How You Can Help the Planet By Stopping at One

consumption & emissions per capita
Werner Flueck sent me a copy of a 1995 article (not available online, but read a prÈcis here) in the journal Population & Environment called “The Environmental Consequences of Having a Baby in the United States”, by SUNY professor Charles Hall et al. In summary they report:

Each American born in the 1990s will produce in a lifetime approximately 1.5 million kilograms (3.3 million lbs.) of atmospheric wastes (mostly CO2), 10 million kilograms (22 million lbs.) of liquid wastes, and one million kilograms (2.2 million lbs.) of solid wastes (mostly pro-rata share of agricultural, mining and construction wastes, and including 83,000 kg (185,000 pounds) of hazardous & toxic waste.

Each American will consume 700,000 kilograms (1.5 million lbs.) of minerals (mostly sand and gravel), and 24 billion BTUs of energy — equivalent to 4000 barrels of oil (40% in petroleum products, 25% each in natural gas and coal). In a lifetime, an average American will eat 25,000 kilograms (55,000 lbs.) of plant foods (20% each in vegetables, sweeteners, fruits & juices, grains, and other plant products) and 28,000 kilograms (60,000 lbs.) of animal products (70% milk, 7% each beef, chicken and pork), provided in part by slaughtering 2000 animals (>90% poultry)

Each American’s consumption will result in the permanent loss of approximately one hectare (2.5 acres) of forest, wilderness and wetlands, and the incremental poisoning with chemicals of fifty times this acreage, mostly with oil-based fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Each American will also consume in a lifetime 162,000 cubic meters (5.7 million cubic feet) of fresh water and directly or indirectly 170 cubic meters (6,000 cubic feet) of timber.

These numbers include both direct effluents and consumption and the pro rata share of industrial and commercial effluents and consumption used to sustain a median lifestyle. This is a massive ‘footprint’ for each additional human added to the American mosaic. I’ve tried to show this graphically and approximately to scale (1:1500) above, with consumption depicted as arrows coming in and emissions as arrows going out (to be even visible at this scale, the baby is shown supported by his/her parents). Density data is from the Internet and calculations have been double-checked.

Multiply these numbers by the 1,000,000,000 humans being added, net, to Earth’s population every 15 years (of course they don’t all consume at US levels, but meanwhile there are 6 billion more mostly aspiring to increase their wealth and consumption to those levels) and you’ll understand the meaning of unsustainability.

The authors don’t attempt to quantify how much each child added to the population contributes to species extinction, for the simple reason that we are extinguishing species at a rate faster than we are discovering them, so we will never know how many species we’ve extinguished, in aggregate or per capita.

Every $100 spent by Americans on goods and services entails the use, on average, of 50 litres (13 gallons) of petroleum or equivalent energy. Next time you carry in your grocery bags, imagine the volume of oil consumed to produce and distribute it: You’ll appreciate why Richard Manning’s groundbreaking Harper’s article on the inefficiency of our food production systems is called The Oil We Eat.

In the Population & Environment article, the authors debunk the arguments that more efficient technologies will reduce this per-capita ‘environmental impact’, and that public pressure or commitment to improve conservation or reduce pollution will have any net effect on this impact.

They conclude:

The most effective way an individual can protect the global environment, and hence protect the well-being of all living people, is to abstainfrom creating another human being.

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10 Responses to How You Can Help the Planet By Stopping at One

  1. miket says:

    is that population study also known as “a modest proposal” ?

  2. Martin-Eric says:

    I keep on hearing about this single-child (or even, total procreation abstention) as the panacea. It’s not: the only people likely to try it are first-world people who, by definition, tend to be of a European descent. At the end of the day, third-world countries don’t stop making babies by the dozen, while white people end up virtually extinct. Not such a good idea, after all. Many countries are already seeing signs of this, as their native population’s natality rate declines, while the natality rate of its third-world country immigrants keeps on rising. And then people wonder why the people in first-world suburbs all seem to be from out of town and why third-world country religions and names are supplanting those native to first-world countries. Well, duh! You don’t get more (insert name of your nation) babies by having locals refrain from procreating and by instead welcoming mass-breeding immigrants from the other end of the globe by the thousands.

