No amount of composting and recycling – even ditching the car and going vegan – makes up for the chubby carbon footprint of having a child. Every new human is the equivalent of 58.6 tonnes of carbon emissions per year. Meanwhile, we add more than 200,000 more people a day to the world’s already groaning population of 7.7 billion. So why aren’t “birthstrikers” and one-child families being applauded? Sharon Stephenson investigates.
That’s how Ollie Langridge chose to spend last winter, on the broad grassy strip outside New Zealand’s Parliament buildings, holding a placard that read “For Our Children, Declare Climate Change Emergency Now”.
The 55-year-old’s call for action wasn’t heeded, but his reward included flat-earthers and climate-change deniers screaming obscenities and spitting in his face. Others pointed out the irony of Langridge protesting about a climate crisis when he has five children. “Don’t you know more people equals more emissions?” someone asked on social media. “He and his multiple children are the cause of climate change,” hissed one of my friends, while Newshub’s Ryan Bridge called him a hypocrite.
A bit of Googling will take you to the world population counter: watch it tick over and you’ll see how quickly the human race is growing. Currently, we’re at 7.7 billion, but with births outstripping deaths, we’re adding at least 200,000 humans a day – that’s a net growth of 73 million people a year. The UN estimates there will be at least another 2.1 billion of us by 2050. By the end of the century, we’re likely to hit 11 billion.
With more people comes the need for more houses, cars and infrastructure, more consumption and waste, more mouths to be fed using more water and energy in more food production, more fossil fuels burned and carbon dioxide-absorbing trees cleared, sending more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Hello, enormous carbon footprint.
As American writer Lionel Shriver put it: “The biggest driver of climate change and every other global headache you care to name – species extinction, deforestation, desertification, ocean acidification, pollution, fresh water scarcity, oceanic plastic, soil erosion, ‘irregular’ migration – is people. Too many of them and born too fast.”
Sir David Attenborough, a man who knows his way around climate change, wasn’t quite so blunt but his message was the same: “All of our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.”
In his office high on a Kelburn hill, Victoria University of Wellington climatologist Professor James Renwick spins around his laptop to illustrate a point. “If you look at this graph, which shows population change over the past 1000 years, and then this graph, which shows how carbon dioxide concentrations in the air have changed over the past 1000 years, they look like identical curves,” he says. “So it’s absolutely wrong to say there’s no correlation between over-population and climate change.”
A 2017 study by Sweden’s University of Lund and Canada’s University of British Columbia agreed, finding the single most-effective measure an individual in the developed world could take to stop climate change was to have fewer children. Every child generates the equivalent of 58.6 tonnes of carbon emissions per year, and the study found having one fewer child was 25 times more effective than the next most-effective measures: ditching the car, which saved 2.4 tonnes every year, or eating a plant-based diet, saving 0.8 tonnes. Not having an extra child, it turns out, can save as much carbon as 73 people going vegetarian – or 700 teenagers recycling for the rest of their lives.
But Renwick, who spends most of his day thinking about climate change, points out it isn’t quite so straightforward. “It’s a bit simplistic to say that if we just halve the world’s population, we’ll reduce emissions. It’s also about how we use energy and the international disparities around that – i.e. people in First World countries like New Zealand or the US historically emit a lot more greenhouse gases than those who live in poor, developing countries. So we in the West have to look at our consumption habits, too.”
The tension, says Renwick, is that economic growth is “pretty much a requirement of a healthy economy – to grow, we have to have more consumption and more people, so it’s like a giant pyramid scheme with more and more people coming in at the bottom. While that’s worked pretty well for a long time, we’re getting to a point where we’re seeing the effects of all that consumption and throwaway mentality, and it simply isn’t sustainable anymore.”
The planet is only a finite size, which means the population can’t keep growing forever. “It has to stabilise sometime, because if it doesn’t the future could be quite bleak for a lot of us.”
