A personal one-child policy?Oliver BurkemanMarch 26, 2010Family size is the great unmentionable of the campaign for greener lifestyles, writes OliverBurkeman. Westerners need to consider that babies are consumers, too, with their owncarbon footprints.“Even commentators who warn of the evils of overpopulation … only rarely emphasise the notion thatwe – rather than those in the developing world – might consider doing less of the populating.”Twelve years ago, the American author Bill McKibben published a short book entitled Maybe One: APersonal and Environmental Argument for Much Smaller Families. It certainly has its faults: mostobviously, it provides a little too much information about the vasectomy McKibben decided to have inlieu of a second child. But it isn‟t pious or hectoring; if anything, the author tries overly hard to betentative,emphasising that he isn‟t seeking to dictate other people‟s choices, and doesn‟t think he hasall the answers. The “maybe” is right there in the title, after all.McKibben meant it in the sense of “maybe one child at most”, but it reflects the book‟s general tone ofmodesty and equivocation. Maybe One is a suggestion. It‟s something to think about.He might as well have called for the enforced sterilisation of all men and women of procreating age,along with the outlawing of Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. The New York Times called him“sanctimonious” and “holier-than-thou”. The Wall Street Journal labelled him an “extremist” (theirspecific objection was that he hadn‟t mentioned nuclear power as a way to combat global warming,even thoughMaybe One is a book about parenting). “So much false information, so many bad ideas, inso few pages,” another reviewer fumed. Speaking after publication, McKibben observed that MaybeOne‟s subject matter was “the last remaining taboo thing to talk about” and in this case the clichéseemed justified.In 1998, most people weren‟t willing to consider any significant lifestyle changes for environmentalreasons, let alone cutting back on kids. Much has changed since then, of course, both in terms of theconsensus on the threat posed by climate change and our willingness to make sacrifices in the face ofit. But one thing has not: you still won‟t hear any major environmental campaign group in Britain orthe United States arguing that, in addition to flying less and recycling more, middle-class westernersshould be having fewer children to save the planet.Even commentators who warn of the evils of overpopulation, proudly trumpeting their willingness toraise controversial issues in defiance of “political correctness”, only rarely emphasise the notion thatwe – rather than those in the developing world – might consider doing less of the populating. Forseveral thorny reasons, family size has become the great unmentionable of the campaign for moreenvironmentally friendly lifestyles. And yet, in the end, it may be the only one that really counts.
Trying to understand the debate about population and the climate sometimes feels like peering into akaleidoscope while drunk. Directly contradictory claims, which can‟t both be true at the same time, areadvanced as if they were facts. Weird allegiances are created: George Monbiot and Americancreationists, for example, are roughly equally contemptuous of organisations such as the OptimumPopulation Trust; supporters of reproductive rights find common cause with anti-abortionists.You come across nutty-sounding fringe groups like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, butthen you phone its founder, Les Knight – he‟s a supply teacher, based on America‟s west coast, andcan only talk during breaks between lessons – only to discover that he isn‟t nutty at all, but in factrather sane and self-deprecating. (He simply wants people to choose not to breed. “Eventually we‟ll beextinct anyway, but it would be so much nicer if we phased ourselves out through natural attrition,”Knight told me affably. “You know – the way a company reduces its workforce without firinganyone.”)For all the confusion and sensitivities that surround the subject, though, the basic facts are clear. Ifyou live in Britain or the United States in 2010, there is nothing you can do to reduce your impact onthe environment that even comes close to the effects of having one fewer child.This makes intuitive sense: every new human is a new consumer with their own carbon footprint,along with their own potentially limitless chain of descendants. The year before last, two researchersat Oregon State University, Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax, set about trying to put a figure on theidea of “carbon legacy”, and last summer their results were published in the journal GlobalEnvironmental Change.Murtaugh and Schlax started from a simple premise. Assume, they said, that if a woman and a manhave a baby, they‟re each responsible for 50% of that child‟s lifetime carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions;and if that child has its own child, the original two parents each bear 25% of the responsibility fortheir grandchild‟s emissions, and so on down the generations. For how many tonnes, on average,would each original parent end up being responsible?There are two important obstacles in performing this calculation. The first is that you don‟t know whatwill happen to per capita emission rates in the future: worldwide, they‟ll almost certainly rise, but inmany western countries they‟re likely to fall, as energy-efficiency measures kick in. The second is thatyou don‟t know what will happen to fertility rates: you can‟t know whether your great-great-granddaughter will give birth to one new carbon-emitter, or two, or six, or zero.So for fertility rates, Murtaugh and Schlax used UN population predictions. (In the experiment, someof the hypothetical family trees eventually died out; others were stopped after a predetermined time.)And for per-capita emissions, they used three different scenarios: an optimistic one, in which per-capita emissions fell, a pessimistic one in which they rose, and a compromise one, in which theystayed constant.The headline result was astonishing. Under the constant scenario, an American who forgoes having achild would save 9,441 tonnes of CO2 – almost six times, on average, the amount of CO2 they wouldemit in their own lifetime, or the equivalent of making around 2,550 return airplane trips betweenLondon and New York. If the same American drove a more fuel-efficient car, drastically reduced his orher driving, installed energy-efficient windows, used energy-efficient light bulbs, replaced a householdrefrigerator, and recycled all household paper, glass and metal, he or she would save fewer than 500tonnes.