  3. I think Martin-Eric has a problem with non-white people, especially those that live in his country. Too bad his understanding of population trends is so limited. The phenomenon of rapid population growth is common to newly industrializing countries, as the agrarian habit of having 12 children is conjoined with industrial-age medicine, food and sanitation. The industrialized nations all went through such a spike – that’s why there’s millions of white Finns in Finland today instead of a few hundred thousand impoverished Lapp reindeer herders. White race indeed! Martin-Eric worries about what the non-white immigrants are doing – but he should be thinking about what the white emigrants from the European population did to the non-white nations they occupied. Anyhow, it is also evident that once industrialization sets in and once some measure of security is afforded the general population, birth rates tend to stabilize.Anyhow, the point of this comment wasn’t to correct the preceding post. What I wanted to observe is that the figures that justify not having a child are based on averages. Now, granted, the Canadian average isn’t much better than the U.S., so we don’t get off free. But I can tell you that there is significant variation person to person. And much of the figures are for waste generated by government agencies and corporations, not individuals. Most of us could have a child and produce a much smaller impact on the world than those figures indicate. But, of course, our five frugal children are more than offset by the one large humvee-driving suburban-living energy guzzling energy-waster.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Stephen: I’m with you (and for the first time I can recall, don’t agree with Martin-Eric). It’s also true that people of struggling nations have lots of children because it’s the only asset they’re likely to possess in their lives, thanks largely to the theft of their land and resources by affluent nations. As for governments and corporations, their waste is a legacy of our systems and the diseconomies of scale, and if there were only half as many Canadians there would be only half as much government and corporate waste because there’d only be half as much government and corporations.My objective with this post was simply to get people who are wavering about having a(nother) child to think twice about it. If this article makes a difference to even a handful of the roughly 2000 who might stumble across it, it will probably have done more for the environment than everything else I could do put together.

  5. Charles says:

    I agree with many of his points. I do not agree with his solution. However, aren’t there many other approaches to addressing the problem? Some that come to mind are: Focusing on more and better education especially in the third world, growing much of our own produce in our back yards and buying within 100 miles of where we live, (World Watch reports that the average menu item on our plate travels more than 1,500 miles to get there.) I would bet many of you could come up with many many more ways to address this problem.

  6. Martin-Eric says:

    I do not have a problem with any race. What I have a problem with is ill-fated decisions that would result in the disappearance of an entire race, while other races proliferate to nobody’s benefit (not even theirs). What we need is NOT for first-world countries to stop making babies. What we need is to slow down the excessive breeding in poor countries where the population grows exponentially by millions, resulting in WAY too many people for what the planet (and especially, the local resources) can bear. We need to balance the population over a global scale, rather than let the number go down into extinction in some parts and spiral out into surpopulation elsewhere. Heck, if you ask me, USA counts as third-world country, when it comes to mis-management of resources and excessive population, too. As for third-country immigrant natality rate supplanting the local one, there IS a danger: to see all traces of local culture as it gets obliterated by a foreign culture that supplanted it. Granted, cultures and nations come and go, while history keeps on moving forward, but refusing procreation and “fixing” the low natality rate among locals by bringing in more people from countries more willing to procreate does not reinforce local culture; it instead diversifies it. Let’s face it: multiculturism brings the benefit of a larger palette of flavors, but it eventually dissolves what makes each country and each nation unique.

  7. Martin-Eric says:

    Just an example, Finland complains that Finns are not making enough babies, so we get more immigrants. The result? An increase in the number of yearly births, though none of them carry Finish genes. Goal: more Finnish babies. Result: more foreign babies and Finland becoming less Finnish all the time.Basically, white people who stop making babies will only succeed in making the white race extinct. It will not regulate the birth rate among other races where such a regulation would be badly needed. Think, for example, of certain African countries where MILLIONS of new poors are born every year.Btw, most of my friends in this country come from third-world countries that procreate excessively. They all agree that the situation in their homeland has grown out of control in the form of excessively high birth rates, while the situation in most first-world countries has reached catastrophically low birth rates.

  8. Martin-Eric says:

    Dave, I knew I was opening a big can of worms with this one. Mentioning races and issues of cultural preservation instantly gets one tagged as racist and the rest of the discourse ignored. Here, I was merely pointing out the contradiction of nations whose birth rate is falling and who try to fix the problem in their own ethnic group by having a foreign ethnic group that willingly procreates fill the gap.Likewise, this was a warning about already small countries killing what’s left of their local culture through voluntary non-procreation.That Gaia is over-populated is correct; that excessive population mainly concerns third-world countries also must be acknowledged. Countering over-population in the third-world by first-world ethnic suicide is not the solution.

  9. paolo says:

    Hi i am probably passing trow this website and read some comment now and then so probably not really informed in all this long conversatio.The only think come to my eyes at the end of the paragraph it se the last few line about procreation or one child family or so on.Just want tosay something to about it.I think that talking about global warming and say that the population it is too big , is certanly a big mistake.First of all it is not the growing of the population that cause the warming but in wich way people , especially in europe and usa live, how they consume and wich stupid abitude they can’t live without.from my point of view it is not again about quantity it is about quality.the planet to me look much big the problem it is that everybody want to live in europe , usa becouse that the life stilE everyone are talking about, so big amount of people in one place.after this few words , thank you for your spacePaolo

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