Is there a place for children in an eco-conscious lifestyle?
At age 17, I walked down a small side street in my hometown, my fingers laced in my sister’s as we both wiped our tears with our free hands. I’d just told my sister that I’m gay, and it was an emotional moment. She helped me process how I would tell my parents, and then we talked about the future and what my adulthood would be like, neither of us knowing for sure how things would play out. Except for one thing:
“No,” I told her. “I don’t think I’ll ever have kids.”
Fast-forward six years and although I’m still childless, I’ve altered my “I’ll never have kids” statement to “I’ll never have kids that will have my DNA. ”In other words, if I decide to join the 72 percent of American adults who have children, I’ll adopt.
Nearly 80 million people are added to the earth’s population every year, increasing pressure on natural resources, wildlife, open space and the atmosphere. In the ongoing debate over global warming and the environment, population control has to be a focus of discussion.
A Global Family
With their three children and a dog, living in a house they built in South Central Los Angeles, Nic Nelson and his wife, Kathryn, appear to be the typical American family. How they got there is somewhat less typical.
Following an extremely difficult pregnancy with their eldest son, Nathaniel, now 15, the couple decided against more births. Yet more than a dozen years later they have two more children—one from foster care and another from adoption. These experiences have totally altered the couple’s views on family size, the environment and sustainable living.
“We’re talking about the morality of getting pregnant,” Nic says. “I frame everything in the context of looking at the bigger picture, the greater health of the globe. And in that case, fewer pregnancies and more adoptions is a good thing.”
Nic understands that some are wary of adoption, fearing that they couldn’t love another person’s progeny the way they would their own, but he perceives it as a lifetime bond, similar to the one made in marriage.
“You’re making a commitment to another human being, that’s all,” he says. “There are so many children in foster care or orphanages, in the United States and all over the world. Every child we adopt, we are adopting him or her out of the worst kind of poverty: the poverty of having no love, no family.”
Impact on the Earth
Every human being has an environmental footprint that varies depending on things like place of birth, diet and dozens of other daily choices. While it’s difficult to predict specifics, Mother Jones came up with some averages.
Right off the bat, a typical baby goes through 3,800 disposable diapers in the first 2.5 years. But that’s just the beginning. Over his or her lifetime, each child will produce approximately:
3.1 million pounds of CO2
22,828,508 pounds of water waste
16,372 pounds of yard waste
7,249 pounds of food waste
In addition, there’s the lifetime consumption of natural resources to be considered. For example, said child is likely to consume 1,654 chickens and 18,675 eggs, and use 1,870 barrels of petroleum. She or he will also go through approximately 150 gallons of water per day. Compared to switching off lights when we leave the room or not letting the water run while brushing our teeth, not adding another human to the planet clearly has a more significant impact.
Some people are convinced that not breeding is the only way to save the planet. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT —pronounced “vehement”) considers voluntary extinction to be the humanitarian alternative to human disasters. “Each time another one of us decides to not add another one of us to the burgeoning billions already squatting on this ravaged planet,” their website cheerily pronounces, “another ray of hope shines through the gloom.”
Taking a more moderate view, this past year the Sierra Club launched the Population Justice Environmental Challenge, a nationwide campaign that aims to advance global reproductive health and sustainable development solutions, including universal access to voluntary family planning and comprehensive sex education. This coincided with the October release of A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge, a book edited by Laurie Mazur, with contributions by leading demographers, environmentalists and reproductive health advocates.
“America’s rate of unintended pregnancies is higher than any other country,” Mazur contended. “Our environmental impact is influenced by two things: how many of us there are and how we choose to live our lives.”
The choice to have smaller families, said Mazur, is far from unanimous.
“I certainly know many people who have done that and admire them for doing so,” Mazur said. “But it’s still something that operates in a niche. We’re at a pivotal moment both environmentally and demographically; the decisions people make are going to make huge impacts.”
Mazur cited a study by Oregon State University researchers that concluded that in the United States, the carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child has an almost 20 times greater impact than some of the other environmentally sensitive practices people might employ their entire lives—things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.
Having a smaller family in the name of the environment is definitely a personal choice. Couples—and singles—need to arrive comfortably at the decision to adopt or have small families on their own, without pressure.
Our environmental future is up to us, as Mazur pointed out. We may not subscribe to the VHEMT philosophy of “May we live long and die out,” but responsible choices in the bedroom will have a direct and measurable effect on our collective future.
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