The Oregon study didn‟t run the numbers for Britain, where per-capita carbon emissions are alreadyabout half as big as in the United States. (This isn‟t down to personal virtue: it‟s mainly because somany of our power stations use gas instead of coal.) But in every other country they examined –including Japan, where per-capita emissions are similar to Britain‟s– the environmental effects of nothaving a child were similarly vast. Even if every emissions target recommended bythe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were to be successfully implemented – the “optimisticscenario” – an American could still save 562 tonnes of CO2 by having one fewer child, while aJapanese person could save 233 tonnes.Leaving aside the complexities of global population issues, then, wouldn‟t it make sense for Britishenvironmental groups to suggest that well-off westerners might like to consider smaller families? JohnSauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, concedes that it‟s a “no-brainer” that a smallerpopulation would place a smaller burden on the planet. But he‟s reluctant to contemplate aGreenpeace campaign; in any case, he says, among environmentally conscious people in hisdemographic, “my sense is that nearly all of us have had two children or fewer”.Documentary film-maker Franny Armstrong -- who runs the 10:10 campaignto cut UK carbonemissions by 10% this year, which is backed by the Guardian -- says the topic came up in theplanning stages of the project, but was abandoned. “We did have the discussion. But we decided itcouldn‟t work, because of the timescale. 10:10 is a short-term campaign about reductions you canmake in 2010.”Besides, a decade after Bill McKibben published Maybe One, we‟re apparently still not ready tocontemplate its message. “10:10 is a populist campaign. It‟s about doing the easy things first,”Armstrong says. “I completely agree that [family size] is the elephant in the room. But we need one ofthe big thinkers, a George Monbiot or a Naomi Klein, to go first, before anyone else is going to say it.To use that as a message in a populist campaign, right now? It would absolutely destroy the wholecampaign.”The fundamental problem with the topic of influencing population levels is that almost everybody – nomatter what their politics or other beliefs – has a very good reason to avoid discussing it. If you don‟tbelieve in climate change, it‟s yet more irrelevant, busybodyish meddling. If you‟re broadly left wingor progressive, as are most people strongly committed to reducing their own environmental impact,it‟s awkward, because raising the issue seems to shift responsibility from the developed countries,which bear most historical responsibility for climate damage, to the develop ing world, wherepopulation growth is most rapid.And for anti-immigration voices on the right, the whole idea seems backwards: they worry thatEurope‟s population – by which they usually mean its white population – isn‟t growing fast enough, sopromoting smaller families is perverse. Above all, perhaps, there‟s the simple fact that family sizeseems such an intensely personal matter, beyond the legitimate scope of politics or public campaigns.Just mentioning it feels somehow inappropriate.There‟s another awkward truth: historical predictions of catastrophic population explosions havetended to be badly wrong, from Thomas Malthus in the 1700s, to Paul Ehrlich in the 1960s, to the UNPopulation Fund, which predicted in 1987 that a world population of five billion would mean the world“could degenerate into disaster”. (The number is now well over 6.7 billion.)Nearly everyone, meanwhile, is troubled by the notion of coercion: China‟s “one-childpolicy”, promoted by Chinese politicians at Copenhagen as a solution to the climate crisis, has resulted
in numerous reports of forced sterilisation and abortion, and rumours of infanticide. Supporters ofreproductive choice are understandably appalled. Then again, trying to achieve a similar end byvoluntary means, by making family planning more widespread, draws fury from the other side of thespectrum: “pro-life” campaigners, who fear a surge in abortions.A recent study by the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) estimated that saving a tonne of CO2 costsonly US$7 if the money is spent on family planning; to achieve the same by means of solar powerwould cost US$51. The finding paralysed environmental organisations, especially in the United States,where even the hint of increased funding for abortion carries huge political costs.