Renwick points to the animal kingdom, where a population boom will usually be followed by a bust. “If the population doesn’t control itself, something will happen to crash that population, whether it’s hunger, disease or war. It worries me that if we carry on having more people, the population will get knocked on the head through some kind of crisis such as a pandemic or conflict over scarce resources. At some point there needs to be a stabilisation of the global population, and I’d rather that happened in a managed way that’s equitable to all of us.”
Renwick isn’t just talking the talk: he and his former wife decided to have only one child for that reason. “Our son is 24 now, so we made the decision before climate change was even an issue. But we both knew the global population couldn’t keep increasing indefinitely, that we didn’t want to add to the problem.”
He may be in the minority, though, because while the elephant in the room is wearing a pink look-at-me-tutu and shouting through a megaphone, many of us, including governments, seem loath to make the connection between over-population and our crumbling planet.
“I’ve had conversations with people who say, ‘We’re okay in New Zealand, we don’t have a problem with too many people here, so we don’t have to worry.’ A woman I met in Alaska told me she moved there because there was plenty of room, so she and her husband had 11 kids. We might live in a globalised village, but our thinking hasn’t globalised. We need to accept that no matter where we are in the world, how we behave and the size of our families does have an impact on climate change.”
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Michael Cameron, an associate professor of economics at Waikato University, believes the reason we’re unlikely to encounter the population issue in climate debates is because of racial and cultural sensitivities. “Talking about reducing family sizes can offend a lot of people, from Catholics to Māori and Pacific Islanders, who might have bigger families,” says Cameron. “It’s easy to point the finger at places like Africa and India and say it’s their problem, but that can smack of racism and colonialism.”
Cameron, who has two children, says it’s also easy to step on landmines such as eugenics and forced family-planning measures including sterilisation, abortion and one-child policies.
“That’s why governments tend to put population control in the too-hard basket and focus instead on issues such as reducing industrial and agricultural emissions, which are also critical, because we need to look at every possible cost-effective measure to tackle climate change. But the world’s population has doubled in our lifetime, so we need to factor in that more people equals more emissions, even as some governments, such as Italy and Australia, are going in the opposite direction, offering financial incentives like baby bonuses to encourage people to have more children.”
In November, a report published in BioScience journal, supported by more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries, went where few had gone before – directly addressing the sensitive subject of population growth and calling for global populations to be reduced. The paper, warning of “untold suffering” if nothing was done and noting the global decline in fertility rates had “substantially slowed” during the past 20 years, called for “bold and drastic” changes in economic growth and population policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Such measures included policies that strengthen human rights, especially for women and girls, and making family-planning services available to all people. According to New York’s Population Council, that could slow population growth – including the reported 99 million unintended pregnancies worldwide each year – and thereby greenhouse gas emissions by 40% or more.
The Dutch-based Ten Million Club Foundation, which promotes awareness of overpopulation, went several steps further, saying financial incentives to have and raise children, such as child allowances and subsidised childcare, should be abandoned and infertility treatments should not be reimbursed. “The earth does not have enough resources and fertile soil at present to adequately maintain the current gobal population,” states its website. “People in the Third World are already feeling this effect and we cannot continue to avoid this same fate forever.”
Mention this to Langridge, who has five children (aged between two and 23) to three different mothers, and you’ll get a series of eyerolls. “No, I don’t agree that overpopulation is the leading cause of climate change,” says the Essex-born activist, who moved to New Zealand in 1996. “That argument blames the most marginalised people on earth. Wealthy consumers are the main cause of climate change, the richest 10% of the world’s population who are responsible for 50% of earth’s fossil-fuel emissions. They buy new cars and fly overseas every month and have a carbon footprint much bigger than a subsistence farmer. We certainly can’t blame the poorest half of the world’s population, who contribute only 10% of the world’s emissions.”
