Dear Wonderful Umbra,

I truly love your column. You should give humor lessons to the rest of the Grist staff.

My question concerns the environmental consequences of the decision to reproduce or not to reproduce. Your answer to Genevieve pointed out that the two biggest actions we can take to support a healthy environment relate to transportation and housing. Why do you not consider reproduction the biggest action we take that affects the environment? After all, a new person will use plenty of resources throughout his or her life.

Norman, Okla.

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Dearest Dan,

Thank you for the compliment, but I assure you the other Grist staff members need no humor lessons from me. They have their own personal tutors.

Your question hits on a topic that I have been able to avoid thus far, in part because no one else has asked me about it. We’ve gotten plentiful diaper questions, or “what vehicle to transport the growing family” questions, and folks are frantic about hand dryers vs. paper towels, but, unless I lost a note somewhere, you are the first to bring up the impact of reproduction. This in itself is a testament to how difficult it is for people to see childbearing as a politically or environmentally fraught act, rather than (or in addition to) a very personal choice.

Reproduction may, in fact, be the biggest action that we take (or refrain from) in terms of environmental impact. Every pollution- (and guilt-) inducing moment that we experience, our children will replicate. Those of us living in the United States, in particular, have a lifestyle impact disproportionate to our population numbers. Here are two sobering little tidbits from Population Connection, formerly Zero Population Growth: “One U.S. citizen consumes about 30 times as much as a citizen of India. If everyone on Earth lived like the average North American, it would require four more Earths to provide all the material and energy she or he currently uses.”

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Population growth and population pressures have a direct impact on the state of natural systems and resources. Even folks who have never hugged a tree should be given pause by the implications of our rampaging resource consumption. Still, advocating the avoidance of childbirth in favor of a healthy environment is a hornet’s nest I’ve been happy to sidestep. Most of the advice I give is about consumer choice. Having a child means choosing not only to consume on behalf of the kid, but also (if you live in the U.S.) choosing to produce another of the world’s most intensive consumers. So, theoretically, family planning falls within my bailiwick.

But no parent, past, present, or future, sees a child as a consumer object. People have children because they love kids, because they want to continue the family line, because they have no choice, or due to a cultural imperative they have never questioned. No one sees children as a political act for very long, environmentalists included.

It is my current belief that there is no justification for bearing your own children if you have a choice in the matter. Now, before you all start clawing away at your keyboards, I’d like to clarify that I am not anti-child, or even anti-childbirth. Simply because you cannot justify something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. I just don’t think we should delude ourselves into thinking that there is some environmental upside to producing more North Americans. And don’t write me letters about trying to outnumber the religious right or raising thoughtful citizens. If you think you can direct the politics of your child, look around and see how far some of your friends fell from the tree. We need to acknowledge the impacts of our choices, and also recognize that not every choice can be made by looking at a life cycle analysis or reading Grist. Through seeing the real tradeoff between new babies and breathable air, we may more fully acknowledge our complicity in our own destruction. The first step is acknowledging that we have a problem.

So, Dan, that’s what I think. Just imagine the storm that would be unleashed if I advised folks to not have kids. Not to mention the hypocrisy I could set myself up for down the road. The most I’m willing to do is encourage folks to think about it long and hard.


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