Preliminary Ramblings on Population and the Environment

The past week Canada’s national newsweekly, Maclean’s, ran an article about the voluntarily childless.  Later that same week, the University of Oregon produced a study on the negative impact that having children has on the environment.  Conservative groups are firing back with their documentaries, Demographic Winter and Demographic Bomb.  I also happened to come across Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s interesting piece that, among other things, indicates the trouble with an aging population.

With all this circling my head, a few questions have emerged.  I am not an expert on the environment, nor in demographics, and I have not worked on this long enough to make any iron-clad claims.  I am, nevertheless, concerned with the presumptions behind the arguments of the would-be population limiters.

The basic claim of the Oregon study is that having a child vastly outweighs any tiny impact one’s environmentally-friendly habits (driving a hybrid, recycling, using energy-efficient bulbs and appliances) might have.  I have not read the study, but the media coverage I have seen is suggesting that anyone having more than two children is being extremely selfish and causing untold harm.  My first question is, “Why two?”  Shouldn’t we encourage families to have one or zero?

Two seems rather arbitrary.  It’s not like the third child is the one causing all the environmental damage.  In fact, it seems to me that the biggest problem lies with having the first.  Having Toby drastically changed my way of life.  The sheer amount of things I needed made me much more sympathetic to the historical Catholic link between poverty and chastity.  Having Oscar barely cost us a thing.  Large families are vastly more efficient in their use of resources than smaller ones.

Now, part of the Oregon study’s conclusions are based on the environmental impact that the children of our children will have.  Including this in the calculations ensures truly astronomical savings from not having a given child to start with.  I am curious, though: “Why is the impact of having children who will presumably have children not simply infinite?”  Where do they stop calculating?  If I am to count the carbon footprint of all my potential descendants when weighing the environmental cost of having one child, surely I shouldn’t have any children.

The two-child suggestion in the media seems a mere concession to human sentimentality rather than a rational conclusion from the data.  What’s more, it seems at least possible that, should this logic come to be politically in vogue, such a concession will quickly disappear.  The real response to such a study is not that we should limit our families, but that we simply shouldn’t have them.  (Of course, all of this presumes that humans are simply consumers and not producers.  God forbid my kid grows up to be an engineer who builds public transit systems.  Or an environmental scientist at the University of Oregon.)

The study notes, apparently, that it is we North Americans who are really the problem.  Our children will leave roughly 7 times the carbon footprint of a child born in China.  (One wonders about the child born in Sierra Leone.)  So, while the rest of the world can breed with minimal impact, we need to stop.  This opens up a whole new arena of questions.

I live in Canada where it is clear that we will support our economy and our social security by means of immigration.  We don’t have enough babies to sustain the companies that want to sell us things, nor to pay for the retirements of the generations that came before us.  We need to import the one resource that makes the economy work:  people.  (And we’re only taking the best and brightest, so the third world is going to have to do with a touch fewer doctors, engineers, and entrepreneurs.)  But if we’re bringing in the kids born in China and Sierra Leone, don’t they start having the same environmental impact as the rest of us?  Our economies demand people, whether they’re born here or not, and once they live here, they’re going to burn as much carbon as we do.

What seems entirely lacking is the recognition that the system is broken.  The answer to using 7 times as many resources is to have 1/7 the children.  We are told that all our recycling won’t get us anywhere near where we need to be in order to be sustainable.  Surely that is true on an individual level.  It is impossible for a North American to live on fewer resources than an African, but is that inevitable?  Are there really no systematic changes we could make to cut down our resource consumption in a meaningful way?  Are hybrids and blue bins the best we can do?

My brother is an architect.  He says that we know with some certainty how to design cities so as to drastically cut down resource consumption but that it is politically impossible to do so.  Developers who make more money from strip malls and suburbia than from efficient city living quickly dismantle any project that would work.

How does the average North American live?  In a (relatively) huge house in suburbia with one or two children.  We all have (relatively) huge yards that take literally tonnes of water and fertilizer and herbicide so that they can sit empty for at least 95% of the time.  We spend hours a day burning fossil fuel in traffic because we all have cars and we all live a long way from where we work.  Is this really inevitable?

