My wife Valerie and I love podcasts about plant-based living, mindfulness, and health. The hosts and guests tend to be quite concerned about the environment. That might be no surprise, but what raises my eyebrows is when the host ask their guest something like: “How is the family? You’ve got five kids right?”
Whoa, five kids? This strikes me as odd. Family size seems a pretty big factor in environmental destruction. More so in the industrialized and wealthy countries like Canada. Each additional human means more fossil fuel consumption, pollution, soil loss and water usage.
A quick search of “environmental impact of child born today” will give you articles on both sides of the debate. Here is one that says “don’t be so hasty – it ain’t as bad as you think”:
To the writer of this article in Vox, children look like a big factor in environmental impacts. But she argues that these impacts are expected to be much smaller into the future. Trends in technology and actions by governments (like carbon emissions capping and trading) will reduce the impacts of additional humans on the planet. IF all goes according to plan, having another child may be no more harmful than driving a gas guzzler instead of a hybrid!
Hmm. The ringing bells of the planetary warning system are more urgent for humanity than the virus pandemic we now face. We may have less than a decade to halt runaway climate change. We expect to still be recovering from the coronavirus pandemic two years from now. Look at the global response to the pandemic. There have been wildly different responses between countries, haphazard strategies, denial, and a lack of cooperation. Can we really trust government to do what it takes to save the planet? In other words I think the author of the Vox article is highly optimistic.
Even if you split the difference, one less kid is still by far the best strategy we might think of to reduce our impacts on the planet. That is true even if our families are environmentally conscious. A quick example: a hybrid vehicle only generates about 75% of the emissions of a gas guzzler, all lifecycle impacts considered. But what if you need an extra car because of your larger family? Now the car-related impacts of your “environmentally friendly” family are equal to 1.5 gas guzzlers. And so on – across the other aspects of day-to-day life.
Meat consumption continues to rise globally. About 77% of agricultural lands are devoted to the feeding of livestock. The flesh-heavy Western diet generates about 20% of current global greenhouse gas emissions. Not only is our obese populace consuming more every day, but roughly 50% of all food we produce ends up as waste. Clearly, adding another “average person” to the mix is not going to be positive for the environment.
Steven Pinker’s most recent book Enlightenment Now describes many ways that society has (and continues) to improve. This includes areas such as large-scale pollution. As Vanilla Ice says “You got a problem, yo – I’ll solve it…” Pinker agrees, and feels that humanity can come up with a solution to every problem it runs into, like the carbon emissions caps mentioned in the Vox article.
On the other side of the debate, folks like Nassim Nicholas Taleb who wrote The Black Swan remind us that humans are pretty poor at judging risk. We are messing with a very complex system. We only have one chance – one planet – to get it right. If we don’t get things right, “solving” our environmental problems may look less like a stuffy academic panel at a UN Climate Change conference, and more like a sequel to Mad Max or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Back to the kid thing. Full disclosure: the Caring Curmudgeon does not have any kids. However, I am deeply concerned about the future for my beloved nieces and nephews, and all the other kids of the world. I want them to enjoy a future with a planet in healing mode.
And just to acknowledge the whiff of hypocrisy in the air, let’s talk about another topic close to my heart: pets.
If you read my other articles you will quickly see that animals of all kinds are very important to Valerie and me. This includes our furry family members. Pets are great therapists and help us stay healthier and happier and even live longer. But they also cause a lot of pollution including greenhouse gas emissions from the animals they eat.
The multi-billion dollar pet food industry helps to strip the oceans of fish and convert vast areas of wilderness into crop and grazing land. All this in the name of making kibble and treats for Fido and Mittens.
“What is the harm?” you say. “We are only feeding our pets “scraps” that wouldn’t otherwise be used. Isn’t that more environmentally responsible than waste?” Not so. Roughly one third of North American farm animals are raised specifically for pet food. Like the leather industry, our demand for pet food helps prop up factory farms and contributes greatly to the suffering and pollution they cause.
We can, and should love the heck out of the existing kids and animals in our communities. We can make climate-friendly and healthy food choices which means plants for people and pets (there are vegan dog foods like V-Dog and Wild Earth, and Benevo offers a vegan cat food). There things we can do to make things better now, but what about the longer run?
The North American dream of a detached house in the suburbs, two cars in the garage, 2.5 kids and a dog and a cat of our own has come at a cost we could not have anticipated. So what do we aspire to now? Can we share the joy of dogs and cats and kids? While those of us programmed to be highly independent might get twitchy at the thought, can we plan communities where we have homes and neighbourhoods with residences for all ages next to animal shelters next to schools, parks, and gardens? Caring communities that cultivate connection and control climate change, there is a slogan for you.
Short-term thinking from governments and corporations is focussed on population growth and consumption. Otherwise, who will pay the taxes to support pensions and growing debt or buy the next piece of must-have technology? While we can’t blindly trust these vested interests, we are still free to exercise our will and make personal choices with global impacts – like the size and nature of our families.