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Is it immoral to have babies in the era of climate change?

Experts wonder if limiting procreation could spare the planet — or spare babies from the planet we've left behind.
Experts wonder if limiting procreation could spare the planet — or spare babies from the planet we've left behind.

In a now already famous piece for the September issue of British Vogue, Prince Harry made clear that his and wife Meghan ’s baby boy, Archie, will have one biological sibling only.

“Two children, maximum!” the Duke of Sussex vowed in his interview with famed primatologist Jane Goodall .

“We are the one species on this planet that seems to think that this place belongs to us, and only us,” Harry elaborated. “I always think to myself, whenever there’s another natural disaster, a huge increase in volcano eruptions or earthquakes or flooding, how many clues does nature have to give us before we actually learn, or wake ourselves up to the damage and the destruction that we’re causing?”

The Vogue interview was published the same week Harry flew by private jet to an uber-exclusive, Google-sponsored climate crisis camp at a US$2,000-a-night seaside Sicilian resort, where his royal highness reportedly had a pedicure before delivering a speech barefoot.

Harry said his two-baby pledge is premised on his concern for the Earth.

Some would argue his decision to have even a second child is immoral.

As the United Nations warns of a “ climate apartheid ,” as humankind faces the threatened prospect of irreversible and catastrophic environmental destruction, philosophers and ethicists are arguing that humans have a moral obligation to drastically limit our procreation, ideally to zero children, but a maximum of one, maybe two.

No other human action — not driving less or living car free, not taking fewer transatlantic flights or eating less meat — is as effective in reducing one’s carbon footprint as limiting one’s family size, academic philosopher Trevor Hedberg argued earlier this year in a special issue of the journal Essays in Philosophy devoted to the topic, “ Is Procreation Immoral ?”

The formula that backs up that claim is controversial. Still, growing anxieties about climate change have more people questioning the ethics of bringing babies into a warming world.

“It is basically a scientific consensus that the lives of our children are going to be very difficult, and it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: Is it OK to still have children,” U.S. Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said earlier this year on a live-streamed Instagram Q&A while chopping vegetables in her kitchen. A horrified Fox News host called the idea “disturbingly authoritarian, even fascistic” and suggested Ocasio-Cortez was having a nervous breakdown.

However, in a 2018 survey conducted for The New York Times that asked young people why they had, or expected to have, fewer children than their “ideal” number, a third cited worries about climate change. #BirthStrike, a closed Facebook group for women determined “not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis” has nearly 700 members. Books like Sarah Conly’s One Child: Do We Have a Right to More? and Travis Rieder’s Toward a Small Family Ethic: How Overpopulation and Climate Change are Affecting the Morality of Procreation , are asking whether society has the right to insist we refrain from delivering more than an acceptable number of children — whatever that magic number may be — or whether people should be free to produce as many children as they please.

The theory pushed hard by authors like Rieder and Conly is that the people who are more likely to have a duty to limit their procreation will be people in developed nations whose children are likely to have carbon-intensive lifestyles.

Leading climate scientists have given us just 11 more years to start turning the boat around before carbon emissions reach a “ point of no return .” That means trying to limit the increase in the average global ground temperature to 1.5 degrees C in order to prevent rising sea levels, food and fresh water shortages, droughts, hurricanes, famines and floods. “In simple terms, climate change will cause a lot of people — both present and future — to suffer or die,” Hedberg wrote in Essays in Philosophy .

There are already 7.7 billion people on the planet. According to the United Nations Population Division, the world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050, and peak at nearly 11 billion around 2100.

More babies mean more emissions, and statisticians have attempted to measure just how many greenhouse gas emissions are tied to a single act of reproduction. In 2008, Oregon State University’s Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax calculated that each parent is responsible for one half of their children’s GHG emissions, one fourth of their grandchildren’s emissions, one eighth of their great-grandchildren and so on. They estimated that every child born in the U.S. adds 9,441 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide to an average mother’s carbon legacy — 5.7 times her lifetime emissions.

By comparison, driving a fuel-efficient car your entire life will save 148 metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to Murtaugh and Schlax.

But the methodology ignores technologies like carbon-capture systems that suck carbon out of the atmosphere. It’s also a form of double counting, James Woudhuysen writes on Spiked . “Parents are not only held ‘responsible’ for their own emissions, but also for the emissions of each of their children and their children’s descendants.” Furthermore, he asks, “how useful is it to calculate average emissions when we live in a society where some take the Clapham Omnibus while the likes of Prince Harry and his offspring will fly by private jet?”

The model is probably an overestimate, Hedberg said, given that it makes a number of assumptions, including static emissions levels, which, if we make a transition to greener technologies, wouldn’t hold.

“But I think their basic point is that this (limiting your family size) is the most significant ecological action you can take as an individual.”

We have to stop dithering, Hedberg argues, and “do something, now.” But what to do?

