Environmentalists vs. babies

Environment | Eco-consciousness advocates seek to justify opposition to God’s command for us to ‘be fruitful and multiply’
by Ashley Thorne
Posted 5/16/15, 11:13 am

Children used to be a crown of honor for their parents, and large families were enviable. Today a growing number of parents seem slightly ashamed of themselves and apologetic. It is as though procreation has become a faux pas, like leaving the sound effects on while playing a cell phone game on the bus. The act might be excusable among the ignorant, but the right kind of people don’t do it.

Whence this aversion to diapered humanity? In a secular culture focused on independence and career success, becoming a parent is seen as losing control of life. The notion that children are a blessing is increasingly lost. Anti-natalism is rising, and eco-consciousness is a surprising and powerful justification for it.

In its quest to normalize an anti-reproductive attitude, the environmental movement is trying to normalize formerly unpalatable ideas such as forgoing children. It does so by taking doctrines of political correctness to the next level: If white people have undeserved privilege over non-whites, and men have undeserved privilege over women, then humans may have undeserved privilege over zebras, sycamore trees, plankton—the whole wide range of underprivileged life forms.

The neologism (dating to 1970) for believing that humans are superior is “speciesism.” Actor Joaquin Phoenix spelled it out in his narration of the 2005 animal rights film Earthlings:

“By analogy with racism and sexism, the term ‘speciesism’ is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.”

To counter speciesism and check our privilege, humans who embrace this version of virtue are supposed to atone for the advantages they enjoy. Opportunities for such atonement are found in limiting human life.

Hook up to help endangered species

Population control for the survival of the planet, advocated famously by Thomas Malthus around 1800 and later by Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich, is rising again in social acceptance.

On Earth Day this year, volunteers for the Center for Biological Diversity distributed 50,000 condoms in packages depicting endangered species, with slogans such as “Wrap with care, save the polar bear.” A large proportion of the recipients were college students at schools such as Georgetown University, Baylor University, Northwestern University, and San Jose State University.

It was left to the students to supply the missing connection: Humanity must decrease its numbers so that our ursine friends and the rest of the wild kingdom may flourish and increase.

Many sexually active college students are eager to avoid pregnancy for reasons other than saving polar bears, but using eco-themed condoms can give them a sense that their hook-ups are contributing to a good cause. One University of Minnesota student tweeted a photo of a condom package featuring a sea otter and commented, “this furry guy will forever be on my mind when... Well... You know.”

Preferring butterflies to babies

Contraception and non-procreation—including the gay and lesbian movement—are one part of population control, but some more extreme measures are gaining ground. The chief argument for abortion has been that a woman should have the right to choose what takes place inside her body, but the environmental justification is also on the rise.

In observing the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade several years ago, blogger Kelpie Wilson voiced an increasingly common thought:

“[W]e have far exceeded the capacity of the planet to sustain our numbers, and … human life and civilization are now deeply threatened by resource depletion, toxic pollution and climate catastrophe.”

The anonymous creator of the website Earth Island Angels encourages women to use art and images of angels or fairies to represent the abortions they have had. She too draws a connection to the environment:

“I have created my own Earth Island Angels in the image of an embryo with butterfly wings. These images remind me of the wondrous biological diversity of the Earth as represented by the thousands of species of butterflies. When I see these images I am reminded that because I chose to end my accidental pregnancies, there are two fewer human beings on the earth impacting the habitat of butterflies and other creatures. They make me feel good about the decision I made because I have left more room on Earth for nature to flourish.” 

Feeling good about an abortion by imagining that you have helped to increase the global butterfly population is a rationalization of such surpassing strangeness that it belongs in a class by itself. At some level it captures the tortured guilt of the woman as she reaches far into fantasy to justify what she has done. The butterflies-are-better-than-babies trope is unlikely to catch on, but the underlying idea has a growing chorus of supporters.

An article in the London’s Daily Mail profiles Toni Vernelli, who had an abortion and then opted for sterilization at age 27. Speaking of her husband, she said, “We both passionately wanted to save the planet—not produce a new life which would only add to the problem.”

Childless people win the eco award

The New York Times recently ran an article in its “Style” section titled, “No Kids for Me, Thanks.” One of the people interviewed for the story was Geoff Dyer, a British author:

“But ‘it’s the parents who are selfish,’ said Mr. Dyer, pointing [out that] families typically own larger cars and use up more resources. Regarding ‘any environmental consciousness, the needs of their family get ahead of everything else,’ he said.”

“Large family shaming” is gaining cachet. A growing number of parents report they are greeted with sneers and sarcasm when they take their broods out in public. Some of that disdain comes from a sense that those families exceeded the decent number of children and crossed into unethical territory. A mother of four received a comment on her personal blog saying, “Overpopulation is killing the environment. Having so many children is just out and out narcissism and greed. Overpopulation effects [sic] all people, wildlife, and the environment negatively.”

