Politics & Policy

Environmentalists: Shrink Population to Shrink Carbon Footprint

First World intellectuals trample local cultures in their global-warming stampede.

The lengths environmentalists will go to protect the atmosphere may extend into women’s wombs.

In a recent New York Times article, Eduardo Porter presents a case for reducing carbon emissions by reducing projected population growth between now and 2050. He acknowledges the highly controversial and “touchy” nature of population policies such as forced sterilization and China’s one-child policy, which that Communist nation relaxed at the end of 2013. Moral issues aside, China’s policy ran up against male-centered cultural norms that resulted in a massive gender imbalance as many parents elected to abort girl babies. In January, Newsweek reported that the Middle Kingdom has 32 million more males than females under the age of 20.

Porter squeezes negative outcomes like this (and a similar, short-lived experiment in India) into a few to-be-sure paragraphs, focusing on the need to reduce carbon emissions. According to the Times article, if the world’s population reached only 7.5 billion by 2050 rather than the projected 9 billion, we would curb carbon emissions by 5 billion to 9 billion tons. This decrease would keep us within the carbon budget drawn up by consensus science.

Thankfully, Porter does not support coercive population control. India’s science minister, however, just expressed the need to limit population in order to stabilize the climate. In the past, the country experimented with coercive forms of population control, but voters rebelled against the project.

Porter modestly suggests that we strengthen efforts to educate people in poor countries about contraception. Teaching young women how to rein in their fertility will help preserve the environment, he says. He encourages a yearly expenditure of $4 billion to this end.

It may be the case, as this study suggests, that access to contraception would have prevented 54 million truly unintended pregnancies. Yet this fact would not make the ethical priorities of global-warming zealots less troubling. If the principle of shrinking carbon footprints motivates population suppression, then, consistently applied, this utilitarian ethic could easily justify coercive methods. This principle says life is better for a greater percentage of people when there are fewer people.

The usual concerns with fertility in the Third World assume that these women are either popping out children with no notion of prevention or are weighed down under the burden of new life while eagerly awaiting condom shipments from the United States.

In his essay “Population Explosion: Disaster or Blessing?” Peter Bauer explains not only the economic benefits of a robust birth rate but also the strikingly different value other cultures assign to fertility. Young women in some countries often want more children to support them in their old age. “Moreover, the extended family is embodied in the mores of much of the less developed world,” he writes. Unknown to most in the West is the injunction to Indian brides, ”May you be the mother of eight sons.”

Have environmentalist proponents of population control considered the cultural values of developing countries? Where is the post-colonialist outrage?

Any motivation that elevates a certain chemical composition of the atmosphere above human life is misguided at best. It isn’t necessarily contraception at issue. It’s the intention behind providing it.

— Celina Durgin is a Franklin Center intern at National Review Online.


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