Yes, You Can Have Children and Save The Planet | Sam Hall

Must we surrender to big government to save the planet? The work of the British Conservation Alliance is increasingly substantiating an argument to the contrary. That private ownership entails a vested interest in looking after it sustainably will come as no surprise to a farmer, the National Trust or anyone who has ever had the joy of visiting Grand Canyon National Park or similar projects across the world. Further evidence can probably be found closer to home if you live in a shared student flat- just go and look at the mess in the kitchen to learn about the consequences of collective ownership and the corresponding vague accountability. 

In the context of lower birth rates around the developed world (such as Japan which has seen a general decline from the 1950s) as well as increased abortions (in the UK reaching its highest point in 2018 since records began in 1990) and use of contraception preventing 1.9 million unplanned US births in 2016 alone, some are choosing to frame these reproductive trends in the context of climate change, with a California-based recycling consultant saying ‘having fewer of us, there will be less of those effects.’– in this context deforestation, waste mismanagement and mineral mining. Whilst striving to manage forests sustainably, making sure we dispose of our waste properly and taking only what we must from finite resources whilst finding sustainable alternatives is an admirable sentiment, does it necessarily follow that we need to reduce our population to contribute to this end? 

Anti-natalism is a vein of thought that supposes that as sentient beings we are doomed to suffer and cause suffering and therefore it is immoral to give birth to such sentient life. There’s a community for everything and fittingly anti-natalists may join the ‘Voluntary Human Extinction Movement’. Irrespective of your views of contraception, abortion, or your personal aspirations to parenthood, I aim to demonstrate that not only is anti-natalism philosophically flawed, but it is environmentally baseless. We can be environmentally conscious, conservation-minded parents. 

Firstly, I charge that anti-natalism is philosophically flawed. We can all acknowledge that suffering is at the heart of the human condition, all kinds of natural evil like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, famine, as well as moral evil like murder and rape. This is hardly a novel observation. But to say that on this basis having children is immortal is an intellectual stretch. Without suffering life would be meaningless and dull. The gentle warmth and breeze of an English summer’s day is magnified partly because it is such a rarity. Holidays are sweet because of the hard work that precedes them, yet a life with endless holidays basking in the warmth of a perfect summer’s day would become extremely dull and meaningless quite quickly. We all suffer to varying degrees, yet nobody actively avoids taking a holiday because of the hard work that is often a prerequisite. The inevitable reality of suffering gives meaning to life’s pleasures and is far from being a moral justification for anti-natalism and falsely (and even dangerously) assumes that a life with suffering is undesirable.

On the contrary, suffering is not just purposeful but is often desirable. Family life, however testing, offers multiple opportunities to grow in virtues such as humility, patience, and selflessness. Even in the initial stages of life in the womb, we must be patient (there is yet to be a means of ordering a child through Prime), humble (no matter who you are, pregnancy and parenthood can be daunting) and selfless (knowing that when a child is born, you are no-longer the immediate concern of your spouse) as well as countless other virtues. This is not to say that those without children cannot be virtuous- simply that parents are not selfish or anti-environmental simply because they are parents. 

One on the one hand, if we take environmental anti-natalism at face value, they have a point. Researchers have calculated having one less child equated to a reduction of 58 tonnes of CO2 for each year of a parent’s life. Contextually this is a massive impact; going car-free only saves 2.4 tonnes per year per person. Other major activities included avoiding one transatlantic trip (1.60) buying green energy (1.47) and eating a plant-based diet (0.82). Yet blaming our children and our future children for the honest mistakes of previous generations is inaccurate. Neither we (nor they) were responsible for poor public transport investment in the U.S. that led to cities like L.A. being built around the premise of driving or a great interstate highway system but a rubbish interrail system. We did not form a global economy based on air travel and freight, allowing products, green and otherwise, to be moved at speeds our ancestors could only dream of (if you’ve given up plane travel but still buy endless stuff made on the other side of the world than perhaps a priority re-think is in order!). Nor are we responsible for ecologically damaging agricultural practises like overgrazing; deforestation to make room for cattle etc. In my opinion, many people in the antinatal movement simply do not want children and are interested in finding a community of other people who don’t want children, attempting to retrospectively jazz up their decision with a trendy semi-religious environmental pretext. Some people cannot become or do not want to be biological parents- that is fine. But we cannot blame parents and future parents for the world in which they had a minimal part in forging. It is hardly a vote of confidence in the adaptability of the human species that we reject reproduction based on our inability to change.

We can be bold, and we can be confident; that is because as consumer demands, capitalism, and government incentives are coming to bear, as a species, we are changing. That is to say that if you placed our 7.5 billion into the world of 1600, then over-population would be a valid point. But today there are good reasons to be optimistic about how we utilise resources; as population growth continues to soar and wildfires continue to burn, the focus is happily not resulting in intellectually poor anti-human doom and gloom but to the might capitalism to expand and maintain a market; Coca Cola, ranked the world’s number one plastic polluter last year, is to trial a paper bottle as part of their goal of producing zero waste by 2030. Whilst giving up the car might have a significant impact on your carbon footprint as seen earlier, it may not be practical just yet (or ever) for everybody, especially people living in large cities like L.A. or Chicago. Fortunately, it’s predicted that as soon as 2024 electric cars will be as cheap as diesel and petrol cars; great news for the millions of environmentally conscious future Americans who, through no fault of their own, drive to most places. General Motors has even committed to phasing out vehicles using internal combustion engines by 2035! 

They’ll also be powered renewably; BP reports that renewable energy consumption continues to grow strongly, contributing its largest increase in energy terms on record. That excludes hydroelectricity! Food-wise, if our future children don’t fancy veganism or bugs (who could blame them!), lab-grown meat might well be a happy half-way house as it’s recently been approved for sale in Singapore; an important step as UK and US citizens are estimated to need to cut beef consumption by 90% and milk consumption by 60% while increasing beans and pulses between four and six times. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of the planet rather than panicking and making anti-human anti-natalist doomsday predictions based on the world our ancestors created and we’re currently adapting to suit our needs. 

Becoming a parent is tough as indeed is being human. We all experience suffering and struggle in some way, but these experiences serve a function. Even if, in our finite worldview, it is not immediately obvious how. What is clear is that we have every reason to reject the pessimistic, quasi-religious, anti-human environmentalists who want to make a personal choice, another weapon in the virtue signalling war-chest. Capitalism and the free-market, joined with consumer demand, are continuing to shape our planet in ways that we can be positive about, counter-balancing the misdeeds of our ancestors who would not have known what climate change was, never mind why it would eventually extinguish coal-mining communities across the world. As a species we adapt slowly in body but quick in mind; if we are to leave this beautiful planet to our children, naturally we must act now and whilst reminding ourselves why we do this; so our future generations may know a world unburdened where our magnificent civilisations endure, unburdened by climate woes we all know too well.

Given how far we’ve come in this battle and how far we’ll go, we have every reason to be optimistic about the world our children will grow up in. Who knows? Your child might just be the one that moves humanity on in its next giant leap- figuring out a clean, reliable, source of hydrogen!

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