Travis Rieder and his wife Sadiye have one child.
She wanted a big family, but he’s a philosopher who studies climate change with the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. One child of their own was all the world could environmentally afford, they decided.
In his college classes, Rieder asks his students to consider how old their children will be by 2036, when he expects dangerous climate change to be a reality. Do they want to raise a family in the midst of that crisis?
Many scientists concur that the earth is currently in a warming phase – and that if the earth’s average temperatures rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius, the effects would be disastrous.
The 2015 Paris Agreement, signed by nearly 200 countries within the United Nations, aims to address just that. Signatory countries agreed to work to keep the global temperature from increasing by two degrees through lowering their greenhouse gas emissions, and to work together on adapting to the effects of climate change that are already a reality.
But reproductive solutions, such as the ones proposed by Rieder, are wildly controversial for the ethical and moral questions they raise.
In his book “Toward a Small Family Ethic,” Rieder and two of his peers advocate for limited family size because of what they believe is an impending climate change catastrophe.
They suggest a “carrots for the poor, sticks for the rich” population control policy, which they insist is not like China’s harsh one-child policy.
For poor developing nations, they suggest paying women to fill their birth control and widespread media campaigns about smaller families and family planning. For wealthier nations, they suggest a type of “child tax,” which would penalize new parents with a progressive tax based on income that would increase with each new child.
“(C)hildren, in a kind of cold way of looking at it, are an externality,” Rieder told NPR. “We as parents, we as family members, we get the good. And the world, the community, pays the cost.”
While it might sound strange, the idea that climate change and overpopulation morally necessitate couples to limit their family size (or to have no children at all) is not new.
Since the 1960s, some scientists have been advocating for smaller families for various reasons – overpopulation, climate cooling, the development of Africa – and now, global warming and climate change.
And while the idea isn’t new, neither are the moral and ethical concerns associated with asking parents to limit their family size for the sake of the planet.
Should Catholics limit their family size?
Ultimately, Catholics ethicists said, while environmental concerns can certainly factor into lifestyle choices, those who would ask people to completely forego children simply due to their carbon footprint are approaching the topic from the wrong perspective, not realizing the immeasurable worth and dignity of every human person.
“The proposals (on limited family size)…need to be assessed with a perspective as to the very nature of the human person, marital relationships, and society,” Dr. Marie T. Hilliard told CNA.
Hilliard serves as the director of bioethics and public policy at The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), a center designed specifically to answer the moral bioethical dilemmas that Catholics face in the modern world.
What’s problematic about the policies proposed by Rieder and other scientists is that they ask married couples to frustrate one of the purposes of their sexuality, Hilliard said.
“(T)he procreative end of marriage must be respective. Couples cannot enter into a valid marriage with the intent of frustrating that critical end, and one of the purposes of marriage,” she said. If couples are not open to the possibility of a child, “it frustrates at least one of the two critical ends of marriage: procreation and the wellbeing of the spouses.”
Dr. Christian Brugger is a Catholic moral theologian and professor with St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. He clarified that while the Church asks couples to be open to life, it does not ask that they practice “unlimited procreation.”
“The Catholic Church has never held – and has many times denied – that responsible parenthood means ‘unlimited procreation’ or the encouragement of blind leaps into the grave responsibilities of child raising,” he said.
“It does mean respecting marriage, respecting the moral principles in the transmission of human life, respecting developing human life from conception to natural death, and promoting and defending a social order manifestly dedicated to the common good.”
Considering the common good can include considering the environment, as well as a host of other factors that pertain to the flourishing of the human person, when couples are considering parenting another child, Brugger said.
But he cautioned Catholics against the moral conclusions of scientists whose views on life and human sexuality differ greatly from Church teaching.
“Catholics should not make decisions about family size based upon the urgings of these activists,” he said.
“Why? Because they hold radically different values about human life, marriage, sex, procreation, and family, and therefore their moral conclusions about the transmission of human life are untrustworthy.”
“(P)opulation scare-mongering has been going on in a globally organized fashion for 70 years. The issues that population activists use to promote their anti-natalist agendas change over time…But the urgent conclusion is always the same: the world needs less people; couples should stop having children,” he said.
And many worry that legislated policies encouraging and rewarding smaller families could open up a host of ethical and moral problems.
