Save the planet — procreate less!

by Todd Neff

You can drive an electric vehicle powered by rooftop solar panels, replace your old appliances and light bulbs with energy-sipping versions, recycle compulsively, compost, give up meat, eschew air travel, buy used-everything, make your own sandals out of old tires. You can do these and all sorts of other things in your personal quest to lower your carbon footprint. Doing so will indeed mitigate to some tiny degree the climate change that, despite the best efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is hurtling us into a slew of potentially catastrophic unknowns as this century steams ahead.

But if you truly care about the climate and the future of a human civilization that developed in the current temperature regime, you could do something that has a much bigger impact: have one less kid. Or more precisely, says Johns Hopkins University philosopher and bioethicist Travis Rieder, one-half less kid. (Those who have reared children would recommend the top, rather than the bottom, half).

Travis and Sadiye Rieder read a book with their 2-year-old daughter, Sinem, in their Maryland home

Rieder is a philosopher, not a quant, which with respect to global warming is a good thing — this is not a field lacking in data, much of it alarming. Just peruse the IPCC’s most recent Fifth Assessment Report or any number of scientific papers before and since related to ocean temperature and acidity, weather-weirding, habitat alteration, sea level rise and on and on. They’re all basically empirical versions of Stephen King novels. Rieder’s job as a philosopher and bioethicist is to take it all in and draw conclusions about what’s the right thing to do and how to go morally and ethically go about it in the face of all this creeping horror.

The right thing to do is to cut emissions so that our children and grandchildren and the unborn masses may avoid the generally fearsome outcomes the science tells us are inevitable with the inaction of a business-as-usual scenario or even the actions the Paris Agreement might yield. As the top half of a child might say: Duh. The question then becomes how to go about cutting emissions, and that’s where Rieder gets interesting.

In his recent book, Toward a Small Family Ethic: How Overpopulation and Climate Change are Affecting the Morality of Procreation, Rieder makes the argument that the ultimate root of human-caused climate change is… human, and that, ipso facto, the more people you have, the worse the problem will be.

Rieder points out that the probability of a marginal additional child doing for climate change what, say, Alexander Fleming did for infectious disease is vanishingly slim. And he points to a 2008 study concluding that each additional child of an average American mom will add nearly six times more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than the mom herself will in her lifetime. The kids of her kids are the multiplier, you see.

Rieder and colleagues Jake Earl and Colin Hickey figure that reducing fertility rates to match the United Nations’ “low fertility” projections rather than the “medium fertility” projections — an average difference of, you guessed it, 0.5 children per woman — would account for between 16 percent and 29 percent of the required emissions reductions by 2050 to keep us on track for a world warming no more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Rieder and colleagues have come up with a name for the basket of approaches to that end: population engineering. It would touch rich as well as poor countries, though in the short-term, the focus whould be on the wealthy ones for the simple reason that they are much more carbon-intensive. Approaches range across a spectrum from better reproductive education and healthcare, values-focused messaging and policy inventives (paying for birth control, say, or reducing child tax credits/taxing additional children), with the general drift being to be more punitive toward wealthy would-be procreators. Rieder stops well short of invoking a China-style one-child policy.

For the record, Rieder’s walking the walk with his own family. His wife wanted a big family; for moral-philosophical reasons, they’ve stopped at one child, at least until they decide to take in one of the 19 million adoptable babies out there.

And lest you think Rieder’s anti-kid: raising his daughter, he told NPR, is “the most amazing thing we’ve ever done with our lives.”

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