The Ethics of Child-bearing for the Environmentalist

“Where’s your engagement ring?! Where are my grandbabies?!”

“Oh, don’t hold the baby, you’ll catch the fever!”

“It’s like I’m preparing you for when you’re a mom!”

Quotes from women older than me, directed towards me, about future me. My response usually includes some light laughter and a quiet,  “Not yet.”

I haven’t thought much about having children outside of lectures about childbirth and human development. I know that midwifery is an evolved necessity due to our bipedalism changing the shape our hips and the birth canal. I know that human babies are born underdeveloped, with GI tracts and immune systems that need more time before functioning, all to accommodate our larger brains. Jaundice might be an evolutionary adaptation and scheduled feedings several hours apart are not beneficial for breastfeeding mothers or children. From an evolutionary perspective, our most primitive and basic goal is to reproduce to pass on our good genes to the next generation.

With the development of culture, agriculture, and industrialism, humans have surpassed these primitive goals. Now, we have so many individuals in our species that there are, surely, tons of “good genes” being passed on. An estimate from August 2016 of the human population suggests 7.4 billion people are currently alive all over the earth. Estimates from the United Nations suggest that this will increase to 11.2 billion individuals by 2100. Overpopulation is a real issue in many places globally; the most well-known solution to this came from China, with the one-child family planning policy. We do not have the room or the resources for more people. And yet, we keep reproducing, because that is what we do. But, another factor that is often ignored comes into play for modern populations when considering reproduction: environmental repercussions.

These repercussions have been documented in a number of ecosystems all over the earth—anthropogenic impacts have increased the rate of extinction by 1,000 times the pre-human rate globally, caused climate change, and permanently changed the landscape of the planet. Humans have drastically reduced the habitats of many forms of life. We are killing the coral reef; we fragment forests and leave orangutans stranded (an issue because they live solitary lives and only interact with the opposite sex to copulate); we are killing the bees; we leave massive carbon footprints simply by existing in this modern age. Americans consume the most out of any other country. The average American emits almost 20 tons of carbon, compared to 4.6 tons from the average Chinese citizen. As an American, it’s ignorant to not consider the environment when deciding whether to have children.

A 2009 study completed at Oregon State University analyzed the carbon legacy of individuals when choosing to have children. It found that by choosing to reproduce, women add 9,441 metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere for each child. To put this in perspective: the most environmentally conscientious, Prius-driving, recycling woman would only reduce her emissions by 486 metric tons of CO2 in her lifetime. Having two children adds over 18,000 metric tons of carbon. Now, this isn’t to say that environmentally-driven lifestyle changes are futile—quite the contrary, actually, as these lifestyle changes work to lower emissions in the present time and to offset the drastic changes soon to come. But, this does provide food for thought. Is it worth it to have a child in 2016? How do you reconcile these conflicting interests as an environmentalist?

When engaging with the public on environmental issues, the children and grandchildren are always brought into the picture: “We need to create a better world for our grandchildren!” or “What world are we leaving for our grandchildren?” Really, just something along those lines, to add gravity to the reality of climate change. And yet, we are getting pregnant and raising our offspring in a world that will be drastically different if we don’t change our ways. How can we talk about the consequences of our lack of action for our grandchildren without considering whether or not there should be grandchildren?

Many millennials are opting to not have children. Some denounce the innate selfishness of reproduction; why create a mini-me just because I was told that this is the next logical step of life? Others cite overpopulation and choose to adopt instead. Still, others consider the environmental impacts and, again, decide to refrain. But, is it morally acceptable for me to have children, knowing full well the major climate change expected to occur in the coming years? I don’t think so. How can I be a loving and supportive mother if I know that the world my children will live in may not be habitable? Can I be a loving and supportive mother if I marry a green lifestyle with my own parenting skills?

While having a child isn’t obviously eco-friendly, it could be. What if that child grows up in a green household and develops a passion for protecting the earth? Teaching children more sustainable skills, like composting, gardening, and thoughtful consumerism can ensure the continuance of the environmental movement. Is it more effective to raise a new generation of eco-friendly fighters, or to take it upon myself to stop my descendants from polluting the planet?

This issue is complex and deserves to be mulled over thoughtfully. It is my own decision whether or not I personally would like to have children, but do I have the right to deny my spouse children if they choose to want them? How do male environmental activists consider this issue and where do we draw the line? Reproduction is not just a woman’s issue, but a global one.

I am still undecided on whether or not I would like to have children, and that’s okay. I have many years to live before that decision becomes relevant; I can ride out the next couple of years and see how the environmental movement progresses. Yet the food for thought remains: as environmentalists, how do we tackle reproduction when humans are the enemy?

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