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Silhouette of one-child family

NPR Illuminates Important Conversation About Kids

I’m so excited I can’t sit down. NPR, it’s daily afternoon news program All Things Considered, and correspondent Jennifer Ludden have just run the 3-minute mile, scored 10 touchdowns, and hit a dozen home runs. How? They did it with this report, which I’ll call groundbreaking:

Should We Be Having Kids In The Age Of Climate Change?

By all means listen to Ludden’s report, but more importantly read her more extensive report here.

“Standing before several dozen students in a college classroom, Travis Rieder tries to convince them not to have children. Or at least not too many.

He’s at James Madison University in southwest Virginia to talk about a ‘small-family ethic’ — to question the assumptions of a society that sees having children as good, throws parties for expecting parents, and in which parents then pressure their kids to ‘give them grandchildren.’

Why question such assumptions? The prospect of climate catastrophe.”

The mainstream media does not remind us daily; fortunately Ludden includes a quick refresher for us:

“In fact, without dramatic action, climatologists say, the world is on track to hit 4 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century, and worse beyond that. A World Bank report says this must be avoided, and warns of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought and serious impacts on ecosystems and ‘human systems.’

Back in the classroom, Rieder puts this in less technical terms: 4 degrees of warming would be ‘largely uninhabitable for humans.”

Three important comments here. First, for those metrically-challenged, 4 degrees Celsius is the equivalent of 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Second, let’s add philosophy professor Travis Rieder to the list of heroes l applaud here. He is launching some challenging, but long overdue conversations. Finally, let’s remember there are a host of reasons beyond climate change that should be driving a global shift to smaller families (peak water, peak soil and peak food among them).

“There’s also a moral duty to future generations that will live amid the climate devastation being created now.

‘Here’s a provocative thought: Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them,’ Rieder says.”

For some people it is a matter of not bringing children into a world that is almost certainly going to be tough going. But for me it’s more about doing as much as we can now to minimize the damage we’re doing, so future generations have a shot at decent lives. And that includes choosing to have very small families, and changing the cultural paradigm to make that “the thing to do.” Ludden includes this outstanding list from an Oregon State University study:

“Below are a few examples of how much carbon dioxide (in metric tons) is saved over a lifetime (80 years) by a typical American for certain actions, including not having one child.

Increase car’s fuel economy from 20 to 30 mpg: 148
Reduce miles driven from 231 to 155 per week: 147
Replace single-glazed windows with energy-efficient windows: 121
Replace ten 75-watt incandescent bulbs with 25-watt energy-efficient lights: 36
Replace old refrigerator with energy-efficient model: 19
Recycle newspapers, magazines, glass, plastic, aluminum and steel cans: 17
Reduce number of children by one (with emissions fixed at 2005 per-capita values): 9,441”

Source: “Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals” by Paul A. Murtaugh and Michael G. Schlax

Look at those numbers! Bravo to Rieder for calling attention to them and really driving home the point that family size must be on the menu. Most people assume we can’t do it, and assume that any impact would be too long in coming. NOT.

“He cites a study from 2010 that looked at the impact of demographic change on global carbon emissions. It found that slowing population growth could eliminate one-fifth to one-quarter of all the carbon emissions that need to be cut by midcentury to avoid that potentially catastrophic tipping point.”

Ludden’s story also introduces us to a couple more heroes, Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli, who created a nonprofit founded on the notion that “the climate crisis is a reproductive crisis.”

“Meghan Kallman is a co-founder of Conceivable Future. ‘I can’t count the number of times people have said, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so nice to know I’m not the only person that worries about this,’ she says.”

Ferorelli and Kallman have been hosting meetings to foster dialogue about motherhood and climate change.

I’ve shared quite a lot from this story, because there is just so much to applaud. But there is much more. Jennifer Ludden has done some awesome work here, exploring various ethical dilemmas and moral challenges. She also shares some very interesting public policy changes prescribed by Rieder. It’s a conversation we should be having, and NPR has really done it some justice here. I hope it’s the first of many reports and discussions NPR will bring us on this topic.

I’ll leave you with this closing thought from Jennifer Ludden’s report:

“Rieder wonders: Is it really so crazy? Scientists have proposed incredibly risky schemes to geoengineer the clouds and oceans. They’re researching ways to suck carbon out of the air on a mass scale. Some have even called for overhauling the global system of free-market capitalism. Compared to all that, Rieder says, bringing down the fertility rate seems downright easy. ‘We know exactly how to make fewer babies,’ he says. And it’s something people can start doing today.”


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Dave Gardner

Producer of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave writes and speaks regularly on the subject of growth addiction, including the pro-growth media bias that perpetuates prosperity-from-growth mythology.

Comments (1)

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    Dave Gardner


    Reader Barbara Rogers had difficulty posting a comment, so I am sharing it here for her:

    It’s not just about climate change, important though that is. It is also about preserving our environment as a whole for ourselves and future generations. In developed countries, it is about preserving a balance between human and animal populations, and green spaces and wilderness for nature (on which we ultimately depend). For developing countries it is about life and death: unless people can have the right number of children for them and their community (via modern contraception), the problems of poverty, unemployment, hunger, loss of land and terrible conflicts over resources will escalate.


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