Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The "entitlement" of having children?

In any talk or discussion about climate change, the issue population is like the dark energy of the room. You know the issue is there, and despite its invisibility--some fail to recognise it, others don't want to recognise it-- everyone knows it is affecting every single policy, every single outcome of these talks. Countries such as China and India would likely not even be at the table in climate discussions if one of the discussion points was the issue of their populations. (Let's not forget that the US has the third highest population in the world, and considering the ecological footprint of every single American, as well as how the US chooses to conduct itself internationally, the US's ecological impacts probably far outweigh those of India and China.)

Let's even leave aside "environmental" issues of climate change. Costs of "social" welfare programs like social security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as the outcomes of "political" tussles like gerrymandering and redistricting are all affected by changes in population and their values. Costs of all kinds can soar if populations soar; how can you keep everyone that is living now, and that will live in the future, happy?

Population is clearly a massive issue in sustainability, and for some reason(s), we cannot seem to address it. I cannot claim to have a cogent argument apart from the standard, "Population increase is leading to unsustainability." I have to think about it. But a reader of this blog believes having children is a matter of entitlement. In a previous post, On entitlement, I wrote about how there is an entitlement that pervades this culture, an entitlement that allows us to conflate our rights and our wants. In response, Paris said one of the most provocative things I've heard:
[Y]ou forgot a slightly older entitlement, the most controversial one: living children.

Once upon a time most children died in young age, only the strongest, fittest, and most lucky survived, but today we feel entitled to have all our children alive.

And it results in population surpluses that stresses the environment. [A] "scarce future" might mean fewer people, which means (sadly) more deaths. 
Lisa Hymas, an editor for the Guardian Environment Network and a writer for Grist.org has "decided not to have children for environmental reasons." She calls herself GINK: green inclinations, no kids. She writes:
Population isn't just about counting heads. The impact of humanity on the environment is not determined solely by how many of us are around, but by how much stuff we use and how much room we take up. And as a financially comfortable American, I use a lot of stuff and take up a lot of room. My carbon footprint is more than 200 times bigger than an average Ethiopian's, and more than 12 times bigger than an average Indian's, and twice as big as an average Brit's.

When a poor woman in Uganda has another child--too often because she lacks access to family-planning services, economic opportunity, or self-determination--she might dampen her family's prospects for climbing out of poverty or add to her community's challenges in providing everyone with clean water and safe food, but she certainly isn't placing a big burden on the global environment.

When someone like me has a child--watch out, world! Gear, gadgets, gewgaws, bigger house, bigger car, oil from the Mideast, coal from Colombia, coltan from the Congo, rare earths from China, pesticide-laden cotton from Egypt, genetically modified soy from Brazil. And then when that child has children, wash, rinse, and repeat (in hot water, of course). Without even trying, we Americans slurp up resources from every corner of the globe and then spit 99 percent of them back out again as pollution.

Conscientious people try to limit that consumption, of course. I'm one of them. I get around largely by bus and on foot, eat low on the food chain, buy used rather than new, keep the heat low, rein in my gadget lust. But even putting aside my remaining carbon sins (see: flying), the fact is that just by virtue of living in America, enjoying some small portion of its massive material infrastructure, my carbon footprint is at unsustainable levels.

Far and away the biggest contribution I can make to a cleaner environment is to not bring any mini-me's into the world. A 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University found that the climate impact of having one fewer child in America is almost 20 times greater than the impact of adopting a series of eco-friendly practices for your entire lifetime, things like driving a high-mileage car, recycling, and using efficient appliances and CFLs.
What do you think?


  1. Great post! The only part I am skeptical of is the impact of china and india. I think their current contribution and certainly their projected contribution is really the most important issue facing the world (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbR0EPWgkEI).

  2. I feel like this attitude is antithetical to what the majority of people would derive meaning from in life... beyond material wealth and (especially) family, what really drives a person? How do you convince a man to save the planet for the children he's not supposed to have? Which is to say, yes, we would not have environmental issues if there were no people, but then what would be the point?

  3. jason, i wrote in response to your comment

  4. I saw... and then crafted like 5 separate pieces of a cogent response that ended growing into an existential nightmare... it'll take some time to piece together

  5. Uh... I'm with Jason. Sorry for being lame and abandoning the confused tirade...

  6. rebecca, i'm interested in what you have to say, too!