A book that has been used in an environmental literacy course at California State University is Earthscore: Your Personal Environmental Audit and Guide, which helps readers calculate their negative “impact” on the earth by posing a series of questions about their lifestyles.

The family planning section says, “The number of children you have is your greatest environmental impact.” It asks the reader to fill in the blank: “I plan to have ____ children.” The impact point scale follows:

0 = 0

1 = 10

2 = 50

3 = 500

4 or more = 5,000

According to Earthscore, reducing your garden hose water, drying your clothes on a clothesline, and driving an electric car (measures recommended in other sections of the audit) are helpful, but it is exponentially better to have fewer people in the world to manage lawns, wear clothes, or drive cars of any kind.

UN sustains ‘reproductive rights’

Right now, much of the public green-misanthropic attitude is still limited to fringe circles of people bold enough to be associated with such anti-human ideas. The most extreme group is the deeply perverted Church of Euthanasia (be warned: its website is disturbing), which brings the movement all the way to its logical conclusion. Its slogan is “Save the planet—kill yourself.”

But there are some more mainstream actors in this movement as well. For instance, the United Nations.

This September, the UN is scheduled to adopt a new set of proposed Sustainable Development Goals. Under one of the goals, “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” is, “Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences.” The former document on population and development says that abortion ought not to be promoted as a form of family planning but that in countries where it is legal, it should be safe. It sounds like the Clinton administration’s stance on abortion in the 1990s: “safe, legal, and rare.” (The document’s appendix has a section where countries can express any objections to the Programme of Action. Representatives from Honduras, Libya, Nicaragua, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen all objected to abortion being included alongside the terms “family planning” and “reproductive health.”)

Discouraging abortion but educating people about “reproductive health” and making contraceptives more widely available doesn’t sound like population control. In fact, the UN’s approach fits with what Robert Engelman called “reproductive liberty” in a 2009 article in Scientific American. He wrote that while this sounds counterintuitive, it actually results in women freely choosing to limit their progeny:

“The evidence suggests that what women want—and have always wanted—is not so much to have more children as to have more for a smaller number of children they can reliably raise to healthy adulthood. Women left to their own devices, contraceptive or otherwise, would collectively ‘control’ population while acting on their own intentions.”

The UN’s goal is still to curb human population growth—it is just using a laissez-faire strategy to achieve that goal.

Another important figure promoting voluntary population “stabilization” is Jeffrey Sachs, president of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. In 2011 he told CNN:

“The evidence is that if families are given choices, the children are able to stay alive because there’s health care, the girls are able to get educated, the family planning is available—then they choose voluntarily to have fewer children. It’s better for them, better for their children, better for their prospects. But when they’re very, very poor, they need help to be able to have those choices.”

Sachs and the UN have taken on a version of the “white man’s burden” to help people in impoverished countries choose to have fewer children.

But research has failed to show that providing information by itself makes any difference. In a new book, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, author Jonathan Zimmerman writes, “[S]cholars around the world have struggled to show any significant influence of sex education upon youth sexual behavior.”

Nudging toward extinction

The earth is not running out of food, water, oil, or other resources. Empirically, the overpopulation argument is unsound. Time has proven Malthus and Ehrlich’s doomsday predictions wrong. Though the world’s population is still rising, human innovation has enabled us to make good use of natural resources rather than use them all up. On the other hand, Denmark, Japan, and other countries with low birthrates are facing impending demographic crises in which they will have too few taxpayers to support the regulations in place.

Still, the discredited Malthusian theory remains a powerful motivator for those who seek to control population growth, ostensibly to protect animals and the natural world. The reason is the loss of the sense that humans are set apart from other life forms.

Anti-natalism and population control wear a mask of humility, as if those who take up the cause do so in a spirit of self-sacrifice and for the greater good. In fact, the motive of anti-natalism is often a lot closer to pride. Anti-natalists claim the status of the planet’s guardians and grant themselves a right to condescend to those who take up the task of carrying humanity into future generations.

“Reproductive liberty” sounds like the free market, but it is in fact a form of coercive “nudging” toward what the nudgers think of as the right decisions. Such nudging often succeeds in creating a new conception of what is socially acceptable. But it succeeds only if people don’t push back. “How many kids I have is none of your business,” said one mother of four who was fed up with the anti-natalist hectoring. That’s perhaps a better expression of reproductive liberty.

An even better response is to help society understand inherent human exceptionalism. People do have privilege over other parts of creation, because only humans are made in God’s image. When God created mankind, his good purpose for them was to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28, ESV).

Both those who believe this and those who want to limit procreation are looking to the planet’s future. Anti-natalists think they are doing what they can to avoid the end of the world. But those who believe the Bible know that in the end, heaven and earth will pass away, and no self-imposed rationing can prevent that. In the meantime, for as long as the world continues, people should emulate God’s care by tending to the created world—especially those He made in His own image.

Ashley Thorne

Ashley is executive director of the National Association of Scholars in New York.

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