Rebecca Kukla of Georgetown University told NPR that she worries about the stigma such policies would unleash on larger families. She also worried that while a “child tax” might not be high enough to be considered coercive, it would be unfair, and would favor the wealthy.
“(A) carte blanche imperative to limit family size can lead us to the dangers the (NPR article) cites, as discrimination and bias and government mandates can, and have, ensued,” Hilliard said.
Women in particular would bear the brunt of the resulting stigmas of such policies, Brugger noted.
“(W)omen will and already do suffer the greatest burden from this type of social coercion. Women have always been the guardians of the transmission of human life. They share both the godlike privilege of bearing life within them and the most weighty burdens of that privilege. Anti-natalist demagoguery is always anti-woman, always,” Brugger said.
All things considered, the Catholic Church would never take away the right and responsibility of parents to determine their family size by supporting a policy that would ask families to limit their size because of climate change, he said.
It’s not people, it’s your lifestyle
William Patenaude is a Catholic ecologist, engineer and longtime employee with Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management. He frequently blogs about ecology from a Catholic perspective at catholicecology.net.
The idea that we must choose between the planet or people, he told CNA, is a “false choice.” The problem isn’t numbers of people – it’s the amount each person is consuming.
“The US Environmental Protection Agency reports that in 1960 the United States produced some 88 million tons of municipal waste. In 2010 that number climbed to just under 250 million tons—and it may have been higher had a recession not slowed consumption. This jump reflects an almost 184 percent increase in what Americans throw out even though our population increased by only 60 percent,” he wrote in a blog post about the topic.
There is a similar trend in carbon emissions, which increase at a faster rate than the population.
“We can infer from this that individuals (especially in places like the USA) are consuming and wasting more today than we ever have, which gets to what Pope Francis has been telling us about lifestyles, which is consistent with his predecessors,” Patenaude told CNA.
Climate change has been one of the primary concerns of Pope Francis’ pontificate. While not the first Pope to address such issues, his persistence in addressing the environment has brought a new awareness of the urgency of the issue to other Church leaders.
In May 2015, Pope Francis published “Laudato Si,” the first encyclical devoted primarily to care for creation.
In it, the Holy Father wrote that the earth “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”
But never does the Pope ask families to have fewer children. Instead, he urges Catholics to address pollution and climate change, to make simple lifestyle changes that better care for “our common home” and to work toward a better human ecology.
“It seems that voices that urge fewer children aren’t interested in new and temperate lifestyles. In fact, they are implicitly demanding that modern consumption levels be allowed to stay as they are – or even to rise. This seems selfish and gluttonous, and not at all grounded in a concern for life, nature, or the common good,” Patenaude said.
Furthermore, the good of any individual person outweighs the damage of their potential carbon footprint, he said.
“The good and dignity and worth of every human person is superseded by nothing else on this planet. If we don’t affirm that first, we can never hope to be good stewards of creation, because we will never really be able to appreciate all life,” he said.
“On the other hand, one way to affirm the dignity of human life – collectively and individually – is to care for creation. Because as I noted earlier, creation is our physical life-support system, and so to authentically care for it is to care for human life.”
Dan Misleh is the executive director of Catholic Climate Covenant, which was formed in 2006 by the United States Catholic Bishops in order to help implement Church social teaching regarding climate change.
Misleh agreed that while reducing the consumption of fossil fuels is “imperative” to reducing negative effects of climate change like droughts and rising sea levels, that does not mean mandated population engineering and smaller families.
“As for population, places like the U.S., Japan and many European countries have both high carbon emissions and relatively low population growth and birth rates. So there is not a direct correlation between low-birth rates and fewer emissions. In fact, the opposite often seems to be true: countries with the highest birthrates are often the poorest countries with very low per-capita emissions,” he told CNA.
What is needed is a true “ecological conversion,” like Pope Francis called for in Laudato Si, Misleh said.
“(P)erhaps we Catholics need to view a commitment to a simple lifestyle not as a sacrifice but as an opportunity to live more in keeping with the biblical mandate to both care for and cultivate the earth, to spend more time on relationships than accumulating things, and to step back to appreciate the good things we have rather than all the things we desire.”
This article was originally published on CNA Oct. 27, 2016.
By Mary Rezac