Are we making too many Americans?

According to new federal data , some 4.3 million babies were born in 2007, surpassing the previous record set in 1957 at the peak of America's Baby Boom.

Richard B. Levine/NEWSCOM/FILE
Travelers in New York's Grand Central Terminal kick off Memorial Day weekend in 2008.

They don't work, they don't pay taxes, and they don't speak English. And according to federal data released Wednesday, some 4.3 million of them entered the United States in 2007, more than in any other year in the nation's history.

We're talking of course about babies. According to a new report [PDF] from the Centers for Disease Control, 4,317,11960 of these drooling homunculi came into existence within US borders that year, surpassing the previous record set in 1957 at the peak of America's Baby Boom.

This fertility uptick isn't unique to the US. Last week, the United Nations' Population Division revised its "low variant" mid-century forecasts upward [PDF] by 117 million people because of an unanticipated increase in fertility in Europe, as well as in the US. As the Worldwatch Institute's Ben Block explains, the average age of childbearing rose as women became more educated, resulting in fewer births. But now that average age has stopped rising, so the birthrate is now back on track.

All these additional First World babies have some environmentalists worried. Writing in Mother Jones's environment blog, Julia Whitty points out that each one of those newborns arrives with a massive carbon price tag. (To reinforce her point that babies are climate-wrecking monsters, her post is accompanied by a photo of one making a face that would prompt Anne Geddes to consider a career change.)

Ms. Whitty cites a study by a pair of Oregon State statisticians that calculates the total carbon emissions of an American's descendants. They conclude that each child adds about 9,441 metric tons of CO2 to the "carbon legacy" of the average US  female, or 5.7 times her lifetime emissions.

By comparison, a Bangladeshi child adds only 56 metric tons of CO2 to a woman's carbon legacy.

Whitty criticises tax incentives for having children. Noting that a "mother and father are each responsible for one half of the emissions of their offspring and 1/4 the emissions of their grandchildren and so on forever or thereabouts," Whitty concludes that:

The bottom line is that absolutely nothing else you can do — driving a more fuel efficient car, driving less, installing energy-efficient windows, replacing lightbulbs, replacing refrigerators, recycling — comes even close to simply not having that child. All those good things still add up to less than 500 metric tons of CO2 savings.

But can we really assign responsibility for emissions across generations? If we are responsible for our kids' emissions, doesn't it follow that our parents are responsible for ours? And if we're to blame for the emissions of all of our progeny forever and ever, doesn't blame equally fall upon our progenitors, going all the way back to a clump of self-replicating molecules some four billion years ago?

And is it really a wise strategy to deploy environmental stewardship to urge people to voluntarily stop having kids? Even if such a strategy worked (a big if), the only people to heed this advice be those who care about the environment, while those who don't care about the environment would continue breeding as usual. Given that children generally tend to share the social beliefs of their parents, this starts to looks like a recipe for eliminating environmentalism from the gene pool.

In his online eco-mag, Worldchanging, environmental thinker Alex Steffen lays out an alternative vision of how we can protect the climate by curbing population growth: empower women. That means increasing their access to reproductive health choices, education, jobs, loans, and protection against violence.  Everywhere this has happened, the birthrate has declined.

But in the end, it's not really population itself that is inherently the problem. While there are no doubt physical limits to how many people can occupy the planet at one time, the real issue here is waste. If we continue with our current methods of production and consumption – extracting finite resources, rearranging their chemistry, and then dumping them into the sky, the sea, and the soil – then its almost inevitable that we will make the weather go all weird, poison our oceans, and consign our descendants to picking through our landfills.

But by upgrading our civilization to one that is sustainable, that is, closing the loops so that our "waste" becomes biological nutrients or feedstock for manufacturing, then we'll not only replenish the natural environment, we'll also be making more room for humans.

Update: Mother Jones's Julia Whitty has posted a response to this post. Like her original post, it's well worth reading.

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