Morality, Survival, and the Carbon Footprint of Children

According to an article that appeared recently in the New York Times, “having children is the surest way to send your carbon footprint soaring.” The basis for this claim is a study by statisticians at Oregon State University, who “concluded that in the United States, the carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other environmentally sensitive practices people might employ their entire lives – things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.” Lisa Hymas of Grist.org appeared on MSNBC (see below) to spell out the implications of the study for those dimmer bulbs not in the habit of reading the grey lady. In a word, they should follow her good example and commit genetic suicide in order to save the planet.

As I have occasionally pointed out, morality is a behavioral trait that exists only because it has promoted our survival in the past. The good-in-itself does not exist. The Oregon Study and Ms. Hymas’ reaction to it are excellent illustrations of the reasons why failure to grasp these truths can be a liability. To the extent that morality does not promote our survival, not as a species, but as individuals, it is utterly and completely pointless. There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive. To the extent that the emotional predispositions hard-wired in our brains that express themselves as what we know as morality lead us to conclude, for example, that we should blow ourselves up so we can go to heaven, or drink poisoned Kool-aid with a similar end in view, or fail to have children in order to save the planet, they have become dysfunctional. They no longer serve the only conceivable end for moral behavior that can in any way be considered legitimate – they no longer promote our survival.

That said, I have no ax to grind with Ms. Hymas. I am entirely content that she should not have children. After all, my own children are more likely to thrive in a world uncluttered by her children’s messy carbon droppings.  As the good people at Oregon State point out, “Many people are unaware of the power of exponential population growth,… Future growth amplifies the consequences of people’s reproductive choices today, the same way that compound interest amplifies a bank balance.”  However, one doesn’t avoid “exponential population growth,” by failing to have one’s own children.  One accomplishes such things by, for example, publishing studies that convince large numbers of other people that it is virtuous not to have children, taking care that one’s own children don’t read the studies.  One then proceeds to have as many children as possible, aware that, final links in an unbroken chain of life going back billions of years that we all are, it would be rather absurd, not to mention ungenerous to those life forms that have kept the chain unbroken all those years, to end their existence and ours after a pointless life by fading into oblivion for a reason as frivolous as leaving a reduced carbon footprint.

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