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Don't save children, save the world Add to ...

Jerry Steinberg lives with his wife on a leafy family-friendly street in Vancouver. All very nice - except on garbage day, when the 62-year-old says he's disgusted by what he sees. "These families with children put out four or five cans of garbage and no recycling bin," he complains.

As for parents who are environmentally conscious? The "founding non-father" of No Kidding - an international organization for people who choose to be childless - says he believes that once you're a breeder, the damage is done. "I think environmentalists with children are hypocrites," he says. "It's like saying, 'I don't smoke but bring me another cigarette.' " An extreme view, perhaps - but one that is being taken up by a growing number of eco-warriors in their fertile years. As concerns over the dwindling size of the polar ice cap and the world's fish supply continue to mount, these environmentalists are putting their carbon-offset credits where their mouths are and stocking up on birth control.

"Every living being on this planet consumes resources and creates pollution, whether it's a worm, rabbit or a human being. And no one consumes and pollutes as well as humans do," Mr. Steinberg says. "Rabbits don't drive cars. Worms don't throw garbage in the landfill. The fewer humans, the more we're doing to save the planet."

Sounds a bit crazy, doesn't it? But it's one of the reasons Mr. Steinberg and his wife have remained "child-free," as they call it. And making the decision to deny one's own biological urge in order to make the world a better place for other people's children is a life choice that is gaining ground among serious environmental doom-and-gloomers.

In a society that holds up childbirth and parenting as the moral gold standard, the idea that procreation might be an irresponsible environmental choice is not a popular one - even among environmentalists.

Indeed, the issue of global population control and reproductive rights remains a taboo talking point in debates about sustainability. While most people are quite happy to talk about organic hemp baby clothing and the joys of compost, few are willing to contemplate the idea that our children are killing the planet.

But maybe they are. Just look at the numbers.

According to recent statistics compiled by the Global Footprint Network in Oakland, Calif., the average Canadian's environmental footprint - which measures the resources needed to sustain the average human based on their consumption - is roughly equal to that of 15 people in Bangladesh. That's 75 Bangladeshis for a typical Canadian family of five.

If you cart your kids around in a gasaholic minivan or SUV, you can effectively up that number by three Bangladeshis. Those over-packaged, non-local foods the little ones love to scarf down at every meal? Add a few more Bangladeshi footprints around the fire. Hockey lessons? Family vacations? Air travel? The cottage, the cabin and the ski chalet?

They don't say it takes a village for nothing.

The average Canadian probably wouldn't think twice about the environmental impact of having a couple of kids. But would you think twice about raising a Third World village? Because environmentally speaking, if you have children, you probably already are.

Even the World Health Organization's most moderate population predictions point out that, at the current population and consumption growth rates, in 50 years we will need twice the Earth's resources to survive as a species.

Mathis Wackernagel, executive director of the Global Footprint Network, says that, while many environmental groups shy away from the subject of population control, "to not look at the demographic challenges of the impending environmental problem is essentially a crime against humanity."

In the 20th century, the global population grew to 6.1 billion from 1.6 billion, causing a 12-fold increase in carbon-dioxide emissions, according to a report from the UN Population Fund. As Albert Kaufman, founder of the Portland, Ore., chapter of Population Connection, recently told the online forum Sustainable Life: "Most people would rather focus on the symptoms - pollution, sprawl, species loss. But if we don't bring the number of people down, these are just stop-gap measures."

Vincent Ciaccio and his wife, Laura - both 29 - grew up passively assuming that they would have children one day. However, after the couple met in college and embarked on a life together, they realized they did not want to become parents, a decision informed in large part by environmental concerns.

While the Ciaccios would not describe themselves as hard-core environmentalists, they are both ethical vegetarians who eat locally grown food, drive a compact car and regulate their energy consumption.

"There are a lot of reasons to be vegetarian and a lot of those translate into reasons to be child-free - choices like not supporting clear-cutting the rain forests to raise cattle," says Mr. Ciaccio, who currently lives in Boston, where his wife is at law school. "Being child-free means we don't run the risk of having children who won't be vegetarians and undo all the good choices we've made."

To that end, Mr. Ciaccio underwent a vasectomy at the age of 23. His wife is now considering getting a tubal ligation at the age of 29 - which they describe as "a belt and suspenders measure."

And they are not the only ones. Mr. Ciaccio conducted a study of "child freedom" (or the choice to remain childless) for his master's thesis in psychology at Iona College, N.Y., a couple of years ago. He found that 12 per cent of the child-free people he surveyed named overpopulation and concern for the environment as the biggest motivators for skipping parenthood.