In the special issue of Essays In Philosophy, Anca Gheaus argued that, alongside having fewer children in each family, another option is multi-parenting — “that is, three, four or possibly more adults co-raising the same child, or children” — taking the euphemism, “it takes a village,” quite literally. “To discharge the duty to pass on a sustainable world to the next generation,” Gheaus, of Spain’s Pompeu Fabra University, wrote, “individuals who live in such circumstances ought to be ready to share child-rearing with several other adults — that is, to multi-parent.” If having two parents is better than having one, then having three or four parents is arguably better than having only two, she reasoned. For one thing, more parents would mean more security (against the loss of one or more parents). It would also satisfy the adult’s interest in being “child-rearers.” Still, she does allow more parents could make for more conflict, disagreements and “stalled decision-making.” Public school, or private? Who gets Christmas?

There may be other (albeit suboptimal) ways to nudge or persuade people to have smaller families, should we decide a need to “quickly scale down the number of people brought into existence,” Gheaus said, like a lottery to decide who may, or may not, procreate.

Others have invoked abortion.

“All non-optimal acts are morally impermissible,” Leonard Kahn, of Loyola University in New Orleans wrote in Essays in Philosophy . Children in rich countries use more resources and contribute more to global warming than children in poor ones. Given that, the rich should be morally required not to reproduce at all, and abortion could be viewed as an acceptable way to save the planet, Kahn’s theories hold.

Still another paper, by anti-natalist Gerald Harrison, of Massey University, argued that acts of human procreation are, most likely, wrong. For one thing, “Procreative acts subject someone to a life — which is a very significant thing to do to someone — and they do so without the prior consent of the affected party,” Harrison argued .

He adds that, “the average human will typically act in ways that will bring about the deaths of many animals every year, often for no better reason than because the human in question likes the taste of their dead bodies, and/or wearing bits of them.”

Given these and other less-than-flattering features, we have a moral reason not to reproduce, he argued.

Others say demanding we have fewer children, if any at all, is a loopy solution to climate change. “If we were all persuaded by Harrison’s argument and decided to act ‘morally,’ the human race would die out,” William Reville, emeritus professor of biochemistry at University College Cork wrote in The Irish Times . “And while this would undoubtedly deal with the problem of climate change, such a solution seems to be a bit — well — nuts!”

Fertility rates in many parts of the world are declining. In Canada, the average number of children per woman was 3.7 during the baby boom. In 2011, the total fertility rate was 1.6 children per woman, up slightly from the record low of 1.5 about a decade earlier, but still below the replacement level — the level of fertility at which a population exactly replaces itself. In developed countries like Canada, that’s an average of 2.1 children per woman.

In fact, the total fertility rate has been below the replacement level for more than 40 years, according to Statistics Canada.

Globally, the world reproduction rate is 2.5. Reducing birth rates to near zero is not only wholly unnecessary from a climate standpoint, “decimating the world’s population would cause massive economic problems in its own rights,” Reville said.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also proclaims that adults have a right to marry and “found a family.”

But Hedberg, a postdoctoral research fellow at The Ohio State University, argues that procreative choices affect other people. They aren’t morally neutral. Many people believe that decisions that impact others should be subject to moral scrutiny, he said in an interview. We could have a right to have unlimited numbers of children but there might be moral reasons not to exercise that right. “If people’s procreation contributes to circumstances that are going to adversely affect the welfare of large groups of people, there may be grounds for restricting that right in some way.”

Part of his reasoning is that our children are likely to be our ecological clones — to adopt lifestyles that have ecological footprints of a similar size to our own. “Your child might decide in his or her early 20s to go off the grid, but for the most part, our children adopt the same lifestyles they were born into,” Hedberg said.

Even though many developed nations are below replacement fertility, even small gains in countries like the U.S. and Australia — say, going from a fertility rate of 1.8 to 1.5 — would typically be far more significant to climate change than reducing the fertility rate in a country in sub-Saharan Africa from four to two, Hedberg said.

He isn’t insisting everyone go childless (though, provocatively, he cites social science research that suggests having children makes people less happy, at least in the short term). Instead, we should aim for a fertility rate of two or lower, meaning Harry and Meghan will have done their part not to contribute to overpopulation should they grant Archie only one baby brother or sister.

Hedberg and others are wary of policies that hint at social or population engineering, like China’s authoritarian and disastrous one-child per family policy that led to 30 million female fetuses succumbing to sex-selective abortions, and baby girls abandoned at orphanages. Rather, Hedberg said advertising and media campaigning could be used to counteract a kind of “pro-natalist” environment, “whereby it’s just assumed people will have children at a certain age and that being childless isn’t a socially acceptable outcome.”

For his part, Prince Harry’s “two, maximum!” proclamation is helping the messaging, said Craig Klugman, a professor of ethics at DePaul University in Chicago, who recently blogged about the “ how many babies is too many ” debate on Bioethics.net.

“This has the potential to get people thinking about the impact that they and their children will have on a world that is in danger,” Klugman said.

He favours incentives over coercive measures, like offering free education to a first child, but not subsequent ones, or paying off student loans for women who delay childbearing until they’re older, when they’re likely to have fewer children.

“We have children because we want to leave a legacy, we want to be part of the future,” Klugman said. We also want someone to take care of us when we grow old. “We need to give people ways to fulfill these drives and these needs that don’t necessarily require each person to have their own kid.”

• Email: skirkey@postmedia.com Twitter: sharon_kirkey ‏

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