Against anti-natalism; or: why climate change should not be a significant factor in your decision to have children

by ben.smith3 min read26th Feb 202016 comments



I've edited this essay to respond and incorporate points made by commenters. Thanks to all who have provided feedback.


This is something I see come up in EA social media spaces and I am keen to state an argument against anti-natalism in clear, strong, and persuasive terms. Typically the anti-natalist case is presented as a way to avoid a significant impact on the climate. I think this is flawed: while the average human certainly has net-negative impact on the climate, the average human also has a net-positive impact on total human well-being, simply by existing and leading a net-positive life.

First, let's survey some morally relevant areas that you have control over, and that having children could impact.

You matter

My well-being and yours, and your potential children, all have moral worth. We matter too. If your altruism completely excludes your own well-being, I would be concerned about how sustainable it is. See further notes at the bottom.

Your children matter

Assuming your potential children live average lives, they'll probably experience a lot more happiness than suffering and their lives will be well worth living. The impact that each individual has on the climate is dwarfed by the well-being that person experiences in their own life. These are contestable claims: there are lively arguments over the "total view" vs. the "average view", but I take a total view on this. If you take the average view, you might disagree you should take your potential childrens' well-being into account.

Your own impact on EA matters

Having children will influence your own impact within your career and life on the world. For instance, someone in a particularly impactful career might avoid having children if they think it would lead them to sacrifice making a difference in their career.

In conclusion

If you want to maximize total aggregate happiness in your decision,

- your primary concern should be yourself and your potential co-parent's happiness because that will be massively influenced by your decision - potentially either way, depending on your preferences. Managing own happiness and well-being is an important part of maximizing total aggregate well-being. Therefore, if you don't want to have kids, don't have kids - you don't need climate change to justify that decision!

- Then, as a distant second you should consider the net positive impact your children would experience through living their own lives.

- As an even more distant third priority, think about the impact that having kids would have on your own ability to have an effective career. Now, this may be a persuasive argument against having children for some people. For others, including those earning to give, or people who would simply be less happy not having children, having children might function as a positive motivator that enables you to have a more effective career than you would otherwise.

- In terms of maximizing total well-being, your kids' impact in the climate is a distant fourth relative to all those other concerns I've raised. The magnitude of their impact on the climate is likely to be much, much smaller than any of the three other factors I have raised.



"Is it really true that "effective altruists" should consider their own well-being, too?"

It is true that "altruism" excludes your own well-being by definition. However, a moral system that arbitrarily excludes the agent's own well-being seems arbitrarily selective. Certainly any consequentialist or utilitarian would want to weight their own well-being equally with others.

But this is not just a consequentialist approach. Wider philosophical and religious discourse around morality are also premised on concern for self. The religious command is "Love thy neighbour as thyself", not "Love only thy neighbour, not thyself". Kant's deontological rule is "act only according to that maxim you would have as a universal rule", not "act only according to maxims that would benefit others".

How do we know the negative impact of a marginal individual on climate change is smaller than the positive impact an individual has on their own well-being?

My initial thinking: most of the negative utility of climate change is related to its negative impact on human life. It makes human life somewhat less enjoyable. At its worst, the negative utility of climate change could end all human existence. So there is a scenario in which the negative utility of climate change is equal to the positive summed utility of human existence. However, this scenario is highly unlikely: <1%, and possibly <0.1% (Ord, 2020). So we should strongly downweight the negative utility of climate change.

That said, I think what I've missed here is that the negative utility of human extinction doesn't just cancel out the positive utility of everyone existing now; it is worth the positive utility of everyone who might exist in the future billions of years. So this is part of my argument I might need to reconsider. I'll try to consider this further.


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You might also be interested in John Halstead's and Johannes Ackva's recent Climate & Lifestyle Report for Founders Pledge. They point out that taking into account policy effects can dramatically change the estimated climate impact of lifestyle choices, and on children specifically they say that:

The biggest discrepancy here concerns the climate effect of having children. For the reasons given, we think our estimate of the effect of having children is more accurate for people living in the EU or US states with strong climate policy, such as California, New York, as well as other states in the Northeast. Indeed, even outside the US states with strong climate policy, we think the estimate accounting for policy is much closer to the truth, since emissions per head are also declining at the national level, and climate policy is likely to strengthen across the US in the next few decades.

After taking into account policy effects, they find that the climate impact of having children is comparable to some other lifestyle choices such as living car-free. (I.e. it's not the case that the climate impact of having children is orders of magnitude larger, as one might naively think w/o considering policy effects.)

For more detail, see their section 3.

I agree that blanket endorsements of anti-natalism (whether for climate or other reasons) in EA social media spaces are concerning, and I appreciate you taking the time to write down why you think they are misguided.

FWIW, my reaction to this post is: you present a valid argument (i.e. if I believed all your factual premises, then I'd think your conclusion follows), but this post by itself doesn't convince me that the following factual premise is true:

The magnitude of [your kids'] impact on the climate is likely to be much, much smaller than any of the three other factors I have raised.

