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I'm trying to decide whether to have a second child. Will I be contributing to global warming?

By Pablo Plastic
March 10, 2008 4:10PM (UTC)
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Dear Pablo,

I am trying to decide whether to have a second child. I am wondering about the environmental impact that an American/U.S. person will have over the course of his/her life. Our home is very green: veggie oil car, organic foods, mostly used items are purchased -- but I am wondering if you can possibly give me an answer. Sometimes I think that it would be wonderful for my son to have a sibling when the oceans are rising, and they can be in it together, but then I wonder if, by having a second, I am contributing to the oceans' rising?


So, are you somehow complicit in the coming climate apocalypse if you bring one more child into the world? In fact, your question is more philosophical in nature and does not lend itself to a black-and-white analysis. The answer is both yes and no.

On the one hand, the little one would be entering a model household in environmental consciousness. The fact that you are asking me this question is evidence enough for me. The upbringing of your child would, no doubt, be less environmentally harmful than that of his or her American peers. Large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions would be spared by your veggie-fueled cars, agricultural lands would be enriched, not degraded, by your consumption of organic produce, and the biodegradable diapers would harmlessly decompose in the landfill or compost pile. Maybe your progressive-thinking household would raise the next Nobel Prize-winning climate change crusader, or the scientist responsible for a breakthrough in cold fusion technology.

On the other hand, your child would still be raised in a highly inefficient society that has been conditioned to consume its way out of crises (e.g., the post-9/11 "America: Open for Business" campaign). Every day, America throws away around 20 times of our collective body weight in wasted resources, much more than we see in our trash cans at home. The average ecological footprint is 4.5 acres per person, while the ecological footprint of the average American is 24 acres. If all 6.5 billion humans on Earth lived like Americans, we would need 5.5 planets to sustain our resource and energy consumption. Over his or her lifetime, your additional child would be directly responsible (fuel and electricity use) for approximately 1,500 tons of greenhouse gas emissions and indirectly responsible for emissions from the production of U.S. consumer products that are made with dirty coal power in places like China.


Despite being one of the largest drivers of climate change, the question of population growth is strangely absent from public debate. It seems that addressing our growing global population is as taboo as taking shots of Jägermeister at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Perhaps any dialogue on the matter reminds us too much of the draconian, but arguably necessary, "one child" policy in China. But even China is now considering eliminating this law, which means the country's "annual number of births would increase by nearly 30 percent, or approximately five million additional births," figures the New York Times.

According to John Seager, president of Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth), the lack of dialogue on the matter is due to several factors. First is what he calls the "'illions' problem," the difficulty of grasping an issue of such enormity, and the difficulty of seeing how individual decisions can have an impact. Next is the "CIA problem," not the illegal-wiretapping CIA, but China, immigration and abortion, all of which are divisive and sensitive issues in our society. Finally, we live in a demographically fragmented world where the populations of most developed nations are trending downward, except for immigration, and where developing nations are experiencing uncontrolled population growth.

I would not advocate for a global ban on excessive procreation, although some groups go as far as advocating for "voluntary human extinction." I think voluntary measures to limit family size should be on the table and would ultimately be more effective. According to Robert Engelman of Worldwatch Institute, "hyper-low fertility [in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau] does speak to the feasibility of achieving lower fertility based not on coercive policies but on the reproductive choices of couples and individuals and good access to family planning services." Education and access to family-planning assistance can not only keep the population explosion in check but have a positive impact on poverty.


The population issue requires progressive and enlightened social policy, and the individual decision to have an additional child must be made within a global context. The average replacement rate is roughly 2.1 children per couple, one to replace each parent, and 0.1 to make up for childless couples and infant mortality. So any number of children that is fewer than 2.1 is simply a continuation of your genetic legacy. If your children are instilled with altruism and strong environmental values, their lives might actually represent a decrease in the environmental impact from your own lives. I am certain you are bound to make an enlightened choice about having another child.

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Pablo Plastic

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