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Public Ethics Talk

If Having Children is Bad for the Environment, What Should Parents Do About It?

Tuesday 3 March 2020
Public Ethics Talks
Turfmarkt 99
2511 DP The Hague
Spaanse Trap


Population growth contributes to environmental devastation (Ehrlich and Holdren 1972; IPCC 2014). For most of us, having a child produces more greenhouse gases than any other individual life choices (Murtaugh and Schlax 2009; Wynes and Nicholas 2017). Accordingly, it has been claimed that couples should have small families: at most one child (Conly 2015), two children (Overall 2012; Rieder 2016), or none at at all (Young 2001).

These arguments are too quick. They rely on assumptions about the demandingness of individual climate duties and the value of parenting and family size which have not adequately been defended. Indeed, it is not clear how they could all be fully determined.

However, individual procreative climate duties should not be set aside altogether. Rather, this paper takes a stance at once more cautious and more ambitious than those above. Affluent individuals should take seriously the environmental cost of having children – i.e. most should have fewer than they would otherwise have had – but this responsibility is not limited to family size decisions: it also has implications for their behaviour as parents.

Three ‘green parenting’ duties are defended: to educate and motivate one’s children to act on environmental challenges; to accustom them to an environmentally friendly lifestyle; and to promote social and political progress on climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and other urgent challenges. There are other reasons why parents should do this – they owe it to their own children, for one – but the justification given here is new. It is part of the duty we all have to minimise the contribution to harms associated with our individual choices, so far as we can do so without unreasonable sacrifice.

Dr. Elizabeth Cripps

Dr. Elizabeth Cripps a moral and political philosopher specialising in climate change ethics and justice, population and justice, and parental duties. She a Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh. Dr. Cripps has published a book with Oxford University Press titled Climate Change and the Moral Agent: Individual Duties in an Interdependent World (2013) and also has published in prestigious outlets such as Politics, Philosophy & Economics, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, and Oxford Handbook of Intergenerational Ethics. 

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