The idea has bubbled around the edges of the environmental pond for a while: choosing to be childfree expressly for the purpose of reducing one's carbon footprint. An environmental correspondent at Mother Jones, for example, has pointed out that "…Nothing else you can do — driving a more fuel efficient car, driving less, installing energy-efficient windows, replacing light bulbs, replacing refrigerators, recycling — comes even close to simply not having that child… Why are we pretending that because they're cute they're harmless? Little monsters."
A Planet Green channel segment on the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, the organization that offers voluntary human extinction as "a solution to involuntary human extinction" (slogan: "May we live long and die out"), cites the group's 4000 Facebook friends.
As absurd as it may seem, the concept has picked up supporters, and is actually inching into mainstream environmental thinking. It's a trend that poses dangers, most of all to the green movement’s own sustainability.
Attention a couple of years back focused on Australia, where the issue of a tax on (greenhouse gas emitting) newborns was raised. This month, a Princeton bioethicist, in a New York Times opinion blog headlined, Should This Be The Last Generation? eventually concluded, "In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living," but then tamped down this irrational exuberance by questioning whether "the continuance of our species" really is justifiable.
Earlier, a blog at the Nature Conservancy — the deservedly well-respected environmental group — made the case that it's pointless to blame Bangladesh for its high birth rate when our own reproductive decisions have far greater environmental impact. The mixed reader response to author Peter Kareiva ranged from enthused zero population growth supporters — "..ninety percent of us could die without affecting our genetic diversity," — to the head-scratching "…wonder if it's perhaps a little short-sighted," and "..Removing ourselves from the gene pool isn't necessarily the best idea, no?"
Notably absent from the commentary is the potential cost to the credibility of the environmental movement. Should we accept childlessness as the ultimate pathway to carbon neutrality? Or that eco-brownie points for sidestepping the egotism and self-indulgence of procreation accrue to future generations (in absentia)? That children are yet another impulse "buy", thrown into the shopping cart of degenerate conspicuous consumption?
The resurgence of support for zero population growth — or even negative population growth — as a means of preserving the earth represents a twist on our nation's spiritual — and very green — heritage. Thoreau, other transcendentalists, and essayists both before and after him recognized America's wilderness as a spiritual sanctuary. Reverence for our natural bounty and, more broadly, the planet, is now shared by countless Americans.
But anti-natalism takes the religion of conservation well beyond respect for the natural world, to view the very existence of humans as defilement. It rejects the notion — powerful since the 19th Century — that children are the essence of purity. Now they're unwitting agents of the sinful pollution of nature. An earlier era's worry over Youth's loss of innocence through exposure to the wild world is being replaced by the opposite concern: Youth is now seen as the destroyer of the world by its mere existence.
We've come full circle from the early twentieth century national hysteria over Margaret Sanger, the great birth control pioneer who was condemned by members of the old Anglo-Saxon elite for hastening the extinction of America's "native stock". In that era, the impulse of families to restrict their size was seen as a selfish quest for mere personal fulfillment, harmful to the growth of the nation. Today, we see the opposite: An impulse to cast procreation as a personal indulgence at the expense of the larger society.
The reasoning is, of course, that the choice to be child-free is not merely a personal decision, but rather a laudable contribution to a more sustainable world. But as a response to global population trends — widespread fertility declines, particularly in the West, combined with record high overall global population — it's very different than offering birth control options to those who want them.
This particular manifestation of environmentalism — the concept of solving humanity's problems by eliminating, as much as possible, human beings — while positioning itself as both future-focused and statistically supported, is remarkably oblivious to the worldwide drop in birthrates and its economic implications. The demographic transition, which in Europe began before the mid-1800s, is bringing us both an aging population and more widespread participation, particularly among women, in the wealth of the modern economy.
Today's environmental movement has always included strands of Luddites. But, like other ultra-ascetic religions, and as even the anti-natalists themselves ruefully admit, the idea is not about to conquer the world.
The demon-seed statistical projections on the carbon output of a single infant born today are based on the premise that the world's energy use and methods will change not one iota during its lifetime. And the calculations usually include a reproductive chain over the next century or two. The assumption that the grandkids of today's infants will be tucking AAA batteries into their toys or gassing up their Grand Cherokees isn't — despite the impressive spreadsheets — objective or scientific.
Of course, religion, guilt, and the quest for purity have a long, shared history, with holiness as the garlic that wards off Armageddon. The urge to condemn anything short of perfection reeks of fundamentalism. The witch-hunt for hypocrisy has been relentless by critics of environmentalism who believe that dangers to the ecosystem have been exaggerated: Does anyone in America not now know that Al Gore has a big house with a lot of light bulbs, and that he flies around on (gasp) planes?
Now the annoying Puritanical fervor has been taken up those who think environmental dangers have been minimized. With fundamentalist zeal, they've one-upped their fellow environmentalists with a soul-purifying — and seemingly bulletproof — sacrifice of the urge to reproduce. This particular fast-track to holiness doesn't require chastity; sex is allowed for everything except procreation. And, when considering a society where reproduction is denigrated, please imagine the mental health of children raised with the philosophy that the world would be a whole lot better off without them.
Why has this issue gained such traction right now? The Age of Anxiety morphed into a Prozac Nation, but maybe the depression lingered on, marked by an inability to project positive outcomes, including the potential benefits of today's infants over the coming years. The phenomenon's growth can also be at least partly attributed to the unprecedented internet-age ability to connect with masses of like-minded individuals for group reinforcement.
The choice to have a child or not is a purely personal decision. "Breeders," as their critics sometimes describe them, shouldn't need to justify their offspring with cost-benefit analysis' showing that we need children to balance the national books (with social security payments) or to renew our civilization. Childless men and women still — even in our more-open-than-ever-society — encounter prejudice. To respond by claiming a 'sacred' justification as a guardian of the earth might appeal in a moment of self-righteousness. But it stands to reason that the custodian of a precious resource shouldn't begrudge the very existence of its future inheritors.
Photo derived from Face_0110
Zina Klapper is a Los Angeles-based journalist, and Deputy Editor of newgeography.com.