Being childfree: not an excuse for green smugness


Voluntary Human Extinction Movement

Being a happily childfree person does not mean that I agree with all childfree attitudes, and there’s one that’s been cropping up recently that I don’t like at all. It goes something like this: “By not having kids, I’m already reducing my footprint so much that I don’t have to do anything else to be green.”

Wow. That annoys me, and I don’t even have kids.

Here’s the thing. If you chose not to have kids mostly or even solely for the sake of the environment, that would be one thing — a true sacrifice if you were someone who always wanted kids. But I don’t know any childfree people who chose to be biological dead ends for primarily environmental reasons. Instead, most childfree people are childfree because they don’t want kids or the responsibilities that go with them. Full stop. The environmental benefit is a nice little bonus and might strengthen our resolve, but even if having kids were the best thing I could do for the environment, I wouldn’t do it.

The environmental impact of having children is hard to deny. My grandmother had seven children, who went on to produce 13 grandchildren and I don’t even know how many great grandchildren (we’re just reaching our mid twenties and thirties), many of whom live in the US or Taiwan and lead fairly typical and cushy lives as consumers. Although my entire paternal side of the family is deeply dysfunctional, the family tree isn’t going to end with the great grand children. In relatively few generations, my grandmother will have been partially responsible for a hundred or more new people, most of whom will still be alive. And that’s just one family. I look at family reunion photos and am amazed at how two people created so many more. How many fewer people would there be if she’d stopped at two? How much lower would the total impact of this family be? (I wouldn’t exist, but that’s OK — it’s not like I’m going to find the cure for cancer or anything.)

If you want the stats, Oregon State researchers conclude,

[T]he carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important 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.

Not bad, huh? I totally think talking about population and making sure every fertile person in the world has easy access to reliable contraception and sterilization options is a huge and often overlooked piece of the climate change puzzle. I love the way the childfree movement is gaining momentum and population is starting to creep into more mainstream discussions. But.

Not doing something you weren’t going to do anyway does not give you mad brownie greenie points. To me, saying that being childfree means you’ve done enough is like saying that not flying a private jet to work every day reduces your impact so much that you’re totally off the hook. I try not to impose my version of what it means to be green — to think about all my choices in terms of total impact, to strive to make both small everyday changes as well as effect bigger ones — but I can’t help but think that you may be missing the point if you think being childfree is a get out of jail free card for everything else you do. 

I don’t think there’s ever a point at which we can sit back with a satisfied smile and say, “Great! My life is now totally sustainable!” I’m a vegetarian, I cook from scratch, I’m childfree, I heart reusable everythings…and there’s still so much more I could be doing. And there always will be, because this is one big, messy, all-encompassing problem, and compromise is inevitable.

Childfree anything is controversial. What are your thoughts on the intersection between being childfree and being green? 

P.S. You can read more of my childfree entries here.

20 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by bootsy on 07/14/2011 at 08:49

    a great post with some great points. i’ve been known to pull that argument out when i’m feeling lazy. generally i’m more eco-conscious than most people i know. but, yea – i occasionally take the elevator up to the first floor just for a lark.

    this post is a great reminder for us all to pull up our bootstraps and smarten up. there’s no excuse for ever not doing your best at something, whether it’s being kind to others, or being green.


    • Thanks, Bootsy! I think part of my problem with this attitude is that it pisses off parents who are doing their best to have eco-conscious, low impact families, and making people defensive is a bad way to increase support for any movement. I really like your last line, and you’re right — complacency shouldn’t be an option.


  2. Right on. I’m childfree by choice and I make no claims to being green because of it. I do other things to reduce my footprint and not having kids has little to nothing to do with it.


    • Hi YogaSavestheDay!
      Love your attitude. Reducing our impact is about improving our existing footprint, not about the things we don’t do and never planned to.


  3. Totally agree with this post. Plus, a super conscious parent and child could conveiably have a much smaller footprint than me, especially depending on what country they live in.


