Why Your Fairtrade Organic Latte Isn’t Going To Save the Planet

A few nights ago my wife and I settled down to watch First Reformed with Ethan Hawke. I like Ethan Hawke – he seems honest and humble and his characters are (mostly) believable.

But this is not a film review. It’s a short article written in my head during the part in the movie where the environmental campaigner (Philip Ettinger) explains to the priest (Hawke) that he wants his girlfriend to have an abortion to avoid bringing another child into this world.

It’s a well-done scene and reminded me of a discussion I had with a close friend a few years ago. He asked me one night why I had never had children — he had three. I argued various points about it never being the right time, financial worries, my rather unstable life, difficulty in taking responsibility, blah blah. Until I finally admitted that my main reason was the environmental impact of having children.

My friend looked at me rather blankly. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked.

I wasn’t sure how to put it any clearer, so I said it again: ‘I don’t have kids because every child is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. Get this: I recently read that one extra child produces 60 tonnes of carbon per year. If you go carless for a year, you save two. I mean the figures are astonishing! People go on about going green and recycling, without ever realising that the best thing you can do, is not have children.’

After my rant, my friend looked shocked. ‘Wow, I’d never thought of it like that.’

‘Most people don’t,’ I said. Then I apologised, saying that I loved his kids and that I wasn’t having a go at him personally, his wife or his family. It was just a personal decision. ‘And anyway,’ I smiled at him. ‘You asked the question.’

We went on to talk about other things, but I always remember the conversation and found it interesting to see this idea addressed in a film. True, the guy in the movie was asking for drastic action. An abortion! But the point was the same.

I once read a book by Raj Patel called The Value of Nothing. It was a good book, except the author (a Brit like myself) seemed to think having kids was fine and wasn’t a problem. I disagreed when I read the book, and I disagree now. Surely, this IS the problem.

His argument was that we could accommodate more children on the planet if we dispensed with our rapacious lifestyles. BUT, as I told my close friend later in our conversation that night, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. And how long do we have? Western Capitalism isn’t going to disappear overnight, and as the world’s middle-class expands, the problem will only get worse.

Most parents believe their child will grow up and do something amazing: like save the planet. But in reality, he or she, whatever they do, will simply keep on polluting it. Just by living

It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?

Of course, even I know that in order to keep the species going, we need children. But that’s not going to stop. For starters, teenagers will still get drunk on cheap cider and have sex in the park. The species is safe, so don’t worry!

And anyway, I like children: I value their spirit and curiosity, but maybe less is better. Because here’s the truth:

We can recycle our plastic bags, drink our organic fairtrade lattes, cycle to work, or even go vegan. And perhaps in the long term this ‘ecological dressing-up’ might work. But it’s going to take a long time. Time we probably don’t have. So what are we going to do about it?

Keep tweaking at the edges: a bit of this, a bit of that? Or fundamentally reduce the number of mouths we have to feed and the number of bodies we have to keep warm?

What do you think?

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