Are Children a Kind of Pollution?

By Veronica

You may have seen the articles popping up on news sites for the last few years. Maybe you’ve even received a sanctimonious lecture from a family member, friend or a stranger in the grocery store. Whether you’ve already received the memo or not, the word is out: having too many children hurts the planet.

Each child you have, the reasoning goes, will leave a carbon footprint. Each child you have will damage the environment, so the only reasonable thing to do is have fewer children. Good, responsible People Who Care About The Earth limit themselves to two children. It is selfish to have more than two.

(Those of you with large families may now laugh at the absurdity of anyone seeing your lifestyle and calling it “selfish.”)

I am deeply skeptical of this new utilitarian bit of wisdom. There are a number of reasons to urge societies with declining birth rates to have more children rather than fewer – our social support systems depend upon it. On a basic philosophical level, it is also inconsistent to claim that, because we have not successfully changed the human behaviors of excess consumption and pollution, we must change even more innate human behavior like the longing for children.

The two-child dictum disturbs me most, however, for this reason: thinly veiled in it is the notion that children themselves are a form of pollution. Just skim through the comments on this New York Times article; large families are called “disgusting,” a “negative moral value,” “a sin,” “narcissistic” and the parents are “truly dangerous.” By being potential polluters, the children themselves, and their selfish, selfish parents, are a danger to the world. The feelings of revulsion are palpable.

The idea that people are a kind of pollution is a very old one. It has been around almost as long as humans have been keeping historical records. Usually the idea is expressed in ethnic hatreds, but humans are creative in the ways they construct contempt. Economic disparity, health issues, cultural habits – all can become fodder for the view that Those People Over There are multiplying like vermin, and something should be done about it. Our only innovation on this theme today is dividing the vermin from the humans based exclusively on how many children they have.

No ethical system or ideology or religion – not even one – has produced moral behavior based on the belief that human life is a form of pollution. If human life is pollution, there is always some clever person who decides that, logically, the pollution must be cleansed. Choose any random history book to see what happens next.

So to Jonathan Porritt and the other dystopian prophets urging abortions on pregnant women: your ethics fail to inspire. If you want to motivate me and the millions of other parents to change our world, your value system must begin with treasuring children, not decrying their existence.

26 Responses to Are Children a Kind of Pollution?
  1. Stephanie
    February 10, 2009 | 10:37 am

    Thank you, Veronica. I didn’t know the right words to say in reaction to what has been going around lately.

    Mom of 4,

  2. jen
    February 10, 2009 | 11:19 am

    excellent post. even if I were intending to have two, the notion that it would make me better than a larger family is absurd. aside from that, I’m sure most large families are, (mostly by necessity), more environmentally conscious than smaller families. (less things bought, foods from scratch and locally bought, and less waste as they save things for as many uses as possible).

    jen (mom of 2.5 and hopefully more)

  3. kgirl
    February 10, 2009 | 11:27 am

    I am only having two children because, personally, my head will explode if I have any more.

    But whether someone has two or ten, the point really should be to raise these children to be responsible, kind people. It’s not about the number of children one has, it’s about the adults they turn out to be. And if the parents don’t care, than one child’s carbon footprint could easily be greater than sum of four, if the parents of those four did care.

  4. Sherri Edman
    February 10, 2009 | 11:56 am

    As I so often say in response to your posts: yes!

  5. Carrie of Ceaseless Praises
    February 10, 2009 | 11:57 am

    Wow, good post, Veronica. I too am saddened and angered by this attitude that an inanimate planet is more important than our children. God created this planet, He’s in control of it, and He gives us each of our children. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be responsible as far as how we treat the earth, but saying that too many children are causing pollution is ridiculous heresy.

  6. Veronica
    February 10, 2009 | 11:59 am

    Carrie, what makes it even more perverse is that the world two largest producers of carbon emissions are the US and China. China already has draconian population controls, and the US exceeds replacement population growth only because of immigration. In other words, the world’s worst polluters are NOT the ones having the most children.

  7. Julia
    February 10, 2009 | 12:11 pm

    So I AM somebody who thinks environmental concerns are a valid consideration in family size, just like economics or parents’ personality and desires, etc. I believe abortion is wrong and that other families should have the freedom to make different choices than me, but I care deeply about the planet we live on and I am convinced by the scientific evidence that the more people we have, the more havoc we are wreaking on the planet. And as rich Americans, each of us as individuals has a much-more-than-average negative impact on the Earth; having a child here doesn’t have the same environmental impact as having a child in a 3rd World country. I love babies and children and value human beings, even the unborn ones. It’s BECAUSE I value human beings that I want our planet to, you know, stay a nice place to live and I believe that responsible stewardship of the Earth extends to our decisions about family size.

  8. Beck
    February 10, 2009 | 12:28 pm

    The book “The Empty Cradle” profoundly shaped my beliefs about family size and what our responsibility actually is. First world populations have been plummeting to the point that some countries – Japan springs to mind – no longer have the young population base to support their aging population in any way. I know that Australia has started urging families to have three kids (one for her, one for him and “one for the country”) as a way of addressing the population plummetting away.

