The Globe and Mail
August 11, 2009
You may have heard about the recent study at Oregon State University that examined the effects of reproduction on a parent’s carbon footprint. The researchers reached the obvious conclusion that children, who eat, breathe and otherwise have the effrontery to consume resources, deepen that footprint considerably. Being scientists, the researchers calculated that difference with ludicrous precision. They concluded that the impact of each child is almost 20 times greater than whatever energy the parent could save by all other righteous choices combined: driving a hybrid, using energy-efficient appliances etc.
Although the study’s authors hemmed and hawed, they clearly intended it as a rebuke to parents. People used to have to justify the selfishness of not having children; now we’re told it’s irresponsible to have them. The study is a boon to childless boomers who rev their Hummers and enjoy running their clothes dryers 24/7. When all is said and done, they’ve still done more – much more – to save the planet than any parent has.
But the logic of the researchers leads further still. Why stop at having just one child, or at not having children at all? If it’s meritorious not to bring a life into the world, thereby reducing future emissions, wouldn’t it be still more so to graciously put an end to your own? A grateful posterity would reward you with the most glorious of epitaphs: “She reduced her carbon footprint to zero.”
This take on life reminds me of a segment on CNN a few years back that has become a mainstay of my teaching. Health reporter Elizabeth Cohen profiled an Atlanta couple who belonged to a sect of radical valetudinarians. These wan creatures had become convinced that the secret of a long life lay in reducing oxidation to its barest minimum.
This meant limiting as much as possible the burning of calories. They devoted themselves to eating nothing but watercress and to doing nothing at all. At nightfall, they totted up the energy expended and, if this fell below the line they had set, they rejoiced mightily. If they hadn’t quite achieved suspended animation that day, they had come darned close. And, yes, they were actually hoping for another 140 years of this.
The subjects of Ms. Cohen, the health reporter, were concerned only with prolonging their own wretched lives, and were childless to that end. (Chase children around a playground, and oxidation is bound to occur.) The study’s authors appeal to our sense of cosmic justice: It’s not your skin you’re saving by your childlessness but that of our terrestrial mother. One child is already a stretch; three, five or (God forbid) eight are beyond the pale.
I’m sorry, learned researchers, but my calculus is different from yours. Looking at my own two children, now young adults, I find myself completely unrepentant. Even having read about your study, my wife and I wish we could have had more. Yes, there would be less carbon dioxide in the air had we remained childless, but the Earth would be a poorer place for it, and not just for us.
Young as they are, our sons have dared much and accomplished much. They have great plans, and not for practising virtues of omission. They, too, love the Earth and are resolved, in their different ways, to leave it better than they found it – not least by having healthy, ambitious children of their own. Tell you what: For each kid they do have, I’ll pay the carbon offset fee.
So sure, we could live for nothing so much as reducing our carbon footprint. We could define success in life in terms not of what we’ve accomplished but of how few resources we’ve used to accomplish anything. We could live life this way – if we wanted to live a misnomer.
My own prescription for those contemplating parenthood is different. Go ahead, have kids, the more the merrier. God has commanded it, and nature’s cool with it. Just don’t spoil them. Don’t load them with designer clothes, consumer electronics and expensive lessons to which they must be driven: Just send them out to play. They’ll thank you for it, and you can rest assured that the patter of active little feet leaves hardly any footprint. Still worried you haven’t done enough to reduce noxious emissions? Relax: You don’t keep a cow, do you?
By all means, let’s practise responsible stewardship of our battered orb. But let’s do it with an eye to enhancing human life, not reducing it to joylessness. This sensible environmentalism is out there, if not necessarily in learned studies. While walking on Toronto’s Bloor Street the other day, I saw a guy whose tastes pretty clearly didn’t run to watercress. His T-shirt, which read “Save Our Planet,” was embellished with an appropriate image of Earth floating in the celestial ether. And beneath that: “It’s the only one with beer.”
Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He’s also on the Board of Directors for Energy Probe Research Foundation.