Monday, July 11, 2005

BRC 27: Dave Roberts: Hold the Misanthropy

Dave Roberts is an assistant editor at Grist magazine.

I have a kid -- a boy, just under 2 years old. And another boy on the way in August. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

No, seriously, there isn't.

It is taken as axiomatic among greens that procreating is a sin, possibly the Original Environmental Sin. I think that's wrong, not to say short-sighted, pinched, crabby, and irritating.

I'm not on a quest to justify my actions. I do plenty of stuff that's environmentally irresponsible -- drive, buy excessively packaged consumer goods, drink OJ straight from the carton with the fridge open, etc. -- and make no excuses. I'm not trying to be a saint. Matter of fact, as I'm fond of arguing, individual environmental virtue is at best a curiosity, at worst a distraction.

But this thing about kids sticks in my craw.

Greens have gotten pretty concrete and precise about how they measure the eco-impact of a person: It's called an ecological footprint, measured in the number of biologically productive acres required to produce the resources the human in question consumes. (You can find out your footprint here.) At the world's current population level, to live sustainably (and leave something for other species) each person should be allotted 4.5 acres. The average U.S. citizen has an ecological footprint of 24 acres. To sustain a world of North Americans, we'd need ... 5.3 worlds.

This is obviously a somewhat inexact science, but let's grant that it's approximately correct. My personal ecological footprint is 16 acres. Potentially, I could reduce that somewhat, and teach my kids to keep theirs low. But still, by cranking out kids, American kids no less, I'm doing something that is, almost by definition, unsustainable. Right?

Well, maybe. But I object:

  • Much if not most of a North American's ecological footprint is "built in," as it were -- his or her share of the public resources devoted to infrastructure and the like. My children could do nothing but wander the woods eating roots and berries for their entire lives and their footprint still would not be sustainable. In short, the very existence of a North American is, on this view, a moral wrong.
  • If I could remove my ecological footprint entirely, the earth would endure 0.000000000000167% less insult (or assuming I have five times the average footprint, 0.000000000000667%). Let's say I zero out my footprint and refrain from having my two children, and furthermore, all three of us would have had ten times the impact of an "average" person. The earth is thereby spared 0.000000000005% the damage. Big whoop.
  • Ecological footprint is purely negative -- it measures impact. Why is there no such thing as an ecological handprint (as Alex calls it), which measure the good we do for the earth? Say my son invents a slightly better catalytic converter for cars, and it's widely adopted. Say everybody who drives a car with one of these new widgets reduces their footprint by 1%. Say a million people get the new cars. My son has just wiped out his footprint and that of 9,999 other people. In short, there is more to a person than how much they eat and shit.

Now, you might say: The footprint is guaranteed and unavoidable, while the handprint is highly speculative. And I say: Yup. I'll take that bet.

Population and consumption issues will be overcome, if at all, collectively (in part through allowing women who don't want kids to avoid having them). We need deep structural changes in our material and social milieu, and quickly. We need every genius, every orator, every inventor and innovator, everybody who can help bring those changes about. Producing just one of the soldiers in that fight matters a hell of a lot more than trimming 0.000000000000667% off the earth's burden.

Despite the near-obsessive focus of some environmentalists on "what you can do," it is collective action that will make or break our future. Changing group behavior -- through advocacy, activism, politics, research, however -- is our calling.

I'll take my environmentalism without the misanthropy.

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Help Your Kids Create Their Handprint: Children's Books on Ecosystems at