Addicted to novelty since 2001

The Upside of the Only Child

Thinking of the Should We Become Parents wiki, somebody sent me this post by Dave Pollard. It discusses the consequences of reproducing in the developed world:

Each American will consume 700,000 kilograms (1.5 million lbs.) of minerals (mostly sand and gravel), and 24 billion BTUs of energy — equivalent to 4000 barrels of oil (40% in petroleum products, 25% each in natural gas and coal). In a lifetime, an average American will eat 25,000 kilograms (55,000 lbs.) of plant foods (20% each in vegetables, sweeteners, fruits & juices, grains, and other plant products) and 28,000 kilograms (60,000 lbs.) of animal products (70% milk, 7% each beef, chicken and pork), provided in part by slaughtering 2000 animals (>90% poultry)

Yowza. That’s a lot of stuff. I was trying to work out what 4000 barrels of oil looks like. That’s 632,000 litres or about 150,000 US gallons. That’s ten of these tanks, which doesn’t sound that impressive. Any other suggestions?

Here’s the conclusion of the article Dave cites:

The most effective way an individual can protect the global environment, and hence protect the well-being of all living people, is to abstain from creating another human being.

18 Responses to “The Upside of the Only Child”

  1. double-plus-ungood

    The most effective way an individual can protect the global environment, and hence protect the well-being of all living people, is to abstain from creating another human being.

    Well, no. The most effective way would be to kill yourself in an earth-friendly way before you reproduce. Not reproducing would be the second most effective way.

    /nitpick

  2. darren

    You make a good point, and raise a good question. What’s the most environmentally-friendly way to kill yourself? Drown in the ocean?

  3. Kent

    With all the toxins that are in our bodies I think becoming fish food would not be good. They may become part of the food chain and my all to real offspring may ingest them.
    Perhaps dying in a naturally occurring forest fire. Hard to organize though.

    On another subject. I love the tiny little fire extinguisher right beside that nice large tank in your picture. I know it would help keep the tank from catching fire if someone started a small fire. But it looks spectacularly insignificant.

  4. Andrea Coutu from Become a Consultant Blog

    Of course, you could endeavour to be a non-average, non-American.

    We’ve got an almost two-year-old. We live downtown and spend about $20 a month on gas, so that tells you how often we drive and perhaps how efficient our vehicle is. We walk most places. We try not to use a lot of energy for heating and lighting. We use libraries, community centres and playgrounds for playspace, toys and books. We don’t buy knickknacks. And so on and so forth.

    I’d be curious to know what our footprints look like. There’s still an impact, but I’m sure it’s not along the same lines as that of an average American.

  5. double-plus-ungood

    I’d be curious to know what our footprints look like.

    Here you go. I cycle-commute 100 km/week and try to live a reasonably green lifestyle, but I still require 4.8 hectares of arable land to support myself. If everyone lived like that, it would require two planet Earths.

  6. Chad

    That child you abstain from having, might be the next Einstein and may eliminate our dependence on oil, or convince people that artificial sweeteners cause obesity and lead to the sky rocketing health care costs, or they may revolutionize the way we educate children and introduce and new level of enlightenment in our world. Each one of us is special and we choose to consume all of those resources. We don’t consume them just because we are born. Let’s learn to make better choices!

  7. darren

    Chad: I’ve always found the ‘might be the next Einstein’ argument highly specious. I’d like to see some kind of statistic analysis on the odds that a given child might change the world.

  8. Chad

    Odds are 1 in the number of people ever born that your kid would be the next Einstein. I recognize that these are not great odds, but I would prefer to invest time and resources into teaching people to make better choices about what they consume, rather than miss the opportunity. I guess I am coming from the perspective that it would be easier to teach everyone how to consume 1% less, that it would be to reduce the birthrate by the amount to equal that decrease in consumption.

  9. darren

    I guess I am coming from the perspective that it would be easier to teach everyone how to consume 1% less, that it would be to reduce the birthrate by the amount to equal that decrease in consumption.

    I assume you’re talking about a democracy, because China managed to make the birth rate plummet.

    It’s a bit of a moot point, though, because birth rates decline as a society gets more developed. Unfortunately, we can’t sustain a planet with 9 or 10 billion people consuming at a developed world level. We’re having difficulty doing it at one-tenth of that level.

    So, a 1% reduction in consumption wouldn’t do it. It wouldn’t even make a dent.

    Interestingly, if one chooses to not have a child (or another child), then you’re actually making a 100% reduction.

