Should We Be Having Kids In The Age Of Climate Change?

A friend of mine, ethicist Travis Rieder at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, has recently come into a lot of attention. He was profiled on NPR in his college classroom while he was trying to convince his students to have smaller families. The radio story then evolved into a philosophical conversation about the size of our families. The premise of that conversation was that the size of the human population is the most powerful variable in Earth's changing climate. Meaning the most effective way to fight climate change is to have fewer kids.

You can hear that NPR story here. It is definitely worth listening to!

Travis also published an essay titled The Ethics of Having Kids in a Climate Crisis. The essay is about the reaction he received from the NPR piece. I think it's a fascinating read: for the ethical framework Travis establishes, and because he discusses a range of reactions to the radio story. That second aspect was of keen interest to me.

Here's an excerpt from Travis' essay:

Other critics have argued that advocating for a lower birth rate = hating babies or being “anti-life.”

Obviously I don’t hate babies! I’m pretty wild about my own kid, and small humans in general.

This anti-life charge is more interesting, but equally wrong. The premise seems to be that those who wish to lower fertility rates must be misanthropic, or fail to see the value of humans. But that gets things exactly backwards...

It is interesting to me how personal the population issue can become. And I think I understand why. To offer an oversimplification, I'd hazard to say that the supposition that there are too many people on Earth can come off like an accusation: that people are bad. It can sound hateful. But we don't have to hear it that way. There are 7.5 billion of us. I believe we can love ourselves as a species and agree that humanity would be better off if we chose to have fewer kids, which would result in a smaller population over time. As a matter of fact, I can't think of anything I love that wouldn't become problematic in too large a quantity. That's just the way life is. It requires balance.

If we can kindly agree that there is too much of a good thing, which is to say that there are too many people, then we can ask the next question: what is the most ethical and humane solution to this problem, a solution that respects basic human rights, such as the right to liberty?

If this topic is interesting to you, I should let you know that journalist Alan Weisman (author of Countdown and The World Without Us), filmmaker Dave Gardner (of GrowthBusters) and I are going to be having a conversation about this in an October webinar. We're also scheduling a similar conversation with Travis Rieder. You can sign up for my newsletter below for more information about these webinars.

Benjamin Dancer

Benjamin is the author of the literary thriller Patriarch Run, the first book in a series that will include Fidelityand The Story of the Boy. He also writes about parenting, education, sustainability and national security.

Benjamin works as an Advisor at a Colorado high school where he has made a career out of mentoring young people as they come of age. His work with adolescents has informed his stories, which are typically themed around fatherhood and coming-of-age.

You can connect with Benjamin by signing up for his newsletter below and by participating in the conversation at his blog.