Daniel Engber talks with readers about depopulation and the environmental impact of procreating.

Daniel Engber talks with readers about depopulation and the environmental impact of procreating.

Daniel Engber talks with readers about depopulation and the environmental impact of procreating.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Sept. 13 2007 6:15 PM

Controlling Ourselves

Daniel Engber takes readers' tough questions on depopulation and the environmental impact of procreating.

Slate writer and editor Daniel Engber was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, Sept. 13, to chat about population control and the environmental impact of having children. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Daniel Engber: Hello—I'm looking forward to answering some of your questions about population and the environment. Let's get started ...

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Los Angeles: In furtherance of a greener solution, shouldn't the environmentally friendly advice be to adopt children before considering having one of your own? If the goal is to become a parent, there are plenty of kids who need homes now. Can't we enlighten ourselves as a species and begin frowning on those who procreate just to see their features in their childrens' faces?

Daniel Engber: That's an interesting point. In one sense, adopting a child certainly would be a greener option than having your own baby, since you're not adding to the total population of the world. But it's worth keeping in mind that anytime a wealthy American adopts a child from the developing world—I'm looking at you, Angelina Jolie—there's a dramatic increase in the total CO2 emissions associated with that child as he grows up and lives his life.

That's not a reason to avoid adoption; it's a good thing to rescue babies from a life of poverty. But if you're thinking about the environment—and your own carbon footprint in particular—fewer children are always better than more.

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Washington: Zero population growth is the solution. How? For starters, eliminate the federal tax credits for kids. Impose taxes on families who decide to have kids. Let them bear the cost of educating them themselves.

Daniel Engber: I don't see how "Zero Population Growth" is the solution for anything. We could keep the Earth's population where it is now—about 6.7 billion—for centuries, and we'd still bring about an ecological catastrophe. Moreover, demographers predict that the world's population will begin to level off on its own over the course of the next century.

I'm not arguing (as Weisman does) for depopulating the planet in absolute terms. Instead, I'm saying that it's silly to talk about reducing your own, individual CO2-emissions without considering the effect of having an additional child.

Even if the Earth's population were declining, it would still be better for the environment to have fewer children.

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Kansas City, Mo.: You make only a cursory mention of China's effect on the environment, which has been catastrophic for the planet. Example: 25 percent of mercury emmissions in the U.S actually originate in China, and its reliance on coal has global repercussions, all of them bad. Even if we all follow the green advice in your column, the effect would be negigible because of the massive pollution coming from China—which, by the way, is conveniently exempt from the restrictions of the Kyoto Treaty. Can we have a discussion about these issues in your next article? Perhaps you could do some research next time!

Daniel Engber: That's the classic retort for any "green lifestyle" proposal in the United States: Why should we do anything about global warming, since most of the greenhouse gas is going to come from China and India, anyway?

True, your decision about whether to have a third child isn't going to make much of a difference to the world. But the goal of personal (or consumer-based) environmentalism isn't to solve the problem single-handedly. It's to create a cultural climate that's more conducive to significant global change.

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You don't have to follow the advice in this column, but anyone who does want to live a green lifestyle should think seriously about what it means to have each additional child.

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Washington: I just don't buy into this whole "live greener" movement. To me it's just a way for rich, educated white people to separate themselves from the poorer masses. I recycle, and I use mostly biodegradable products, but I'd never choose not to have kids just to reduce carbon emissions. The Earth can take care of itself without my help.

Daniel Engber: There are lots of ways for rich, educated white people to separate themselves from the poorer masses. If that's the goal, I'd rather people did it by "living greener" than any of the other options.

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A question for you: If the Earth can take care of itself without your help, why bother with the recycling and biodegradable products?

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Glenside, Pa.: While I agree with you in principle, maybe you should consider that those who would follow your advice are the ones most likely to care about the environment, while those who will have children are probably of the view that global warming is something the "liberal media" has made up. Then we are only left with people who could care less about the planet. Not sure if that's what you had in mind.

Daniel Engber: In the article, I refer to this as the "idiocracy argument." That's a reference to the Mike Judge movie that imagines a dystopic future in which all the smart people have birth-controlled themselves out of existence.

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Here's why I don't buy it: First, no matter how well-intentioned they are, most environmentalists aren't good for the environment (they're just better for the environment than everybody else). It's hard to imagine that their Green Party votes make up for a lifetime of CO2-emissions, for starters.

Second, if you're an environmentalist, it doesn't necessarily mean that your child will be one, too. By the same token, a climate change skeptic could end up giving birth to a radical ecoterrorist.

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rjc (The Fray): Lately it seems that Slate will publish anything as long as it's contrarian enough. It doesn't matter how wrong-headed or poorly thought out it is.

The United States and Europe are stable populations; our birth rates have been in negative numbers for much of the past thirty years. Immigration, not birth, is what drives our population growth.

But Engber's proposal would do nothing to curb the population explosion of the developing world.

If Engber were serious about fighting overpopulation, he would work toward raising standards of living in the developing world. Increased medical access and higher standards of living keeps population growth in check far more effectively than voluntary depopulation.

There aren't too many people stupid enough to take Engber's advice, and we can be grateful that their stupidity won't pass on to any future generations. But shame on Slate for publishing such a misleading article. The argument here really doesn't live up to the least amount of scrutiny.

Daniel Engber: I think you may be missing the point. I agree that improved education, literacy, and access to contraceptives would lower birth rates around the world. And it's plainly true that almost all of the population growth in the course of the next century will occur outside of Europe. But that's irrelevant to the question of what it means to have a child in the United States.

