Sadly, no one can top environmentalists for their ability to combine depression and irrelevance. Today comes the headline "Children ‘bad for planet’", citing a paper by the Optimum Population Trust that says eliminating a child from your family plan prevents carbon dioxide pollution equivalent to 620 trans-Atlantic flights.
For some Western elites, children are just a part of their consumption bundle–goods that they add to their stuff until their lives are optimally decorated. Choices about childbearing, for them, are partly about fashion, and if large families bring social disapprobation, then it’s hip to economize on family size. There’s a mental model there that sees people as bad, and every extra child is a burden, not just on the parents but on society at large.
Like all flawed worldviews, there is an element of truth here. Children do bring costs (ask any parent) in money, time, and yes, in the consumption of natural resources. But, for parents to see children as mere burdens is another step away from the historical, traditional purpose of marriage–raising families. It’s part of the overall decay of marriage as an institution. It isn’t that gays want to get married, as so many so-called conservatives would like to claim–it’s that the whole institution of marriage has been disassembled and reconceived as an expression of tastes and preferences. From the ceremony to the divorce, and at all the stages in between–whether those are choices about childbearing, childrearing, contraception, family finance, or paint color–all decisions are made in service to individual fulfilment. Calculating the carbon cost of an extra child to justify your decision to your friends is a logical extension.
Of course, there’s an element of "piling on" here–the unnecessary multiplication of reasons not to have children. Wherever economic prosperity has spread, families by and large make the choice to have fewer children. Children become less useful as productive laborers when families move off the farm, and when child labor laws are passed, so parents have fewer of them. Secure financial markets and government sponsored social security systems mean that children are not so necessary as an insurance policy for aging parents. And the ability of women to work outside the home means that it’s more of an economic sacrifice to bear and raise children. All these aspects of economic development mean families themselves choose, for self-interested reasons, to have fewer children. Raising the specter of global warming is one way of making those self-interested choices seem more charitable.
As Philip Longman has amply documented in "The Global Baby Bust" (in Foreign Affairs and elsewhere), overpopulation is probably the least of our worries. Societies in the developed and in the developing world are aging fast, because families are having fewer children for all the reasons listed above. The aging of world population will bring its own environmental woes through much more rapid urbanization and through the decay of carefully maintained agrarian infrastructure. A baby bust in the countryside means that if parents want their kids to go to school, they need to move to a city. And in many places on the planet, the abandoned countryside gets taken over by large-scale corporate agribusiness, leading to environmental damage on an industrial scale.
If we want to fight the good fight, we’ll be attacking the culture of individualism, materialism and consumerism which drives most of the world’s resource degradation. The so-called "population problem" is taking care of itself.
I do know parents who are fostering children and adopting children instead of having their own, and if they like to think that it’s gives them a smaller environmental footprint, I think that’s fine. Their lives are already overflowing in love and other-mindedness by opening up their families.
In the meantime, environmentalists can make themselves feel good by dispensing bad news no one wants or, as it turns out, even needs to hear.