    • Hi Candi,
      Yeah, I think it’d take a whole lot of kids and generations for one family in the developing world to match my environmental impact. Much as I’d like things to be different, I guess I’m just not hardcore enough to want to give up things like electricity, running water, Internet…


  4. Posted by ralgal0707 on 07/14/2011 at 10:36

    Good post! As a CF woman, I’ve rarely seen other CF people use “being green” as their main motivation for being CF, but you’re right….it’s a “bonus” argument at best, although especially useful when faced with the “you’re selfish” bingo from parents.
    While I’m not having kids because I just don’t like/want kids, it’s nice to point out to them how my choice is having a positive impact on the planet vs. the negative one. Selfish is still having a litter of kids, despite the environmental impact, because “you want them”.


    • Hi RalGal,
      I sometimes forget that people outside my immediate circle are openly critical of childfree people, especially women. It’s a fair rebuttal, but I would really like to get the word ‘selfish’ out of the dialogue altogether. Although it has some truth for both parents and non-parents, calling each other selfish doesn’t tend to facilitate calm, reasonable discussion. 😉

      Breeder bingo cracks me up. If I actually got more rude comments about being childfree, I would be very tempted to print it out and keep it in my wallet.


  5. I totally agree with you. I recently read an article where the author said that if a person buys a hybrid car then he doesn’t have to worry about employing any gas saving driving techniques … he could drive as fast and as far as he wanted. He also said that buying a smaller house meant that a person shouldn’t have to wrap their water heater or worry about running the A/C … the mere fact that they now lived in a smaller house would offset any energy use. My jaw dropped to the floor. It’s unbelievable, to me, that anyone could actually believe that. And I guess that’s how I feel about the decision not to have kids and then claiming that, environmentally speaking, they have met their environmental obligation. There is no limit to our responsibility. It’s an on-going process of reducing our impact. Yay for anyone who is Eco-conscious enough to choose to help the earth by not procreating. But that is not a license to ignore all the other ways to live green.


    • Hi Small Footprints,
      Urgh! That’s appalling. I am so with you when you say, “There is no limit to our responsibility.” All of us have an impact, and all of us have a duty as responsible global citizens to try to reduce that as much as possible.


  6. Though I’ve never encountered this argument in real life (no one knows I’m CF) but it seems understandable. Reproduction is the most blatant form of environmental destruction. A lot of the items they make for children can’t be recycled or really repurposed. Children grow out of clothes (or everything really) at rapid paces, and although you always have the option to donate them – eventually they’ll end up in a landfill.

    It just seems like children are a giant contribution to unsustainable consumerism. And I remember learning how adopting children from underdeveloped countries and bringing them to the US, is unsustainable as well. If I’m remembering correctly, for everyone one person in the US, it equals 20 in places like India in terms of how much we consume and waste.

    So I honestly don’t think the assumption is entirely irrational. But I do believe that just doing one BIG thing doesn’t rule out the smaller things – like taking public transit, being aware of where our food comes from and how it’s made (especially in the case of not wanting to go vegan or vegetarian). Doing what you can is important, but being smug about your environmental decisions can be a detriment.


  7. OK… I’ve been meaning to reply to this post for a while, but I sort of got distracted. Given CatMan’s stance on the topic (that being child free is enough) I’ve actually given this a great deal of thought.

    My basic conclusion is that it’s the wrong question. I mean the built in assumption is that being green is somehow less enjoyable than not, and I simply don’t believe that to be the case. So it’s not that the child free should be “off the hook,” I just don’t think there should be a “hook” in the first place. I could write a novel on this topic, so I’ll spare you. If you want some more of my thoughts you can read them here:

    I think the more important issue is that corporate power has skewed the playing field both by artificially keeping consumer costs for environmentally disastrous practices low, and by subjecting people to a barrage of propaganda convincing them that spending = happiness. If people were allowed to make decisions based on what’s actually in their best interest, and based on what really, truly will make them happy and fulfilled, then they would naturally choose the more environmental option.

