If You Love the Environment, Is It Still OK to Have a Child?

Kids are far more than carbon footprint units to be discarded before conception.
(Photo: Laura Hartley/Getty)
Aug 15, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

In January 2010, Yitta Schwartz of New York died at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan at the age of 93. Given the size of her family—she left behind some 2,000 living descendants, including 15 children and 200 grandchildren—it's safe to assume that not all who called the nonagenarian Mom, Grandma, Great-Grandma, or Great-Great-Grandma were huddled by her bedside when she passed.

Schwartz and her outsize clan were never far from my thoughts last week when I read both a Time magazine cover story, in which author Lauren Sandler lays out the many perks of a child-free life, and Grist writer Lisa Hymas' response to the story, in which she argues that Sandler omits the key factor of reproductive decision making in 2013—the green angle.

"Choosing not to have children is by far the biggest step an American can take to limit the size of his or her environmental footprint," writes Hymas, known to greens not only for deciding against having children but for coining the acronym GINK—green inclination, no kids.

The data in support of child-free coupling is irrefutable. The average American generates more than 25 times more C02 per year than the average Bangladeshi, this according to statistics compiled by The Guardian. And, as Hymas writes, "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 and using efficient appliances and CFLs."

But is the most effective choice always the best one?

As a recent newlywed eager to marry my environmentalism with my desire to start a family, I have to believe that a pluralistic middle ground occupying the vast space between the Schwartzes and the Hymases of our world not only exists but is a viable option worthy of pursuit for would-be green parents.

I have to believe that we ought not throw out future environmentalists with the absolutist bathwater.

I have to believe that children are far more than carbon footprint units to be discarded before conception.

I have to believe that greens must strive to form an all-inclusive tent where members of all stripes—be they a weekend recycler or a Sea Shepherd agitant—can guiltlessly raise eco-minded kids, even if said upbringing nearly isn't as beneficial to the air we all breathe as the extreme position of not having children at all.

I have to believe that while GINK-ism would be a bridge to a sustainable future, it would also, strung out to its logical extreme, be a gangplank to a person-less Earth—for surely the endgame of battling climate change can't be a livable planet with no people to live on it, right?

I have to believe that parents will be more inclined to take a vested interest in saving the planet for the very reason that their children are living on it. Aren't you more likely to buy locally, ride your bike to work, or maybe even attend an anti-fracking rally if doing so would preserve the planet that your own kids inhabit, as opposed to the planet merely inhabited by everyone else's kids?

Before I go any further, Hymas deserves a lot of credit—not only for stepping out onto front street to publically champion a movement she believes in deeply, but for advocating for better sex ed in schools and for realizing that her opinion is clearly not for everyone. In a 2011 post on The Guardian, she wrote: "Most people won't make the same decision, of course, and I don't fault them for that. Everyone has different circumstances and values, and environmental issues are not the only ones worth considering. I believe in choice, and that means supporting choices different from mine."

Ultimately, the biggest reason I don't support GINKsters is that (based on an unscientific office poll) their brand of eco-procreation isn't practical and replicable on the mass level. We can tell people all the live-long day not to drive cars, but that's not going to stop millions from keying the ignition tomorrow morning. What's been achieved, albeit gradually, are fleets of progressively greener cars and a series of tougher fuel standards.

While GINKism is perhaps the most effective individual choice, it fails as a method for inspiring others to follow precisely because it's so extreme.

When and if my wife and I are lucky to become parents, we will instill in our kids the green practices important to us. Recycling. Driving less. Eating less red meat. No bottled water. No long showers. By then, maybe I'll even get around to composting.

This won't be an impeccable green life for our children, not by any stretch of measurable data. But it'll have to do, because if I'm honest with you now, I admit that my desire to be a father is inextricably tied to my desire to save my planet: I want a better Earth to leave for my children and children's children. If that flavor of honesty gets my pass to the eco–tree house revoked for the rest of the summer, well, so be it.