Michael Shank: Planetary benefits of smaller families

Editor's note: This commentary is by Dr. Michael Shank, a resident of Brandon who teaches sustainable development at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.

Given the climate inaction among national governments — from America and Australia to Brazil and Britain — there’s been a big focus on actions that individuals can take -- in Vermont and beyond. This pivot is helpful because it does, in fact, take a village to tackle climate change. It takes a shared sense of community, of which we have a lot in Vermont. And it takes everyone living responsibly in a world with finite resources.

Whether it’s installing LED light bulbs, recycling, buying a hybrid or electric vehicle, going car-free, eating a plant-based diet, buying green energy or avoiding the occasional trans-Atlantic flight, we need all of it to happen. Thankfully, many Vermonters are already engaging in these actions to slow global heating and the extreme weather that comes with it.

What’s less frequently discussed, however, when it comes to personal contributions people can make, is also one of the most effective actions on the climate front: a smaller family size. A study by Lund University in Sweden shows that it has the highest impact, considerably outpacing all those previously mentioned personal actions to cut carbon. Thirty times more impactful, in fact. This carbon-cutting math is also supported by the groundbreaking work of the climate research organization Project Drawdown, which found that family planning is in the top 10 most effective solutions to climate change.

There’s a reason why it’s less frequently discussed among climate leaders today. A century ago, in the early 1900s, there was a problematic convergence between some in the early American conservation movement and a burgeoning, racist, eugenics movement. That was wrong, and what we are talking about today — a century later — is 100% not that.

We need to start a new conversation, therefore, given what we now know about climate change. It won’t be easy, but we have to, given the data above. We can’t keep ignoring it. Yes, people will keep having kids. And social safety nets, and the taxes on which they rely, will need new taxpayers. But we have to do all of it more sustainably. Adding another estimated 2 billion people over the next three decades to our existing 7.7 billion global population will put unimaginable stress on the planet’s resources, especially drinking water, which is already drying up in cities throughout the world.

But this should not be a concern of only the environmental community. This touches every issue in domestic and foreign policy, from socio-economic opportunities and social mobility, to health care and educational access, to conflicts over scarce resources. No issue is untouched. That’s why a child-centric approach to family development, which aims for a smaller family size, is so critical. It frees up significantly more resources for each child and their future. And in the U.S., where it costs, on average, nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a child from birth to age 17, a smaller family size frees up substantial resources for improved access to education, health care and economic mobility. And yes, it also leads to a lighter impact on the planet.

It’s all of these things. And it’s about time we put it on the table and talked about it.

Socio-economically speaking, if a family is saving nearly a quarter of a million dollars by having one less child, that affects the rest of the children in that family and their lifelong outcomes. We know that unequal opportunities emerging in the first few years of life translate into unequal lifelong outcomes. And we know that childhood poverty puts kids at greater risk of poverty in adulthood and greater risk of health problems and involvement in the criminal justice system. So, by making more resources available to each child, we equip them with greater capacity to overcome these structural obstacles and, hopefully, improve each child’s economic, health and mobility prospects.

Environmentally speaking, by choosing to have two kids instead of three kids, for example, an American family avoids nearly 3 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. And at a time when we need to keep more and more carbon in the ground, in order to slow global warming, this is a serious contribution to climate mitigation. To put this in perspective, each American produces an average of 16.5 metric tons, or 36,376 pounds, of CO2 emissions annually. (For comparison: In China, it’s an average of 7.5 metric tons per person per year; in the United Kingdom, it’s 6.5 tons; in France, it’s 4.6 tons.) Now, multiply this annual carbon footprint by the life expectancy of a baby born in this decade, which is 78.6 years. You get this: The average American produces roughly 1,296.89 metric tons of CO2, or 2,859,153.6 pounds, over their lifetime. That’s equivalent to burning 1,417,794 pounds of coal or driving 3,170,881 miles in a passenger vehicle.

The public, however, isn’t often moved by these numbers, no matter what the social, economic or environmental data might be telling us. They’re moved, understandably, by love, by biology and by survival. Yet there are enough environmental and socio-economic data here to spur at least a responsible conversation among national leaders regarding what 10 billion people will mean for our kids’ futures.

For a start, the climate and equity communities — across the social front, be it gender equity, income equality or health equity — are the right conveners for this conversation. This is about educating girls and empowering women, since research continues to show that this leads to smaller families and, thus, more resources for each child. This is about closing America’s income inequality gap (which are at their highest levels since, and even before, the Great Depression), since more resources per child can help prevent childhood poverty and make healthier adult outcomes possible. And this is about increasing access to, and affordability of, reproductive services, since these services are perpetually undermined in the U.S.

This is a necessary conversation that we can’t keep avoiding. By having thoughtful, equity-based conversations about the benefits of smaller families, we can make meaningful progress on and investments in healthy families and a healthy climate, allowing parents and the planet to invest more resources in each child. This is what living responsibly in a world with finite resources looks like. If we want to save the human family, it’s time to start talking about family.

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