Babies’ Big Carbon Footprint (#FirstWorldProblems)

Between climate change, resource consumption, and subsequent pollution, more people means more potential for environmental damage.

Cute and cuddly? For sure. But how bad are so-called privileged children for the environment? (Photo: Barbara Peacock/Getty)

Jan 25, 2013
Lucas Spangher is a junior at Duke University with an avid interest in green energy technology.

Procreation. It’s something that no one ever tends to frame in moral terms. And especially not when upper-middle class Americans or Europeans do it. But as we inhabit an Earth that is increasingly thrown into environmental turmoil, the question becomes relevant: “Is it right to have kids?”

No matter how green you live your life, having a kid is the single largest carbon debt you can create.

Thomas Malthus was the first to link environmental problems with an overly large human population. He theorized that his 18th-century society could support eight and a half million people comfortably. Our technology has certainly increased since then. Still, some estimates put the “true” carrying capacity of the Earth at four billion people, well below our current seven billion. Between exacerbation of climate change, resource consumption, and subsequent pollution, more people means more potential for environmental damage. The breaching of the Earth’s carrying capacity is something that will negatively affect everyone. Seen in this light, it seems irresponsible to add to the burgeoning population for our own individual benefit.

Now, the most obvious counter-argument in favor of having kids is the biological argument. Consumption of super high-end luxury goods is irresponsible; eating is not. In the same way, the act of procreation is one that is so innate to the human being that it seems to deserve special consideration.

But biological arguments are simply not adequate for our modern society. If we used biological arguments to justify everyday behavior, we’d be eliminating job competition with bows and arrows. What are we as a society if we have not transcended the basic trappings of flesh-based desires? People live perfectly healthy lives without consuming meat, despite the physical presence of canine teeth. Likewise, one should not predicate the desire to procreate based on biological arguments alone.

So then the counter-argument arises: If one raises one’s kids in the correct manner, then one may avoid the negative effects of overpopulation. It is not the sheer quantity of people, but rather, the quantity of resources that each person consumes that defines the destructive potentials of our species. There is definitely merit to this argument. It would certainly be erroneous to take Malthus’ carrying capacity out of context and ignore the amount of resources that each person consumes. Besides, there is always the possibility that any individual can lead a career in helping the environment, or develop some groundbreaking green technology. The decision to eat meat almost never causes a net reduction in humanity’s carbon footprint; the decision to procreate might be a bit different.

To a certain extent, though, these arguments as well are fallacious. However environmentally conscious an individual is, they are constrained by the society they live in. In the U.S., it takes roughly 71 pounds of waste to produce, on average, one pound of finished goods. It takes almost ten tons of waste to produce the average laptop. And of all U.S. products, only one percent is designed to be in use six months after sale. No matter how environmentally friendly your child is, they cannot help using products that are produced via an oftentimes wasteful industrial process. By sheer virtue of existing in modern society, they must produce far more waste then our ancestors did.

Now, that said, the arguments about raising an environmental innovator are perfectly well and good. But they in no way are unique to the act of personal procreation. Rather, they are inherent to the act of raising a child. This could be any child, one that is biologically related or not.  Indeed, no one should be ready to argue that not raising kids is the environmentally responsible thing to do. One should merely consider that the act of passing along one’s genotype is not as constructive as it seems. Adopting a child and instilling values he or she may not otherwise have had is, in ecological terms, a virtuous act. 

Finally, there is the issue of replacement rates. There are many reasons, not just environmental, to limit one’s childbirth. And so a parent may stop at one or two kids. But perhaps this argument generalizes too much. There is no danger of population shrinking. Population rates are on the incline, and projected to keep rising. Some have even called the discussion of carrying capacity a “useless act” since there is no feasible policy a policy-maker may make with this information. The decision to limit the number of kids one has is, sadly, one that mostly comes with economic privilege and education.

No matter how green you live your life, having a kid is the single largest carbon debt you can create. Thus, for the benefit of the planet, we privileged ones should strongly question our desire for procreation.

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.

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