Langridge talks quickly, thoughts tumbling over themselves in a way that can leave you playing catch-up. Put the words “overpopulation” and “climate change” into the same sentence, and he goes into overdrive. “When you associate population with climate change, and start talking about culling people, that’s when you get the rise of eco-facism. Instead, we need to focus on female empowerment and education, on giving women everywhere access to safe, affordable contraception. There’s something like 100 million women out there who have no access to contraception, so that should be our focus, not finger pointing at those who currently don’t have access.”
Langridge isn’t overly enamoured by initiatives like banning plastic bags and straws – “consumerist bollocks that takes us away from the main concerns” – but is keen on big-ticket items such as government legislation to radically cut carbon and methane emissions by 50% within 10 years, switching to plant-based diets, producing organic crops instead of cows, and using low-cost electric public transport, Skype or teleconferencing instead of flying. The latter’s a hard one, he admits, because it means he can’t visit his 92-year-old mother in the UK (“but we Skype every week”).
Surprisingly, Langridge had never protested before painting his placard and heading to the Beehive. It was the release of the UN Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services last May that lit the fire. “It said something like one million species could be extinct before the next decade, and I thought, this is nuts, what kind of world am I leaving my children? In my serious naivety, I made up the placard and decided to stand on Parliament’s lawn for 100 days straight. I’m not affiliated with any organisation or group, I’m just a surburban dad who decided to do something about it.”
The EV-driving vegan started meditating three years ago and says that helped get him through the bad days. “But for every negative comment, more people thanked me for what I was doing.”
Along for the ride were his laptop and phone, so he could run his business, The Moon Unit, which employs 80 ghost writers and visualisers globally to help directors win competitive pitches. Langridge did a film degree at Derby University in the UK before working as a director for companies such as MTV Asia, the Discovery Channel and Saatchi & Saatchi, but says people who saw him protesting usually assumed he was unemployed and/or lazy. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I employ a lot of people and I pay a lot of tax.”
This is Moloney Moloney, the digital communiciations company started by its eponymous founder/CEO in 2016. Moloney takes a break from her team’s brainstorming session to wince at the term “birthstrikers”, created last year by a group of British women her age who’ve decided not to have children because of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governments around addressing the issue.
“God, it’s a horrible word,” says the 31-year-old. “I prefer to call myself a conscious citizen of the world who’s mindful of the impact I can make on the planet. I would never judge anyone or tell them what to do with their bodies or their lives, but I think it’s selfish to have more than two kids. Having no kids or a smaller family is a more humanly conscious decision to make on behalf of everyone.”
Moloney decided which tribe she wanted to belong to early on: raised in an evangelical cult in Raglan, the oldest of seven children, she says it primed her for seeing children as “a bit of a burden”.
“The cult believed the role of women was to get married and have children, and the more kids you had the more you were blessed by God. So I grew up helping a lot with the younger kids, including home-schooling them, and that really put me off being a mother.”
After falling out with her parents over religious doctrine, Moloney ran away to Nelson when she was 15 and eventually got a job at Telecom. “That was my a-ha moment, when I realised I had value beyond just being a mother.”
Fast forward a few years and the climate debate started to rattle Moloney. “It’s the number-one crisis for us all, not just my generation, and overpopulation is the key to it. But it drives me crazy that people won’t make that connection and aren’t having the conversation about how we limit family size to help save the world.”
Moloney, who calls herself “happily single”, believes we need to change the mindset from “a society that rewards people for having children, with financial incentives, and where the ideal is seen as mum, dad, a few kids and white picket fence”, to one where other family structures are valued.
“Apart from one sister, I don’t have anything to do with my birth family, but I’ve built my own family out of loving friends, and I would resent anyone who says that isn’t a proper family. Likewise, the value we place on motherhood is so deeply rooted in our culture that it’s hard to go against the grain, to say, actually, I get my value from creating a company and nuturing young, creative talent. That’s my contribution to the world and it’s one that isn’t adding to climate change.”
