Axinn's "Natural resource collection & desired family size" tests enviro-population theories

February 5, 2018

"Natural resource collection and desired family size: A longitudinal test of environment-population theories," by Sarah Brauner-Otto and William Axinn, was published in the June 2017 issue of Population and Environment.


Theories relating the changing environment to human fertility predict that declining natural resources may actually increase the demand for children. Unfortunately, most previous empirical studies have been limited to cross-sectional designs that limit our ability to understand links between processes that change over time. We take advantage of longitudinal measurement spanning more than a decade of change in the natural environment, household agricultural behaviors, and individual fertility preferences to reexamine this question. Using fixed effect models, we find that women experiencing increasing time required to collect firewood to heat and cook or fodder to feed animals (the dominant needs for natural resources in this setting) increased their desired family size, even as many other macro-level changes have reduced desired family size. In contrast to previous, cross-sectional studies, we find no evidence of such a relationship for men. Our findings regarding time spent collecting firewood are also new. These results support the “vicious circle” perspective and economic theories of fertility pointing to the value of children for household labor. This feedback from natural resource constraint to increased fertility is an important mechanism for understanding long-term environmental change.