Still, Mr. Ciaccio has endured a lot of guff for his choice to be sterilized at such a young age. He points out that his decision was just as informed and irreversible as the decision to have children - one that is rarely questioned. But he says, "There is this societal idea that normal people have kids and that if you don't want kids, there must be something wrong with you."

This is rich, Mr. Ciaccio says, since, in his view, parents who threaten the sustainability of the planet have their own choices to answer for. "It's funny all those environmentalists with two or three children," he says. "I have an issue with the dishonesty of it, this situation in which people claim to be environmentally conscious but put the environment at risk in another way, but one that is socially acceptable."

The same goes for Third World adoption, the current fad among celebrities trying to improve their humanitarian image. While it may change an individual child's life for the better, there is an environmental trade-off. One cringes to think of the small metropolis of footprints Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have created with their well-publicized orphan-hoarding campaign.

Professor William Rees of the University of British Columbia is the co-inventor of footprint analysis and a pioneer in the study of population ecology. He has two adopted native Canadian children, and says he has seen many people in his field take a moral stance not to have children because the world is overpopulated.

From an environmental perspective, Mr. Rees says, the decision not to procreate has obvious merit. "The current rate of resource consumption and waste creation exceeds the capacity of our living system's ability to replace what we consume and assimilate what we produce," he says. "Is adding more people to the planet going to help this situation? Probably not."

Still, you could be shaking your head: When it comes to something as essential and natural as the human urge to reproduce, resource accounting is a fallacious approach. It doesn't take into account the kindness and love children bring to the world, nor the potential for future conservation and change.

Ask Severn Cullis-Suzuki. As the daughter of famed environmental crusader David Suzuki and co-editor of the recent book Notes from Canada's Young Activists: A Generation Stands up for Change, the 27-year-old knows first-hand the power that youngsters can wield in spurring environmental concern.

"I've been involved in social justice issues since I was very young and the biggest tool I had was the fact that people love their kids," she says in a phone interview from her home in Victoria. "I've met so many people who say, 'I wouldn't recycle if it weren't for my kid.' " Ms. Cullis-Suzuki's dad certainly seems in favour of human reproduction. Canada's father of environmentalism is also the father of five children - a number his daughter admits is high (consider him the mayor of a small town in Bangladesh).

"Growing up, we'd often tease him and say, 'Hey, Dad is overpopulating the world!' " she says. "But the truth is we're all human and we all have our hypocrisies. I'm not interested in judgment."

In fact, Ms. Cullis-Suzuki hopes to have children of her own one day. As she explains: "Our consumption habits are really the problem. But the point is, we have choices, so we can make a difference far more than someone who grows up in the developing world."

Of course not all "child-free" people choose to be that way for purely environmental reasons. For many environmentalists, the decision not to become a parent (just like the decision to become one) is based on a multitude of factors, including, but not limited to, their concern for the planet.

Nicola Ross, executive editor of Alternatives journal, an environmental magazine based in Waterloo, Ont., says her decision to remain childless was mainly a lifestyle choice - one that came with environmental fringe benefits.

"Now that I don't have any children, I think, on one level, who cares? As long as the planet's fine for the next 30 years, I'm fine, right?" she jokes. "What really gets me is people who have kids and still don't care."

Ms. Ross, 49, says that, while she doesn't believe in legislating biology (à la China's one-child law), she does find it "indulgent" when people have more than two children.

"Ultimately people have to be responsible for their own actions."

Personal responsibility, whether one has children or not, is at the heart of solving - or at least staving off - the current environmental catastrophe.

And as Prof. Rees points out, the triumph of consumer culture over human connection is what brought us to this juncture in the first place.

"Let's be really clear. The main reason for decline in birth rates in the Western world is people choosing not to have children because of the impact on their lifestyle. The choice they are making is materialism over motherhood. But you could equally have children and reduce your demands on the planet by reducing your footprint."

In other words, people are not just an environmental problem, we are also the only ones who can provide the solution. As Mr. Wackernagel asserts, "We need to have six billion heroes, because without that we won't find a solution."

And what proud parent doesn't like to think their child will be a part of that solution?

Jerry Steinberg, it goes without saying, doesn't share your unconditional love. "Everybody thinks that my child will cure cancer or end global warming, but guess what? The planet's overloaded and it hasn't happened yet."

Leah McLaren is a columnist and feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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