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.

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.

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.

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.

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