    Regardless, having children is ultimately a selfish decision, no matter how you slice it. As we learn more about our impact on the planet, we need to factor this new information into our reproductive decisions.

  10. Chris

    Chad, your kid also might be the next Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, or Dahmer. Darren is right – this reasoning carries little or no weight. If you’re truly convinced of this, you should really play the lottery. The cost is way lower, it’s more environmentally and socially friendly, and the odds are much, much better.

  11. WCG

    Aren’t there already plenty of pre-made kids around for the taking? Er, I guess the technical term is “adopting.” They exist already, so then it’s a question of can that child be raised better?

  12. Chad

    Just to clarify, I am speaking theoretically, since as a gay man I do not expect to father a child.

    I think WCG’s point about doing a better job raising kids is a more worthwhile discussion if you have an interest in perpetuating the species. In my limited experience (as an uncle, godfather, and human) no child is born a Hitler or a Stalin or a Dahmer. Their upbringing and life experiences are a greater influence than their genetics.

    If we consider having children a purely selfish decision, how is the species perpetuated? How do you distinguish between a child that is selfish in nature versus one that is born to perpetuate the species?

    China was successful because every household was restricted equally. It was not a choice. I doubt that the US or Canada would attempt China’s approach.

    If we encourage people (in a democratic country) to not have children in order to help sustain our resources, then educated people will be the likely individuals to make this choice. Our species will be perpetuated by the least educated people with the fewest resources to educate their offspring. Does that pose any risks for the future?

  13. double-plus-ungood

    Our species will be perpetuated by the least educated people with the fewest resources to educate their offspring. Does that pose any risks for the future?

    Timely comment. Idiocracy is being released on DVD today.

  14. Andy K

    <unPCalert>Frankly, you probably do not want to think about who has reduced humanity’s impact more, Einstein or Hitler.</>

    Seriously though, your child might be the next X is a non-argument, for the reason that I can’t think of any individual X that has significantly encouraged or enabled people to use less resources or achieve sustainability (the ultimate goal). All inventors, thinkers, and doers that I can think of work within a system, a culture, and a society that nutures their contribution. It’s not that one person can’t make a difference, but I believe that no one person is destined, rather fate picks a worthy person to have that role. Also, rationalizing your child’s existance with the expectation of being the next X will make it more difficult for him or her to fulfill that role–I’d rather like to belive I am raising a worthy child.

    To me, morality suggests that as an individual, I should use all those resources I’ve consumed to attempt to perpetuate humanity in a sustainable way. I was once tempted by the “die-off” idea, but in the end I’m not enough of a nihilist (thought the Nihilist movement sounds like it had some good ideas). After those near-nihilist days, I used to think that setting a good example of being a positive and contributing member of society was enough to justify my life, but I think the instinct of self-perpetuation kicked in around 30. The logical conclusion is that although you don’t need to beget your own offspring, you should spend your resource-debt raising and educating children to have less debt. That could mean adopting if you want the full parenting experience, devoting a career to education or NGOs (by that I mean the human betterment work that NGOs typically do around the world), or simply mentoring or volunteering in schools, or better yet, in foster care circles.

    Personally, I didn’t think long about adoption, genetic hubris makes biological fatherhood the easy choice, not to mention all the administrative and practical difficulties of adopting. Plus I think that adopting for the purpose of sustainability is likely to overshadow the more important reasons of being a parent and raising a child (love, dedication, . So in the end, the most important factor for me in deciding to father a child was paraphrased by #22 on that wiki: “A child is a living legacy; you can put your knowledge and experience into a biovessel and send it out to the future.”

    There was an interesting article in Discover magazine recently about the epigenome. It confirmed one of those beliefs I’ve often held to be intuitive: that nuture can change which of our genes get expressed (literally turning off and on DNA), and therefore shape our physical selves. More surprisingly, those changes are stored in the chromosomes, which can be passed on to children (DNA is only about half of the genetic material in the gametes).

    Combine that with Andrea’s low-impact lifestyle (we live in a more rural area, but we buy and grow our food locally, compost, use solar energy, and espouse a non-consumerist lifestyle) and Chad’s point that I would prefer those dedicated to sustainability be those who raise children, and I think there is a strong moral argument for saying that having your own child is not a bad thing. While I have nothing people who decide not to have children for whatever reason, it seems that there are trends within the emerging no-children movement that seems to vilify those who do procreate, and that bothers me–not so much as a parent but more because it is just another form of intolerance society doesn’t need.

    If comments can have a tune, mine would be “Teach Your Children Well” by Crosby Stills Nash & Young (see this video for the song as a tribute to adoption).

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