Fewer Children Better for the Environment?

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.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.