My Hot Heaven

It's hot out there today; chances are good the same is true wherever you live. And it's hot inside, too, at my house. Every day, I stand in front of the thermostat and face a little crisis of thermo-morality. I usually turn our old-fashioned Honeywell dial up to 82° or so, a bit higher at bedtime and a bit lower during the dinner hour. Other families undoubtedly tolerate higher temperatures: my friend the climate scientist won't set his below 84°.

For both of us, the climate scientist and me, our tortured, sweaty souls are plagued by a dose of environmental guilt over and above the typical privileged-liberal climate hypocrisy: we both have large families. And my ethical intuition tells me, loud and clear, large families ought to hold themselves to higher environmental standards.

Not everybody holds this view, of course, and I can understand why. It only makes sense if one has internalized two tenets of 21st century corporatized environmentalism: first, the notion of family size as a consumer lifestyle choice; and second, the logic of the carbon offset. (Two even deeper assumptions are at play, as well: that releasing carbon into the atmosphere has harmful effects on other humans, and that individual ought to reduce their carbon footprint. I understand that some folks reject these claims, but I think they're largely accepted among upper-middle-class Americans.)

Much as I deplore the nexus of consumer culture and biotechnology that encourages us to think of children as a lifestyle choice, it's hard to escape the reality that most upper-middle-class Americans believe that they can and should pursue the size and kind of family they want. If baby-making is not yet as straightforward as ordering from a menu, every year assisted reproductive technology brings us closer to that brave new world. When reproduction is understood primarily as a private matter, an issue of personal preference and self-expression, and when the freedoms to add more children or subtract (unborn) children are widely available, it's hard to see how the choice to have a large family is any different from the choice to drive a gas-guzzler or fly to China ten times a year.

And make no mistake: adding an additional child to the global population is by far the largest carbon footprint any two individuals can leave on the planet, especially when one considers the further effects of that child's own offspring.

Having a large family by choice is like driving a large car for fun, by this logic. (Having a large family also implies driving a large car, though not for fun.) And following that argument through, the same kind of environmental remedy should apply in both cases: the carbon offset, or something like it.

The carbon offset is a reduction in carbon emissions made by an individual or organization to neutralize increased emissions in elsewhere. Several cars in my neighborhood sport Terra Pass bumperstickers—most of them are Priuses, naturally—signaling that they offset the carbon emissions of the car by contributing to carbon-reducing initiatives. A writer I know produces columns mentioning her eco-friendly thermostat setting, signaling that she offsets the carbon emissions of her large brood. In both cases, environmental guilt is partially assuaged, and a certain kind of social signaling is accomplished. Who knows, some miniscule reduction in global carbon emissions may even occur.

Market forces alone encourage a rudimentary offset effect for many large families. Economies of scale make larger households more efficient, per capita, than smaller households. And carbon is expensive, so large families presumably consume less per capita than smaller families through reduced air travel, reduced demand for consumer goods, and other purse-string domestic economies. But this only applies to what the economists call elastic demand—optional consumption—and for large families a number of inelastic carbon demands remain: a big-enough house and a big-enough car, for example. Perhaps large families undertake fewer frivolous kitchen remodels or car upgrades, but that hardly offsets the fact of the large house and large car.

This points toward the several flaws in the fundamental premise of the carbon offset. Critiques of the offset are many, beginning with the empirical objection that it is much more difficult than it seems to calculate the net carbon effects of most everyday choices, let alone the mitigating effects of the supposed offsets. Others make a moral objection to the carbon offset, likening it to a papal indulgence that encourages irresponsible behavior by neutralizing guilt.

The biggest problem with the idea of carbon-offsetting behavior for large families is the simple fact that even the most extreme environmental measures can never compensate for the lifetime carbon effects of introducing another human into the global population—especially when the child is born in the developed world. From a strictly carbon-reducing perspective, the elective creation of another human being can never be justified. And this, in turn, points to the intractable contradiction at the center of contemporary environmental politics centered on carbon emissions: it is not merely human behavior that is the problem, it is human reproduction.

7/20/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Rosalynde Welch
    About Rosalynde Welch
    Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.