- Toward a Small Family Ethic: How Overpopulation and Climate Change Are Affecting the Morality of Procreation by Travis Rieder
The global human population is currently about 7.6 billion people, and our numbers are still increasing. Although human population growth has not been a popular topic to discuss in the last quarter-century, its contribution to various environmental problems is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Travis Rieder's Toward a Small Family Ethic confronts the effects of population growth and addresses what individual procreative obligations might follow from it.
This short book consists of five chapters. Rieder begins with a description of the population problem. More people need more land, more food, more [End Page E-8] fresh water, and more energy consumption to survive. Thus, a growing population puts greater strain on the environment that provides these vital resources. Rieder places a particularly strong emphasis on climate change and the ways in which mitigating climate change is made more difficult by the annual increases in emissions that result from population growth. Thus, the first chapter carries two important lessons: "population is a major driver of climate change, in addition to raising concerns about other limited resources" and "climate change is a morally urgent problem" (9).
With the nature of the problem established, Rieder turns to the main question of the book: in light of the impacts of human population growth, what obligations do individuals have with respect to their procreative decision-making? More specifically, might there be an obligation to limit one's number of biological children? Ultimately, while Rieder does not affirm the existence of obligations to limit one's biological procreation, he does conclude that "something disconcertingly close to this suggestion is true" (10). Or at least, he believes so with respect to wealthy individuals with large per capita ecological footprints.
In chapter 2, Rieder focuses on one of the strongest objections to the existence of duties to limit our procreation in response to the effects of population growth –the claim that one additional child makes such a small contribution to the large-scale environmental impacts under discussion that it really doesn't make a significant difference in the grand scheme of things. Such reasoning reflects a moral principle akin to the following: "If the consequences of an act make no significant difference to the extent or severity of a moral problem, then the agent is not morally required to refrain from acting in light of the moral problem" (16). Consequentialists –those who regard the morality of an action as being determined exclusively by its consequences –are likely to find this line of reasoning persuasive. But Rieder believes such reasoning is misguided because there can be non-consequentialist reasons to refrain from certain activities even when one's individual contribution makes a negligible difference to the overall effects of those activities.
In chapter 3, Rieder examines three non-consequentialist principles that could generate obligations to limit one's procreation even if we grant that individual acts of procreation do not make a significant contribution to climate change and other environmental problems. The first is a duty not to contribute to massive systematic harms. Climate change, on Rieder's assessment, is one of these harms, and along classic deontological lines, it can be considered objectionable to contribute to it regardless of how [End Page E-9] small one's contributions are. The second is a principle of fairness. Overpopulation disproportionately harms the poor, and yet the wealthy, due to their carbon-intensive lifestyles, are the ones who contribute most to the problem. Such an arrangement is deeply unfair and violates the basic demands of social justice. The third is a duty to protect the interests of our possible children. Perils of the future –both environmental and otherwise –could cause serious harm to our children, and we ought not to expose them to severe risk of harm.
The first two of these three principles are better supported than the duty to protect our children from serious harm. The duty not to contribute to systematic...