The topic of this blog piece is probably the most controversial I have covered so far. It is a topic which frequently upsets and angers people when brought up, but which is nonetheless important to discuss. In fact, its taboo nature means its discussion is even more important.
In this blog, various strategies have been considered for reducing one’s climatic impact on the planet, such as flying less, going zero waste, buying responsibly sourced coffee and avoiding products involving plastic. Along with using electric cars rather than petrol fuelled ones and washing your clothes on 20°C, these can have the effect of reducing your carbon footprint and are certainly worth considering. However even all of these taken together do not even come close to the combined effect of.. having fewer children.
How many is too many?
There can be no dismissal of the fact that many of the problems faced in the world today simply would not exist if the global population was significantly smaller.
Consider a world where, instead of there being a growing human population of 7.6 billion, there was a stable population of only a few million. Ancient ecosystems such as those found in the Amazon and in Borneo would remain largely untouched by the deforestation that has ravaged those parts of the world in recent years. There would be far fewer complaints of overpopulation and fewer extreme migration fluxes. The overarching problem of climate change simply would not exist.
A number of influential scientists, such as James Lovelock and British national treasure Sir David Attenborough, back the Population Matters movement, which speaks out that reducing world population is the first step to be made in order to tackle climate change and a myriad of other global and regional problems. Attenborough is the patron of Population Matters and is quoted on populationmatters.org as saying
“All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.”
Humanity has long since passed the point where a situation such as the one described above could be reality. However, any call for a direct return to such a scenario would involve (at best) mass coercion or (at worst) genocide. Such solutions would be regarded by most as unethical in the extreme. As is clear from China’s largely failed ‘one child policy’, a strategy for population reduction which involves forcing citizens to act in a particular, arguably extreme, way is in addition impractical and bound to cause upset and pain.
One might argue that the central problem underlying the climate change catastrophe is population, referring to graphs such as shown opposite. That is, population is the major driver of climate change, with other aspects being insignificant. This position claims that humanity’s seemingly insatiable thirst for fossil fuels will not diminish until world population peaks and begins to decline. Proponents of this argument often point to the bloated populations of India and China as barriers to progress on tackling climate change.
On the face of it, this argument makes mathematical sense, because 21st century citizens generally have at least some carbon footprint and, the more people there are in the world, the more competition there will be over the natural resources available. However, there are a few caveats to be considered.
Firstly, the curves shown above do not necessarily exhibit causality between population growth and emission levels. Between 1920 and 1960 it is clear that population rose more than emissions, indicating that there many more technological, economical and cultural forces at play than these simple figures could ever show.
Secondly, these curves are averaged over the entire planet, smoothing out any localised effects. By considering regional differences in population growth and emissions, we realise that there are some rather significant variations. The diagram below, taken from the World Resources Institute, indicates the lack of proportionality between a region’s population and its GHG emissions. In the first two bars, consider the differences between the values for the EU and India, for instance. The latter pollutes less, despite having a much larger population.
Not everyone pollutes the same
India and China may be the most populous nations on earth, but they are by no means the fastest growing. Out of the top 20 fastest growing populations in 2018, all but Afghanistan are in either Africa or the Middle East. Most are by no means rich countries and many, such as Iraq, are recently war-torn. The emissions of people in these countries are unlikely to be anywhere near as significant as those of the average European or American.
In his essay ‘The Population Myth’, George Monbiot says
“One-sixth of the world’s population is so poor that it produces no significant emissions at all. This is also the group whose [population] growth rate is likely to be the highest.”
Further, he states that
“Most of the growth [this century] will take place among those who consume almost nothing.”
This means that each child brought into the world will impact upon the climate in ways which are not just unequal, but which potentially vary by orders of magnitude. Richer nations are full of citizens who drive their own cars, eat imported foods and take holidays on aeroplanes. In general, more money means citizens living more carbon intensive lifestyles.
The potential future carbon footprint of the average newborn American or European may well be greater than the combined footprints of dozens of newborn Tanzanians.
The picture is similar regarding resource usage. As illustrated opposite, the resources required if the whole world lived like the average Australian would be almost eight times the case where the whole world acted as the average Indian.
Putting aside the whole side-topic about how more money does not always imply a happier life (far from it!), there are questions to be asked about quality of life. Most in the so-called ‘developed world’ would be unwilling to sacrifice their lifestyles and live as the average Tanzanian, much as many in the so-called ‘developing world’ would desire to have a better quality of life. However, there is certainly an argument to be made that, with a smaller global population, the average quality of life can be heightened.
It is important to note that reducing one’s carbon footprint does not necessarily mean reducing one’s quality of life. The chart below shows twelve lifestyle changes and the associated carbon footprint reduction for citizens in a variety of ‘developed’ countries. The data is taken from an excellent Swedish research paper.
