Do you want to have a baby? But, on a planet plagued by climate crisis, ecosystem collapse, famine and poverty, is one contributing to the problem—and unethically so?
He is a Ph.D. I am a Candidate at the Manise Bioethics Centre, and I research the ethics of procreation in times of climate change. I discovered that there is no simple “yes” or “no” answer to whether we should produce more children when the Earth is in dire straits.
People who want to have children have a dilemma. To create a child that will be responsible for high emissions over its lifetime, others must remain in poverty (if the planet is to function within its physical limits). It is easy to argue that this contributes to injustice and inequality.
But many of us want to have children – it could be one of the most meaningful things we do with our lives.
What should we do? Ethics can provide an answer. It shows that there is a moral obligation to consider the effects of pregnancy without forcing people to not have children as a result.
What is overpopulation?
Many people argue that the world has an overpopulation problem. Overpopulation has been defined as the state where there are more people than can live on Earth in comfort, happiness and health while still leaving the world a fit place for future generations.
But this definition can be interpreted. Overpopulation is not only about numbers, but also about values. If people in rich countries value their lifestyles – and the opportunity for others to have the same lifestyle – the world is overpopulated.
I live in inner city Melbourne. Calculating my ecological footprint, it’s hard to know that we’d need about four Earths for everyone to live like me. If everyone lived like the average American, we would need more than five Earths.
In fact, the estimates of ecologists and philosophers show that a person born in the developed world can only enjoy his lifestyle if there are no more than two or three billion people on the planet. There are now more than eight billion.
So what do we do?
We could address the dilemma by reducing per capita greenhouse gas emissions. However, this alone is not enough.
Why? First, reducing emissions at the pace needed to mitigate catastrophic climate change is difficult. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to prevent the world from warming 2℃ from pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, we need to halve emissions by 2030, halve again by 2040, and again by 2050.
Unfortunately, we are not on track to achieve the Paris goals. This failure will cause significant suffering and millions of deaths. And the most disadvantaged people will be affected first and most severely. This is unfair.
Second, developing countries must be allowed to increase their emissions to escape poverty. Poor people consume very few resources. It is dehumanizing to stay at this low level of consumption. We should be recommending to many people to eat more.
Third, it helps fewer children to resolve the injustices caused by climate damage. If global fertility rates fell below 0.5 births per woman alone, around 5.1 billion tons of carbon would be saved each year by the end of the century. That would add between 16% and 29% of the emissions savings needed to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Fourth, even if average world emissions per capita decline, a growing population increases emissions.
Emissions tend to increase on a one-to-one basis with rising populations. Between 1975 and 2009, for example, population and emissions in the United States increased by 43%. If we don’t tackle population growth we can undo the good work achieved by reducing per capita emissions.
And finally, we cannot address per capita emissions without addressing reproduction. The decision not to bring a human into the world is about 20 times more effective in reducing individual emissions than the sum total of other “green” actions we can take, such as recycling and driving less.
For example, in a developed nation, having one less child saves around 58 tonnes of emissions per year. The next best decision a person can make to limit their emissions is to live without a car. However, this will only save around 2.4 tonnes of emissions per year.
As ethicists have recently pointed out, if there is any duty to reduce our per capita emissions, there is a duty to limit the number of children we have.
Solving the dilemma
I should admit here that I do not have the lived experience as a woman or a person who can bear a child, and I do not have children yet.
However, I believe that the world must face overpopulation. I say this knowing that it is not an easy or comfortable subject to discuss. It deals with sexuality and contraception, personal rights and religion.
And I understand that there is no way forward that can solve all injustices.
If people in wealthy nations continue to bring children into the world, there won’t be enough resources for enough current and future people to live and thrive.
But it would also be unfair to require an individual to give up reproduction. The freedom to decide whether to bring a person into the world is central to the dignity of many people and the meaning of life.
And the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that every man and woman has the right to found a family.
So the most appropriate response is not one that seeks to eliminate all injustices. Rather, it should reduce injustice as much as possible.
Telling people not to have children, or to have fewer children, is too strong. The solution must cross a finer line. But how? By placing a moral obligation on people to consider the environmental and justice issues involved in bringing a person into the world.
Five big questions
For someone who wants children, this means that it is no longer enough to simply ask questions such as: can I be a good parent? Do I have the resources to support a child?
Anyone who has the means to control their fertility also needs to ask themselves the following five questions:
Will my child lead a high-emissions lifestyle and will this mean that others have to live in poverty? If so, is this justifiable?
Do I have biological parenting aspirations—that is, the desire to parent someone with my genes? Or do I simply have parenting aspirations—that is, the desire to raise someone in a loving environment according to my values, regardless of their genes?
Even if I could discover a strong biological connection when I have a child, would I be fulfilled in my life if I raised someone who is not biologically related to me?
If I only have parental wishes, can this be satisfied in other ways such as through nurturing, teaching, mentoring or, if possible, adoption?
Does satisfying my parenting wishes in other ways apply especially to me if I already have one biological child?
People who choose not to have children often feel the need to explain the decision to others. The above approach would be the opposite: requiring that those who wish to ethically bring a person into the world must confront themselves with difficult questions.
A fair society values everyone being able to have a child if they want to. However, it also requires that everyone consider the consequences of doing so.
Provided by An Comhrá
This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Quote: Thinking of having a baby while the planet is falling apart? First, ask yourself five big ethical questions (2023, March 3) retrieved on March 5, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-03-baby-planet-collapses-big-ethical.html
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