Environmentalist. (Biological) Parent. Mutually Exclusive?

Harry's first day home, May 2008 - kids may use a lot of resources, but man are they cute!

I’m catching up on my blog reading, and I came across this post from Beth Terry at My Plastic Free Life, which asks the question:

[W]hat do you think? About population, procreation, adoption, and women’s reproductive decisions? Is adoption a more eco-friendly alternative to procreation? Or does it just create a whole new set of problems?

As I approach the anniversary of my entree into parenthood (a.k.a. my daughter’s birthday), these questions really strike a chord with me.  This is an issue to which I devoted a lot of thought before becoming pregnant, during my pregnancy, and since my children’s births.  I have vivid memories of reading World War III as part of my Humane Education program while 23 weeks pregnant and feeling panic and failure as an activist.

I am aware that no matter how lightly I try to live,my family uses exponentially more resources than, say, a family in sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia simply by virtue of where we are.  I considered the drain on resources my children would represent, and gave serious thought to building our family through adoption.  It is difficult to make a sound argument that adding humans to the planet, especially North American middle class humans, will not have a somewhat negative impact on the planet, though I have seen people try to make just that argument.

However, I also believe that humans (like all animals) possess a fundamental, hard-wired drive to pass on our genetic material and it is hubris to claim otherwise.  I believe that having children should be a woman’s choice on every level, but I also believe that the desire to have biological children is something that does not bend easily under the forces of logic.

(From this point forward, for the sake of brevity, I will stop saying “biological parents” and “biological children” and say “parents” and “children” instead, though I honor the fact that people become parents and build families in all sorts of ways that do not necessarily involve personal procreation.)

I agree with Beth, and with other bloggers she quotes, that it is important to explore the angles and to have awareness around the choices we make.  I am humbled by people who place their commitment to sustainability above their desire to have children.  That was a choice I was, ultimately, unwilling to make.

However, I worry about going to the extreme and saying that an individual with children is fundamentally unfit to be an environmentalist.  I know that there are a number of people who feel this way, and I know that other activist communities (animal rights activists come to mind) look down upon “breeders”.  However, I think that to exclude or discount the contributions of people who choose to procreate is to do a grave disservice to any social justice cause.

First off, many (most?) adults choose to become parents, and this is not likely to change.  If people who are parents are made to feel that they are third-string environmentalists, they may not be as motivated to make positive lifestyle choices.

But more importantly, I believe that for many people, new parenthood is a Come to Jesus moment (or Buddha, or Brahman, or The Great Spirit – insert the deity of your choice if you wish).  While they may have been indulgent and excessive in their younger days, people often become motivated to contribute to planetary peace, justice, and sustainability once they have children.  To make them feel unwelcome, that they are already disqualified just as they are coming to the environmental movement full of motivation and commitment, would be a sad thing.

So yes, having fewer people on Earth would help to stem the tide of resource depletion, and yes, this is a valid, even admirable, reason to refrain from having children.  But some people are simply not willing to make that choice, and that does not in and of itself make them a less important member of the environmental movement.