    And anyone who thinks that there are too many children should try being a teacher in Ontario: every school district EXCEPT for Toronto has too many teachers and not enough students – there just aren’t children any more. Everyone has bought a certain line and it WILL have consequences.

  9. suburbancorrespondent
    February 10, 2009 | 12:31 pm

    There is a good discussion going on over at about the NY Times article and subsequent comments. As the mother of a large family who herself used to believe that children were nothing more than someone’s expensive idea of a hobby, I feel nothing but compassion for people who are aghast at my reproductive behavior. They don’t realize that we are put on here to love, and that the more people there are to love, the better.

    We are fully capable of supporting a large population here on our planet in an efficient, earth-friendly manner. But we lack the political will to do so! We need mandatory recycling, investment in green energy, smart community planning, etc. What we don’t need is to limit our family size so that other people can go on living wastefully.

  10. Janet
    February 10, 2009 | 12:58 pm

    Great post!

    I wrote one a long while back about the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. This movement essentially believes we should all voluntarily stop having children and force the human race to go extinct. It’s okay though because, before the last human dies, we all get to live out our last days knowing that we have preserved the earth forever.

    What a load of crap.

    My children, all children, are the embodiment of hope.

  11. Sherri Edman
    February 10, 2009 | 1:03 pm

    Suburban Correspondent, I think you hit the nail on the head with

    What we don’t need is to limit our family size so that other people can go on living wastefully.

    I wonder if much of the subtext at work in the cries for smaller families because of wealthy nations’ larger carbon footprint isn’t “YOU should have fewer children so that I can live as I wish.”

  12. allysha
    February 10, 2009 | 1:03 pm

    Thanks, Veronica. Good post.

  13. AmyG
    February 10, 2009 | 1:42 pm

    Wow, didn’t God create the world? And didn’t He create man to live in the world? When He thinks our world has enough people in it, He’ll put an end to it. 😉

  14. Kimberly Maher
    February 10, 2009 | 2:38 pm

    Also, which you hinted at, these same people are all for “reproductive choice” as long as the choice is abortion on demand, rather than having a larger family (or, as I would put it, as many children as God gives you…). So it really is a political thing.

    What I have never understood is why humans should have to bear the brunt of this. Why can’t we say that we should make all cows extinct or something…they certainly produce more methane than humans. But NOOOOO, that would be “inhuman”, to encourage the extinction of a non-human species.

    But I wouldn’t worry, Veronica, about who will support the elderly. According to Tom Daschle, they need to learn the limits of their existence and be resigned to dying earlier. See the Bloomberg article I linked to on Facebook.

  15. Mozi Esmes Mommy
    February 10, 2009 | 2:52 pm

    how sad. children are ALWAYS a miracle, a gift from God, no matter the circumstance…

  16. Tonggu Momma
    February 10, 2009 | 2:57 pm

    Interesting post, Veronica. You made a VERY good point. As someone who chose adoption rather than fertility treatments, I must say that our “footprints” on the world did influence the husband’s and my decision. We did not want to go to extraordinary means to bring a child into this world when so many live without families around the world. I am not against large families. I also wish more people would open their hearts to adoption. It’s not an easy road, certainly, but one I wish more people considered.

  17. Candace
    February 10, 2009 | 5:09 pm

    This is a great post. While my husband and I believe in small families mainly because in large families children can get lost because of the parents divided attention between the children and every other things going in normal life. We also respect people who choose large families providing they can afford them with out govt assistance and feel they can give each child the attention they need and deserve.

    Mommy to just one crazy boy!

  18. Tonggu Momma
    February 10, 2009 | 5:13 pm

    Veronica, I thought the post linked below was very interesting and mostly on topic:

  19. Kelly
    February 10, 2009 | 6:45 pm

    SuburbanCorrespondat’s comment is perfect.

    Limiting the number of children is not the answer.

  20. Upstatemomof3
    February 11, 2009 | 9:52 am

    True true true. What an excellent post this really is. We need to go back to more natural things in life but that is certainly not limiting the number of children we all have. And by the way of we are limiting our children why do we all get two? Is it to replace the parents – ya know two for two? Besides children are wonderful and passionate little creatures so if we teach them to care they will care. UGH!! The whole idea bothers me. One of my closest friends has five kids and people are always giving her a hard time about them – but ya know what? They are all happy, polite, well behaved kids. I love them

  21. Cynthia
    February 15, 2009 | 4:47 pm

    Thank you for this post! Very well said. The whole concept of limiting how many children people can have and even encouraging abortions is very disturbing on many levels.

  22. More Muffins, Please! » Surfing Sunday
    February 15, 2009 | 5:05 pm

    […] Are Children a Kind of Pollution?–Veronica at 5 Minutes for Parenting eloquently deals with the concept that people should limit the number of children they have in order to save the planet. […]

  23. Mary Grantham
    April 3, 2009 | 9:24 pm

    I think that large families are sometimes closer than large ones. I have two brothers and four sisters. I am the middle child and I love the largeness of our family. I attend church with a family who has seven children and most of them were born at home. These are the best behaved children and very smart each in their own way. Some are book smart and some are common sense smart. They have a processing plant where most of them help out and earn their money. I love this family and they are a great attribute to the world.

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