You’ve done too much
Much too young
Now you’re married with a kid
When you could be having fun with me
-The Specials, 1980
There is a threat close enough to be seen with the unaided eye. Likely, there is no avoiding it. The Holocene extinction will be the sixth planet-level collapse. The Holocene epoch, which began with the end of the last ice age, has revealed itself to be largely about humanity. Whereas previous systemic collapses may have resulted from vulcanism and asteroids, human consumption is more culpable this time around. We are responsible for pollution, habitat loss and species decline, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and, perhaps, even climate change. And this horror show is happening in a relative blink of the eye.
In its last update of at-risk species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that 31 percent of the thousands of assessed species were immediately in danger of extinction. Likewise, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) suggests a majority of all species will be lost by the end of this century. Isn’t Homo sapiens supposed to be the smart man?
Pope Francis, leader of the largest Christian denomination and the “one true church,” published the 184 pages encyclical On Care For Our Common Home in 2015. For much of the circular, the pontiff’s advice resembles what people have come to expect from environmental warnings; society must find some way to break its apathy and we all must be part of the solution. It’s obvious to the Church, along with everyone else, that our throwaway culture and runaway technological evolution are to blame. Regrettably though, the pope walks up to the edge of a solution but no further as he concludes that “we need to grow in the conviction that a decrease in the pace of production and consumption can at times give rise to another form of progress and development.” God’s children need only experience what he calls an ecological conversion or re-baptism “to be protectors of God’s handiwork.”
As reasonable a pope as Francis is, there is one activity to be maintained, apparently at all costs. Even with its tragic orders on the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition and New World genocide lingering in the not-too-distant past, the same encyclical is recklessly confident that overpopulation is not the problem: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” Elsewhere this pope states that Catholics need not “breed like rabbits,” but warns that not having children is a “selfish” act. In other words, the pope is not down with DINKS (Dual Income, No Kids). Maybe it is understandable that the pontiff would leave birth control out of the discussion when “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” as recorded in Genesis 1:28, arguably are, the first commands ever issued by God. Fidelity to the word is a concern even if Rome is burning. But where is the consideration that the book of Genesis was written in the 10th century BC? The book and the command are more than 3000 years old. Things change.
A prayer may be in order because the most important behavioural change individuals can make, according to climate and social scientists, is not giving up their car or their dog or barbecues. It’s giving up the next kid. In 2017, geographers Seth Wynes and Kimberly A. Nicholas describe how the choice to have one less child can help green-minded families emit 118 tonnes less carbon dioxide per year − that’s 118,000 kilograms for those counting. Living car free saves, at most, five tonnes; avoiding one return transatlantic flight only one and a half tonnes; going vegetarian saves no more than one tonne. Other research suggests that you can save two SUVs worth of emissions if you don’t get a puppy. But get the puppy and say you rescued it.
For all of these factors, where you live is a determinant. Along with Australians, North Americans are the biggest resource users on the planet. In comparison, not having another child in Russia, say Wynes and Nicholas, only saves 40 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and in Japan just 20 tonnes. In 2009, statistician Paul Murtaugh calculated that having 1 child in the United States results in the same lifetime emissions as having 5.7 children in China or 160 in Bangladesh. North Americans need not feel guilty though, they just need to stop having children. The solution seems simple enough so why isn’t the message getting out?
We cannot just blame the pope. Neither governments nor businesses have come off the pot of growth. It’s baked into longterm forecasts. Shrinking is a scandalous concept. China’s progressive and successful 1979 one-child policy became a two-child policy in 2016. Pakistan, with a 2016 population estimated to be somewhere between 202 and 214 million people and a growth rate of over two percent, freshly banned advertisements featuring contraception devices from television and radio even though it claims reducing population growth is a top priority.
Analyzing secondary school science textbooks available to 80% of Canada’s students, Wynes and Nicholas found that an incomplete picture is being spun for readers: “No textbook suggested having fewer children as a way to reduce emissions, and only 2 out of 10 mentioned avoiding air travel.” Instead the textbooks focus on low-impact activities like recycling and energy reduction in the home.
Canadians still see the writing on the wall if not in their textbooks. Despite the country and its provinces using tax codes to create incentives for larger families, the country’s natural growth rate will approach zero within the next 20 years according to Statistics Canada. While it costs families about $250,000 to raise a child in Canada, it’s the state and its businesses who recoup that money so population decline isn’t being contemplated let alone pushed. Traditionally, the younger people are required to let the older people live out their golden years free from hewing wood and drawing water. With Canada’s natural childbirth rate decreasing, its immigration rate and retirement age increase to compensate. But at what consequence? If you can’t barter away a daughter or put a son to work, it makes perfect economic sense, especially for women, to have fewer children. When women aren’t looking after children, they are more likely to complete postsecondary education and they are more likely to earn full-time salaries.
Foreign Policy magazine, a neoliberal pillar, recently hosted university philosophers Travis Rieder and Rebecca Kukla to debate the ethics of childbirth so close to an impending apocalypse. Neither would accept that it was their job to offer advice on procreation. Kukla was too concerned about reproductive technology being used as a weapon against women − a valid worry in normal times − and about stigmatizing people. Rieder was stuck on the fact that society should have dealt with overpopulation decades ago. Neither was prepared to say that if you have one more child, they will suffer for it.
In April 2017, the world population was estimated at 7.5 billion. The midrange forecast has it at 11.2 billion by 2100. There are no easy answers. North America’s elected leaders all have more children than the average citizen. Justin Trudeau has three children and Mexican President Peña Nieto has four. Donald Trump has five children from three different women. Inconveniently, Al Gore has four. Allegedly, once people start breeding they become less empathetic to everyone but their own kids.
Life is less brutal than it once was for the vast majority of humans but this may be a temporary blip. There is an eerie similarity to the path some failed civilizations have taken, whether the Maya or ancient Rapa Nui, the Khmer Empire or the Roman Empire. Repeatedly, civilizations learn to exploit their environment too well and never learn moderation. Today, in place of isolated empires, there is a global economy that takes anything from anywhere, including the forests. The seas are stealing territory as well. The Holocene extinction is a global phenomenon.