To be perfectly honest, I love clickbait headlines. I mean, who among us hasn’t glanced at the sponsored stories section of our favorite website and contemplated all the juicy gossip that can be had at the mere tap of a mouse? That girl from the 80s sitcom I had a crush on? I totally want to see what she looks like now, because my jaw will drop! And what about the Bernie Bro who found out his wife was cheating. . .with a Trump voter? I bet I won’t believe what happens next. Shut up and take my clicks already!
So you can imagine my intrigue when I happened across this particular beauty by one Travis Rieder, Ph.D—not at HuffPo, nor at the Democrat Underground, but at that supposedly respectable bastion of outcome based journalism known as NBC News:
“Science proves kids are bad for Earth. Morality suggests we stop having them.”
This is clickbait, elevated to an art form. Headline writers of NBC, I salute you!
But can the story that follows possibly live up to that kind of hype?
The answer is a resounding, “Meh.” We’ve seen this kind of thing before. In fact, it’s become environmentalist boilerplate: Humans are bad, humans are destructive, therefore we should voluntarily extinct ourselves for the good of the planet. Granted, the story itself doesn’t quite go that far—but given that it suggests that having fewer children is noble, and that the United States is starting to catch up with Europe in terms of demographic decline, the inevitable result is a future in which human populations dwindle until there are too few of us left for the species to survive.
Which, apparently, is a good thing?
According to this view, having a child is a major contributor to climate change. The logical takeaway here is that everyone on Earth ought to consider having fewer children.Although culturally controversial, the scientific half of this position is fairly well-established. Several years ago, scientists showed that having a child, especially for the world’s wealthy, is one of the worst things you can do for the environment. That data was recycled this past summer in a paper showing that none of the activities most likely to reduce individuals’ carbon footprints are widely discussed.
Interesting supposition. So it’s okay to have a child if you live in a poor country where children live in substandard conditions and are more vulnerable to disease, malnutrition and early death—but if you’re in a wealthy Western nation where you can afford to offer a child a safer, more stable and healthier life, that’s bad for the planet because of all the carbon that you’ll create raising that kid.
Kinda sounds like he Rieder is saying it’s better when children don’t live so long. Before you recoil in horror, though, you should know that there is a mathematical reasoning behind this logic:
The argument that having a child adds to one’s carbon footprint depends on the view that each of us has a personal carbon ledger for which we are responsible. Furthermore, some amount of an offspring’s emissions count towards the parents’ ledger.Most environmentalists accept this sort of ledger view when it comes to recycling, driving, and flying, but support begins to decrease when applied to family planning. The opposition is typified by Vox writer David Roberts, who argues that “such an accounting scheme is utterly impractical” because it seems to entail that one is never responsible for one's own emissions. Because "we don’t want to double-count,” as Roberts says, this means parents are really only responsible for their kids’ emissions.The flaw in this objection is the plausible-sounding caveat: “we don’t want to double-count.” Because why wouldn’t we want to double-count? If moral responsibility added up mathematically, then double-counting would be a serious problem.
Have you ever heard about an idea so stupid that only an academic would believe it? Well, this one sets the gold standard. At some point, however, it must have occurred to Rieder that what he was spreading exceeded the capacity of his shovel, because he quickly added a disclaimer:
But I think it’s clear that we should not accept a mathematical model of responsibility.
Substitute “climate change model” for “mathematical model” and he might be on to something here. Instead, Rieder doubles down with a metaphor as clumsy as it is offensive:
If I release a murderer from prison, knowing full well that he intends to kill innocent people, then I bear some responsibility for those deaths — even though the killer is also fully responsible. My having released him doesn’t make him less responsible (he did it!). But his doing it doesn’t eliminate my responsibility either.Something similar is true, I think, when it comes to having children: Once my daughter is an autonomous agent, she will be responsible for her emissions. But that doesn’t negate my responsibility. Moral responsibility simply isn’t mathematical.
Equating the release of murderers with having children. Good move, bro. I can’t wait for Rieder’s next article, in which he compares kicking puppies to letting Medicare pay for grandma’s hip surgery.
All kidding aside, I understand that Rieder is only trying—in his own kinda creepy way—to frame population growth and its effect on climate change as a philosophical question, and to provoke discussion on an issue he thinks is simply too important to ignore. In doing so, however, he reduces the very human desires of family and belonging to a cold, numerical list of pros and cons. Like the android Ilia from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Rieder seems to view people as little more than carbon-based units—except in the case of children, who are more like carbon-spewing units who must be stopped at all costs.
To say that this is deeply anti-human would be putting it lightly—and to hear Rieder talking about it, quite scary to boot.