A comment on climate-motivated anti-natalism

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From the Usborne Book of the Future

According to some commentators, the best way to reduce your GHG emissions is to have fewer children. This is false; having fewer children is not even a way to reduce your GHG emissions, let alone the best way. While having one less child may indeed reduce overall emissions, it does this by reducing someone else’s emissions to zero — a feat they can accomplish only because they have never existed. No one capable of posing the question “how can I reduce my GHG emissions?” is capable of accomplishing this feat. The question “how can I reduce my GHG emissions?” is about how people who do or will come to exist can live well with a reduced climate footprint. Insofar as climate change is a soluble problem, it can only be solved by answering this question. Because anti-natalism does not answer the question, I don’t see how it can play much of a role in solving the problem at hand.

6 thoughts on “A comment on climate-motivated anti-natalism

  1. This strikes me as splitting hairs–at best. The most important question is not “How can I reduce my GHG emissions?” but “How can I reduce GHG emissions?” tout court. For instance, supporting and campaigning for increased use of public transit does not reduce my GHG emissions either, nor does any sort of political action, and yet it is public solutions which are the most important, not individual consumer actions. Choosing to have fewer children than one otherwise would does, as the post concedes, reduce GHG emissions tout court. And it is a reduction that will follow reliably from an individual decision, which is not true of political action and consequences.
    Basically, the post strikes me as the kind of argument one makes against something when one has entirely different reasons for disliking it which are harder to articulate. So for instance on the right, people hate reductions in population growth because to them, capitalism==growth and steady states or worse, reductions, seem sacrilegious. On the left people hate reductions in population growth because Malthus was a right-winger who had toxic motivations for his famous anti-population-growth thesis and they absolutely cannot stand the idea of agreeing with him. Those probably aren’t your motivations, but I can’t see this bit of irrelevance as being the real reason either.

    At this stage, the problem with deciding to reduce the number of children one brings into the world as an anti-GHG measure is that the hour is late and its effects are too slow. But it would have been a pretty good strategy 30 years ago. And it remains relevant to a lot of other environmental issues, such as overfishing, soil erosion, habitat destruction, mountains of waste et cetera. If the population continues to increase indefinitely, all other solutions ultimately become ineffectual reductions of intensity.

    (As a side note, there is actually an evangelical movement in North America which believes in population growth as social warfare; the “quiverfull” movement defines children as ammunition, the faithful’s “quiver of arrows” with which to out-reproduce the infidel. It’s an explicit rendering of a theme which has been noticeable among evangelicals for some time. Probably related to white supremacist ideas of non-whites as inherently fast-reproducing beings whose children are seen as a threat.)


    • I agree that political action is also not a thing that individuals can do to reduce their emissions, and exhortations to take up political action are not a good answer to the question “what can I do to reduce my emissions” either. And yet it wouldn’t follow that people shouldn’t bother taking up political action to fight climate change. Political action is important because it can influence the deployment of public resources and coercive power in ways that give living people more options for reducing their climate impact, and encourage or force people to take advantage of those options. So prescribing political action in answer to the question “what can I do to reduce my emissions” is changing the subject, but it doesn’t do so in a pernicious way because it naturally leads right back to the question of how people might go about living less GHG-intensive lives (because it would be impossible to know what policies we ought to be pursuing through political action without at least a fairly general set of answers to this question). Prescribing having fewer children in response to this question, on the other hand, does change the subject in a pernicious way, because it leads discussion away from the issue of how people might live less GHG-intensive lives and encourages the perception that the best way to live a sufficiently less GHG-intensive life is not to live at all.


      • Also I’m skeptical that having one less child would even reduce overall emissions. Big emitters like Canada compensate for a low (sub-replacement) and falling fertility rate by encouraging immigration (temporary or permanent). The expected response to an even lower fertility rate would be a higher immigration target. So deliberately reducing the fertility rate in a big emitter like Canada will only reduce overall emissions if caps on immigration are maintained or reduced at the same time. And here I will admit my (somewhat) unrelated ideological commitments come into play: I support open borders, so I can’t support the policy change that would be necessary for a further decline in the Canadian fertility rate to translate into an overall drop in emissions.


      • I dunno about “best”, but certainly in theory anyone who doesn’t exist does in fact cause fewer GHG emissions than anyone who does. And I don’t see what the problem is, exactly. You sound as if the act of not having children is positively immoral, like it’s some kind of abortion process uprooting potential people who might have existed. But only a tiny fraction of those who can potentially exist ever will, and nearly everyone has far fewer children than they would potentially have been capable of if they tried constantly. Are they guilty of their failure to have two dozen kids? Further, every choice to for instance have children with one person forecloses the potential one could have had to have children with someone else; every decision to have one child means you’re not having millions of others that you might have had. Even if you made such a slight change as doing your procreating a few minutes later a different sperm would get there first. So this vibe that not having children, or sticking to one child, is some kind of nihilist act of erasure is pretty unsupportable. Every sperm is not sacred.

