Do we have a duty not to procreate?

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?

20 thoughts on “Do we have a duty not to procreate?”

  1. Neil Rickert

    I’m not sure of your point here.

    Based on what you quoted, Hamad is saying why she made her personal decision. I don’t see where she is saying that it is an obligation for everybody.

  2. George

    Yeah, as far as I can see there’s no “campaign to save the planet by not having babies” as you assert. Just a personal point of view being expressed and arguments put in its favour.

    As for your first point:

    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 easy answer is that it would be foolishly counterproductive and have next to no popular or political support.

    Ignoring your climate change denialism, a real point that would undermine the argument for her not having children to reduce carbon emissions would be that her children, given their mother, would be more likely to produce lower than average emissions. They would also be more likely to contribute towards mitigating climate change.

  3. vjtorley Post author

    Hi Neil and George,

    I’m well aware that Ruby Hamad has no wish to impose her views on other people, and I stated as much in my OP. My point was that either her arguments are compelling ones (in which case, they apply to every couple) or they’re not (in which case, why does Ms. Hamad describe them as a “very compelling factor” driving her decision not to have children?)

    George writes that a ban on procreation in affluent countries, or even a one-child limit, “would be foolishly counterproductive and have next to no popular or political support.” The same could be said of a number of measures that are necessary to save the planet, if catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is significantly likely. Yet that doesn’t stop Greens from agitating for these measures.

    By the way, I am not a climate change denialist. Personally, I’m a lukewarmer, but I’m prepared to admit that I might be wrong, and that CAGW might occur after all.

    Finally, it is certainly true that the children of an ecologically aware person (such as Ms. Hamad) are “more likely to contribute towards mitigating climate change,” but a Green would argue that not contributing to climate change in the first place is better than mitigating it.

  4. RobinRobin

    Torley, your post is nothing more than the Fallacy of the General Rule. That someone finds compelling reasons to make a personal decision does not in anyway imply that said reasons are generally compelling, let alone universally compelling. In point of fact, I and my partner made a decision to not have children either for similar reasons that Hamad has, but there were practical considerations in that decision: the high chance of health related issues making the decline of the planet’s environment all the more risky for any of my potential offspring. These are solid compelling reasons for us not to have kids. These issues likely don’t apply to most people however, so it would be asinine for anyone to argue that “compelling for me” can only be true if said criteria is universal.

    But then there’s your erroneous category criteria:

    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.

    i is not merely true, it’s escalating. Things ARE going to get more catastrophic over the next few hundred years. This is simply not arguable.

    ii isn’t a condition that Hamad brings up as and as far as I can tell isn’t being discussed at all. Hamad’s point, as far as I can tell, is not that forgoing having kids herself (or even some large group foregoing children) is going to have any impact on climate change, but rather that not having children spares her potential offspring from the hardships of a more chaotic planet.

    iii is not even an issue in the discussion. Hamad doesn’t make any claim to this effect.

    Basically, it appears you are attacking a strawman.

  5. Neil Rickert

    vjtorley: My point was that either her arguments are compelling ones (in which case, they apply to every couple) or they’re not (in which case, why does Ms. Hamad describe them as a “very compelling factor” driving her decision not to have children?)

    Some people will find the arguments compelling. Others won’t. Ms Hamad is one of those who finds them compelling.

    If people agree on the facts, they will agree on what is true and what is false. But they still won’t agree on what is compelling.

    Having children is so much part of our nature, that most people will find that compelling. When you have two ideas that are compelling, but which conflict with one another, then it is hard to predict which way the decision will fall for a particular couple.

  6. petrushka

    Regardless of “reason” the most effective deterrent to having children seems to be the cost. Both in time and money. Oddly, people who are better off seem to be more affected by this than poor people.

    I’f seen it argued that in cultures where poverty is common, parents see children as their retirement plan, and need at least on child willing to care for them in old age. The evidence is that birth rates decline where welfare and retirement benefits are in place.

    Whatever. Malthus still rules. You can’t fool mother math. At some point the birth rate will decline.

  7. RichardthughesRichardthughes

    the depletion is slowing, and there will be no more depletion once it is depleted…

  8. MungMung

    I think that evolution requires us to procreate beyond what the availalble resources can tolerate else we cannot possibly evolve to be better humans (or whatever we turn out to be).

    Don’t we want to be better humans?

  9. Neil Rickert

    Mung: I think that evolution requires us to procreate beyond what the availalble resources can tolerate else we cannot possibly evolve to be better humans (or whatever we turn out to be).

    That’s not my view of evolution.

    Don’t we want to be better humans?

    Better by what metric?