I live in an apartment in downtown Toronto.  I share a couple of on-site parks with the hundreds of other families that occupy student family housing.  I don’t have a car.  If I need one, I can rent it or join a car-sharing co-operative like zipcar.  Many of the families in our building that do have a vehicle only use it when they go out of town.  I share three walls, a ceiling and a floor with neighbours, so my heating and cooling costs are radically lower than those of a free-standing home.  My sewage, garbage collection – yes, even my recycling – are looked after with a fraction of the resources that it would take in suburbia.  I walk to school.  My wife walks or takes public transit to work.  My kids go to daycare in our building.  I don’t have a lawn to water, but I have many potential green spaces to frequent.  In short, if some suburbanite chastises me for having too many kids because of the environmental cost, he hasn’t a leg to stand on.

Nevertheless, it seems quite likely that I will one day be a suburbanite.  I will have to move to where I can find work when I am done my doctorate, and chances of finding affordable housing that will hold my growing family (even if we have no more children, the lads are getting bigger) and function at the level of efficiency I currently enjoy are slim to none.  This inevitability is one of those things taken for granted by the authors of the Oregon study.  They presume that North Americans must continue to live the way they live now.  (Of course I recognize that a scientific study that presumes no constants can never really conclude anything.  Still, such a presumption could be acknowledged, even challenged, in the study’s conclusions.)  It seems to them that convincing us to have fewer children is much easier than convincing us to organize our society more efficiently.  I wonder if they even considered it as an alternative.

Perhaps the craziest part of it all is that, while we fight global warming, we are simultaneously trying to fight third-world poverty.  And how do we do that?  By exporting our economic model that has made this way of life a virtual necessity.

What we should be doing is building communities where families can live at peak efficiency, where people can walk to work and take advantage of public amenities, where the choice isn’t between a gas guzzler and a hybrid, but between transit, renting, and a car co-op.

What we’re doing instead is selling gas guzzlers and pre-packaged food and our whole throw-away lifestyle to the third world.   They can have kids, for now.  We need them to emigrate and pay for our retirements.  But once their lifestyles have become as inefficient as ours, they’ll have to stop.  We can always sell them the pill, right?

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto.  He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.  He is the co-author of How Far Can We Go?  A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.

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  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    FANTASTIC post. Thank you Brett.

    They presume that North Americans must continue to live the way they live now. It seems to them that convincing us to have fewer children is much easier than convincing to organize our society more efficiently. I wonder if they even considered it as an alternative.

    This is exactly right.

    I live in an apartment in downtown Toronto. I share a couple on-site parks with the hundreds of other families that occupy student family housing.

    Good seeing you in the elevator yesterday. 😉

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Wonderful post, Brett. You truly illustrate the lack of imagination. It seems we are stuck in a binary way of thinking either/or. Instead we should be asking “what are the real problems and what can we do to solve them?” When asked that way, imagine the infinite possibilities to solve such problems.

  • Matt Talbot

    How does the average North American live? In a (relatively) huge house in suburbia with one or two children. We all have (relatively) huge yards that take literally tonnes of water and fertilizer and herbicide so that they can sit empty for at least 95% of the time. We spend hours a day burning fossil fuel in traffic because we all have cars and we all live a long way from where we work. Is this really inevitable?

    No, it is not; I think it would be better to arrange our civilization under the basic plan that obtained before about 1920; compact neighborhoods centered around public spaces (parks, civic buildings, the local parish church.)

    Widespread automobile ownership has been a net negative, in my judgment. Putting aside the ecological damage they do, the physical arrangement of space in the United States is governed my the needs of cars rather than the needs of human psychology.

  • Matt Talbot

    How does the average North American live? In a (relatively) huge house in suburbia with one or two children. We all have (relatively) huge yards that take literally tonnes of water and fertilizer and herbicide so that they can sit empty for at least 95% of the time. We spend hours a day burning fossil fuel in traffic because we all have cars and we all live a long way from where we work. Is this really inevitable?

    No, it is not; I think it would be better to arrange our civilization under the basic plan that obtained before about 1920; compact neighborhoods centered around public spaces (parks, civic buildings, the local parish church.)

    Widespread automobile ownership has been a net negative, in my judgment. Putting aside the ecological damage they do, the physical arrangement of space in the United States is governed my the needs of cars rather than the needs of human psychology.

  • Matt Talbot

    How does the average North American live? In a (relatively) huge house in suburbia with one or two children. We all have (relatively) huge yards that take literally tonnes of water and fertilizer and herbicide so that they can sit empty for at least 95% of the time. We spend hours a day burning fossil fuel in traffic because we all have cars and we all live a long way from where we work. Is this really inevitable?

