predictions made a strong impression on people’s imaginations. Ehrlich was even a regular guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. And so today, we still hear of people claiming they aren’t having children “because the planet is too crowded,” or we encounter organizations with anachronistic fixations like Population Matters. Echoes of the population bomb that never blew up are still reverberating in U.S. public policy, where birth control is often free but infertility treatment is rarely covered by insurance.
Indeed, the strategies of population panickers worked all too well. The most notorious of these, China’s “One Child Policy,” was adopted by the Communist Party in the 1970s. It resulted in forced abortions, newborn abandonment, and an unbalanced sex ratio in future generations as parents made sure their “one child” was a boy. When Chinese authorities realized they’d made a mistake, restrictions loosened, first to a “two-child” policy in 2016, and then quickly to a “three child” policy earlier this year.
Humanity now faces a demographic cliff described as “jaw-dropping” by researchers. At least 23 nations, including countries like Spain, Italy, and Japan, will have their populations collapse by 50 percent in less than 80 years. China’s headcount will be nearly cut in half, too. In total, 183 out of 195 countries face fertility rates below replacement level—meaning more people dying than being born. This long-term decline of the human population will have broad social and economic consequences. There will be many fewer children growing up to learn and create, and they will be outnumbered by retirees in nursing homes. Even wildlife could suffer as people refocus our dwindling human resources onto specifically human concerns.
Most worrying is that no one has figured out how to significantly reverse falling birth rates. Europe has experimented for decades with broad social support, including free college education and healthcare, and countries like Finland, Australia, and Singapore have even tried paying people to have kids. Nothing has really worked. For thousands of years, human numbers largely grew because sex was enjoyable, and babies, inevitable; now that sex and babies are largely decoupled, we are in uncharted demographic territory.
None of this is to say that any of us needs to have a dozen children, or even one child, if that’s not our calling in life. Like Meghan, I have two living kids, and that’s most likely all I’ll ever have. But unlike Meghan, I’ve never had my family exploited as an ideological talking point. Families of any size are not selfish, and Population Matters should stay in its lane—and get updated on the science.
Meanwhile, a sincere congratulations to the Sussexes, who are no doubt discovering with baby Lili that Henry David Thoreau was right when he said, “Every child begins the world again.”