        I’m replying to your second reply here because for some reason I can’t reply to that one. Carrying on, I think immigration is driven more by push than by pull–and that push is a result largely of NATO policies creating instability in the countries from which the immigrants come. If we stopped destabilizing those countries the people who live there would mostly be happy to stay in their homes rather than take horribly risky leaps into the unknown. But to some extent, given an otherwise normal status quo, yes, Canada would “compensate” for lower fertility by importing more people. But an otherwise normal status quo is not going to stop global warming anyway. If we maintain both imperialism and an “economic growth at all costs” mindset that says lack of population growth must be “compensated” for, we’re going to continue to emit lots of GHGs. We need a general change of mindset which allows for limits to growth; limits to growth specifically in population is not a change of subject, pernicious or otherwise. It’s just one facet of a general outlook.

        In any case I hadn’t initially assumed your post to be solely about Canada, since Canada wasn’t actually mentioned. I’d be fine with people everywhere having fewer children. I wouldn’t be fine with the Chinese approach to that (although I don’t think it would be great if China’s population had kept growing like India’s), but for instance if a majority agree that a lower world population is a good idea, subsidizing birth control–even making it free–so that the individual choices of poor people are not forced in a particular direction by their inability to afford it seems reasonable. And it would be very peculiar to say people in areas where they don’t actually emit a lot of GHGs should have fewer children, but people in areas where they do should keep on having kids. That would seem inequitable and kind of perverse. But it’s also inequitable to deprive people in those areas of birth control options that we take for granted; nobody ever seems to ask them whether they actually want masses of kids. Ideally, they should be in a position to make the same philosophical reflections on the question that we have the leisure for, but failing that their options should at least be maximized.


      • “You sound as if the act of not having children is positively immoral, like it’s some kind of abortion process uprooting potential people who might have existed.”

        I don’t know where you get that idea. For maximum clarity: I don’t believe having fewer children or no children is wrong. Nor do I believe that having children, or having a greater number of children, is morally better than having no children or having fewer children. I also don’t believe that abortion is wrong, or that having an abortion is morally worse than not conceiving. And I don’t believe there’s an obligation to bring any particular people into existence.

        “In any case I hadn’t initially assumed your post to be solely about Canada, since Canada wasn’t actually mentioned.”

        Right, the post is not specifically about Canada. I brought up Canada because it’s an example of a country that emits a lot of GHGs. The prescription “have fewer/no children as a way of fighting climate change” is generally addressed only to inhabitants of rich countries like Canada, partly because these are the places where shrinking the population might noticeably reduce overall emissions and partly because the fertility rate is so strongly affected by factors like wealth and inequality (people in poor countries do not need to be told to have fewer children in order to contain and reverse global population growth – they will have fewer children if their societies become richer and more equal).


      • Apologies for misconstruing you. When you say things like it being “pernicious” to “encourage the perception that the best way to live a sufficiently less GHG-intensive life is not to live at all” it just sounds rather . . . scandalized by the unlife.

        The societies of people in poor countries are probably not going to become richer and more equal for as long as the societies of people in rich countries are addicted to growth, since the economic growth of the rich countries is intimately connected with the poverty of the poor ones. (I realize the Davos crowd see it otherwise, but as far as I can tell their statistics are cherry-picked, with problems such as subsistence farmers with little cash income being considered poor, but ex-subsistence farmers thrown off their land, moved to the rapidly-growing slums of third world cities, and making $2.10/day then being considered “not poor”. It also seems as if more than 100% of the world’s poverty reduction for a number of years was happening in China alone–which is to say, all the rest of the third world was actually getting poorer, but the reduced poverty in China masked the phenomenon) The instability created by warlike policies is necessary to maintain the extraction of wealth which, together with the instability itself, causes the poverty. When third world countries are allowed to become stable, they tend to start instituting effective, relatively nationalist governance and want to keep their wealth.

        What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with anything? Well, I think that a comprehensive shift in Western economic ideas sufficient to result in really serious reductions in GHGs would have to include an end to the emphasis on economic growth, one corollary of which would involve an end to using the military (with its massive GHG emissions) to maintain access to third world wealth. In the absence of enforced instability and extraction of their wealth, the third world would become more prosperous and less unequal (and likely their population growth would slow). In such a case, one side of acceptance of steady state or even degrowth in economics in rich countries would be that population reduction would stop being a taboo. But at the same time, the push to immigration from third world countries would greatly decline, because we wouldn’t be making it suck to live there. So it would be possible for the rich countries to reduce their population without it being replaced from outside, even without imposing draconian limits.
        So I’d think the conditions for conscious population reduction in wealthy countries would also be the conditions for reduced emigration from poor countries, so there’s a decent chance your scenario would not apply. But it would have to be part of an overall non-growth-oriented ethos.

        Even if it did, technically every immigrant from a country is one less person living in that country, and so even if Canada busily replaced every non-born child with an immigrant there would still be some effect, just a small one equivalent to that many fewer people in low-emission countries rather than that many fewer Canadians. And in the end, numbers matter; 5 billion or 3 billion people are very likely to put less stress on the biosphere than 10 billion people.


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