Triple Bottom Line: The birth of environmental reproductive discourse

Artwork of a child looking at the Earth through a magnifying glass but accidentally setting it on fire.
(Lyndzi Ramos | Daily Trojan)

On paper, pop superstar Miley Cyrus and Congressional Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez don’t have much in common, to say the least. Yet, both public figures have openly addressed an ethical dilemma plaguing much of the world’s younger generations — whether or not to have children. 

It’s no secret that if the human population doesn’t make some major changes to their lifestyles very soon, the lives of future generations will be increasingly difficult. From powerful storms to rising global temperatures, humanity’s unchecked impact on the planet has already demonstrated disastrous outcomes. The concern is a legitimate one — why give birth to a child whose life may be doomed from the start?

Recent years have seen dropping birth rates in many of the world’s most populous nations, including the United States, China and India. Analysts at global investment bank Morgan Stanley noted that the “movement to not have children owing to fears over climate change is growing and impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline.”

The creation of activist organizations such as Conceivable Future and BirthStrike have taken the conversation further. The underlying belief of these groups is that more children will negatively impact the planet — causing more consumption, emissions and an entire genealogical line of detrimental climate consequences. 

One 2017 Swedish study calculated that one fewer child per family could save approximately 58.6 metric tons of carbon emissions each year in developed nations. However, scientists argue that reducing the population is not a solution to the climate crisis given the environmental pressures we’ll face within this decade. 

Additionally, implementing strict population control is no quick fix. A 2014 study modeled various population control mechanisms and found that a one-child policy imposed worldwide would still result in a global population between five to ten billion people by the turn of the century. 

While theoretical models cannot account for all challenges, procreation is not as destructive to the environment as initially claimed. 

Much of the world’s population growth is projected to occur in developing nations while the majority of carbon dioxide emissions come from more industrialized countries with lower birth rates. We cannot ignore the resource consumption imbalance between countries. The movement is about much more than just sheer number of people; it’s about the way we live our lives and the amount of natural capital we deplete.

The majority of the activists that belong to groups such as BirthStrike and Conceivable Future don’t endorse forcible population control and encourage adoption, having joined the groups to promote dialogue. Simply put, the questions that they’re asking are more important than the answers. 

Detrimental impact of negligible population growth aside, birth strike groups are also compelled to consider the opposite — the potential ways in which the world that we leave may harm our hypothetical offspring. Is it justifiable to bring children into a world where steady access to things such as fresh water, nutritious food and viable shelter do not exist?

On Jan. 5, Pope Francis addressed dropping birth rates at his Vatican address, callously asserting that choosing to not have children is a form of “selfishness.” While the birth strike movement may clash with religious doctrines and basic population economics, the choice to have children is a deeply personal decision that should not be borne out of a sense of obligation.

The earth inevitably has an absolute limit. However, the focus on reducing childbirth is a facade for a more complex problem, one which activist groups hope to normalize and bring to a wider stage. We need to ask ourselves — why is it so carbon-intensive to have a child in the first place?

Population control is a red herring, a comparatively inconsequential debate that detracts from the deeper and more complicated infrastructural changes that we so desperately need to implement to cope with a changing climate. 

Instead of circumventing the uncomfortable truth with inconsequential individual lifestyle choices, we need to face our overuse of fossil fuels and overproduction of goods. The greatest progress will be made by focusing on policies and technologies that will change consumption habits, minimize carbon footprints and target the rising tide of natural resource scarcity, not through limiting procreation. 

Choosing to have children may signify commitment to a better future, but the undertaking doesn’t stop there — it’s our responsibility as a society to leave this world in better shape than we found it for future generations.

Montana Denton is a senior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society in her column, “Triple Bottom Line.”