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My boyfriend and I have been talking about (eventually) having kids. I want two, but he wants just one! Part of his reasoning is that having one kid is better for the environment. I know he’s not wrong, but how big of a deal can one extra human really be? Should the climate really be a factor in our family planning?
A. Dear Offspring Fan,
There has been a ton written about the climate-driven decision to have children. And yet millions of people are still trying to figure this question out — including you and me — because it’s extremely hard!
So, let’s do it together. I’ll tell you what I know about climate-based reproduction decisions (I have a little personal experience here), and I’ll tell you how parents who have made environmentally-centered family planning decisions feel about them.
I’d be remiss in not giving the caveat that there’s a long, ugly history of racist population control initiatives in the name of so-called environmentalism and resource conservation. I think that both you and your boyfriend should be aware of that legacy, particularly if either of you is a person of color!
With that in mind, the general wisdom of climate-conscious family planning is if you’re going to reproduce, it should be at or below the replacement fertility rate. In English, that means that you aren’t adding to population growth. Climate-based population fears basically come down to: “Humans cause climate change! We can’t have too many of them!” That’s especially true for wealthy humans in developed countries, because they have the highest environmental impacts.
Well, that depends on how climate-conscious you want to be. In 2017, a team of Lund University researchers looked at all the personal decisions we make that influence climate change. They found that far and away the most significant thing you can do to reduce your carbon emissions is to have one fewer child. That’s a little bit of a weird guideline — is there no difference if you wanted ten kids or two?
To further explore your question, I went to one of the most carbon footprint-aware people I know. Peter Kalmus is a vehement advocate for taking responsibility for the climate consequences of one’s own lifestyle in as many ways as possible: avoiding flying, driving, eating meat, and using too much electricity. Kalmus and his wife are raising two children in Altadena, California — both of whom they had before his “climate awakening.”
“To be honest, I’m glad that they both came before I was too fully aware of this issue,” he said. “I still feel that having kids has been one of the most deeply meaningful things I’ve ever done. I’m glad with them. I didn’t have to agonize over whether or not to bring them into the world — which is kind of a copout, I know.”
At one point, Kalmus and his wife had both wanted a third child. By the time that point came around, though, Kalmus felt too guilty about the idea of reproducing over the replacement rate. But now, he says, he feels some remorse that he may have deprived his wife of a third child she’d always wanted.
I asked Kalmus’ wife, Sharon Kunde, if that was the case. Rest easy, Peter.