Go green: stop breeding

baby and globeCOSMOS Magazine reports that the world’s wealthiest nations are experiencing something of a baby boom, standing in stark contrast to the general decline of birthrate in recent decades. In many respects this can be seen as a good thing, at least from an economic perspective; the “greying” of the population has produced a situation where the number of elderly people unable to work and in need of care and support has grown without a proportional increase in the numbers of young productive people able to keep the economy ticking over. [image by geraintwm]

But that classical economic viewpoint fails to consider other important factors, like the environmental impact of an increase in the number of children in developed nations. In a nutshell, large families are not environmentally sustainable in a country like Britain, where family planning researchers have begun to suggest that the best way for a young couple to “go green” is to restrict the number of children they have. Population is a global matter, certainly, but it’s estimated that a British baby will produce 160 times the greenhouse gas emissions of a baby born in Ethiopia. Or, to put it another way, each child born in the United States multiplies its parents’ carbon legacy by more than five times.

Statistics are all very well, but as any discussion of environmental responsibility shows, we struggle with making sacrifices for a nebulous and intangible greater global good – and personal experience suggests strongly that there are a sizeable number of people who get very offended by suggestions that they should restrict the number of children they choose to have. So, the two big questions are: should developed nations be instigating some sort of population control policy (while simultaneously assisting less developed nations with the education and medical support required to foster similar attitudes), and – if so – how should they incentivize such a controversial and personal decision?

12 thoughts on “Go green: stop breeding”

  1. Any heavy-handed effort to control population will probably work about as well as, say, alcohol prohibition. But there are already too many people on this planet and we do need to come up with ways to encourage people to have fewer children. One thing we can do is stop this “greying of the population” hand wringing. There are plenty of other countries where the population under 25 is expanding exponentially. Education and immigration programs aimed at those people can provide the younger workforce the greying countries need. Yep, it will change the country. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, but then I live in the US where — despite our various insanities — we really do have room for more diversity of cultures than most.

    Right now we have a worldwide society that puts major value on having children; those who don’t are considered incomplete. Social and tax rewards for those who don’t have children are one way we can change things.

    And, no, I don’t have any children. The world has more than doubled in population since I was born without any help from me.

  2. Like it or not, the future will belong to the children of those who actually have children. Specifically, if well-intended altruists choose not to have children, then the future will be filled by the children of someone else. Or, if you prefer, as ye sow, so shall ye reap. Likewise, history documents some groups of people who, for certain religious reasons, chose to make not having children into a central tenet of their faiths. Most of them are gone now. Why? Because they simply got old, died, and had no children to carry on their beliefs. Personally, I wouldn’t expect to see much good arise from Western Civilization choosing to commit cultural suicide, thus leaving the world entirely in the hands of those who prefer to breed as much as they can.

  3. I think I’d characterize the reaction of most people to the idea that
    a human government should have the power to determine who’s permitted to
    have families and who isn’t, or the maximum size of any given family,
    a little more strongly than “offense”.

    We’ve seen what happens with governments who try to forcibly control
    their populations, in China. Coerced abortions, black market corruption
    and the grossest violations of human rights imaginable (both in actually
    enforcing the policy and in the totalitarian state required even to enact
    it), and for all its terrible cost a basic failure anyway.

    So yes, provide medical aid and education to developing nations, as best
    you can — but don’t even think about trying to enact a population
    control policy here in the West. It could never be enforced and would
    only lead to worse atrocities than the supposed catastrophes it’s meant
    to prevent.

  4. I dont have any, period.

    Having said that, a political party which puts force on the table when restricting population growth and puts a bag of money next to it for making sure some of these lemming countries stop breeding (a sterilization/vasectomy fund?) makes an excellent chance of getting my vote.

    I am 100% democratic in this – but I can clearly see the smoke on the horizon of a future that can no longer afford democracy in this, and will have to resort to merciless fascism just to keep people alive.

    I Do Not Want To Live In Such A World.

  5. It always makes me nervous when someone says that if “people like us” don’t reproduce, the world will be overrun by the unwashed masses. Of course, if we continue to have a world in which the few use massive resources — as pointed out in the original post — and the many get nothing, we’re going to have nasty conflicts based on that core injustice, and what civilization we’ve achieved so far could come crashing down.

