Posts Tagged ‘overpopulation’

Dying greener and talking about euthanasia

Hey! Let’s talk about death. There are lots of posts about how to green your funeral, from cardboard caskets to fancy machines that break down human bodies into something you can safely pour down the drain. (Lost the link to that one, but trust me, it was cool.) I have no objections to greening our leavings, but I’d like to start with this simple statement: being alive is a high impact activity — higher impact than the one time expenditures of a velvet lined casket and oodles of imported flowers.

As a citizen of the developed world, I’m likely to live to my late 70s, and given my gender, probably a little longer than that. Even without kids, that’s a high impact on the planet for almost eight decades. Not just that, I’ve seen what it looks like to outlive your health, happiness, and mind, and the prospect terrifies me. My grandfather: dead at age 102 after twenty years (!) of worsening health, mind, and temper. My great aunt: a victim of Alzheimer’s so severe that she could no longer carry on a conversation. My neighbor: 94 years old, housebound, wondering why she’s still alive.

No, thank you. I’d rather my life ended with a definitive period than a long series of ellipses. I’d like to die before I become a burden on anyone else, before I get so cranky that even the cat won’t put up with me. I’d like a dignified, tidy end in which I get to turn off the lights and lock the door behind me. And in this country, it’s very unlikely to happen.

I’m talking about euthanasia options for the elderly who no longer enjoy their lives and have no prospect of ever doing so again. We offer our suffering, aging animal companions a quick and relatively painless death, yet don’t have that option for ourselves. I’ve had to put exactly one animal to sleep, and it took so much out of me that I was a mess for months afterward, but what haunted me was not having to do it, but knowing when to do it. How can you gauge whether a cat still has any quality of life? I think I’d have far less trouble knowing when I’d had enough.

I wouldn’t expect or want anyone to end a life for environmental concerns, but since we do seem to be facing a future of increasingly scarce resources, it would make sense to offer a way out of a prolonged and unhappy death, or at least have a rational and open conversation about euthanasia. Whenever overpopulation comes up, it’s almost inevitable that someone will bring up the downside of a lower birth rate: a society disproportionately made up of older people.  Japan and Taiwan are already experiencing some of these issues. However, they’re worth finding solutions for, because an ever-growing human pyramid scheme population really isn’t the solution. I’d take an aging population over a dead planet any day. Could legalizing euthanasia in more countries and under more circumstances be a small part of using our resources better as a society? Maybe.

I am not religious, romantic, or sentimental. I do not believe in souls or consider life a holy gift; I think quality of life is as or more important than life. And speaking just for myself, I wouldn’t want to use up resources on a life I was no longer able to enjoy. Actually, let me just be selfish and say that I don’t want to live a life that isn’t enjoyable, and I’d rather not muck things up trying to end my life with oleander leaves filched from the nursing home garden.

Given the frenzy over ‘death panels,’ I doubt this is a national conversation we’ll be able to have any time soon. But it will be interesting to see if resource pressures force us to revise some of our attitudes about death or just polarize us further into secular/religious camps.

What are your thoughts on euthanasia and dying greener?

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.

Why green parents should support the childfree

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a fairly outspoken childfree person. I like kids. I just prefer to come home to a cat. (See all my previous childfree posts here.)  I joined the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement as a precocious teenager and have never looked back. However, childfree posts don’t end up on this primarily green blog much for two reasons:

  1. The relationship between population and sustainability seems fairly obvious. Sure, there are other factors at play, including how we use resources, but not having children means that my considerable impact as a citizen of the developed world ends with me and is not multiplied over x number of generations. As it turns out, contraception is five times cheaper than low carbon technology.  Nothing too complex for my brain to chew on.
  2. It makes the green parents who read this blog defensive. I get this. If I were a parent, doing my damnedest to raise low impact kids, I would totally throw something at the smug childfree person who boasts about how she will always win the low impact contest. It’s not encouraging, it’s not achievable for parents to raise zero impact children, and I keep coming back to the idea that making people defensive is a terrible strategy for promoting your cause. (Read the comments on this post for a real life example.) With that in mind, I’m asking for your patience with this post. I will attempt to avoid smugness.

I found out about the childfree movement maybe a year ago. I was initially excited that there were other people like me who saw that their lives would be better without having children. Since then, however, I’ve come to the sad conclusion that being childfree is not in itself a good reason for me to like or respect you as a human being. I’ve come up against stridently anti-child childfree people. Childfree people who treat parents offensively. Snobby childfree people. And (possibly worst of all) whiny childfree people, as highlighted in a recent article on Grist about whether coming out as a childfree person is like coming out as being gay. (It’s not. Suck it up.)