    No, it is not; I think it would be better to arrange our civilization under the basic plan that obtained before about 1920; compact neighborhoods centered around public spaces (parks, civic buildings, the local parish church.)

    Widespread automobile ownership has been a net negative, in my judgment. Putting aside the ecological damage they do, the physical arrangement of space in the United States is governed my the needs of cars rather than the needs of human psychology.

  • Blackadder

    Excellent post.

    As paradoxical as it might sound, natural resources tend to become more plentiful the more people there are (this sounds less strange once you realize that we only consider something a “resource” once someone has figured out how to do something useful with it). So if the problem is that resources are too scarce, having fewer children won’t solve the problem (and might end up making it worse).

  • Dennis

    This stuff is scary. It seems that what is being advocated in the articles you link is more “anti-human” than “pro-environment”

    Sierra club’s stated beliefs and goals contain:
    http://www.sierraclub.org/policy/downloads/goals.pdf

    Belief:

    “…..we must control human population numbers”

    and goal:

    “To control human population growth and impacts; to limit human population numbers…”

  • B.C.

    A fundamental sign of a declining civilization is an unecssary low birth rate. I think history attests to this…..

  • Matt Talbot

    As paradoxical as it might sound, natural resources tend to become more plentiful the more people there are (this sounds less strange once you realize that we only consider something a “resource” once someone has figured out how to do something useful with it).

    Well, sort of. If you mean that available natural resources tend to become more commonplace in an economy once they become valuable, then I’d say that is correct. However, if you’re saying that individual commodities (oil, for example) become more abundant in an absolute sense, then that’s obviously incorrect. Non-renewable resources begin depleting the moment they start to be used.

  • Matt Talbot

    As paradoxical as it might sound, natural resources tend to become more plentiful the more people there are (this sounds less strange once you realize that we only consider something a “resource” once someone has figured out how to do something useful with it).

    Well, sort of. If you mean that available natural resources tend to become more commonplace in an economy once they become valuable, then I’d say that is correct. However, if you’re saying that individual commodities (oil, for example) become more abundant in an absolute sense, then that’s obviously incorrect. Non-renewable resources begin depleting the moment they start to be used.

  • Matt Talbot

    As paradoxical as it might sound, natural resources tend to become more plentiful the more people there are (this sounds less strange once you realize that we only consider something a “resource” once someone has figured out how to do something useful with it).

    Well, sort of. If you mean that available natural resources tend to become more commonplace in an economy once they become valuable, then I’d say that is correct. However, if you’re saying that individual commodities (oil, for example) become more abundant in an absolute sense, then that’s obviously incorrect. Non-renewable resources begin depleting the moment they start to be used.

  • Nathan S.

    excellent post.

    Matt – I agree. What humans need is connection via small homes around a common area. All through out history, that has been the way human being naturally organize themselves.

    B.C. – yes low birth rate has precedent the end of many empires. It is sad that some people have equated “pro-environment” with “anti-human.”

    Children are a source of joy; yes life-changing but as the result of my son I am now less-selfish and more compassionate of others and more concerned about the world. Children are a blessing. I feel very sad for those who think otherwise.

  • brettsalkeld

    Yes non-renewable resources do have an absolute value that starts decreasing as soon as they are used. I’m sure Blackadder was taking this into account. On the other hand, you never really know what is a resource until you discover a use for it. Using fossil fuels for energy was probably inevitable, but it has been rather unfortunate (even disastrous) long-term. When we are able to harness wind and sun more effectively they will become resources in a way that they weren’t before. And as Blackadder points out, it is going to have to be a human who figures out just how to harness them, thus making them into resources. Taken to the limit, no humans = no resources. This does not mean, of course, that any way of using resources is responsible and humane.

  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    And as Blackadder points out, it is going to have to be a human who figures out just how to harness them, thus making them into resources. Taken to the limit, no humans = no resources. This does not mean, of course, that any way of using resources is responsible and humane.

    It also means that monopolistic capitalism, which solidifies reliance on a few specific resources (coal, oil etc.) and shuts out the possibility of new ideas (sustainable resources), has got to go.

  • Blackadder

    if you’re saying that individual commodities (oil, for example) become more abundant in an absolute sense, then that’s obviously incorrect. Non-renewable resources begin depleting the moment they start to be used.