Simply put, each child you have in the U.S. has a dramatic and negative impact on the Earth's climate. That's true if the U.S. population were shooting through the roof, and it's true if our population were stable.

To be clear: The question here isn't "how do we reduce the global population?" (That's not an end in itself, after all.) Instead we're asking "how do I reduce the damage that I'm personally doing to the environment?"

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Mount Rainier, Md.: Completely playing devil's advocate here: If Americans cut down their already low birthrate, and developing countries don't—what do we gain? Do we become like Japan, which is experiencing a real decrease in births and serious economic worries?

Daniel Engber: Good question, and one that's analogous to the question of whether we should impose an expensive carbon tax—which would make us less wealthy but more green.

I sound like a broken record, but if you're concerned about reducing your own contribution to global warming, it doesn't matter what other countries are doing...

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cyberfarer (The Fray): The Al Gore calculator says the average American will produce 7.5 tons of emissions annually. It also shows that a 2006 Hummer H3 will produce 6.8 tons of emissions annually.

So, in fact, the premise of this article is based upon a falsehood. And while children may grow up to give something back to the earth, the Hummer H3 will only ever suck.

Please stop falling for simple-minded nonsense. Look where it has gotten you so far.

Daniel Engber: I'm not sure I see how that statistic undercuts my argument. In fact, it just proves that not even the most reviled symbol of emissions-spewing consumerism matches up to the environmental cost of a single human being.

I should also point out that children grow up and reproduce, creating even more average Americans. The Hummer H3, for all its evils, will remain forever a virgin.

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Philadelphia: Do you favor assisted suicide?

Daniel Engber: I've gotten a bunch of e-mails asking me if I favor euthanasia, murder, genocide, etc. But I don't think that's the logical extension of my argument. If I told you I favored a Prius over a Hummer, would you then ask me if I thought we should walk everywhere?

Or perhaps a better analogy: Let's say I told you I was a vegetarian, because the production of meat is so bad for the environment. Would you then ask if I favored starvation?

Okay, fine, neither of those analogies were very good. In short, I am opposed to murder and genocide. I support euthanasia, but not on environmental grounds.

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Out There...: Based upon your answer to the adoption question, I have to say you are a depraved person. By your standard, it is really important to leave the Third World in its current state ... because to improve their living standard would create a huge impact on the carbon footprint!

Daniel Engber: I think adoption is a good thing. I was just saying that you're barking up the wrong tree if you think adopting a kid will greenwash your family.

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Portland Ore.: The environmental movement is already broken into so many factions, doesn't this population discussion (which certainly should be addressed) expose one of the major fault lines in the cause—showing the difference between those who believe we should try to make the planet better for people, and those who think we should save the planet for its own sake? I understand the notion of slimming down the population to perhaps extend the expiration date of mankind, but isn't it one hell of a gamble to try eliminating people, in the hopes that it'll reverse existing damage and set things right for generations AAA and BBB?

Daniel Engber: Good question. I think it's the evangelical environmentalists who have to deal with this most often. They're criticized for being "anti-life," simply because they make protecting the planet a priority over, say, generating wealth. In reality, I think there are very few environmentalists who would subscribe the Voluntary Extinction line of reasoning. Most people want to make the Earth a better place so that we will all enjoy better lives.

Also, if you think that the global warming apocalypse is coming, then fewer people today might lead to more people down the line. In that sense, a depopulation argument could be "pro-life".

(As an aside, it's not clear at all that global warming—even in its nastier forms—will drive humans to extinction.)

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San Francisco: We are rather compelled by our genetic constitution to procreate—that's how our genes survive, while we as organisms die. What you seem to propose would run contrary to that prime directive. (So does having fewer children, but those who do that invest more in their children's maturation, perhaps in order to increase their genes' chances of surviving.) Voluntary depopulation would, in effect, get vetoed by "nature"—ostensibly the same nature whose physical environment you hope to preserve. I disagree with you.

Daniel Engber: I think what you're suggesting boils down to the "Idiocracy" argument: If all the people who wanted to depopulate stopped having kids, then they'd disappear and leave behind everyone else. In that sense, nature would have "vetoed" the effort to depopulate. I'm still not convinced by this line of reasoning: One fewer child is still one fewer child, no matter what happens multiple generations from now. And the amount of CO2 we send into the atmosphere today makes a huge difference decades and centuries down the line.

Also, I wouldn't like to see a world where we were burdened by always having to do the "natural" thing—sounds like frightening and terrible place to live.

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Colorado: I'm all for everyone making a change, even if it's a small change, to lessen one's impact on the environment, and am a vegetarian myself. But I find it ironic that environmentalist preach "save the environment—what kind of world do you want to leave for your children and your children's children?" Now it's "don't have children."

Daniel Engber: That's an excellent point: In some ways the baby is the mascot of the environmental movement. We're only saving the planet for the sake of our future generations, anyway...

In those terms, the Voluntary Extinction movement does seem pretty absurd. But Alan Weisman and Bill McKibben propose that each couple decide to have just one child. There will still be future generations to enjoy whatever environmental benefits result.

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Moscow: Should you show us a good example and go first, reducing Mother Earth's population by one?

Daniel Engber: I think it may be time for me to depopulate this forum.

Thanks everyone, for the interesting and thoughtful questions. Feel free to drop by the Slate message boards if you have any other ideas you'd like to share.