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Child on desert wasteland

Small Family Ethic: Conversation Continues

Today I applaud an eminently logical, but also heartfelt, response to mindless criticism of the suggestion that conceiving fewer children is a smart, clean, humane way to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. After being featured in a U.S. National Public Radio story (Should We Be Having Kids in the Age of Climate Change?), bioethicist Travis Rieder found the need to address some of the intense reactions the story spawned.

Here at Growth Bias Busted we heaped high praise on NPR for running the story, and on Travis Rieder for daring to explore the topic. Of course, along with praise from yours truly and other sustainability advocates, the NPR story sparked a flurry of inane harrumphs from climate change science deniers and birth dearthers. I shared a few of these last week in Who’s Afraid of the Small Family Ethic.

Rieder’s response was published on The Conversation:

Bioethicist: The Climate Crisis Calls for Fewer Children

As one would expect, the growth boosters did not hold sway with the bioethicist.

“…the varied arguments against my views – that I’m overreacting, that the economy will tank and others – haven’t changed my conviction that we need to discuss the ethics of having children in this era of climate change.”

Rieder dispatches one criticism that surfaces like a bad penny every time someone suggests we’d be wise to exercise reproductive moderation:

“Obviously I don’t hate babies! I’m pretty wild about my own kid, and small humans in general…. The premise seems to be that those who wish to lower fertility rates must be misanthropic, or fail to see the value of humans. But that gets things exactly backwards: A radical concern for climate change is precisely motivated by a concern for human life….”

I’ve never had much success explaining this, so it’s great to see Rieder take a shot. Does this do the trick?

“I, like many philosophers, believe that it’s morally better to make people happy than to make happy people. Those who exist already have needs and wants, and protecting and providing for them is motivated by respect for human life. It is not a harm to someone not to be created.”

I generally add that, in today’s world, conceiving a child is very likely creating a life that will experience severe hardship. It also exacerbates the hardship existing children will face. Conceiving a second child does the same, and compounds the misery to be faced by the first child.

But I digress. This is Travis Rieder’s moment in the sun. I’ve shared here just a small sample. Read his entire argument, which includes a very patient bit about suggestions that we need to keep growing our population in order to grow the economy. Join me in congratulating him for giving this conversation some legs (and thanks again, to Jennifer Ludden and NPR for the story that helped).

“I’m arguing these points because I’m genuinely worried about the future of our planet, and the people who will inherit it, and I believe difficult yet civil discussion is the crucial first step to making that future one we won’t be condemned for creating.”


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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.

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