Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald recently, Australian journalist Ruby Hamad explained her decision not to have any children. Ecological considerations proved to be a “very compelling factor” influencing her decision, leading her to conclude that for her and her partner, having a child would be “the more selfish decision.” Ms. Hamad details her reasons in a passage that makes for disturbing reading:
Our planet is in trouble. We all know this. The Amazon is depleting so rapidly, we have already lost 20 per cent of it and will lose another 20 in the next two decades – just as children born today are coming of age. Lucky them!
The Great Barrier Reef is as good as dead, as everyone who is not Pauline Hanson will admit, but deforestation is also happening in the oceans, thanks to the rise in global temperatures. Meanwhile, the oceans will be commercially extinct by the middle of the century, and the entire Arctic is living on borrowed time…
For lay people, the knowledge that one child born today will add 9,441 metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere is enough to turn them off procreation. “You can never take it back,” said one American woman. “That stopped me in my tracks.”
So, is Ruby Hamad right? In today’s post, I’d like to explain why I believe her logic is profoundly mistaken.
The first thing I’d like to point out is that her argument proves too much: she approvingly cites climate scientist Dr. Sophie Lewis, who declares that despite her own wish to have children, doing so would be “irreconcilable with my professional dedication to remedying our global challenges,” but at the same time, she emphasizes that the decision to remain childless should be a personal choice for couples: “Everyone has the intrinsic right to weigh up the costs and benefits and go with what they think is best; we didn’t start the fire and all that.” But if the reasons motivating her decision not to have children are as “compelling” as she asserts them to be, then it is difficult to see why couples should be given any choice in the matter at all. The United States Supreme Court has previously ruled that states could compel vaccination for the common good, so why not ban procreation in countries where carbon emissions are high, for the sake of the common good – or at the very least, limit it to one child per couple?
The second point I’d like to make is that many of Ruby Hamad’s assertions in the passage quoted above are factually wrong. Let’s begin with the Amazon. It is depleting, but what Hamad doesn’t tell us is that the rate of depletion is slowing dramatically in Brazil, after having peaked from the late 1970s through the mid 2000s. In September 2015, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff told the United Nations that Brazil had effectively reduced the rate of deforestation in the Amazon by 82 percent. She also announced that over the next 15 years, Brazil aimed to eliminate illegal deforestation, restore and reforest 12 million hectares, recover 15 million hectares of degraded pastures, and establish 5 million hectares of land on which crops, livestock and forests can co-exist. (Yes, I am aware that logging of the Amazon is still increasing in some countries outside Brazil, but let’s face it: the lion’s share of the Amazon is owned by Brazil. In any case, overpopulation has only a very slight connection with the logging that’s currently occurring: cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.
Ms. Hamad writes that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is “as good as dead.” It’s a pity that Dr. Sophie Lewis, the climate scientist whom she cited so approvingly in her article, sharply disagrees with her. Writing for CNN in October 2016, Dr. Lewis took great pains to inform her readers that reports of the Great Barrier Reef’s death are greatly exaggerated, and that while 93% of the reef is affected by bleaching, there are encouraging signs of a turnaround in its fortunes: the Australian and Queensland governments have recently released the first Reef 2050 Plan annual report, showing that good progress has been made towards protecting the Great Barrier Reef, thanks to a $2 billion investment. Since the plan was released in March 2015, 29 of the plan’s 151 actions have already been completed, and a further 102 are under way, as of 30 June 2016. I might also mention that the Reef’s overall mortality rate is actually around 22 per cent (not 35%, 50% or 93%, as some reports have stated), and that the chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Russell Reichelt, expects three-quarters of the reef to escape unscathed.
“What about fisheries?”, you may ask. Ms. Hamad cites a National Geographic report (published in Science) to support her contention that “the oceans will be commercially extinct by the middle of the century,” but that’s not what the report actually says. The report’s headline states: “Seafood May Be Gone by 2048, Study Says.” There’s a big difference between “will be” and “may be.” In any case, Ms. Hamad appears to be unaware that the report she cites was dismissed as “mind-boggling stupid” by Ray Hilborn, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, who said that while he was worried about some parts of the world, “other areas of the world have figured out how to do effective fishery management.” Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist at Oregon State University, wasn’t too impressed with the report, either: “They are flagging a really serious problem, but I don’t buy that extrapolation,” she said. To make matters worse, the report’s leading author, Boris Worm of Dalhousie University, appears to have changed his mind, for in 2009, he teamed up with Hilborn to co-author a more optimistic report titled, Rebuilding Global Fisheries, which soberly concluded: “After a long history of overexploitation, increasing efforts to restore marine ecosystems and rebuild fisheries are under way… Combined fisheries and conservation objectives can be achieved by merging diverse management actions, including catch restrictions, gear modification, and closed areas, depending on local context.”
And while it’s true that the loss of ice in the Arctic looks pretty alarming, it appears to be at least partly cyclical: not many people realize that the Arctic was navigable back in the early 1940s.
But there is one fact that Ms. Hamad gets right in her litany of woes: in America, having a child will add 9,441 metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. As editor Cassidy Knowlton pithily puts it in an article for Crikey magazine (April 22, 2013): “Having a child increases your carbon emissions by a factor of about six throughout your lifetime, and no amount of cycling, turning off lights or veganism will offset it.” Game, set and match? Not quite.
In order to make a convincing ecological case for not having another child, Ms. Hamad would need to demonstrate the following:
(i) that global warming is not only real and largely man-made (as the vast majority of climate experts agree), but also likely to be catastrophic (a point on which there is currently no consensus);
(ii) that this catastrophe could be averted, even at this late stage, by couples in affluent countries deciding not to have any children; and
(iii) that governments’ attempts to persuade people to refrain from having children for the good of the planet are actually likely to succeed in bringing about this objective.
If even one of these premises is false, then Ms. Hamad’s case for saving the planet by not having a baby crashes to the ground.
Now, I’m not an expert, but on purely mathematical grounds, I would reject Ms. Hamad’s logic. In the absence of any good information one way or the other, let’s say there’s a 50-50 chance of climate change becoming catastrophic. Let’s say that there’s a 50% chance that this catastrophe could be averted by couples in affluent countries deciding not to have any children, and let’s say that there’s a 50% chance that governments’ attempts to persuade people to refrain from having children for the good of the planet will succeed. Then that means the chances of all three of Ms. Hamad’s hidden assumptions being correct are 0.5×0.5×0.5 or just 12.5%, which means that there’s an 87.5% chance that her campaign to save the planet by not having babies is a futile or misguided one.
What do readers think?