Even Conscientious People Have an Eco-footprint

As biological creatures, our raison d’être is to reproduce. Cultures worldwide reflect that purpose: Children are celebrated, and those who don’t have kids are pitied or distrusted. It’s time that changed.

We humans are an inordinately successful species – perhaps too successful. Our world population hit 7 billion on October 31, 2011. In my lifetime, 40 years, the population has nearly doubled. We are putting unprecedented demand on natural resources and are beginning to see their limits.

Some argue that this Malthusian idea has been overturned by human ingenuity. True, we have created innovations to accelerate the efficiency of production, thus expanding our growth capacity. But such progress can only go so far. There is no escaping basic biology: Our habitat has a carrying capacity. Resources are, ultimately, finite. When we go beyond that capacity, there are negative consequences. We can already see those consequences all around us: water shortages, topsoil loss, saline soil, pollution, degraded ecosystems, and of course, climate change.

Many animals stop breeding when they surpass their habitat’s carrying capacity or when they sense that conditions are not conducive to reproductive success, such as a monster drought. Environmental factors appear to be curbing human reproduction as well; there is growing evidence that the rise in human infertility is linked to chemical and air pollution. Still, our numbers are growing too fast, and the human population as a whole is showing few signs of course correction.

Others think the problem is not our sheer numbers but our consumption rates. As affluence grows, we consume more meat, more energy, more stuff. That is true. But there are also too many of us. Quality of life is suffering for us, for other creatures, for plants. The health of the natural systems upon which we depend is declining.

That decline is part of why I’ve decided not to have kids. I simply can’t in good conscience contribute to the rapid diminishment of our world. Also, given the degradation of natural resources and landscapes, children born today are likely to have a lesser quality of life than I am enjoying. I don’t want to condemn them to that.

A 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University, published in Global Environmental Change, highlighted the outsized environmental impact of having kids. It is not just the diapers, food, fuel, and other resources that a child will use in her lifetime, but the exponential power of population growth. “Under current conditions in the United States, for example, each child ultimately adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average female – which is 5.7 times her lifetime emissions,” the study’s authors wrote. Future growth amplifies reproductive choices, just as compound interest makes a savings account soar.

There is no getting around the math that a person who does not have a child has a lighter environmental footprint than one who does.

We have the intelligence to understand concepts like the future and exponential growth. The conclusion is obvious: Some of us should stop breeding. Surely the brain that has pushed the boundaries of resource supply and dramatically increased life expectancy, allowing our population to boom, is likewise capable of a little restraint as a balance.

What surprises me is how often I’m called upon to defend this decision. The mere topic of population control threatens the biological imperative and invokes strong emotional reactions in people. For example, when I wrote about this topic on Forbes.com, one reader told me I could solve the population problem by offing myself.

Well-meaning people tell me I’m missing out on a core life experience. And while I surely am, if that’s my choice, why are they fussed? One person told me I was selfish because I was “unwilling to share my life with a child.” But he could also look at it this way: My not having kids is an act of generosity that leaves more resources for his children.

Julie Zickefoose makes a compelling case for how important it is to raise kids with conservationist values. I agree, and I have no doubt that Julie’s kids are going to be excellent citizens of Planet Earth. But it’s worth remembering that kids have an uncanny ability to grow up to be their own people, who don’t necessarily live by your values or have the number of kids you’d prefer.

Also, you don’t need to have kids to have children in your life. I spend time outside with my nieces and nephews, hiking and looking at plants and animals. I talk to my friends’ kids about topics I cover as an environment reporter. When I was an elephant seal docent at Point Reyes National Seashore, I educated many kids about seal biology, introducing them to the beauty and excitement of critters.

The choice of whether to have kids is emotionally complex and intensely personal. Careful reasoning and logical arguments won’t “win” the debate. There will always be couples who have more than the replacement level of about two. Exhibit A is the Duggar family, whose extreme fecundity has been rewarded with a TV show. This is the wrong message: The exponential implications of one couple producing 19 kids are staggering, and to celebrate such choices is outdated.

To counteract that arithmetic, I challenge people who want to experience parenting and to provide a child with a loving home to consider adopting a kid already here on the planet rather than passing on their own genes. And I ask people and governments to recognize that my choice is helpful to the ongoing success of the human animal – and therefore valid. We need to shift our dialogue and incentives to reward smaller families, not larger ones.

I’m not having kids, and that’s OK – for me, for you, for the world.

For an opposing view, read what Julie Zickenfoose has to say…

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