    One of the best ways to reduce population growth is to educate women. Nothing coercive about that. Plus, if we start thinking of all the children born on this planet as our future — and not just our own individual children — and provide them with education and other resources, we can end up with a better civilization. Of course, it might not be run by the same people who run it now …

  6. Uhm, and I guess this is directed primarily at Nancy, but have you stopped to consider the full ramifications of what you are proposing?
    Namely, that by preventing people in developed countries from having children and importing the people needed to actually run that society (laborers, wage earners, etc), you are in effect proposing the ethnic cleansing of those countries in favor of ones you don’t impose the same breeding caps on? What about those communities, like the Jews or the Roma or the Latvians or the North American Indians or the Japanese and so on, who don’t have a significant presense outside of developed nations? Do you mean to wipe them out in the name of environmental sustainability? How about the increased carbon footprint of those people moving from low-consumption countries to richer and more prosperous ones? To what length do you intend to go to enforce these sort of policies? Mandatory sterilizations? Child licenses that must be produced on demand? Euthanasia of unauthorized children? Where does it end?

    Look, radical measures are one thing, but why don’t you guys go ahead and leave fascism in the dustbin of history where it belongs?

  7. Excuse me, but it occurs to me after I had previously posted that Ms. Moore had elaborated on her earlier statement, and I suqsequently felt the need to follow her example. Education is an admirable thing, and working towards a just and equitable future that can be sustained without destroying the natural capital onw hich it is based is an eminently reasonable goal we should all work towards. But let us do so in a manner that acknowledges that the primary purpose of any civilization is to propagate itself from one generation to the next, and that a culture that doesn’t make that a priority is one without a future.
    I would like to apologize in advance if I in any way put words in your mouth or otherwise attributed opnions to you which you did not hold.

  8. Thanks for qualifying your first comment, Jordan; it’s a bit of a leap from recommending the education of women in developing nations to wholeheartedly cheering the eradication of the people who live in them, though I see the point you’re trying to make. Also:

    … the primary purpose of any civilization is to propagate itself from one generation to the next, and that a culture that doesn’t make that a priority is one without a future.

    Now, I agree that historically that’s a completely valid statement. But for the sake of speculative argument, need it always remain so? Rapid advances in medicine and longevity mean that the average human lifespan could well double within a century (provided we avoid annihilating the biosphere that currently supports us); is it not plausible that a species at our stage of development might actually benefit from aiming for a static population rather than a perpetually growing one? Population growth was, I believe, a function of the transition from hunter/gatherer culture to sedentary agriculture, and thereafter a useful tool for geographical expansion and conquest; now we’re able to look rationally at the economics and logistics of supporting populations effectively without impacting unnecessarily on the environment in which they live, wouldn’t it actually make more sense to limit population growth to manageable levels? After all, there’s nowhere left to conquer, really… at least until we make it off-planet, perhaps. 🙂

  9. Yes, I’m terribly sorry about that, I was projecting an argument I had been having in RL into a related thread on this site. Now, keep in mind that when I say propagate itself I do not necessarily mean, “Be fruitful and multiply until you have consumed every available resource and stand shoulder to shoulder with each other on every spare scrap of land.” I would actually be inclined to point out that far from being a hypothetical aspect of some future stage of human development, a reasonably steady state population represents the historical norm for both humans and every other species on the planet. I will admit that my training in basic ecology is a little rusty, but by and large graphs representing the change in population over time that look like hockey sticks tend to represent short-lived developments that usually end badly. A population of reindeer on some island in the Bering Strait seems to come to mind
    Getting back on subject, I would just like to remind people when they advocate achieving a relatively static population that the target number is about 2.2 children per lifetime, not zero.

  10. Just to clarify: I’m absolutely opposed to laws restricting childbirth. I can understand why China wanted a one-child policy, and even why it makes sense, but I still condemn the policy (and note the negative ramifications, like a skewed population of men relative to women). I’m strongly pro-choice: No woman should be forced to bear a child and no woman should be stopped from bearing a child. I may think some women are making stupid choices, but it’s their choice to make.

    But I still think a world in which most of the population doesn’t have an opportunity for decent food, shelter, education, work, and health care is an overpopulated world. I’d like to see the population drop until we find a balance that gives everyone a decent life. And I’d also like to make sure we maintain at least some of the wilderness we have left.

    Let me emphasize that the issue that really disturbs me is the idea that “the right” people should have more children to offset the population surge of the unwashed masses. I hear this frequently with respect to Japan and several countries in Europe. In the US, it’s sometimes raised by liberal, secular types (and I’m both liberal and secular) who fear the growth in the right wing religious right. It’s also raised by people on the right who are worried about immigration into the US from Latin America. Whatever your political pov, I don’t think trying to outbreed other people is a solution to anything.

  11. I think that if the government were to offer a monetary reward for being sterilized, along with funding the sterilization, and stop basing welfare payments on number of children birthed (also remove tax incentives to have children) that this would make a pretty significant difference. No violent coercion or forbidding involved, just a reincentivizing away from breeding.

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