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The climate case for childlessness

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Via Financial Times

It brings a smirk to the lips that Thomas Malthus was one of eight children and had a further three. Unremarkable numbers in Georgian England, true, but if you are going to argue that population growth beggars the species, people will hold you to it. The sense that reproductive restraint was for thee, not he, nor his class, is one reason for the economist’s ongoing infamy. That, and his empirical wrongness.

Until, perhaps, now. Climate change is graciously according Malthus a second life. It is hard to do anything kinder for the environment than have fewer children. Even if an infant grows to become a Prius-driving vegan who forswears air travel and line-dries the laundry, he or she will still contribute to the problem. A human cannot inhabit real time and space in a post-agrarian economy without generating carbon.

When the scholars Seth Wynes and Kimberley Nicholas calculated the most effective green steps a person can take, “have one fewer child” was first by such a margin as to make the second scarcely worth naming. When they then tracked the number of high school textbooks that offered this as guidance, the answer was zero. “Live car-free” and “conserve energy” were common.

Some sugar-coating of things is excusable for the young. But there are adults who are just as deluded that innovation will neutralise the climate costs of children. “There is no limit to human ingenuity” is a fun thing to say (and Nikola Tesla did), but it is also credulous Enlightenment hokum. Even those who know this, who know that electric cars and Impossible Burgers are not enough, who are open to less growth, not just green growth, tend not to pursue the thought to the question of family size. I have noticed this in newspapers, even fetchingly salmon-coloured ones.

At some point, societies will have to treat childlessness, or at least small families, as a kind of public good. “What do you want,” readers will say, “a medal?” As a start, yes. Stalin used to pin an Order of Maternal Glory on Soviet women who bore seven or more children. France still has its Médaille de la Famille Française. The state is not above the use of symbols and exhortation to encourage desirable behaviours. It now has to do it for the act opposite to the one it has traditionally heroised.

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Material incentives would not go amiss, either, I can report: the inverse of Nordic pro-natalism. Only afterthat are we are into the realms of coercion, and if democracy cannot sustain air fares that internalise the environmental costs, it will not wear that.

Nor should it. For it can end up in a dark place, this anti-natalism — in the misanthropy of Schopenhauer and his “burden of existence”. But a soft version is amazingly difficult to propose too, even now, even among people who demand a “serious conversation” and “honest debate” about climate change.

I can understand why. This issue forces people to contemplate that which is most hateful: the non-existence of their own children. Then there is the collective action problem. Even if it is in the planet’s interest to have fewer people, it is not always in the interest of any one nation. Had its birth rate not declined in the 19th century, France would have entered the subsequent one as a larger country than Germany. The world wars might not have played out as they did. The persistence of the Médaille in such an advanced culture seems rational enough once put in due context.

Nor do I mean to paint a green veneer on my or anyone else’s life choices. Friends and I who decided against family life did so for reasons as self-serving as often billed: a taste for leisure, a dread of sexual monotony. We did not hate to “bring a child into this world” — that smarmy anguish — so much as into our diaries.

It is just that the motive for an action matters less than its practical effect. And the effect here is of existential value to the planet. (Don’t mention it.) Societies might have to make it easier for others to do the same, at least until human ingenuity really does decouple population growth from its carbon impact. The alternative is worse than the sound of Malthus cackling his vindication from the deep beyond.

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Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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