Want to Really Go Green? Have Fewer Babies

I recently finished the fascinating, sad and encouraging The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Coincidentally, I also read a Slate article by Daniel Engber examining one of Weisman’s recommendations for saving the planet–the single-child policy:

Let’s cut the birth rate to one child per couple, for a few generations at least. The population would dwindle by about 5 billion people over the next century, he says, ensuring the habitability of the Earth for the 1.6 billion who remained. At that point, they could all reap the rewards of a more spacious planet, sharing in “the growing joy of watching the world daily become more wonderful.”

I tell you, the graph in the book is a pretty impressive bell curve, and nearly mirrors current population estimates of 9.2 billion Earthlings by 2050.

Weisman’s Dream

One of the things that gives me hope for humanity’s future is Japan’s aging population. If we somehow manage to survive the crush of another 3 or 4 billion humans, and continue to improve the lives of the average Asian and African, then eventually many countries on the planet might develop to the point where populations shrink instead of grow. Weisman’s dream of a population of a couple billion might not happen by 2150, but it could happen.

If you enjoy Engber’s article, you might want to read the transcript of his online chat with readers which is both argumentative and insightful.

I wrote about a similar yet more radical proposal back in January. In the comments, somebody pointed out that the most effective way to go green is to commit (an environmentally-friendly) suicide. Somebody makes the same point to Engber, and I liked his reply:

I’ve gotten a bunch of e-mails asking me if I favor euthanasia, murder, genocide, etc. But I don’t think that’s the logical extension of my argument. If I told you I favored a Prius over a Hummer, would you then ask me if I thought we should walk everywhere?

Here’s a related bonus link: Michelle Tsai writes about Russia’s peculiar attempts to increase its population.


  1. Of course, you could live a green life and have children you raise in a green way. It’s possible to do this and still live in a smaller footprint than most families. If you, in turn, raise your children to live green and to lobby for change, you may have a bigger effect. Otherwise, you’re leaving the world to suburban gluttons who will raise more suburban gluttons — and no one will be standing up for the planet.

  2. Andrea: If I follow your thinking correctly, Engber addresses that argument here:

    Our other green lifestyle choices can’t even begin to offset the cost of adding a brand-new CO2-emitter to the population. When I ran my own numbers through Al Gore’s carbon calculator, I discovered that a switch to 100 percent wind and solar power would reduce my emissions by just 1.3 tons per year. That’s not even enough to account for one quarter of today’s average American. Meanwhile, I’d have to do quite a bit of driving around in a Hummer H3 to mimic the environmental impact of creating another version of me. Not to mention the fact that my children might eventually decide to have their own children, who would emit even more carbon dioxide down the line.

  3. Here’s a thought for environementalists (myself included): have one or zero children and educate the children of other, less environmentally aware parents.

    In any case, I think it’s been proven that raising the educational opportunity, especially of women in developping countries, leads to reduced fertility rates. Hence these goals can be achieved, just not directly through appeals to population control, which are likely to be ill-received.

  4. Darren, when I calculated my 1-ton challenge thing that Rick Mercer was advocating, my family produced 1/5 the output of the average Canadian. When I calculate it in EarthDay.net, it’s half.

    I spend a lot of time educating other people, including parents. I’ve convinced other people to switch to cloth diapers, even for part of the time. I’ve also worked on many other initiatives. One organization I worked for diverted millions of tonnes of food from landfills each year.

    My own work often involves growing environmentally friendly companies and organizations. So does that of my husband. Our children will be raised to live pretty green lives, given their North American upbringing.

    If all the green people stop having kids, you’ll be leaving the non-green people to vote, consume and manage the planet. This, to me, suggests a more rapid extinction of the planet.

    Now, live a typical North American existence and raise your children in a typical way, and you’ll be doing harm. But if you serve as a lobbyist and change agent, I believe it is possible to offset the output of one’s children by far.

  5. Andrea: I agree wholehearted with the lobbyist and change agent argument–it’s what I’m relying upon to go to my grave guilt-free.

    However, Engber makes three salient counter-arguments:

    * “It’s also naive to assume our children will embrace our values just because we want them to; for all our preaching, we might end up with a generation of rebellious, gas-guzzling teenagers.” Plus, they do most of their Earth-impacting after they leave home.

    * If your kids have kids, then will they live green lives too? And so forth and so on.

    * “If all the eco-conscious Americans stopped having kids, their numbers would decline. But having fewer greenies around would be a net loss for the environment only if each greenie baby did more good for the planet than harm—i.e., if the value of his or her vote exceeded the costs of his or her CO2 emissions.”

  6. I should add that, when I used the Al Gore calculator, my family produced 1/5 of the output of the average American family. That’s more than one generation that I’ve offset.

    Yes, it’s naive to assume your children will adopt all your beliefs. But it’s defeatist to assume they will assume none of them. Even Barbara Frum only produced one David Frum and he apparently has some beliefs that are still in tune with those of his parents and siblings.

    Besides, I also have the opportunity to influence my grandchildren. It’s not just one generation with which I’ll be involved.

  7. I’m not sure that it’s defeatist to assume they’ll adopt none of your beliefs. What, in particular, is such a belief defeating?

  8. Hmmm. Actually, I think the trick is to have many, many more kids. Assuming that the average kid stays at least a little green, and that no more than say, one per thousand accumulates the wealth or develops the genital shrinkage that purchasing a Hummer requires, those of us living in democracies will actually be making change for the better. Because our kids will hopefully vote for the policies that scared, wealthy white folks won’t touch right now.

    I haven’t seen idiocracy, but its first premise is the fact that Bush voters tend to outbreed normal humans.

  9. > I’m not sure that it’s defeatist to
    > assume they’ll adopt none of your
    > beliefs. What, in particular, is such a
    > belief defeating?

    Well, as a marketer, do you assume there is no point in marketing?

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