“I don‟t know how to say „no comment‟ emphatically enough,” David Hamilton, of the US green groupthe Sierra Club, told the Washington Post. (He had reason to be reticent: the Sierra Club suffered itsown encounter with the tangled politics of population in 2004 when a group of population-controladvocates tried to stage a takeover. On that occasion, just to confuse matters further, thoseattempting the takeover were fiercely opposed to immigration, on the ground that immigrants to theUnited States develop bigger carbon footprints once they arrive.)Strictly speaking, though, none of this ought to be relevant to the parenting decisions of the averageclimate-conscious Briton. Perhaps the OPT is a brave voice in the wilderness – “Nobody else wants toput their head above the parapet,” says Simon Ross, an OPT trustee – or perhaps, as Monbiot says,they‟re a “congregation of no one” – a gaggle of post-reproductive white middle-class men trying toshift attention to the one part of the climate problem for which they‟re not responsible. Either way,from the point of view of climate change, choosing to have one fewer child – especially if you live in ahigh-consumption society – remains a Very Good Thing Indeed.And yet even that more narrowly focused topic seems to provoke a surprising degree of fury. Twoyears ago, Sarah Irving, then a journalist atEthical Consumer magazine, was one of several peoplefeatured in a Daily Mail article on couples who had taken the small-family idea to its logical conclusion,opting to have no children at all. (The Mail article is inadvertently hilarious, so baffled are its authorsby the concept of voluntary childlessness; one woman‟s decision to have an abortion on environmentalgrounds is described as “the reversal of nature” and “the denial of motherhood”.)“There were people who went to the lengths of finding my personal email address to say things like,„Why don‟t you just kill yourself?‟ ” Irving says, even though she was specifically quoted in the articleas saying she‟d never dream of telling other people whether or not to have children. “Generallyspeaking, if you‟re talking about having no children at all, you‟re still regarded as barmy or selfish. Oryou get the patronising, „Oh, you know, you‟ll change your mind.‟ ”Prejudice remains, too, against the idea of having only one child, even though McKibben‟s book is atits strongest in his tour of the research that shows no evidence that a singleton childhood isdetrimental: indeed, there are some indications that only children are more sociable and intellectuallycapable than their peers, because families with more children have to make their time, energy andmoney spread further.But the hostility to both childlessness and one-child families explains why the OPT‟s campaigntargeting British people is called Stop at Two. (The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement objectsstrongly: “Rather than stop at two, we should stop at once,” says Les Knight.) And even the Stop atTwo position caused a minor furore last year when Jonathon Porritt, the veteran environmentalist andthen a UK government adviser on sustainability, told an interviewer, “I think we will work our waytowards a position that says that having more than two children is irresponsible.”
“This seems to be the same old thing: save the world but kill a human,” said the pro-lifecampaigner Josephine Quintavalle, following her own unique brand of logic, while Ann Widdecombe, amember of parliament, labelledPorritt “absolutely barmy”.It is possible that, in Britain at least, the issue will resolve itself naturally, since both no-child and one-child families are becoming much more common: a record one-fifth of all women turning 50 in Britainin 2010 have no children, while the percentage of children without siblings was 26% in 2007, havingsteadily increased from 18% in 1972. More families already Stop at Two than at any other number ofchildren. Having three or more children is going to become more and more unusual, quite apart frommore difficult to justify while claiming to care about the warming planet.More radical visions persist, though. Alan Weismans 2007 bestseller, The World Without Us, picturesthe earth in the hypothetical weeks after humanity vanishes – as weeds and then trees start to breakthrough the pavements and wild animals began to take up residence again in the midst of abandonedcities. It‟s a paradisiacal vision, yet also a terrifying one, and Weisman isn‟t recommending that we tryto bring it about. He reaches a slightly more modest conclusion: the world would easily heal, heargues, if each person brought a maximum of one child into it. (This is intended as a thought-experiment and an inspiration, not a call for coercive policies.) By 2075, the human presence on earthwould have been reduced by half.“At such far-more-manageable numbers … we would have the benefit of all our progress, plus thewisdom to keep our presence under control,” Weisman writes. “That wisdom would come partly fromlosses and extinctions too late to reverse, but also from the growing joy of watching the world dailybecome more wonderful. The evidence wouldn‟t hide in statistics. It would be outside every human‟swindow, where refreshed air would fill each season with more birdsong.”www.guardian.co.uk/Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2010Homepage image by cafemamahttp://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/3549