    I’ll grant you that the total volume of black gunk on earth starts to drop once we figure out a way to use it. On the other hand, it’s also possible that through human ingenuity we can find ways to 1) find more oil, 2) extract it more cheaply, and 3) use it more efficiently. There’s no reason why the effective supply of oil or other resources couldn’t increase due to these factors even if in some absolute sense the total amount of the gunk was slowly declining. And, in fact, this is what has happened historically, which is why, for example, oil is less scarce now than it was a hundred years ago.

  • B.C.

    I am no expert in economics, but have always had an intuition that community based capitalism would seem to work (possibly with some initital capital input from the different levels of government in the poorer areas) where local citizens own local businesses and local citizens are employed by these businesses and local citizens “use” these local businesses. In capitalism, wealth can create wealth, money, money.

    If there is a kind of local economics, wouldn’t any given community, acting as an “authentic” community see their local wealth rise ?

    Many monopolistic international corporations would possibly “disappear” with such a model.

    I might be mistaken, but I thought that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were exploring this sort of idea before they were assasinated.

    Any ideas for a newbie in this field in terms of material to read, etc. ?

  • Blackadder

    B.C.,

    I’m not sure I understand your proposal. Are you envisioning that there would be local car manufacturers, local computer companies, a local smelting plant, and so forth?

  • B.C.

    Blackadder,

    I DO see your valid point here. However, even with your given examples, couldn’t the answer be “yes”…?

  • Blackadder

    B.C.,

    Good question. There’s an old essay by Leonard Read called I, Pencil in which Read describes what goes in to making a simple pencil and all the people who are involved in the process. Think of the thousands if not millions of people involved (everyone from the loggers who cut down the trees used as wood to the farmers who grow the castor beans used in the lacquer). Even if we ignore the fact that no local community has all of the raw materials needed to make a pencil, it’s not clear that a small community would be able to make even a pencil, simply because they wouldn’t have enough people. Now imagine what it would take to make a computer or a car. It’s just not possible.

  • B.C.

    Blackadder,

    Yes, that is why I said your point was a valid point in your previous remark. It is. And the pencil example is as good as any.

    I’m just wondering (word “wonderding” emphasized..lol), if an economic system could be envisioned that would allow a local population to “take ownership” of their own community wealth and by doing so “rise” above itself concerning wealth (especially among poor communities).

    Your point is well taken and obviously true.

    However, is it out of the relm of possibility that given what you say, some kind of local “owership” could be devised ? Maybe not. Just thinking here…

  • Matt Talbot

    which is why, for example, oil is less scarce now than it was a hundred years ago.

    Well, yes: 100 years ago people didn’t feed their horses gasoline, and thus there was less demand for it: but there is way less oil in the ground than there was back then.

  • Matt Talbot

    which is why, for example, oil is less scarce now than it was a hundred years ago.

    Well, yes: 100 years ago people didn’t feed their horses gasoline, and thus there was less demand for it: but there is way less oil in the ground than there was back then.

  • Matt Talbot

    which is why, for example, oil is less scarce now than it was a hundred years ago.

    Well, yes: 100 years ago people didn’t feed their horses gasoline, and thus there was less demand for it: but there is way less oil in the ground than there was back then.

  • Blackadder

    100 years ago people didn’t feed their horses gasoline, and thus there was less demand for it: but there is way less oil in the ground than there was back then.

    This actually heightens my point. If the price of something falls even though demand is rising rapidly it must be that supply is increasing even more than demand.

    Again, it’s true that there’s less of the black goo in the ground now than there was a hundred years ago. It’s also true that with each passing day the sun gets closer to burning itself out (indeed, in an absolute sense sunlight is a less renewable resource than oil; given enough time the earth will make more oil, whereas the sun doesn’t replenish itself). Do we care? We do not. What matters is not whether the total physical volume of oil on earth is increasing or decreasing but whether the available supply is increasing or decreasing. As with most resources, the trend has been for the supply to increase.

  • doug

    Interesting article. I was disappointed that there wasn’t more of a condemnation of the anti-life position in addition to the very good point made about North American use of resources.

    We don’t need to live like we are in a third world country, however we can certainly be more wise in our use of resources. I am able to raise eight children on my salary, while my co-workers claim they have a hard time budgeting with two or no children and two earners in the household. We buy bulk avoiding packaging, cook from scratch, and I bicycle to work, driving a plug in electric car during the winter.