    Of course, none of that changes my conviction that there are just TOO MANY PEOPLE ON THIS PLANET! But even there, study after study has shown that the population problem is really associated with poverty. Most developed countries actually have negative birth rates, and the US population is not really growing because of procreation, it’s growing because of immigration from poorer countries. But as people progress out of poverty they naturally stop having so many children, so the question isn’t how to convince people to have fewer children, it’s how to raise them out of poverty so they will naturally make that choice.


    • Hi EcoCatLady,
      As always, I appreciate your thoughts and also have concerns about the green movement being about sacrifice — talk about bad PR. However…I don’t think the hook is anything more than behaving responsibly towards the planet and its denizens, and I don’t think anyone is excused from doing so. I’d like to think that greater consciousness leads to more responsible and far thinking behavior that doesn’t feel like sacrifice so much as positive change. I’m happy to cook my own food, bake my own bread, line dry my clothes. I also see some situations as compromises between what I want to do and what would be most sustainable, and I think they’re inevitable.

      Maybe it’s my turn to be cynical, but I’m far from confident that humans, in pursuit of their own happiness, will choose the more environmental option. I simply don’t think we’re wired to do so as biological creatures. What keeps other species from being too disruptive is the presence of competing species, but we’re so successful that there isn’t much left to keep us — including our population size — in check. Yet our basic drives to compete for resources and opportunities to reproduce are still there, and the more resources there are, the more we take. I’m not saying all individuals necessarily behave this way, but taken as a species, this is our track record. No other animal has ever had to be self-policing to keep itself from destroying the planet. I really don’t think the answer lies in pursuing our individual happiness, even if we could teach people to think about it in non-materialistic terms. If anything, I think it’d be about cooperating on a scale that no other species has. Fingers are crossed, but I’m not all that optimistic.


      • Hmmm… I’m afraid I made that sound a lot more “lollipops and rainbows” than I intended. I totally share your pessimism. I mean humans don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to behaving responsibly when we can get away with not doing so. All I have to do is look at the hidden charges on my phone bill to answer that question!

        BUT… imagine a world where it costs $10 to put a load of laundry in the drier, or where gas was $30 a gallon… in other words imagine a world where the environmental costs of our behaviors were actually built into the monetary price. I think you’d see people’s behavior change over night.

        I guess my point is this. The vast majority of people are NEVER going to “do the right thing” just because it’s the right thing… especially if they don’t directly feel the consequences of their actions and if it goes against their own self interest to do so. I mean, if you’re a starving subsistence level farmer in Africa, or the Amazon or wherever you are… are you gonna leave the forest intact so it can act as a carbon sink, or are you gonna chop it down and plant crops to feed your family? I know what I’d do.

        So unless and until people feel like making the environmental decision is in their own best interest, no large scale meaningful changes are going to take place…. it’s just not gonna happen.

        I don’t think that means that we as individuals shouldn’t make changes, we absolutely have to change. But I think in a funny way the environmental movement has done the cause a great disservice by approaching this problem from the angle of self sacrifice, because nothing will change until people feel that they are better off green.

        I think that in a funny way CatMan is a great example of this. He probably drives under 500 miles a year. He purchased the first new article of clothing last week since I’ve known him (that’s 18 years), he’s a vegetarian, his A/C is set at 83 degrees… I could go on and on. But he isn’t doing any of it because it’s the “right” thing to do, he does it because he’s realized that it makes him a happier person… and if I say anything that implies something should be done differently because it’s “right” his fur ruffles rather quickly.

        I’m not sure how to get there, but I think that enlightened self interest is the only way we’re gonna solve this problem.


        • Hi EcoCatLady,

          I absolutely agree that making green choices should be easier and cheaper than making planet-destroying choices. The fact that public transportation is always much slower and often more expensive than driving is a huge problem. If gas prices actually included environmental cleanup and mitigation, I would be very surprised if people didn’t suddenly become ingenious at finding ways around driving. But this approach requires a government that has the power to make these changes, and I’m pretty sure no one who says, “Gas should be $20 a gallon!” will ever be elected.

