Saturday, 12 September 2009

Birth Control

The cheapest way to cut down carbon emissions would be for us all to have less children. It's an easy equation: the average person living in the UK has a carbon footprint of 12.5 tonnes. Over a lifetime, that equates to more than 981 tonnes of CO2 per person. The lifetime environmental impact of a single individual is thus huge.

I remember an illustration from the Ecology of Commerce comparing us to algae. When algae grows in a lake, it can continue growing to take over the whole lake. However, if it does that, it will asphyxiate itself. Algae sucks up the oxygen in the water in order to grow and if there's no oxygen left in the water it dies. Algae grows so quickly that it is capable of doubling in size each day. However something odd happens when it reaches a life threatening level of growth. When algae takes over a lake, it stops growing once it reaches half of the lake's size. Paul Hawken seemed to hint to the idea that even algae is cleverer than us! Have a look at a boring video on the topic on our website (be patient with it, it takes some time to get interesting):
Arithmetic, Population and Energy

Several centuries ago, Malthus determined that our population should stop growing once it reached 1 billion. He thought that if it continued growing above that number, the Planet's resources would be over-stretched. He was right, scientists have calculated that our exploitation of the Planet's resources right now is 20% above what the Planet can cope with meaning that every year that goes by, we are accumulating ecological debt whilst our population is still growing.

On September 10 2009, the Sun published an article with an odd title: "Carbon mating, use a condom to err... cut down emissions" on page 31 (it's rare that environmental issues make front page news in the Sun, football was more important that day). It reported that contraception would be five times cheaper than any other method of tackling the world's greenhouse gases. The report came from the optimum population trust, a charity we recommend donating to.

The Study was compiled by the London School of Economics who found that every £4 extra spent on family planning for the next 40 years would reduce global CO2 emissions by a tonne. It would cost £19 to achieve the same result with low carbon technologies. The Trust recommended giving free condoms to women worldwide who wanted them and the Sun noted that the United Nations estimated 40% of all pregnancies were unintended. The total saving from making condoms freely available could be 34 gigatonnes of CO2!

I was discussing this with my wife when she came up with a very interesting idea. She said that we could learn from China's single child policy, whilst not repeating its mistakes. I insisted we couldn't: you can't stop women from having children if they want them, what we need is a complete cultural overhaul.

Well you made me think about having a second child, my individual responsibility and the importance of the small decisions we make, she said. I was impressed, I never remotely entertain the idea that my rants can make a thread of a difference. And birth control is far easier than cultural overhaul. When you have a problem, the simplest solution is often the best. My wife had a far better solution than I.

She pointed out that it is not necessary to impose birth control on the general public. I always thought there was no other way. The Chinese apparently forced women to have abortions and there was no end to the list of human rights infringements perpetrated for the application of the policy. No wonder most people find the thought of single child policy chilling.

There's no need for controversy about birth control. It's a plain fact that we cause pollution however much we would like to avoid it just by being alive. James Lovelock put it in a nice way: he said that the 7 billion of us just by breathing, were putting out 4 times as much CO2 in the air as all the airlines of the world and 10 times as much if we take into account our livestock. He said that if we really wanted to improve our carbon footprint, we could just hold our breath!

Since even the staunchest environmentalists have an ounce of survival instinct, we must look for more convenient solutions...

There are millions of educated couples having children and not realizing what the impact on future generations will be. As I listened to my wife, I envisioned the government running advertising campaigns on how much it could help if couples decided to limit themselves to a single child.

I remembered the taxi driver who took me to hospital after my daughter was born. His theory was that you always needed to have an extra child to keep company to the latest one. He was certain I would have another. He had 8 children and had resolved to keep adding to his family to insure that the last one wasn't lonely. I dared not tell him about my views on the topic...

It is a plain fact that in the developing world, large families are seen as insurance policies to look after the parents in old age. The logic is that the more children you have, the more likely it is that one of them will hit the big time and be able to look after the family when they can no longer look after themselves. So when we think about population growth, we turn our sights to the developing world. Here in the UK however, given that people are richer and more able to consume, consumption has overshot the Planet's ability to regenerate. Our lifestyle has become unsustainable due to population growth. If there weren't so many people on the Planet, there would be nothing wrong with it. The reality is that there's 7 billion of us and we only have one Planet to share. The Planet can tolerate 3 tonnes of CO2 per person at the most. This indicates that in terms of CO2 emissions, every child born in the UK requires 4 times the Planet's resources to meet their needs. Thus, when a child is born in the UK, it is equivalent to 4 children being born in the developing world. This is controversial but it is a fact. And that's why it's so important that we do something fast about our carbon emissions otherwise epidemics, famine and war; the consequences described by Malthus await us.

It would be worthwhile conducting further research on the psychology of people who decide to have small to medium size families so that appropriate advertising could be implemented to raise the level of awareness about the consequences of these choices.

One of the best ways you can support the fight against global warming is by supporting the main charity dealing with the Optimum Population Trust. They don't need much. Click here to donate.

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