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Kalle Grill (Umeå University), "Procreation vs. Consumption"
Environmental Ethics, 2023
By Kalle Grill
When my wife and I considered whether to have a second child, one of our concerns was with the environmental impact of creating another lifetime of consumption. Our potential child would likely live a relatively rich life, globally speaking. It would take many showers and drives, and indulge in much eating and heating. By not having that child, we could prevent more pollution, waste and resource depletion than we would ever do by cutting down on our own consumption. Also, we already had a child, we were already parents, and so already enjoyed the main benefits of closing the circle of life, seeing childhood from the other side, and experiencing the unconditional love and trust of another human being, completely vulnerable and dependent on us.
In the end, we decided to have our second child despite our environmental concerns, while also deciding that two would be enough. We both came from larger families and the idea that a proper family should consist of the parents and the children (not the child) was deeply entrenched in both our thinking. Our daughter was born in 2012 and we are very happy to have her.
At the time, we were not aware that Thomas Young had argued in 2001 in Journal of Applied Philosophy that procreation should be considered on a par with private consumption in terms of its environmental impact. Incidentally, at around the time of our Youngian reflections, Young's article became somewhat more frequently cited. More strikingly, Youngian thinking seems to have developed independently in several places at around that same time (independently of Young, and of us). One significant example is the introduction of the idea of a "carbon legacy" by statistician Paul Murtaugh and environmental scientist Michael Schlax (2009). Murtaugh and Schlax assume, like Young, that a couple of procreators are morally responsible for the lifetime carbon emissions of any children they create. They also assume, more specifically, that an individual is morally responsible for the lifetime emissions of all her descendants, weighted by their genetic relatedness to her.
Since the publication of the Murtaugh and Schlax article, and even more since the birth of our daughter(!), philosophers have started to come down hard on procreation, for its environmental impact. A movement that I have decided to call Procreative Limitarianism includes philosophers like Philip Cafaro (2012), Christine Overall (2012), Sarah Conly (2016), Travis Rieder (2016) and Trever Hedberg (2020), the last three of which have published book-length arguments for restricting our procreation for environmental reasons.
When I discovered this literature I was first delighted at its alignment with my own earlier thinking and how it expanded and underpinned that thinking. However, philosopher as I am, I soon started to turn critical. Could we really be held morally responsible for the actions of other people, i.e., our children? Should it not matter somehow that the environmental impact of procreation materializes much later in time? Is it not a much more fundamental human interest to become a parent than to go on vacations abroad? And what about the collective benefits of procreation in terms of the regeneration of society and the survival of humanity?
My recent article "Procreation vs. Consumption: Harms and Benefits" (Grill 2023) takes a broad perspective on these questions and surveys the individual and collective harms and benefits of procreation, in relation to consumption. Another recent contribution in the same spirit, which focuses more on the personal benefits of procreation, from a capabilitarian perspective, is Ingrid Royben's "Is Procreation Special?" (2022).
Young presents his argument in terms of the hypothetical change in lifestyle of two average American couples. One couple considers having children, the other doubling their consumption. In my survey, I find that the individual benefits of procreation are likely to be different in kind from and arguably larger than the individual benefits of even such massive increases in consumption. I also find that the collective benefits of procreation are potentially great and that they may preempt some or all of the collective harms, since a larger population allows from greater specialization and with that greater relative resource expenditure on social and technological innovation. I take these considerations to be relevant to the moral deliberation over whether or not to have children. In the spirit of common-sense consequentialist thinking - both costs and benefits matter - I charge that the Procreative Limitarian movement has been too one-sided in its focus on the harms of procreation.
My strategy of comparing the environmental impact of procreation with that of consumption has led some readers to think I fail to see that one can abstain from both (Cafaro 2023). This is perhaps understandable in light of earlier debates on whether population size is a driver of global consumption at all. It is less understandable in light of the fact that I explicitly agree with Procreative Limitarians that population increase is such a driver, citing the Procreative Limitarian-friendly IPAT equation (Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology) from Ehrlich and Holdren (1972).
Still, my comparative strategy was perhaps unfortunate. Its origins are in Young's article and in several more recent publications that explicitly compare procreation with consumption and propose that procreation adds to our environmental footprint in the same way as our consumption. Perhaps this focus is due to a general consumer-focused perspective on our environmental crisis that I actually do not want to reinforce. I am inclined to think that we should focus more on the production side of things. Future people will be consumers and they will be producers. It is as producers that most of them will do the most good, and the most harm. But this is another article.
One can certainly ask the following question quite independently: should I procreate given all its costs and benefits? And one can legitimately ask this more comparative question that I did ask in my article: If I spend my environmental budget (or build my legacy) on procreation, is that overall better or worse than spending it on (increased) consumption? I think my article provides valuable input to both questions.
So, all things considered, would it be morally acceptable for me to have a third child at this point? I am not sure. I have several articles in the works to help me find greater certainty. So, in all likelihood, any further procreation on my part will be delayed indefinitely by the peer review process.
Cafaro, Philip. 2023. “Procreation and Consumption in the Real World.” Environmental Ethics 45 (3): 295–306. https://doi.org/10.5840/enviroethics20238862.
Cafaro, Philip. 2012. “Climate Ethics and Population Policy.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 3 (1): 45–61. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.153.
Conly, Sarah. 2016. One Child: Do We Have a Right to More? New York: Oxford University Press.
Ehrlich, Paul R., and John P. Holdren. 1972. “A Bulletin Dialogue: On ‘The Closing Circle’ - Critique.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 28 (5): 16, 18–27.
Grill, Kalle. 2023. “Procreation vs. Consumption : Harms and Benefits.” Environmental Ethics 45 (3): 265–86. https://doi.org/10.5840/enviroethics20238860
Hedberg, Trevor. 2020. The Environmental Impact of Overpopulation : The Ethics of Procreation. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351037020.
Overall, Christine. 2012. Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate. MIT Press.
Rieder, Travis N. 2016. Toward a Small Family Ethic: How Overpopulation and Climate Change Are Affecting the Morality of Procreation. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
Robeyns, Ingrid. 2022. “Is Procreation Special?” The Journal of Value Inquiry 56 (4): 643–61. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10790-021-09797-y.
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