NBC's "Thought Experiment": Having kids is immoral

How old am I? Old enough not to have to personally take the advice handed out by NBC’s Think portal today, surely, but also old enough to recognize it as yet another bout of neo-Malthusianism. If having kids if bad for the Late Great Planet Earth (oops, a spoiler!), then our morality should dictate that we stop having them, Travis Rieder argues:

A startling and honestly distressing view is beginning to receive serious consideration in both academic and popular discussions of climate change ethics. 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. …

But scientific evidence and moral theorizing aside, this is a complicated question with plenty of opponents. In what follows, I will address some of the challenges to this idea. Because while I recognize that this is an uncomfortable discussion, I believe that the seriousness of climate change justifies uncomfortable conversations. In this case, that means that we need to stop pretending the decision to have children doesn’t have environmental and ethical consequences.

Pardon me for my long memory, but this “startling and honestly distressing view” began receiving serious attention about 50 years ago. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published a wildly popular book titled The Population Bomb. It predicted a worldwide food crisis within a decade in its introduction:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

And what precisely was the solution to this impending doom? The “moral” choice of stopping human reproduction, of course. “We must rapidly bring the world population under control, reducing the growth rate to zero or making it negative,” Ehrlich wrote. “Conscious regulation of human numbers must be achieved.” To accomplish this, Ehrlich suggested adding “temporary sterilants” to human water supplies,” while also noting that it might be impractical due to “criminal inadequacy” of the science in forced sterilizations. The entire effort in the US — where Ehrlich primarily aimed, for moral reasons — would get run out of a federal Department of Population which would enforce strict limits on procreation, a scenario later adopted by China with brutal force, and to no discernible impact on China’s environment.

Remember the great food crises of the 1970s and the hundreds of millions who starved to death? Neither does anyone else, because Ehrlich and his scarcity-based Malthusian calculations turned out to be utterly wrong. That didn’t stop Ehrlich from penning two follow-ups, The Population Explosion (1990), and Optimum Human Population Size (1994), both of which predicted massive implosions of the environment and capacity, and both of which have yet to come true to any degree at all. Other apocalyptic tomes emerged based at least in part on such massive famines, such as Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, which relied on predictions of mass starvation to claim that Jesus was just around the corner, and He wasn’t happy. (Orson Welles narrated a documentary version of it.)

The only significant famines that have taken place since these predictions have been caused by political failures, not by a lack of resources. Political choices and conflicts in Somalia, Ethiopia, and now Libya, Syria, and Venezuela either created the economic conditions for famines or exacerbated temporary weather issues into full-blown food crises. In Venezuela, the choice to adopt scarcity models of governance and economics (usually socialism) created the very scarcities that these doomsayers predict. In the not-so-distant past, the largest famines that took the lives of tens of millions were created by policies imposed by Communist regimes in Russia and China, none of which had anything to do with overpopulation. And yet these apocalyptic predictions always take the form of scientists assuring us that we are doomed, and the only moral choice is to (a) remove choice from individuals all the way down to the most private choices they have, and (b) create a powerful central government that rations for scarcity rather than a free-market culture that produces abundance.

It’s that track record which should be described as “startling and honestly distressing.” Instead, we’re recycling Thomas Malthus every other generation in order to enable Karl Marx. The moral choice here is to ignore the hysterics who see a baby as an immoral choice, rather than the potential for another generation to continue human culture.