Children are ruining the world, according to this week’s reporting at least. The overpopulation doomsayers are at it again.
Last Monday, France’s bright-eyed new president, Emmanuel Macron, found himself in hot water after a Group of 20 news conference in which he soliloquized about Africa’s “civilizational” challenges, including women who “have seven or eight” children.
On Wednesday, the Guardian published an article headlined “Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children.” That was its take on a newly published study suggesting governments and other influencers don’t spend enough time promoting the “most effective” (in terms of tonnage of carbon dioxide emissions avoided) personal strategies for climate mitigation: living car-free, avoiding airplane travel, eating a plant-based diet and, yes, having one fewer child. Researchers calculated that in the West, at least, choosing not to have an additional child meant a reduction of 58 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.
There’s no doubt these arguments come from a place of sincerity, based on real concerns for the future. Yet the natural response also seems the correct one: You can’t be serious.
Demographic transitions are not without their difficulties. Growing populations can strain resources; an abundance of youths lacking opportunity can lead to instability. But increases in wealth and women’s education tend to lower fertility over time on their own. So what, exactly, are we recommending here? If not something akin to China’s heavy-handed demographic disaster, perhaps more countries that, like the French Republic Macron himself represents, are slouching toward sterility? The suggestion that the rest of the world should hurry to imitate our way of life may not be as appealing as we think.
And then there’s the environment. To be clear: Climate change is real, is significantly influenced by human activity and is a problem of steadily increasing importance.
Yet solving the carbon dioxide emissions crisis will be more difficult than wishing away your oddly fecund neighbor’s fifth child. (And, yes, they see the way you look at their larger-than-average family when they’re in line at the grocery store.) The culprit behind the greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere is less the child himself than the consumption ramped up alongside the child: the resources that wealthy (and usually Western) parents demand and the corporations they enable. Having one fewer child — or haranguing those who choose not to — won’t shut down ExxonMobil, reverse the Industrial Revolution or even push our president back into the Paris climate accord.
Of course, this much is obvious. And of course there’s the obvious reply: “Well, if everyone did it, it just might work.” But funnily enough, that never quite seems to pan out.
After all, Western finger-waggers seem to have no compunction with traveling around the world to expand their families by any means necessary, pursuing anything from expensive (and no doubt resource-intensive) fertility treatments to surrogacy in the same countries where they urge citizens to contracept more fervently.
When the enlightened advocates among us hand down recommendations, one has the nagging feeling that they’re envisioning less themselves and their compatriots than more easily caricatured others — the poor, the black and the brown, those Third World women whose lives, they imagine, are sad and difficult anyway, who would probably welcome having one or two fewer children. It’s an ugly sort of paternalism, well-meant but fundamentally chilling. At its core, it denies the humanity of others.
But the deepest argument, perhaps, is more philosophical than scientific. It’s the rare person who isn’t saddened by environmental degradation. We all want to make the world a better, more livable place. But children are not interchangeable widgets that we choose one more or one fewer of according to the dictates of emissions efficiency. For whom are we scrambling to save the planet, if not future generations? What is the world if there’s no one to live in it?
Christine Emba edits the Washington Post’s In Theory blog.