Should You Feel Guilty For Having Children?
Having children might be one of the worst things you can do for the environment.
For the past year and a half, I’ve had the pleasure of being the proud custodian of a beautiful, dynamic, and perpetually curious young human.
And I feel pretty rotten about it.
Humans are causing climate change. In fact, a single human, living in a western-style developed country like me, contributes somewhere on the order of 20 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year. On average.
Adding another human means more CO2 emissions.
So instead of a bundle of joy, my child might be no less than a toddling ecological disaster.
So by having a child, am I contributing to the further destruction of the planet?
The answer is yeah. Kinda.
A study out of Lund University calculated the most effective lifestyle changes one could make to lower their carbon footprint. They identified four changes with the most impact: getting rid of your car, getting rid of meat in your diet, avoiding air travel, and having one less child.
Of those, having less children was by far the most effective.
Having one less child prevented upwards of 58.6 tonnes of CO2 from going into the atmosphere. The next most effective behavioral change was living car-free and that only saved a little over 2 tonnes of CO2 per year. About 24 times less than not having a baby.
But like I said, the average American emits about 20 tonnes of CO2 a year. Why would having a baby contribute nearly three times the greenhouse gasses?
To arrive at the 58.6 tonnes figure, the Lund study takes into account not only the life of the child but the carbon footprint of the child’s theoretical descendants. In this way, CO2 emissions can be thought of as hereditary. Because you’re not just introducing a single person, you’re potentially introducing an entire lineage of human beings, each with their very own carbon footprint. So if we’re thinking about my contribution to CO2 emissions, I am responsible for half of my child’s chromosomes, so we can say I’m responsible for half of her existence. Therefore I am to blame for half of her carbon emissions. But if she has any kids, a quarter of my genes will be used in the construction of those grandchildren. Thus, a quarter of their carbon emissions will be my fault. This hereditary carbon footprint continues down the line, decreasing exponentially but never quite disappearing, until my branch of human beings comes to an end.
So you can see how the CO2 can quickly start to add up.
This method of multiplying our carbon footprint into the future helps give a more complete and comprehensive picture of the actual impact of introducing another human on the planet.
Conversely, reducing the amount of children you have, eliminates any potential descendants and their associated CO2 baggage. And if they don’t exist, I can’t be blamed for their future carbon emissions.
I know this sounds wacky, maybe even completely bonkers. Should we feel guilty about people who don’t even exist yet?
But it’s not so different than eating a hamburger.
To eat a hamburger, we must make ground beef. The process of acquiring and grinding up all that beef, the industry that makes it possible, emits a whole lot of greenhouse gases. I’m the kind of person who wants to believe that my individual actions can have an impact and lead to positive change. So if I buy a hamburger, I am giving the hamburger store money to buy more ground beef from the beef salesman. My money filters up a chain of distributors, trucking companies, processing plants, and feedlots — eventually funding some fraction of the entire meat industry, allowing them to continue to emit massive amounts of greenhouse gasses.
Even though the consumption of a hamburger doesn’t release any greenhouse gasses in and of itself, I understand that the act of buying a hamburger enables the release of CO2 in the abstract.
It’s the same way with having a child — except instead of money, I’m paying with my genes.
So if I accept that, I must also accept that having a child makes me responsible for some portion of their greenhouse gas emissions and the greenhouse gas emissions of all of my descendants, far into the future.
And the future is what we’re really worried about.
To prevent global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius and avoid some of the dire outcomes of global warming, we have to reduce everyone’s carbon footprint to 2.1 tonnes per year by 2050.
So that means we have to slash our 20 ton American carbon footprint tenfold. Having more children only makes that harder.
So is the answer no more children? Should the human race stop reproducing?
No, of course not. Just Americans.
But seriously . . .
The Lund University study specifically says “having one fewer child.” Not eliminating all children.
In fact, children might be the key to solving the climate crisis.
I grew up in a world where certain behaviors were allowed and encouraged. Eating meat and driving a car were synonymous with being a true red-blooded American. This sort of cultural conditioning makes it difficult for people of my generation to adopt new, more environmentally-friendly behaviors. To some extent, we’ve become set in our ways.
But children are essentially blank slates. Their behaviors are still in flux. They can be taught to be better. It is easier for them to adopt new and novel behaviors that help the environment than it is for old people like me who have been raised and are accustomed to a high carbon lifestyle. The Lund study calls children “catalytic individuals.” They have the potential to be catalysts of change.
Not to say I can’t change my behaviors for the better. I’m not a robot. I have self-determination. I do the best I can and that is better than nothing.
But in some ways, it is too late for me. Too late for my generation. But not for my daughter. And as long as their are children, that means it’s not too late for the planet.
Just as long as there aren’t too many of them.
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