Friday, July 14, 2017

The big sacrifices

I found a chart the other day that really got me thinking about how we think about environmentalism.  It listed a bunch of the things you can do to help reduce your carbon emissions and their relative impact.  This is something we need more of, I think, because people do often focus on doing easy things that aren't especially useful.  For example, changing all your lightbulbs to more efficient ones reduces your output per year by 100kg.  Recycling reduces it by 210kg.

And declining one single return flight across the atlantic reduces it by 1600kg.

Yeah.  Just think about that.  Did all the things you tried to do for the environment for the entire year get dwarfed by that single long distance flight you took?

Mine didn't quite get zeroed out though, because I live car free, and that gives me a 2400kg bonus, so I am ahead on that count at least.

But the real killer is that a person in Canada emits roughly 20,000kg of carbon emissions per year.  If Wendy and I had decided to be childless then we could own a car and take five flights to Europe a year each and still be ahead of where we are now with our one kid.

And if we didn't have a child we would easily have the money for that car and those flights!

But people who have three kids?  There is *nothing* they can do that even approaches the scale of the emissions that their kids create.  They can go vegetarian, walk everywhere, completely refuse plane travel, recycle, hang their washing to dry, and it won't matter.  Their decision to have children means that the emissions from their family will dwarf the emissions from my family, period.

A really rich family could definitely push their emissions higher even with few or no children.  Buy a yacht and sail that thing around all day every day.  Own five houses and heat and cool the heck out of them.  Have a car for every day of the week, go nuts.

But by and large, it is the number of people that is the biggest factor once you take out the extreme high and low outliers in terms of wealth.

Not that any of this is news.  Overpopulation is the primary driver of basically all of our environmental concerns.  But sometimes you look at a chart and then it really hits you that population is the real thing, and the rest just follows from it.

I don't quite know what to make of it.  I made the decision to have a child without really thinking about it this way, and now it makes all of the decisions I make about environmentalism seem utterly absurd.  Penny wise, pound foolish, almost.


  1. Have you read "how bad are bananas?" It breaks down the footprint of everyday and unusual events, to help give a sense of scale around footprint. It doesn't say what should or should not be done, just lots of data and reasoning.

    Yes, having a kid, long flights dwarfs the footprint of everyday decisions, but that's not a reason to give up on them. More consumption is still more consumption. I try to build habits that are lower footprint, so there's no stress or sacrifice in these small decisions ~Sadie

    1. I read that book a few years ago. I actually asked on my blog if anyone had ideas about such a thing and my brother recommended it to me.

      I agree about building good habits, and I still try to do the small things. Just because they are small doesn't mean they aren't worth doing. Seeing the big picture still makes me stop and shake my head though.

  2. I'd like to backstop that reasoning a little. For what purpose are you trying to reduce your carbon emissions? Is it to leave a livable world for future generations?

    If so, you should probably keep in mind that the kids are the thing of value that are the purpose of the entire exercise.

    Also, kids are human beings rather than possessions or lifestyle choices. They do have their own carbon usage, but it's not *your* carbon usage.

    If we don't believe that kids are people, or if we don't believe that people have inherent value, then there isn't much point in trying to lower carbon emissions. Just die and be done with all the counting.

    Ultimately, if you want to count people as nothing but carbon expenses, it's probably far more responsible to have children and then kill yourself as soon as you are done raising them than it is to not have children.