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Fewer Children Better for the Environment?

| Wednesday August 5th, 2009 | 5 Comments

angrybabyAre there too many obvious environmental impact reports being written?

The question arises after reading a study out of Oregon State University, which points out that — get ready — having children increases your carbon footprint.

The study, led by Paul Murtaugh, an OSU professor of statistics, shows that an additional child has an environmental impact more than 20 times greater than any other environmentally friendly behavior an individual might do over a lifetime. From the OSU press release:

“When an individual produces a child – and that child potentially produces more descendants in the future – the effect on the environment can be many times the impact produced by a person during their lifetime.”

In other words: people have an effect on the environment, and more people have more of an effect. Not exactly an earth-shattering discovery.

The study is not only a recitation of the obvious, however.

The authors have done the math of breaking down the relative environmental impact of, for example, having a child in the US versus having one in Bangladesh. It turns out the American child, living in the land of plenty, and consuming at an American rate, ends up having an environmental impact 160 times greater.

The OSU research also deserves credit for taking a contrarian’s approach to the climate debate, by pointing out that the most impactful thing Greens can do to reduce their carbon footprint is have less children. This conclusion, as obvious as it is, runs counter to both popular views of self-determination, and government pro-growth policies in several developed countries that are experiencing population declines.

Nonetheless, this is one study that could probably have been taken as a given. It reads like another tossed salad of the available data on population and climate change, or even just a 21st century rehash of Malthus.

For example, while it is true that a child born in Bangladesh today may have 160th the carbon footprint of an American child over their lifetimes, that fact is largely irrelevant, because that ratio is bound to change as Bangladesh develops, something beyond the control of that child or its parents.

Which leaves the study’s main conclusion, that having fewer children, wherever they are, reduces a person’s footprint. Murtaugh justifies it this way:

“Many people are unaware of the power of exponential population growth…Future growth amplifies the consequences of people’s reproductive choices today, the same way that compound interest amplifies a bank balance.”

Really? How many people are unaware of the power of exponential population growth and are also likely to hear about OSU’s research? In my humble opinion, this is a conclusion that belongs in a high school economics class, not a university.


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  • http://thevegetarianblog.today.com Antonio

    If humans are causing climate change, it seems obvious that decreasing our population is the most effective action to fight the crisis. It is not talked about because it goes against the tenets of capitalism.

    • Sophia

      It’s not talked about because people who suggest it usually have a particular group of children they’d rather not have around. Since most modern societies are made up of women that have access to birth control, they are having less children than previous generations. If you really think less children is the answer, go deal with the men in societies where women are allowed no control over their own bodies. If those men would stop making babies they have no intention of feeding or supporting, with girls barely out of childhood themselves, less kids would be starving. This idea has always been a non-starter, for the entire 40 years+ it’s been suggested.

  • Soulo

    It’s a faux pas to talk about because of the obvious moral implications. Thing is, it doesn’t have to be. It’s a proven fact that as societies reach a basic level of economic level and when women are granted rights and access to birth control then birth rates naturally decline to about neutral.

    The only reason population rises in the US and Europe is due to immigration.

    It should be a primary issue of those who give a damn to work for economic advancement, education and womens rights in the developing world. WIthout those you can forget about saving the environment.

    The Catholic Church also has to come out of the middle ages with regards to birth control, but fat chance with the current pope.

  • Aaron

    I am going to start screaming at toddlers now instead of SUV drivers.

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  • John in Knoxville

    My wife and I have figured, because of this article and others like it, that since we are childless (we’re just too selfish and enjoy life too much to let kids spoil it), that we now have a HUGE negative carbon footprint, so we’ve both decided to buy Hummers. We could both use new toys, as our Chrysler Sebring convertible just doesn’t get it anymore with the top down on these super hot days, even with the air conditioning going full blast…we still get baked by the sun, so we’re going to try to trade it in as a “CLUNKER” (thanks, taxpayers!) and see what we can get toward the purchase of two matching His-n-Hers Hummers. I’ll report back here on how that works out…is this a great country or what!?

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