Making small lifestyle choices such as changing to energy efficient lightbulbs, recycling and being greener in the way you wash clothes do make a change. However there are far more impactful lifestyle changes to be made, notably having a plant based diet, living car free or avoiding flying. The impact of these actions depends on the country in which you live and the kind of life you lead, of course. For example, going car-free will be more impactful if you would otherwise travel a lot by road, perhaps due to neighbouring cities and towns being spread out. Similarly, becoming a vegan will have less of a positive effect if you live somewhere with few sources of local vegetables and end up eating exotic foods farmed on different continents.
Even after making the most impactful change of removing cars from your life, this will still only reduce your carbon footprint by a few tonnes, as opposed to the 58.6 (as a global average) resulting from having one fewer child than you had originally intended to have.
Voluntary human extinction
A previous blog piece discussed ideas from the recent book of polymathematical author Richard Powers, called The Overstory. In a Guardian interview following the book release, Emma John mentions that Powers has never wanted any children and quotes him as saying “it has been an issue with me in my life, relationships have broken off because of that”. However Powers also sees this as the best thing he has done for the world, with the concession that it is “a terrible thing to say, but I don’t mean it misanthropically – just pragmatically”.
In line with the perceived misanthropy Powers refers to, many find the idea of avoiding childbirth for some cause as ‘cold’. Parents tell how they would swap nothing in the world for their children, as is understandable. After all, it is unthinkable that someone might look one of their loved ones in the eyes and claim they wish that they had never existed. Not so much relating to one’s own existence, according to the darkly humoured Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. (Denoted VHEMT and pronounced ‘vehement’.)
Despite the wicked sense of humour, the movement makes some sensible arguments, related to those presented above, for example stating that
“the hopeful alternative to the extinction of millions of species of plants and animals is the voluntary extinction of one species: Homo sapiens… us.”
The movement has a distinctly positive attitude, in line with the theme of this blog, with quotes such as:
“True, wildlife rapidly going extinct and tens of thousands of children dying each day are not laughing matters, but neither laughing nor bemoaning will change what’s happening. We may as well have some fun as we work and play toward a better world.
Besides, returning Earth to its natural splendor and ending needless suffering of humanity are happy thoughts—no sense moping around in gloom and doom.”
There is increasing evidence to support the view that the oversized global human overpopulation lies at the heart of many ecological and humanitarian problems, such as referenced in the linked quote above. VHEMT proposes that a voluntary reduction of the population will work towards diminishing these issues. Each couple choosing to have fewer children reduces future overpopulation one little bit.
Working towards the cause of reducing the human population does not mean being childless. There are at least 153 million orphaned children on the planet who would greatly benefit from being raised as part of a loving family.
Leilani Münter is a racing driver who, alongside David Attenborough, is a patron of UK based Population Matters. In response to her views on population reduction by having fewer children, Jeremy Clarkson wrote a Times column which said words to the effect that this is environmentalism taken too far and that his children are “the point of [his] existence”. As is said in response in an article in the Guardian, this may be true in evolutionary terms but is in no means true of every person, be that in a rational or emotional sense. Emma Olif, a board member of Population Matters, puts it well by saying
“People have got very narrow-minded about what it means to be meaningful as a person. We have so much opportunity these days to do important things and be pregnant with more than children. We can be pregnant with ideas and dreams and revolution.”
That being said, if someone insists that their offspring are what give true meaning to their life then that is perfectly understandable and should be respected.
As well as Powers, another writer who has struggled with the opinion of not having children for environmental reasons is the excellent author, social activist and campaigner Naomi Klein. Klein’s early books, such as No Logo, were anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist and remarkably well-researched. In the past decade, she turned to address climate issues, with particular reference to the blockades to action on climate change built by capitalism. At the end of her equally well-researched and experience-driven 2014 book This Changes Everything, Klein explains how for many years she had resolved that having children was too environmentally selfish and was often perceived as ‘cold’ for thinking this. Despite this long-standing, strong opinion, she eventually decided that her desire to have a child of her own was just too great to ignore. However, she did commit to raising her son in the most environmentally responsible way possible.
It is perfectly, evolutionarily natural to wish to have a child of one’s own. And doing so is a right that no one on Earth should have the power to take away. However, in today’s world there are substantial environmental implications to be considered. At the very least, any potential parent should at least consider that they might have fewer children, or to adopt, or… testing out the hypothesis that there are other meanings-to-life than parenthood.
 How did we get into this mess? – George Monbiot.
 The Overstory – Richard Powers.
 This Changes Everything – Naomi Klein.
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