Babies: Cuddly, Cute Carbon-Emitters

In a world with 7.4 billion people, should we be having more children?

Sea otter mother and pup in Morro Bay, California. Photo credit: Mike Baird, http://bit.ly/2cOexcZ.

People love babies. We love big families, young families and modern families. We love babies in real life and in fiction and, coming soon, in cartoon. In fact, we love babies so much that not wanting children is seen as, well, strange.

That love for tiny humans is not just in our DNA; it’s cultural. It’s the two kids and the white picket fence American dream. It’s the uncomfortable questions after the wedding and at family dinners. It’s even in our taxes.

But recently Travis Rieder, a philosopher with the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, suggested that in the age of climate change, we probably shouldn’t be having children. Because we’re living in a world charging toward the 4 degrees of warming that there’s no coming back from, we should not have children — for their sake. Or when starting a family, we should at least be taking into consideration climate change and the world our kiddos are going to inherit.

In a report published by Rieder and two colleagues, Colin Hickey and Jake Earl, he takes it a step further: We can’t just think about limiting the number of children we have, in a pro-natalist culture like the United States (where children are blessings to be celebrated and the impetus for tax credits) we need to get out the carrot and the stick and make policy change that ensures that human population stops growing.

Before you decry the idea of carrots and sticks with China’s one-child policy as an argument, I’ll tell you I’m with you. When people think about population policy, the one they’re most familiar with is in China, and those policies infringed so deeply on individual rights that it’s frankly not even worth mentioning whether or not they were successful. Rieder and his colleagues address and dismiss any policies that infringe on human rights or are blatantly coercive. And while it is crucial that we ensure that doesn’t happen, that doesn’t mean we can’t — or shouldn’t — change the culture of emotional and financial reward for having children in developed countries.

Wait? Developed countries? Someone else, with data to back them up no less, is proposing that we not only have to address population growth globally but that we need to focus on population in wealthy nations? Finally, someone else is ready to take population growth and consumption head on in the places where it will have the greatest effect.

And yes, I (and Rieder, et al) know that population growth is much faster in developing countries. So why not focus on them? After all, fertility in wealthy countries like the U.S. is at replacement rate, so we’re not adding to long-term population growth. But think of it this way: The carbon footprint of the average American is 120 times that of the average Bangladeshi.* And since climate change is being largely driven by carbon emissions, we have to take a look at population growth right here at home.

The good news is that simply lowering fertility rates by 0.5 children per woman could help lower carbon emissions enough to reach one-fifth of the required reduction in greenhouse gas emissions we need to avoid a climate catastrophe.**

The bad news is that lowering fertility rates in developed nations isn’t actually all that simple.

We know some of the most effective ways to lower fertility rates are providing education and opportunity to women and girls and making access to contraception easy and affordable. But in wealthy nations where, despite deep-rooted gender inequality issues most women do get to stay in school and face fewer barriers to health care, getting from replacement rate to a number that will actually slow growth — and emissions — gets a little more complicated. It goes back to all those cute babies — we’re not just changing services, we’re changing culture.

This is where those carrots and sticks come in. Creating the necessary culture shift means cutting financial incentives for having children and instead incentivizing family planning and contraceptive use. It also means that rather than overloading media with all those babies I mentioned earlier, from the big screen to ads, we show the benefits of choosing smaller families or foregoing having children completely. Maybe it means throwing parties for people when they announce they’ve decided not to have kids. Sure, it’s silly but so are baby showers.

I want to live in a future where no one is told they’re missing out if they don’t want children; where minivans are the exception, not the rule; where when children taunt each other on the playground they sing, “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a decision to not create a carbon emitter in a rapidly warming world.”

This isn’t going to be an easy sell, but we need to come to terms with the fact that the planet can’t support humans as we are currently living, especially in developed countries. This is the fate of the world here, people. In the U.S., where 45 percent of pregnancies are unintended, we have a lot of work to do. The first step is ensuring that every pregnancy is planned.

But that can’t be the only step. Having the choice to have children is also having the choice not to have children. People should have the space and cultural support to make the right decision for their family and for the planet.

So let’s love the child-free, too.

* William N. Ryerson, “Population: The multiplier of everything else,” The Post Carbon Series: Population (Santa Rosa, CA: Post Carbon Institute, 2010), p. 2.

* Colin Hickey, Travis N. Rieder, and Jake Earl, “Population Engineering and the Fight against Climate Change,” Social Theory and Practice Vol. 42, №4 (October 2016), p. 850.

Leigh Moyer is the population organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity.