The Breeder's Dilemma

Can you call yourself an environmentalist and still have kids?
Nov 2, 2010 6:00 PM ET
Campaign: CRS Blog Posts

Center for Resource Solutions Blog

  by Jeff Swenerton, communications director at CRS

I’ve always tried to be a good environmentalist by living as lightly as I can. I ride my bicycle, recycle, and compost whenever possible. This lifestyle has never felt like much of a sacrifice, frankly, because the idea of doing more with less appeals to my sense of order, and coming from a waste-abhorring “Clean Plate Club” family, I was indoctrinated into a Zero Waste philosophy from an early age.

But this March saw the culmination of a chain of events that could threaten to undo all of my life’s hard work. I started it, and knew the consequences, but chose path this anyway. I have decided to unleash upon the world an ecological time bomb. A gas-guzzling, electricity using, resource-consuming watt waster. For the next 78 years, statistically speaking, my creation will contribute mightily to climate change and our quick descent from peak oil. Last March 13th, at 9:41 p.m., my wife and I welcomed into the world a son, Henry.

Of course, our decision to start a family didn’t come down to anything resembling the cold calculus of a greenhouse gas inventory (though we did make a spreadsheet with columns for pro and con). It was more a decision from our heart than our head about whether to bring another U.S. consumer into a world possibly dipping its toe into the sixth Great Extinction. And consume he will. Americans are some of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, and compared to most of our brethren around the world we look like Gullivers in the land of the Lilliputian, emissions-wise. As much as my wife and I have done to reduce our daily impact on the planet, I just guaranteed the perpetuation of that impact for generations to come. Is this my parting gift?

Yes and no. To live in this new world, my son will know as soon as he learns to talk the things most of us have only accepted recently—that our economies are based on finite resources. And because of this, simple actions like getting to work are longer ethically neutral, because they have long-term implications both in the survival of our largely fossil-fuel based society and the escalating rate of climate change. On top of being happy and following his dreams and earning a living, to be a responsible earthling Henry will have to do it all with an eye toward sustainable consumption. At the same time, though, he and the other Gen Z-ers will hold the key to undoing the problems they inherit.

His generation won’t have any climate change deniers because they will see the world changing. Somewhere around his 50th birthday, we’ll be experiencing the perhaps sudden pangs of a permanent, increasingly expensive shortage of easy and cheap petroleum. But our e-z lifestyle will be the last thing we want to sacrifice, and the technologies we depend on now will need to be maintained with ingenious substitutes, if we can innovate them into being. In other words, we humans got ourselves into this, and it will have to be our technology, and lifestyle changes, and shifted priorities, that get us out. We’re consumers, but we’re also the ones charged with coming up with the fix.

I know I’m bestowing on my son a burden that he will have to learn to bear, but at least I’m giving him notice that while he’s conserving as much as possible the last little bit of sweet crude we have left, he needs to be investing however and wherever possible in the solutions that will ultimately save us. And the best of these solutions will be centered on harnessing the bajigajoules of energy that are produced by natural forces every day and blow right by us (or shine down on us) with barely a notice.

This doesn’t mean that Henry will have to be an engineer—his father is exceptionally terrible at math and it’s possible he inherited the same preference for Photoshop over Excel—but he will have to learn and appreciate the idea that good design solves nearly every problem there is, and will solve this one. We can have it all, if we walk softly and carry the right widget.

Henry will live in interesting times, an era that will require different skills than mine and certainly that of my parents. But I am happy to be bringing him into a world that, while not exactly post-consumerist, is a place where unbridled consumerism is understood to have consequences and scarcity is accepted. Scarcity is good—it makes people creative, and innovative. Limits focus the mind. So do high stakes. I’ll teach Henry that creativity is the most important thing, because he’ll be starting with a mostly blank sheet of paper. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.


Jeff Swenerton is communications director at CRS and looking forward to the pinewood derby. He can be reached at