Econundrum: Kids vs. Earth?

| Mon Oct. 12, 2009 5:00 AM EDT

Last week, we held a household conservation smackdown. Change out lightbulbs? Retrofit your windows? Drive less? The answers are here.

But there’s one thing you can do with carbon-saving benefits that wildly surpass all of the activities on last week's list: Have fewer kids. Assuming that an American mother and father are each responsible for one half of the emissions of their offspring and 1/4 of the emissions of their grandchildren, researchers at Oregon State University recently calculated that each child adds a staggering 10,407 tons of carbon dioxide to an average female’s carbon legacy, the equivalent of 5.7 times her lifetime emissions, or an extra 470 years of life. You'd have to change out 2,623 incandescent bulbs to offset a child’s carbon footprint.

Now clearly, the decision whether to have kids isn't as simple as a carbon footprint calculation. Back in March, Mother Jones contributor Julia Whitty blogged about the Oregon State study. Emotion ran high in our readers' comments: "When did babies become the enemy?" asked one commenter. "My three little carbon monsters are going to find cures for myriad cancers, bring about world peace, discover economically feasible ways to desalinate water, and develop safe methods of nuclear fusion," wrote another. Yeah. No pressure.

One idea for folks set on having kids: Consider living more modestly. Over at Natural Papa blog, Derek Markham writes about his family’s six-year adventure in living in a 120 square foot camper. "We hauled all of our own water, used a composting toilet, a solar shower, and we tried to exercise extreme patience with each other." They survived, and saved money: Their rent was about $200 a month. Experiments like this one and No Impact Man's might not be for your family, but the lesson—that it’s possible for families to learn to live with less—is certainly worth some thought.

It's one thing if your "little carbon monsters" are your choice. But not everyone in the world has kids voluntarily. Another recent study, this one by the London School of Economics, compared several ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions: spending money on low-carbon technologies such as renewable energy and "clean coal" technology vs. providing birth control to women who want it but lack access to it. Birth control spending won by a landslide—it was roughly four and a half times as cost effective as the other activities. Here's a list of the countries that would see the greatest emissions reductions over the next 40 years with better family planning (in billions of tons):

  • United States: 5.5
  • China: 4.4
  • Russian Federation: 3.3
  • India: 2.2
  • South Africa: 1.1
  • Mexico: 1.1

The bottom line: Whether you see kids as carbon monsters or little darlings, one thing's clear: For the planet's sake, people who don't want kids should have access to birth control. Just ask Levi Johnston.  

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