Green City: The baby question

Is childbirth bad for the Earth?

GREEN CITY I remember exactly where I was — sitting on a BART train, reading yet another magazine article about global warming — when it hit me harder than ever before: the year 2050 is going to suck.

Predictions suggest it's going to be hotter, colder, drier, wetter, and stormier in all the wrong places. Sea levels will be up. Resources will be down. The view from 2007 is not good. So how can I, an educated, middle-class American woman, reasonably consider having a child with such a future to offer?

To have or not to have is the baby question everybody asks. I'll admit I've been on the fence for a long time. A survey of my female role models reveals that exactly half took the motherhood plunge (including my own mother), yet the other half refrained. I'm clearly drawn to the childless life for a number of reasons, and reading the International Panel on Climate Change reports released this year has given me one more.

By virtue of our existence, we're all contributing to global warming, and my impact will be at least doubled by every child I have. According to Al Gore's carbon calculator (at, I'm emitting 2.35 tons of carbon dioxide per year, well below the national average of 7.5. But that would certainly increase if I were to have a baby. I'd need a bigger place to live, and that would require more heat and electricity. More flights back East to see Grandma and Grandpa would be in order, and I'd probably buy a car, not to mention all that crap that babies need.

I would become more like the average American, who has a life span of 77.8 years and, according to estimates by the Mineral Information Institute in Golden, Colo., needs 3.7 million pounds of minerals and energy fuels to construct and support a lifetime of stuff — from cars and roads to batteries and soap.

It seems like an effective way to cut our impact on the earth would be to cut population, yet such a strategy almost never comes up.

"In the entire discussion of climate change, there's been no mention of population," Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, told me.

The IPCC's fourth assessment, released in November, discusses mitigation measures but never suggests decreasing population — except as the unintended result of a natural disaster. Historic attempts to limit population growth have never been popular. China has been chastised for its one-child policy, as were environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which called for limiting immigration in the 1970s to curb population growth in the United States.

"It's an incredibly personal decision," environmentalist and author Bill McKibben told me. "In our culture it's not one that's easy for people to talk about." He addressed it in Maybe One (Simon and Schuster, 1998), in which he explains his decision to have a child after years of saying he and his wife wouldn't.

McKibben says he wrote the book to uncover the weak mythology that only children are spoiled, myopic brats, to show how religious beliefs have been manipulated, and to point out that an increasing population is really an economic advantage.

Ehrlich, who thinks the US should at least have a population policy, also had one child with his wife, Anne. The realization that having more would contribute to an unsustainable future for their daughter led them to author numerous books on the subject, including The Population Bomb (Ballantine Books, 1968), one of the bellwethers on the impact of unchecked population growth. Since then the issue has essentially disappeared from public consciousness, and Ehrlich thinks that's because the world's total fertility rate has, in fact, dropped — from five children per woman to three. In the US it's decreased even further, to less than the replacement level.