    The “carbon footprint” is a red herring. It is used to distract us from the fact that our children are blessings from God, and our neighbors are worthy of the same love for which we love ourselves. The idea of the “carbon footprint” is ultimately to take, not to give. It will obscure the individual by focusing on large numbers. When the individual is obscured, then love is no longer necessary. Once love has been discarded, then society looks to eliminate the individual as a threat. This is the real purpose behind the U of O study.

  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    I was disappointed that there wasn’t more of a condemnation of the anti-life position in addition to the very good point made about North American use of resources.

    Sadly, no matter how strongly any of us here at VN condemn abortion, it’s not good enough for some folks.

    The “carbon footprint” is a red herring. It is used to distract us from the fact that our children are blessings from God, and our neighbors are worthy of the same love for which we love ourselves.

    No need to ignore or toss out the legitimate concern about “carbon footprints.” Brett’s point is exactly that there is no real conflict between these values.

    The idea of the “carbon footprint” is ultimately to take, not to give. It will obscure the individual by focusing on large numbers. When the individual is obscured, then love is no longer necessary.

    Concern for one’s “carbon footprint” is very much about love.

  • doug

    Michael, I find that no matter how much I try to find common ground with liberals, it’s also not good enough if I have less than absolute praise. I had no disagreements with the article. None whatsoever. My comments were directed at the mentality of those who wrote the University of Oregon study, not those at Vox Nova. I graduated from the University of Oregon and I am well acquainted with the fact that it is an epicenter of the Culture of Death.

    To clarify a bit, regarding my comment that I was disappointed about there not being more condemnation of the anti-life position, it’s an issue of writing style. The style of writing employed makes it a little bit uncertain in places at first whether Brett agrees or disagrees with the folks from the U of O. It would be very easy to misunderstand this article. I had to read it twice to connect all the dots.

  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    doug – I think it’s baffling that you think Brett was ambiguous in this article.

  • doug

    I did not say he was ambiguous. I said it would be very easy to misunderstand it. There’s a difference.

    Ambiguity means that more than one interpretation can be correct. That is not the case here.

    I said it would be very easy to misunderstand it because of the way the article flows. We conservative Catholics are not as smart as liberals, and we need things said bluntly and repeatedly. That way if we’re interrupted by our gaggle of kids five times while reading the article, we can bear in mind that the author said

    “I am, nevertheless, concerned with the presumptions behind the arguments of the would-be population limiters.”

    When one later reads

    “The answer to using 7 times as many resources is to have 1/7 the children.”

    It’s a good article.

  • brettsalkeld

    Oh dear, I do hope this piece does not identify me as a liberal. 😉

    On a more serious note, Doug does have a point. It is my ‘style’ to give the arguments of those I disagree with without (too much) sarcasm or rancor. It is my hope that if they can recognize their arguments in what I am saying they are more likely to follow through to the natural conclusions of those arguments. It isn’t exactly ‘rally-the-troops’ fire and brimstone, but I operate under the conviction that such argumentation will win more people over than that which puts them immediately on the defensive.

    I’m sorry if that disappoints some people who agree with my basic points, but I do think that the anti-life tendencies of those I oppose don’t really need to be pointed out all that strongly. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear need only read the population-limiters own arguments (e.g. in some of the links I included) to discern it. It may be that those on the fence will be better able to perceive it if I don’t insist on it too loudly for them.

  • doug

    :)

  • brettsalkeld

    B.C. One writer I would recommend concerning how to organize local economies and specifically giving workers and communities ownership of their production is our former contributor Joe Hargrave.

  • Matt Talbot

    What Brett said – Joe is a great writer, and what he has to say is fresh and important.

  • Matt Talbot

    What Brett said – Joe is a great writer, and what he has to say is fresh and important.

  • Matt Talbot

    What Brett said – Joe is a great writer, and what he has to say is fresh and important.

  • http://foreverinhell.blogspot.com Personal Failure

    Two isn’t arbitrary, my dear. It’s called “replacement population”. Since it takes two people to make a baby, they need to have two babies to make up for their eventual deaths. Three babies would represent an increase in population (assuming everyone was having two), one would be a decrease in population.

  • brettsalkeld

    Whether two is an arbitrary number depends on the issue at hand. If you are actually concerned with replacing the current population, two is not arbitrary. But what is it about the current population that is so ideal that we would want to replace it precisely? Indeed, deciding that the population is perfect as it stands seems very arbitrary. In the context the U of O study gives us, why would we want to replace a carbon burner? In the context of population replacement, two is not arbitrary; in the context of protecting the environment, it certainly is.