Preliminary Ramblings on Population and the Environment
The past week Canada’s national newsweekly, Maclean’s, ran an article about the voluntarily childless. Later that same week, the University of Oregon produced a study on the negative impact that having children has on the environment. Conservative groups are firing back with their documentaries, Demographic Winter and Demographic Bomb. I also happened to come across Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s interesting piece that, among other things, indicates the trouble with an aging population.
With all this circling my head, a few questions have emerged. I am not an expert on the environment, nor in demographics, and I have not worked on this long enough to make any iron-clad claims. I am, nevertheless, concerned with the presumptions behind the arguments of the would-be population limiters.
The basic claim of the Oregon study is that having a child vastly outweighs any tiny impact one’s environmentally-friendly habits (driving a hybrid, recycling, using energy-efficient bulbs and appliances) might have. I have not read the study, but the media coverage I have seen is suggesting that anyone having more than two children is being extremely selfish and causing untold harm. My first question is, “Why two?” Shouldn’t we encourage families to have one or zero?
Two seems rather arbitrary. It’s not like the third child is the one causing all the environmental damage. In fact, it seems to me that the biggest problem lies with having the first. Having Toby drastically changed my way of life. The sheer amount of things I needed made me much more sympathetic to the historical Catholic link between poverty and chastity. Having Oscar barely cost us a thing. Large families are vastly more efficient in their use of resources than smaller ones.
Now, part of the Oregon study’s conclusions are based on the environmental impact that the children of our children will have. Including this in the calculations ensures truly astronomical savings from not having a given child to start with. I am curious, though: “Why is the impact of having children who will presumably have children not simply infinite?” Where do they stop calculating? If I am to count the carbon footprint of all my potential descendants when weighing the environmental cost of having one child, surely I shouldn’t have any children.
The two-child suggestion in the media seems a mere concession to human sentimentality rather than a rational conclusion from the data. What’s more, it seems at least possible that, should this logic come to be politically in vogue, such a concession will quickly disappear. The real response to such a study is not that we should limit our families, but that we simply shouldn’t have them. (Of course, all of this presumes that humans are simply consumers and not producers. God forbid my kid grows up to be an engineer who builds public transit systems. Or an environmental scientist at the University of Oregon.)
The study notes, apparently, that it is we North Americans who are really the problem. Our children will leave roughly 7 times the carbon footprint of a child born in China. (One wonders about the child born in Sierra Leone.) So, while the rest of the world can breed with minimal impact, we need to stop. This opens up a whole new arena of questions.
I live in Canada where it is clear that we will support our economy and our social security by means of immigration. We don’t have enough babies to sustain the companies that want to sell us things, nor to pay for the retirements of the generations that came before us. We need to import the one resource that makes the economy work: people. (And we’re only taking the best and brightest, so the third world is going to have to do with a touch fewer doctors, engineers, and entrepreneurs.) But if we’re bringing in the kids born in China and Sierra Leone, don’t they start having the same environmental impact as the rest of us? Our economies demand people, whether they’re born here or not, and once they live here, they’re going to burn as much carbon as we do.
What seems entirely lacking is the recognition that the system is broken. The answer to using 7 times as many resources is to have 1/7 the children. We are told that all our recycling won’t get us anywhere near where we need to be in order to be sustainable. Surely that is true on an individual level. It is impossible for a North American to live on fewer resources than an African, but is that inevitable? Are there really no systematic changes we could make to cut down our resource consumption in a meaningful way? Are hybrids and blue bins the best we can do?
My brother is an architect. He says that we know with some certainty how to design cities so as to drastically cut down resource consumption but that it is politically impossible to do so. Developers who make more money from strip malls and suburbia than from efficient city living quickly dismantle any project that would work.
How does the average North American live? In a (relatively) huge house in suburbia with one or two children. We all have (relatively) huge yards that take literally tonnes of water and fertilizer and herbicide so that they can sit empty for at least 95% of the time. We spend hours a day burning fossil fuel in traffic because we all have cars and we all live a long way from where we work. Is this really inevitable?
I live in an apartment in downtown Toronto. I share a couple of on-site parks with the hundreds of other families that occupy student family housing. I don’t have a car. If I need one, I can rent it or join a car-sharing co-operative like zipcar. Many of the families in our building that do have a vehicle only use it when they go out of town. I share three walls, a ceiling and a floor with neighbours, so my heating and cooling costs are radically lower than those of a free-standing home. My sewage, garbage collection – yes, even my recycling – are looked after with a fraction of the resources that it would take in suburbia. I walk to school. My wife walks or takes public transit to work. My kids go to daycare in our building. I don’t have a lawn to water, but I have many potential green spaces to frequent. In short, if some suburbanite chastises me for having too many kids because of the environmental cost, he hasn’t a leg to stand on.
Nevertheless, it seems quite likely that I will one day be a suburbanite. I will have to move to where I can find work when I am done my doctorate, and chances of finding affordable housing that will hold my growing family (even if we have no more children, the lads are getting bigger) and function at the level of efficiency I currently enjoy are slim to none. This inevitability is one of those things taken for granted by the authors of the Oregon study. They presume that North Americans must continue to live the way they live now. (Of course I recognize that a scientific study that presumes no constants can never really conclude anything. Still, such a presumption could be acknowledged, even challenged, in the study’s conclusions.) It seems to them that convincing us to have fewer children is much easier than convincing us to organize our society more efficiently. I wonder if they even considered it as an alternative.
Perhaps the craziest part of it all is that, while we fight global warming, we are simultaneously trying to fight third-world poverty. And how do we do that? By exporting our economic model that has made this way of life a virtual necessity.
What we should be doing is building communities where families can live at peak efficiency, where people can walk to work and take advantage of public amenities, where the choice isn’t between a gas guzzler and a hybrid, but between transit, renting, and a car co-op.
What we’re doing instead is selling gas guzzlers and pre-packaged food and our whole throw-away lifestyle to the third world. They can have kids, for now. We need them to emigrate and pay for our retirements. But once their lifestyles have become as inefficient as ours, they’ll have to stop. We can always sell them the pill, right?
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one. He is the co-author of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.