When Moloney tells people the environment is a major reason why she doesn’t want children, reactions range from “You’ll change your mind” to “You’re exactly the kind of person who should be having kids.”
“I’m used to it now, and although people like me shouldn’t be criticised for not breeding, what’s more frightening is how quickly some of those conversations tip over into statements like, ‘You should tell that to the Africans!’ That kind of racist attitude isn’t helpful to anyone and is probably why so many people avoid talking about overpopulation in the same breath as climate change. But we need to stop making it Africa vs the rest of us or young vs old or rich vs poor; we’re all citizens of the world and we’re all in this together. Only by having the conversation, and making it more acceptable not to have children, are we going to tackle this issue.”
“Family size has a direct impact on overall consumption rates,” she says. “Obviously, it’s more of a pressing issue in the developed world where children will have a bigger carbon footprint, simply because of the lives they lead and because they’re the biggest consumers on the planet, but if populations everywhere keep growing, there simply won’t be enough usable, arable land to feed everyone. So we all need to think about family planning.”
Morison, who moved to New Zealand from South Africa three years ago, is a strong advocate of reproductive justice, saying people should be able to make their own decisions about their fertility. “But it needs to be done in a conscious, responsible way, bearing in mind the environmental situation we’re in. That includes us, because what we do here affects everyone else and, ultimately, we’re all living on the same planet.”
It’s why the concept of “one or none” is gaining traction. “There’s a belief that’s often held up as an example by those worried about overpopulation – either don’t have any kids or have one to replace yourself.”
Another is the Birthstrike movement, and Morison has noticed a rise in both young women and men deciding not to have children for environmental reasons. “As denialism of climate change fades, more and more people are seeing it as a very real threat and deciding they don’t want to add to the problem – or they don’t think it’s a good idea to bring children into a world where those children’s quality of life will be lower than theirs and where climate-related natural disasters and food shortages could affect millions of people. In that scenario, not having kids is the best thing you can do for climate change.”
Morison is 38 now, but she made that decision two decades ago. “For me, it started with other reasons, such as not wanting to juggle a career and kids, but it very quickly became about the environment. I feel like there’s so little we can personally do to reverse environmental damage, but by choosing not to have children, I’ve done something that will have a significant impact on my personal carbon footprint.”
Based on current research, Morison suggests most Birthstrikers didn’t feel strongly about having children in the first place. But it’s becoming more acceptable to admit to not wanting children for climate-change reasons, even more so than for traditional factors such as career, not having a partner or simply not wanting, or liking, children.
“In so many circles today, saying you’re not going to have kids is still unacceptable. But as climate change concerns get even more pressing and the Birthstrike movement grows, hopefully the stigma around being child-free for whatever reason will shift.”
Historically, governments have incentivised people to have children, but Morison would like to see them focused on encouraging people to make more informed decisions about family planning. “Research shows that most heterosexual people don’t question whether or not to have children, so we need to encourage people to think consciously about whether they do and to create conditions where they feel comfortable doing so. So things such as tackling the stigma around being child-free, having family-friendly workplace policies that extend beyond children to, for example, caring for elderly parents, and making a fundamental ideological shift away from the nuclear family as being the only acceptable life path.”
The problem, of course, is that the clock is ticking, and Morison believes that’s why such radical responses as the Birthstrike movement have sprung up. “We don’t have the time to sit around waiting for people to become more open-minded or more tolerant of diversity. We need to act now, and the Birthstrike movement speaks not only to the urgency of the environmental crisis but also a recognition of how intractable some people’s ideas of not having kids are, and how that needs to shift.”
In one of those parts, Alison Miller* opens the door, apologising for the chaos. All six of her children are home, and they’ve brought friends. “Let’s go and sit in the garden for some peace,” she says, as an argument about who ate the last biscuit erupts behind her.
