News ID: 219423
Published: 0740 GMT August 06, 2018

Why climate activists cannot agree if we should be having fewer children

Why climate activists cannot agree if we should be having fewer children

As of the start of this month, we have consumed as much of the Earth’s natural resources so far in 2018 as we should have done for an entire year.

This includes food, water and carbon, according to research organization Global Footprint Network, which also estimates that we would need the equivalent of 1.7 Earths to maintain current consumption levels, reported.

It sounds scary, but statistics like this are unlikely to compel you to leave your car at work this evening and take the bus home. We are inundated every day with predictions and terrifying data on the damage we are causing to the planet, but they lose their edge in a world where we have very tangible problems to deal with in our everyday lives, and for a long time, they have remained too abstract to scare individuals and governments into enacting enough change to reverse trends. But now the stakes are getting personal and we are starting to listen.

There’s an argument steadily gaining ground suggesting that — since individuals in developed nations have huge carbon footprints, with all the eating, driving, flying and keeping warm we do — the best way to avoid this damage is to consider having fewer children, or none at all.

And the proliferating organizations arguing we should consider smaller families are being bolstered by recent reports. A major study last year concluded that not having children is one of the most effective ways of cutting our carbon footprint, and that a US family who chooses to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who recycle for the rest of their lives.

Last year, researchers recommended four ways to contribute to lowering our emissions, including having one fewer child — the equivalent of 58.6 tons of CO2 emissions every year. The other three suggestions — avoiding airplane travel, ditching the car and eating a plant-based diet — totaled a fraction of the emissions of having a child.

The debate is often narrowed to one of population control, but other organizations argue this is part of a much wider debate. Conceivable Future, a US organization encouraging conversations around climate change, has grown accustomed to being mentioned in articles arguing the need for population controls.

Founders Josephine Ferorelli and Meghan Kallman, however, argued that the question should not be whether people have fewer children because of their future carbon footprint, but why we live on a planet where there is such a carbon cost to having a child.

“It’s preposterous to think a bunch of people deciding not to have children will solve climate change. I could kill myself now, remove myself as one of around seven billion people, and climate change would continue. It’s a socially and morally bankrupt argument,” Kallman said.

“It’s not about individuals choosing to do something or not do something, but about people coming together. If you look at the civil rights movement, the only reason the Montgomery bus boycott worked was because people did it en masse.”

But Rivka Weinberg, a philosopher and the author of the book ‘The Risk of a Lifetime: How, When, and Why Procreation May Be Permissible’, doesn’t think we can do much to improve climate change by having smaller families, and that change can only happen from a policy level.

“Some people are saying you can’t have children and I don’t think that’s at all fair. It’s not that you can’t have a wonderful life as a childless person, but you can’t understate the effects of having children; it’s visceral, it’s a special relationship that no other relationship will substitute,” she said.

Another argument for having fewer children is how dangerous the world will be for future generations, which Weinberg said is the more pressing issue. 

“On an individual level, each person has to decide whether it’s morally permissible for them to have children and climate change makes that a harder choice,” she said.

“It presents future children with more risks that parents are ill-equipped to do anything about.”

While climate change currently affects those in developing countries the most — in Vietnam, for example, the average temperature has risen by 0.5°C over the past 50 years, and sea levels have risen by about 20 centimeters — she said at some point it will affect us all. But deciding not to have children would be a “premature reaction” now, she added, because there’s still time to adapt.

 “To say someone shouldn’t have children is very premature and unfair — there are other things we can do first, there are less draconian ways of approaching the problem.”

And when it comes to fighting for political change, Josephine said, ironically, having children can help. 

“For the most effective activists, their reason for doing this work is because of their children.”

Rebecca Kukla, associate professor of philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa, said we need clarity around the fact that industry and infrastructural systems are the main threat to the environment, and not individuals.

“Our primary goal, if we want to protect the environment, should be on systems-level reforms, infrastructural development, and strong checks on industry. Even more basically, our goal should be reducing income inequality and poverty, since it is really people in poor and disempowered regions that are under serious threat from climate change,” she said.

“All these discussions about lifestyle choices should be put in perspective. Anyone who chooses not to have a child for environmental reasons should be fully aware of the scientific facts as we know them, including all the facts showing that individual lifestyle choices are not really the main things that need to change.

“Of course, corporations and capitalist institutions are motivated to hide these facts, and it would indeed be deeply troubling if people gave up the chance to parent based on misleading propaganda.”


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