While we may not be a particularly likable bunch, I’d like to appeal to green parents to support us anyway. I get that our reasons for caring about the planet may come from very different sources. I care deeply about biodiversity. I don’t want a world without orangutans, amur leopards, manatees, and all the wonderfully weird animals, plants, and habitats that are on this planet. You probably care more about your children’s security in the future — clean water, clean air, enough food, some natural beauty for them to enjoy. That’s fine. But please recognize that supporting people who make childfree decisions is one way to support a common goal of greater sustainability. And — five little words to sweeten up the deal for you: More. Resources. For. Your. Kids.

My goals as a childfree person are very moderate. I’d like to see increased worldwide access to cheap, effective contraception (particularly IUDs and voluntary sterilization — if there were cheap spay and neuter days for humans, I’d be the first in line). And I’d like to see more social support for the decision not to have kids. Are you a green parent? Here are a few ways you can support the childfree:

  • Advocate for continued/better access to contraception. If you haven’t noticed, Planned Parenthood isn’t doing so well these days. The Democratic Party has its issues, I’ll give you that, but it at least seems to place women’s reproductive rights over religious beliefs most of the time.  
  • Respect the childfree decisions of the people you encounter. Don’t try to talk them out of their decision or put social pressure on them to change their minds. Please don’t assume we’re pedophiles, psychologically damaged, sexually aberrant, or likely to grow out of it.
  • Don’t exclude us. I recently attended a green Twitter party and had absolutely nothing to say in a conversation that ended up being all about eco-friendly Easter baskets and other child-centered issues. Yes, green parenting brings up a lot of concerns that will not interest people without kids, but choosing more general interest topics for a discussion that isn’t specifically designated for green moms would reach out to a bigger sector of the green movement. Inclusiveness is good.
  • Consider sustainability in choosing how many children to have if you are planning your family or thinking about having more children. Oh…I know I’m going to get crap for this one. I don’t support coercive child policies like China’s. I’m not going to attempt to limit your reproductive rights. I see that one more child will not destroy the planet. But if you are concerned about the environment and your own impact on biodiversity, I’m asking that you weigh that concern in your decision.

Now it’s your turn. Green parents, what could the childfree do to earn your support? And if you’re already childfree, what are your thoughts on the relationship between green and childfree? 

Overpopulation AND Overconsumption

Exactly as if we didn’t have bigger things to worry about, here comes a new ‘debate’ right in time for July 11, World Population Day: Which is more of a problem, overpopulation or overconsumption?

Really? Really? This is like arguing about whether green M&Ms taste better than blue ones. (Of course they do.) You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that both are major barriers to living sustainably as a species on Earth. Equally obviously, while we haven’t got a chance at totally addressing one or the other, chipping away at both is something we need to be doing.

First, a crucial link: It’s because we both have so many humans and some of us consume so much that we’re in such a pickle. If we had a total population of maybe 1 million  people who drove Hummers and ate primarily beef and dairy products, the Earth would probably be fine. If we had under 2 billion people on the planet, everyone could probably (if prudently) enjoy first world luxuries like electricity and running water and reliable transportation and medical care without endangering the planet. But as David Attenborough  puts it, “I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people. The same problem becomes harder, or ultimately impossible, when more people are involved.” So overconsumption? Easier to deal with if there are fewer overconsumers. Pretty obvious, right?

While both the overpopulationists and overconsumerists are both right, the real issue is not which group is righter; it’s how to deal with both issues without totally trampling over things like human rights and cultural traditions. (After all, if I were a despotic but environmentally concerned dictator, I could simply put contraceptives in the water supply or enact consumer rations.) I think our success in the future is going to depend on two things: getting the first world to cut back its consumption and its population, and improving the standard of living in the third world sustainably while also reducing its population.

I don’t care if the current birthrate in America is 2.1, or just about ‘replacement’ levels. (I disagree with the term ‘replacement’ because our long lifespans mean many overlapping years in which more of us are consuming.) One American child has almost 7 times the carbon footprint as one Chinese child, and probably more than that compared to, say, an Ethiopian one. Assuming that Americans are unlikely to return to third world levels of consumption or suddenly experience massive die-offs, reducing the population while modifying our consumerism seems like a reasonable middle-of-the-road path to me. (How? That’s another problem entirely.)

