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Breeder Guilt: Why Having Kids Is the Worst — And Best — Thing For the Environment

Let’s own up to the bad news first:

In a world of 7.1 billion people, having kids is the single most carbon-intensive decision we make in our lives — more so in America than anywhere else. According to government statistics, each new kid born in the U.S. has a climate impact throughout his lifetime that’s 60 times bigger than the average Kenyan’s, 12 times bigger than the average Indian’s, and twice as big as the average Brit’s. That’s because American families on average consume more, drive more, fly more, and have bigger houses and vehicles than families in other parts of the world.

Sit with this information for a bit, and you may begin to experience “breeder guilt.”

Seven Billion

Photo by Heidi Ross, belly art by June Kern.

Here’s a picture from Halloween, 2011, when I dressed up as the “population bomb” three weeks before I gave birth to our second child; global population had just hit 7 billion. I felt breeder guilt then, and I feel it now — every time I cram our fridge full of groceries; toss out another diaper; run another load of laundry; dump uneaten food; rummage through plastic bags, containers, sippy cups and toys; switch on the TV; turn up the AC; shuttle our 4,600-pound station wagon to school, play dates, doctor appointments, and birthday parties. That ripple of nausea in the pit of my stomach reminds me how continuously I drain environmental resources when meeting the needs and desires of my kids.

My husband and I try to minimize our impact. I ride my bike to work; we have a Prius to “offset” the Subaru station wagon; we eat red meat sparingly, grow a vegetable garden and buy local and organic as much as we can afford to; we’ve invested in CFL light bulbs, energy-efficient windows, and so on. But, our vices? Don’t get me started. Plastic is like kudzu in our household (I’m forever forgetting to bring cloth bags to the grocery store, for one thing). I’ve let our compost rot twice. For every local piece of fruit we buy, three others in our kitchen have been trucked across the country.

I took a recent inventory of the environmental impact of our four-person household over one week, and it included, for instance: 73 miles traveled by two cars; 2200 miles of airplane travel; 13 dishwasher cycles; 15 loads of laundry; 7 hours of oven use; 13 hours of stovetop use; 38 diapers made with superabsorbent polymers; 57 light bulbs, most burning for at least an hour a day; and 1,122 gallons of water delivered to our faucets via electrical pump. It adds up… way up.

I stumbled on some scary stats from a 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University which found that each new kid born in America has a climate impact almost 20 times greater than the impact of adopting eco-friendly habits for your entire lifetime — habits that include driving a high-mileage car, recycling, and using efficient appliances.

These depressing numbers are motivating some people to go childfree altogether. My friend Lisa Hymas, a writer at the environmental website Grist.org, calls herself a “GINK,” for “green inclinations, no kids.” She explains, “When someone like me has a child, watch out, world! Gear, gadgets, gewgaws, bigger house, bigger car, oil from the Mideast, coal from Colombia, coltan from the Congo, rare earths from China, pesticide-laden cotton from Egypt, genetically modified soy from Brazil. And then when that child has children, wash, rinse, and repeat (in hot water, of course).”

So, what should those of us who already have children make of all this information? Two things: First, it might influence how big of a family we want, although I understand completely that limiting family size for environmental reasons isn’t for everyone: My brother, who’s a climate scientist at The Nature Conservancy, has three kids and drives a minivan. He chooses to offset his family’s carbon footprint by protecting and re-planting forests. No matter how big our families, we can play a critical role in helping rather than hurting the growing problem of climate change.

We’re living in a time of unprecedented technological progress, which will make it dramatically easier and more affordable to shrink our carbon footprints. We’re seeing, or will soon see, quantum leaps in efficient, low-carbon innovations as we move from high-mileage cars to electric cars; as we telecommute rather than travel; as we move from long-distance agribusiness to local urban farming; as we move from energy-guzzling homes to energy-producing homes; as we move from CFLs to LEDs; as we move toward smarter cities and public transit; as we move toward a smart grid and a revolution in solar power (the cost of solar has plunged 80 percent in 5 years). These and many other breakthroughs are becoming more affordable and represent big improvements to the eco-friendly practices surveyed just four years ago in that 2009 Oregon State study.

But breakthroughs need buy-in from mainstream America to succeed. It’s up to us as parents to leverage our breeder guilt as a force for environmental progress, supporting innovations that can reign in climate change. Let’s mount a grand effort to offset “kid carbon”: Let’s make sure our next car is electric, if that’s within our budget (taking advantage of tax breaks and incentives that are making electric cars affordable). Let’s take out green loans to cut our home energy consumption and put solar on our rooftops. Let’s adopt mostly meatless diets or observe Meat-Free Mondays. Let’s plant trees and protect carbon-absorbing forests. Let’s elect politicians who support putting a price on carbon emissions and other real climate solutions.

I’m all for opting in and leaning in to an economy that empowers women in the workplace, but let’s do more: Let’s help build an economy that’s truly innovative and sustainable. Let’s make global warming the biggest job-creation engine of our time. Let’s give our kids not just a healthier planet, but a smart, thriving economy that will keep them employed.

It was, after all, American ingenuity that led us down the path to an energy-lavish economy. Now, American ingenuity can get us out of this mess, so long as parents of the rising generation support and propel the breakthroughs coming our way.

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