As the world burns, is it justified to be having children amidst the climate crisis?
50 years ago, the world population stood at 3.5 billion people. In 2019, that figure has more than doubled to 7.53 billion. A human-induced climate emergency is now evident all around us and 2019 has given renewed vigour to the global movement of environmental activism. Reducing or removing meat in your diet, cycling instead of driving, reducing plastic waste, all touted as “doing your bit" to help. But have you ever considered not having children to save our dying planet?
A few months ago, I attended an environmental film screening. I heard gasps from shocked parents, peers, and pensioners as they saw how many coal plants were opening in India to sate their growing appetite for power generation. “How could they be so irresponsible?!”, (to paraphrase the consensus in the discussion afterwards, with little acknowledgement of the irony of the west having benefited from burning coal for hundreds of years). After a lengthy discussion session, I suggested people seriously consider not having children. The gasps were louder than before. I had managed to stun the room into silence at the very thought of considering not producing offspring for environmental reasons. And therein lies the problem.
We must first ask, why do people want children? The reasons are complex and certainly unique to every person, but we can attempt to address a few obvious points here. In patriarchal culture, having kids is very much seen as a status symbol, of the next natural step in having a “normal” life, whatever that is. As we grow older, time plays its part too. What do we leave behind if not another human to take our place? Pressure from extended family to continue this lineage or name far into the future can weigh on a person. I will be the last of my extended family to carry our surname which has a long and interesting history, but is a name reason enough to go against my wishes and that of the planet?
David Attenborough has long said overpopulation is one of the greatest threats to our planet and a strong driver of our changing climate. In an interview for Newsnight in 2018, he is quoted as saying: “In the long run, population growth has to come to an end. There are some reasons for thinking that will happen almost inevitably. But it is very alarming at the rate we’re going, and although people will say, ‘In the long run, we are going to stabilise’, they’re going to stabilise - as far as I can see - at a rather higher level than the Earth can really accommodate.” While Attenborough was criticised for not addressing the underlying causes of overpopulation, such as lack of access to contraception and poor sexual health education, his point remains a fundamental question in how we address the climate catastrophe.
Of course, we can’t avoid the underlying fact all animals procreate to facilitate the continuation of their species. But are our legacies more important than that of other species on this planet? What real right do we, as fellow animalia, have over the rest to continue the growth of our species in a finite space with limited resources? If the argument is that we humans are somehow “special” then surely the greatest responsibility and sacrifices lie with the most privileged species, consistent with the idea that the wealthiest in our species have the greatest responsibility for tackling this planetary emergency.
Is it time countries followed China’s lead to legislate a limit to the number of children people can have? The answer is obviously no; enforcement is not an option. It is a dangerous precedent to set. It’s a slippery slope that opens the door for discrimination of peoples and the serious erosion of worldwide human rights. Furthermore, population reduction, whether enforced or otherwise, can have all sorts of unwanted effects, from unbalanced sex ratios to older generations struggling to support themselves alone. However, these unwanted effects can be dealt with on timescales that our species can adapt to and overcome, meanwhile the Earth is burning and other species are going extinct on timescales that cannot live alongside our insatiable appetite to expand.
I believe that the only way to reduce overpopulation is through education, empowerment, and discussion. All too often we in the wealthier nations believe the change needs to come from developing countries, particularly when it comes to overpopulation. Indeed, access to better family planning education, contraception, and fair academic education in developing countries will be hugely beneficial in tackling the climate crisis. This action alone would reduce emissions by 2050 more than onshore and offshore wind power combined, according to Population Matters - a UK-based charity working globally to achieve a sustainable future for people and planet. But we cannot avoid the previous points relating privilege, wealth, and emissions. The Population Matters website says, “Because individuals in the developed world have the greatest impact each, people choosing to have smaller families in the richest parts of the world will have the greatest and most immediate positive effect. Furthermore, reduced emissions as a result of fewer people being born in richer countries allows more economic development in poorer countries without adding to total emissions.”
As wealth breeds wealth, it appears privilege breeds privilege as we see the power we all have as individuals in the developed world to make a difference. I do not expect or ask that everyone stops having kids. However, it is time for we in positions of privilege, who care about the environment, to at least consider if having children is the best thing for our fragile planet. After all, even raising the most sustainable child will still create more emissions than a greener, child-free legacy.
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