          At the same time…it’s so sad that people have to be manipulated into behaving responsibly. Why can’t we just look at a situation, see that we have a problem, and make changes that address that problem? Why can’t we be rational creatures for once, just when it really, really matters?


        • Well… if the politics of the last 10-12 years have taught me anything, it’s that people do not make rational decisions. I’m already starting to get depressed as the country starts to gear up for another election. The propaganda and the lies… it all just kills me. If people actually voted with their own best interest in mind instead of letting themselves be brainwashed this country would look very different.

          CatMan actually did a calculation about a year or so ago. He looked at all of the money that we, as a society, are currently paying to support our gasoline “habit”. He included tax breaks for petroleum companies, the cost of our military operations to secure access to the oil, the tax payer cost of environmental clean up etc, and concluded that when you include all of the hidden costs that we pay through our tax dollars, we’re currently already paying $18 per gallon! I, for one, would much rather see those costs included in the actual price rather than hidden in our taxes.

          Don’t know how we get from here to there, especially since our elected officials are so bought and sold by the industry… it’s true on both sides of the aisle, but much more so on the Republican side. I think that electing candidates who will actually work for us rather than the corporatocracy would be a good start.


  8. I’m with you, Jennifer. CF or not, we all share the responsibility, we must all do our part, we must all make sacrifices. It’s not about comparing my footprint to your footprint, or keeping up with the Jones’… Joneses?… anyway, it’s not about that. It’s not about competing with your friends to see who is the most or least green. It’s about doing as much as we can and not wasting time on feelings of self-righteousness.


  9. Posted by Aubrey on 02/26/2012 at 11:44

    I have to disagree with this entirely. And I’d hardly compare not having kids with not taking a jet plane to work. Having kids is extremely common. Flying to work is not.

    If the true goal is to minimize environmental impact, then someone’s carbon footprint should tell the story. Not having kids means that a CF person’s carbon footprint is far smaller than someone who doesn’t have kids. Bottom line.

    Quite frankly, a CF person could probably drive a Hummer to work and chop down a few trees each day, and STILL do less damage than someone who has kids. That sort of behavior sounds obnoxious in principle, but again, we’re talking about net environmental damage, which would still be lower for a CF Hummer driver.

    To imply that the ‘daily sacrifices’ encouraged by the green movement (recycling, composting, veganism/vegetarianism, using public transport, etc) are still necessary, regardless of the fact that someone has a very small environmental impact, really lines up with the fact that many folks regard environmentalism as a religion. There must be sacrifice, or, dare I say, atonement, involved. There must be change to daily routine, and a certain level of remorse for environmental impact.

    I don’t suspect that many here would agree with me. For me, this is about numbers – bottom line environmental impact. For many of you, this seems like it’s about effort. But how far does the “gold star for effort” go for a vegan family of 6 that just so happens to recycle and drive Priuses that run on gas and large batteries?

    To say that a CF person who drives a normal car and eats meat should be frowned upon, given all this, just blows my mind.


    • Hi Aubrey,

      I agree that net impact matters. I see it like this: being childfree may make your impact much lower than a parent’s in this society, but that still doesn’t make it low. You and I, as childfree people living in the developed country, still have a far, far higher impact than people in the developing world with many children. And as an environmentally concerned person, I feel my responsibility is to put in the effort to continue to reduce my net impact. It’s not necessarily about sacrifice as about changing the way I approach and solve problems. And although net impact comes first, I do think that effort and consciousness matter, too.

      By the way, I’m not frowning upon CF omnivores who drive normal cars. Hummers, yes. Normal cars — well, I of all people know that not all of us can afford hybrids and have to make do with our normal cars and find ways to minimize our driving as best we can.


  10. Posted by Aubrey on 02/26/2012 at 11:45

    I misspoke in paragraph 2…

    *Not having kids means that a CF person’s carbon footprint is far smaller than someone who DOES have kids.


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