Tell Miller she looks younger than her 47 years and she’ll laugh. “As you can see, the stress of having six kids isn’t insignificant,” says the part-time public servant. She and her husband Al*, who’s also a public servant, met two decades ago while backpacking in Egypt. Miller says they didn’t intend to have so many children, who range in age from four to 19. But then “the basic human imperative kicked in”.
“To be honest, we didn’t even think about it. We both come from large families, and having kids is what people do, isn’t it? I was never a big greenie and actually didn’t even recycle until that long ago, so the issue of adding to the world’s carbon emissions with each child we had didn’t really register.”
But then a few years ago, Miller did some policy work for an environmental agency and the penny dropped. “I was like, oh my god, what have we done? And what kind of lives are these poor kids going to have in a world that’s going to look and feel so vastly different from ours? That was when my whole outlook changed and we ditched the plastic, became vegetarian, sold one of our two cars and started living more sustainably.”
Today, Miller leans all the way into her ethos, attending climate strike marches and supporting the Extinction Rebellion movement. She even hung a picture of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg on her 11-year-old daughter’s bedroom wall. But given the amount of emissions produced by each child, isn’t she partly responsible for the climate crisis?
“Honestly? Yes, I do feel bad sometimes. But I can’t send them back, can I? I love my children to bits, but if I knew then what I know now, I’m not sure I would have had any, or certainly not as many. I really admire the Birthstrikers who are making a stand, because it can’t be easy going against the grain of what society expects of you. And for all those people who call me a hypocrite, well, what’s done is done, but I hope that by putting my efforts into other ways of saving the planet, by advocating for change and lobbying governments, I’m helping to make up for producing so many humans.”
The part-time customer service representative/psychology student likes children, but she and husband Chris Hartley don’t want any of their own. “The world is over-populated with too many people killing the planet,” she says. “It certainly doesn’t need me adding to the problem.”
Although Waine Hartley recycles, grows her own vegetables, doesn’t eat meat and makes her own cleaning and beauty products, she stops short of calling herself an eco-warrior. “Humans are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and when you have a child, no matter where you are in the world, you’re adding to that problem. I’m definitely in the corner that believes not having kids is one of the best things we can do for the planet.”
Besides, Waine Hartley helped raise her nephew since he was 15 (he’s 21 and still living with her, so she feels “a bit like a surrogate mother”). Three dogs and six cats soak up any other maternal urges: “I’ve always been clucky for animals rather than children.”
She believes education is the key – not only for women in countries with high birth rates who might not want to have children, but also in Western countries where “having children is seen as the gold standard”.
“We need a paradigm shift so that it’s acceptable not to have children. Those of us choosing to do so to save the planet should be celebrated, not vilified.”
*Names changed on request for privacy.
Will climate change refugees flood into New Zealand?
Environmental activist Ollie Langridge worries New Zealand will be seen as a safe haven by displaced populations, not only from the Pacific but also from further afield. “By 2050, we could have more than 200 million people living in New Zealand,” he says. “These climate change refugees will go to the northern and southern extremes of the planet – to Greenland and Tasmania, as well as to the bottom of the South Island. How will we cope with that?”
Not so fast, says economist Michael Cameron. “I think climate change refugee numbers have been seriously overplayed. Most of our numbers will come from low-lying Pacific atoll countries – and we could easily take the populations from places like Nauru, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands and it wouldn’t even be a suburb of Auckland. While the larger of our Pacific neighbours – Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea – have coastal areas, they also have large inland spaces so people would probably just move inland.”
The next biggest exodus would be from low-lying areas such as Bangladesh or the Mekong Delta, both heavily populated and susceptible to extreme weather events and coastal erosion. “But they’re a long way from New Zealand and people won’t have the money to travel here, so it’s more likely they will push into Thailand or India,” says Cameron. “One thing you have to remember with climate change refugees is that when people move, they lose autonomy and sovereignty, and most don’t want to do that. So they’ll only leave if it’s absolutely necessary.”