Could Childless-by-Choice Women Save the World?

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AS THE U.S. battens down the hatches for what looks to be a strange winter, one bioethicist wonders if declining birthrates could fix our climate problems. Johns Hopkins University professor Travis Rieder is the author of Toward a Small Family Ethic: How Overpopulation and Climate Change Are Affecting the Morality of Procreation, in which he argues that childless-by-choice women might be poised to save the world.

Rieder’s argument centers around a few fast facts. Population is one of four critical components in the Kaya identity: an equation economists use to predict future levels of carbon dioxide. While we tend to think of overpopulation as a problem for African and Asian nations to work out, Rieder’s assessment shows that Western nations may be among the most guilty when it comes to global climate change.

Bloomberg uses the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research’s data on per-capita CO2 pollution from energy and cement production to analyze the members of the G20 summit, excluding the European Union. Australia, the U.S., and Canada all rank in the top four, while India, Indonesia, and Brazil — all countries generally considered to be overpopulated — take the bottom three spots, with roughly one-tenth of the Western nations’ output. Why? Because we use more electricity and do more construction. Our “developed” status is killing the planet, one ton of CO2 at a time.

Although many individuals know that not having children is the greener decision, saving the world isn’t among the most popular reasons women are childless-by-choice. Instead, women and couples cite personal motives, such as having little or no desire to become parents, as the driving force behind their decision not to reproduce. However, Childless By Choice Project founder Laura S. Scott says that overpopulation, waste production, and darkening reports for our planet’s future were common reasons given to her in interviews with the childfree, even though they were not the ones she heard most frequently.

Some experts argue that childless-by-choice women are hurting the economy by having undersized families. Writing for U.S. News in 2012, Rick Newman declared that a falling birthrate in a developed country like the U.S. would cause the economy to stagnate, because adults would not be forced to purchase clothing, food, and other necessities for the tiny humans in their care. In a 2013 Newsweek article, Harry Siegel cites predictions that the ratio of non-working dependents to workers in the U.S. would double by 2050, “set[ing] the stage for a fight over debt, austerity, benefits, and government spending that will make the vicious battles of the last four years seem more like, well, a tea party.”

To emphasize how bad declining birthrates can be for a country, pearl-clutchers often dredge up the specter of late-20th century China. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the People’s Republic of China instituted its “one-child policy” to combat a mounting overpopulation crisis. The law made a few exceptions for ethnic minorities, parents of children with disabilities, and those whose first children were daughters, but those exceptions were not sufficient to replace the number of citizens who aged out of the workforce every year. To make matters worse, numerous reports painted a portrait of forced abortion, sterilization, and infanticide in the name of policy enforcement. China adopted an alternate, “two-child policy” in 2015.

Even with the world’s favorite example of low population growth, Rieder is sticking to his theory. “[T]here’s been a lot of countries with pretty influential fertility-reducing policies and strategies,” he says, “[and] some of them are really, really good.” But he’s quick to point out that China committed human rights violations in the name of population control. If you remove those violations from the equation, Rieder says, you have a “really good fertility policy” that educates and employs women, and provides them with family planning options, all of which are key to reducing birthrates.

Although the zero-population-growth movement has been around for decades, what we are seeing in the U.S. and elsewhere today is relatively unprecedented. As Scott observes, “[t]he choice to remain childless didn’t really exist even 50 or 60 years ago.” We are only now approaching a time in which all women in the U.S. have access to safe and affordable birth control. The future is largely uncharted territory.

Even if childless-by-choice women in the West don’t save the world with their reduced carbon emissions, they have a social and political identity that has burst forth in the years since Scott’s interview, when “close to 20 percent of women d[id]’t have children” and never would. As Claudia Spahr writes, they “ha[ve] the freedom and independence to travel anywhere on a bucket-sale, red-eye ticket.” They can dream and do big things, without worrying about whether they packed a lunch or checked homework, and that freedom of time might produce the ideas that — as someone’s children will learn — saved the planet.