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The most important thing you can do, avoid global heating disaster and make a positive contribution to the world, is avoid having children. The numbers, which were calculated for modern America, say that having a child equals roughly 36 round-trip transatlantic flights per year.
Here is another article which presents the same data in a different way.
In what sense "per year"? The greenhouse gas burden of having a child is incurred as a lump sum by reproducing, not gradually over time. The authors of the study divided that lump sum by the parent's average life expectancy, which they took to be 80 years. It would be clearer to think of it as 2880 round-trip transatlantic flights total.
I decided not to have children for other reasons. When I was young, my family was full of tension and anger, and then I noticed that many others were too. Such a family life was in no way attractive. When older, often I saw parents rebuke their children for playing with me, or even in my vicinity, assuming it would bother me — without waiting to see if I objected. Rebuking those children had become an ingrained, automatic habit. To see this made me sad for them, but I knew I would be the same as a parent. I would not be able to cope with a frequently crying baby without becoming upset and angry.
Of course, many people tell themselves, "That happens to others, but I am better than they; I will get it right." Obviously, most of them are mistaken. I did not suppose that I would succeed in human relationships where most people fail.
Most fathers in the US have to work very hard to get money for their children. I did not want a life of running on a treadmill, doing whatever people with money would tell me to do.
A large fraction of US fathers eventually get divorced, and subsequently rarely see the children for whom they are spending most of their time scrabbling for money. What a futile life! But even those who are not yet divorced see their children little, since they are so busy at work. Meanwhile, single women with children do not have it easy; they usually confront poverty while carrying so much responsibility that one person can hardly cope — but that was not the risk I personally faced.
I am convinced I made a wise personal decision in avoiding this. But I was not the only one that benefited from it — everyone did. Not having children is an important contribution to humanity. My decision probably reduced the 2050 population by 5 to 10 people.
Overpopulation is a tremendous danger to civilization and the ecosphere. It makes every human-caused ecological problem bigger. Population growth has slowed but not stopped. The human population is expected to grow by 2 or 3 billion by 2050, and it is not clear how to find water and food for all those people. Population growth also increases the difficulty of curbing global heating.
Thus, the decision about having children is, for most people, the most important decision in their lives about how they will affect humanity's resource footprint in the future. (Nina Paley said this brilliantly in graphical form.)
My decision was a contribution in itself, and it enabled me to make a further contribution: to launch GNU and the free software movement. Having no dependents, I could dedicate myself to what seemed right rather than to whatever someone with money told me to do. If you are reading this page, it is because that decision enabled me to make contributions to humanity that people appreciate.
I therefore urge you to do as I have done, and have no children.
I don't wish that nobody had any children; I don't want humanity to disappear. But there is no risk of that; no chance that my influence could be so great as to reduce the birth rate to near zero. Given the numbers I am likely to influence, the influence is all to the good.
Some argue that population decline is the real danger. In 50 years, they claim, everyone will have a comfortable life, so they may have few children (as tends to happen in developed societies today), and the human population could decline. If this went on for millenia, humanity might disappear. Is that a real possibility?
First of all, it disregards the tremendous disaster that global heating and destruction of the natural world are leading towards. 30 years from now, large parts of humanity will probably find it hard to get water or food, let alone contraception. It is unlikely we will provide most of humanity with a decent European-style life with the current world population. So there is little chance, in that world, of population decrease because everyone is comfortable.
Supposing we avoid the disaster and eliminate poverty, 50 years later we might reach a stage where everyone prefers a small family. However, 50 years after that we will probably have greatly extended the human life span. That means a much smaller number of births per adult per year would be enough to maintain a stable population. The danger of overpopulation might even return.
The first hurdle is to avoid the disaster. Having no children will help, and it will free you to do something else that will help.
Especially the well-off Americans, who consume so much per person, should have fewer children.
The singing star Adele said she was pushed to have children by pervasive social pressure, and said that "it's the bravest thing not to have a child".
You can help women resist this pressure, by speaking up when you see others create this pressure. You can also say, "Having children is selfish. If you don't have children, you can dedicate your time to something that the world really needs."
Having a baby causes one's DNA to age by several years.
Apparently children are bad for lots of people's relationships, but most people are not realistic enough to think about this risk until it is too late.
Women in the US and Europe are starting to admit that they regret having had children.
"I used to think I was calm and in control. Then I had children."
If you want to bring up a child as an act of benevolence, of altruism, adopt a child. If you hesitate to make a 20-year commitment to do this, you could take in a foster child. That also helps children, but you can stop more easily if you find that necessary.
Many millenials are having pets instead of babies.
If that helps you avoid children, it is a good idea, but what's the sense of paying someone else to keep company with your dog instead of you? It's like paying someone else to spend time with your friends for you: it defeats the purpose of friendship, whether that be with a human or with a dog.
It is absurd to pamper your dog expensively; that obsession makes for stress and spoils the fun. A dog will not live as long as a human, and a dog's death is not the same loss as a human's death.
Governments are rapidly making it nearly impossible to take care of children by requiring adults to watch them every minute of the day.
Escaping from that idiocy is an additional benefit of not having children.
Rebecca Solnit's essay, "The Mother of All Questions", presents an overlapping set of reasons for not having children in the way I wish I could have written them.
Many women lose all sexual desire after they have a child.
People who have one child face social pressure to have another. But you can resist the pressure.
From The Onion: "I'm Free, I'm Finally Free!" Thinks Parent Before Realizing Lost Child Just Hiding Inside Clothes Rack.
You don't have to make every possible mistake yourself first before you learn to avoid it. You can learn from other people's mistakes
(satire) *… new parents Lindsey Conway and Michael Rhodes reportedly freaked out Tuesday upon learning that babies can often live up to 100 years. …Why don’t they tell you all this before you bring them home?*
*Are You Raising Kids in Captivity, then Expecting Them to Survive in the Wild?*
Hadley Freeman: When a friend asks, *what will happen to her when she’s old? Will she be all alone? So should she have a baby now? I look her right in the eyes and I tell her what I always tell women in these circumstances: don’t bother.*
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