  10. Robert Byers

    if selection matters then this woman not breeding measn the preevalance of those who do breed. so her kids, possibly more passionate about the earth, won’t trump kids from parents who don’t care.
    Just a cute way of looking at it.
    PARTNER. it should married spouse of the opposite sex. Saying partner is IMPOSING the rejection of marriage/opposite sex by the way.
    if Hamad is a name from the third world then there is and will; be PLENTY of breeding. Slow breeding is only of the fIRST world nations etc.
    in fact its completly irrelevant if she or a billion women didn’t breed. the earth pop rise would not notice.

    Anyways its , like evolutionism, all a humbug about earth decay from people.
    the amazon vanishing would not matter. I like it to be there but its irrelevant to life.
    In fact a better controled Brazil coukld make food, forest, etc conditions that were more suitable then useless jungles.

    Anyone who publishes these sentiments really does mean to persuade others to do likewise. so she is a advocate and not just musing aloud.

  11. William J. Murray

    Evolution appears to be working as people with certain ideological perspectives either stop having children or abort them, while other perspectives produce plenty of offspring to fill in those population gaps.

  12. vjtorley Post author

    Hi Neil Rickert,

    I found this passage of yours utterly mystifying:


    Some people will find the arguments compelling. Others won’t. Ms Hamad is one of those who finds them compelling.

    If people agree on the facts, they will agree on what is true and what is false. But they still won’t agree on what is compelling.

    If people agree on the facts, they will also agree on what conclusions necessarily follow from those facts (assuming, of course, that they accept the axioms of logic). That being the case, there cannot be any disagreement amongst them as to what is compelling and what is not.

    Robin wrote:

    These are solid compelling reasons for us not to have kids. These issues likely don’t apply to most people however, so it would be asinine for anyone to argue that “compelling for me” can only be true if said criteria is universal.

    The reasons you allude to are based on “the high chance of health related issues making the decline of the planet’s environment all the more risky for any of my potential offspring.” Unless you and/or your partner suffers from ailments that most people don’t (e.g. allergies), then whatever is hazardous to your potential offspring will likewise be hazardous to everyone else’s. Hence, any compelling reason for you and your partner not to reproduce will be an equally compelling one for other people, too.

  13. Erik

    vjtorley: Hi Neil Rickert,

    I found this passage of yours utterly mystifying:

    Neil either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the technical meaning of “compelling”. The technical meaning is that if there is no rational refutation against an argument, then the argument *is* compelling, regardless whether you like it or not. This presupposes that rationality matters.

    In Neil’s statement, rationality doesn’t matter, so people can *find* something compelling or not as they please, as a matter of opinion or feeling.

  14. waltowalto

    petrushka:
    Regardless of “reason” the most effective deterrent to having children seems to be the cost. Both in time and money. Oddly, people who are better off seem to be more affected by this than poor people.

    I’f seen it argued that incultures where poverty is common, parents see children as their retirement plan, and need at least on child willing to care for them in old age. The evidence is that birth rates decline where welfare and retirement benefits are in place.

    Whatever. Malthus still rules. You can’t fool mother math. At some point the birth rate will decline.

    Great post.

  15. newton

    William J. Murray: Evolution appears to be working as people with certain ideological perspectives either stop having children or abort them, while other perspectives produce plenty of offspring to fill in those population gaps.

    Are ideological perspectives inheritable?

  16. Neil Rickert

    vjtorley: If people agree on the facts, they will also agree on what conclusions necessarily follow from those facts (assuming, of course, that they accept the axioms of logic).

    Sure. But this was not an issue of logic. It was an issue that depended on emotions and intentions. People can agree on facts, but have different intentions and emotions.

  17. Erik

    Neil Rickert: Sure.But this was not an issue of logic.It was an issue that depended on emotions and intentions.People can agree on facts, but have different intentions and emotions.

    And different interpretations. Vincent interprets this as an issue of logic (metaphysics of morality a la natural law). You interpret this as an issue of emotions, because, yes, we are talking about a lady’s argumentation here after all…

  18. RobinRobin

    vjtorley:

    Robin wrote:

    These are solid compelling reasons for us not to have kids. These issues likely don’t apply to most people however, so it would be asinine for anyone to argue that “compelling for me” can only be true if said criteria is universal.
    The reasons you allude to are based on “the high chance of health related issues making the decline of the planet’s environment all the more risky for any of my potential offspring.” Unless you and/or your partner suffers from ailments that most people don’t (e.g. allergies), then whatever is hazardous to your potential offspring will likewise be hazardous to everyone else’s. Hence, any compelling reason for you and your partner not to reproduce will be an equally compelling one for other people, too.

    Well…yes. That’s the whole point. I do. That’s precisely what I’m alluding to. I’ve made no bones about my kidney disease on these boards. I think it’s a pretty darn solid reason to decide not to have kids.

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