The situation looks a little different in third world countries, but as with first world countries, easy access to, cultural permission/empowerment to, and knowledge of how to use contraceptives is a must. Let’s start by preventing unwanted pregnancies and births everywhere. Then maybe we can use renewable energy and water saving technologies to not only revamp the way first worlders live but also help the third world develop in a far more sustainable way than we did.

Of course, this plan depends heavily on:

  • global respect for the natural world
  • voluntarily having fewer children on a massive scale
  • using money and resources for philanthropic purposes
  • putting sustainability in front of gratifying our every immediate desire
  • giving new technology to people we can’t profit from
  • resource sharing
  • acting effectively and cooperatively as a species
  • thinking and acting on behalf of the second or third generation
  • starting a cultural revolution against rampant consumerism

Um…can I take the despotic but environmentally minded dictator after all?

Embracing GINKdom

GINK: n., Green Inclinations, No Kids. As coined by Lisa Hymas at Grist in her article Say it loud: I’m childfree and proud.

The most powerful way to reduce your impact on this small and rather fragile planet is not to recycle. Ride a bike. Compost. Add solar panels to the house. Nope. Want to be really green? Don’t have kids.

According to the NY Times, greening other aspects of your life can’t even begin to offset the carbon footprint of having kids: “If [a hypothetical American woman] had two children, the researchers found, her carbon legacy would eventually rise to nearly 40 times what she had saved by those actions.”

Skyrocketing carbon levels, water shortages, melting ice caps are not problems as much as they are symptoms of one major underlying problem: human overpopulation. When you have 6.8 billion humans (that’s 6,800,000,000 and growing) competing for limited space and resources while trying to become 1st world consumers, the results — for humans, other species, and the Earth — aren’t pretty. Fortunately, studies have shown that the cheapest and most effective way to curb carbon lies in population control through increased access to and use of contraceptives.

Even public, well-respected figures like David Attenborough and Jane Goodall have come straight out and said it: population needs to be curbed. True, consumption matters, too. But as David Attenborough puts it, “I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people. The same problem becomes harder, or ultimately impossible, when more people are involved.”

Increased access to contraceptives and education might make a significant impact in third world countries, but it shouldn’t make first world countries, where birth rates are already low, feel complacent: first world children have carbon footprints 7 times higher than their third world counterparts. But the majority of people who have children in the first world already have them out of choice, not biological accident, so the education & condom tack probably isn’t going to fly.

It’s pretty clear that people aren’t going to not have children solely because of the environment. Even some of my most environmentally conscious friends want two or more children. Species-wide, Earth-wide consciousness is not going to override biological imperative on any significant scale. Sorry. We’re not hard-wired to think in those terms. (Proof in point: we can accurately predict imminent environmental crisis and come up with ways to circumvent it, yet are unlikely to act collectively, effectively, and quickly enough to save ourselves as a species.)

Despite these difficulties, curbing the population needs to be a part of any green effort.  Here’s where I think we should start: an attitude change. Currently, people who choose not to have children are subject to prying, familial pressure, and even outright social disapproval. Contrary to expectation, most people who choose not to have kids are not child-haters; they just have other priorities for their time, energy, and money. And that should be fine, even admirable. I’d like to see more acceptance of child-free-ness, and then social approval coupled with governmental incentives for having one or fewer children. Like tax benefits for people who voluntarily undergo sterilization after zero or one kids. Either that, or require parents to offset the carbon footprints of each of their offspring until age 18. (Take your pick!)

Next, let’s actively educate people who are unsure about kids about the true costs of having children (to your relationship, career, free time, and bank account) and promote satisfying alternatives like fostering, adopting, or joining organizations like Big Brothers and Big Sisters. I think we’d end up with fewer but happier and better cared for children living in a healthier world. Surely that’s a goal worth working towards.

How many children you choose to have should not be seen as a purely personal choice but as a decision made in the context of a small, crowded planet. Please choose wisely, not only for the sake of humans, but also for the sake of the many species we share our world with and have pushed to the brink of extinction.

Speaking for myself, I have always known I did not want children. I announced it to my skeptical mother when I was 10, joined the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement when I was 14, and told my now-husband that if he wanted children, he’d better find another girl.  I work with kids and truly enjoy their company. However, I don’t want them in my life 24/7, and know I require far too much space and quiet time to be a good parent. Equally important, I am a life-long animal person and vegetarian. Continuing to share my planet with amazingly diverse species is so much more important to me than passing on my genetic information. I look forward to being an evolutionary dead-end. I really do.

What are your thoughts on being green and having kids? Another oxymoron?

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