I’m pregnant with an eco-disaster.
My belly is currently growing larger with not my first, not my second, but my third child. My husband and I have already produced enough offspring to sufficiently replace each of us, making the decision to have one more seem, in this day and age, almost self-indulgent and excessive.
I am bringing into the world a demand for an additional 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions to be produced each year – assuming this child is like most other Americans. We’ve chosen to create another life, which means more than just additional sleepless nights for us. There will be consequences which ripple from the glaciers in Antarctica to the shores of Pacific islands.
As excited as we are for our third child, I cannot go more than a few days without being reminded by the media that the best way to fight climate change would be – or would’ve been – to have fewer children. Having one less child than I do, or choosing to have none at all, would have reduced my carbon footprint by 58 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to the authors of one recent study published in Environmental Research Letters. Researchers argue this move far outstrips every other green practice, be it buying a hybrid car, eating a plant-based diet, or purchasing green energy.
This concern about population size is warranted. The planet is expected to house over nine billion people by 2050, tripling the world population from a century earlier. This explosive growth has taxed the earth’s resources like never before, and coupled with our fossil fuel reliant energy systems, has jeopardized the stability of our earth’s climate. People living in the developed world, like me and my children, are responsible for a much larger share of carbon emissions than those in the developing.
But taking a family-planning approach to climate change is a distraction, one I worry could lead us further away from solving the crisis.
Despite the emerging warnings about the consequences of reproduction, most Americans – 95 percent – want children, only one percent less than did in 1990, according to survey data. Americans describe their ideal family size as 2.6 children, the same size it has been for the last 40 years. And when families are done having children, they primarily cite financial reasons – the economy or the cost of raising a child – not environmental ones.
On the whole, couples will tend to have the family size they want, or at least the one they can afford, without regard to the environmental impact. The decision to have children remains too deep, too intimate to invite climate scientists into the bedroom.
So what do warnings about the environmental consequences of reproducing and recommendations to have fewer children accomplish?
While each of my three pregnancies seems to last a lifetime, I have spent most of my life not having children. Living in the developed world, I have found that not having children is relatively easy – a quick trip to the doctor’s office and a small pill have guaranteed that I am pregnant with my third, not my seventh, child.
By contrast, going vegan, buying a hybrid car, building a composting toilet, or recycling rainwater would’ve been considerably more difficult endeavors. Less subjective ones, as well. I could easily tell friends we had planned on having four children, but decided to stop at three because of the environmental consequences, when the truth was we made that decision upon realizing how much work children are.
Despite recent attention to reducing fertility rates, the number of births in the United States has generally been below the replacement rate since 1971. Nevertheless, our impact on the environment has grown. Recommendations that tell young adults that the best thing they can do is exactly what they are already doing provide a false sense of accomplishment when no substantial changes have been made. Instead, they risk perpetuating an unsustainable status quo.
Having one less child than we might have otherwise will not solve the pressing need for widespread reduction in our per capita carbon emissions. The carbon footprint of an individual should not be ignored, but the choices any individual person or family makes will have little impact on global average temperatures.
With the United States withdrawing from the Paris Accord, the most pressing action for adults to take is not reduce the number of the children they have, but rather to lobby their elected officials to take seriously the threat of climate change and to pursue policies that will reduce our country’s carbon emissions. The best way to reduce a carbon footprint is not accomplished at the individual level, but at the societal level. One family recycling, composting, or foregoing one more child will not have the same impact as comprehensive policy changes.
Children are the reason we must act to stem the impact of climate change. If we devalue them, we risk devaluing what we are fighting for. If I am forced to choose between my air conditioning and my children, I would gladly give up any semblance of human comfort for their protection. Choosing between fossil fuels reliance and future generations should be equally as easy.
With great fecundity – or even mildly above average fecundity – comes great responsibility. My husband and I chose to bring an additional life (who brings with him or her additional consequences) into this world. I have no illusion that the life of my unborn child is justified by the possibility that she might be the one who grows up to “solve” climate change for humanity. I do not believe my child’s life needs to be justified. But each of my children do serve as a constant reminder that my duty to preserve and protect our planet’s future, and in doing so to create a better world for all children, is greater still.