At first glance, this seems highly non-obvious to me. I'd probably at least want to see a back-of-the-envelope calculation before believing this is right.

(And I'm not sure it is: I agree that your kids' impact on the climate would be more causally distant than their impact on your own well-being, your career, etc. However, conversely, there is a massive scale difference: impacts on climate affect the well-being of many people in many generations, not just your own. Notably, this is also true for impacts on your career, in particular if you try to improve the long-term future. So my first-pass guess is that the expected impact will be dominated by the non-obvious comparison of these two "distant" effects.)

At $50 per ton cost to sequester the average American would need to generate $1000 per year of positive impact to offset their co2 use. The idea that the numbers are even close to comparable means priors are way way off. The signaling commons have been polluted on this front from people impact larping their short showers, lack of water at restaurants and other absurdities.

I actually think that a true measure of the climate impact of having a child should not just factor in the extra carbon they will be responsible for over their lives, but also the very small probability that they will be responsible for doing something awesome (e.g. "solving climate change"), which may be enough to offset the expected carbon footprint.

(Of course, this only makes sense if you think that the tail positive risk of them doing something amazingly positive outweighs the tiny probability that they will do something stunningly negative!)

Here's my own view:

1. I think the impact on your own career and donations should plausibly go first. Here, your wellbeing still matters, but only instrumentally. You are one person, and if you're impartial, your interests shouldn't outweigh the interests of all of those you could help, who are also probably much worse off than you. The average cost of raising a child seems to be over $200K USD, and through the Against Malaria Foundation or Malaria Consortium, that could save the lives of several people. However, you may be able to raise a child much more cheaply, and if you think you can't be happy without having children, not having children could plausibly be bad for your career impact and donations.

2. If your children donate to EA charities or otherwise contribute to EA (and it doesn't have to be a lot), then they can make up for any negative impacts they would have, and I think this would come second. Maybe they can make up for losses in 1, too.

3. If you're nonspeciesist and your children aren't concerned with their impacts on nonhuman animals, then their effects on nonhuman animals would also come before the wellbeing in their own lives or your life, since they could be responsible for the suffering and deaths of many animals per person at any moment in time, on average/in expectation, mostly through their diets.

Then it's your wellbeing, their wellbeing, and greenhouse gas emissions towards climate change, but I'm not sure in what order.

Thanks. This is a challenging response to reply to. (3) risks "proving too much" but it seems like a valid argument on its face.

I left a related comment here. Specifically:

For example, you'd imagine 2 to 3 chickens and 11 to 12 farmed fishes, in misery, hanging around each human, on average (at any given moment).
You could also imagine each person slaughtering a chicken every ~40 days and a farmed fish about once a month.

This is the global average, and the vast majority of farmed chickens and fishes are factory farmed. The numbers should be at least a few times higher in developed countries on average, since animal product consumption is higher. On their welfare, see this report, which of course involves subjective judgements.

In developed countries, usually at least 20 farmed land animals are raised for food per person per year on average.

Here's a half-baked argument for natalism vis-à-vis climate change:

Carbon emissions in the highly developed countries most EAs live in are generally trending in the right direction (i.e. there seems to be at least relative decoupling between emissions and consumption). The bulk of emissions growth over the next several decades will be in other large, rapidly developing countries like India and China. Green technology transfer is a way that highly developed countries can positively influence emissions in the critical rapidly developing countries (see e.g. this). Economic models generally propose that a larger population generates more ideas and a higher rate of technological change (e.g. Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990). Therefore, the (smallish?) direct impact of increased emissions from greater population in highly developed countries might be outweighed by more green technology and technology transfer to the crucial rapidly developing countries like China and India.

I find the ethics of procreation to be incredibly complicated. While I am skeptical of some of the particular arguments of this post, I agree that there are reasons to suspect that procreation is either morally good or morally neutral. Although I have substantial uncertainty about the moral goodness of procreation, I do strongly believe that many talented and altruistic people will be driven away from the EA community if anti-natalism becomes a big part of the cultural attitude. Many if not most people react to anti-natalism extremely negatively. They take it as an affront to their most personal choices, an insult to the people they most care about, and sometimes even a dangerous ideology that they inexorably associate with horrific human rights abuses. If there were real reason to believe with confidence that one of the best ways we can do good is lower the birth rate of people who actively want children, then that would be one thing. However, that seems so so so far from the current reality, that focusing on anti-natalist efforts just makes EA (or whatever other cause/group) look bad.

your primary concern should be yourself and your potential co-parent's happiness because that will be massively influenced by your decision - potentially either way, depending on your preferences

why do you believe that? (intuition is a fine answer, but I think it should be made explicit)

Managing own happiness and well-being is an important part of maximizing total aggregate well-being

do you mean because being more happy will directly increase the total amount of happiness, or do you mean being happy will make you more effective at work? (I think it's important to disentangle both of those)

Then, as a distant second you should consider the net positive impact your children would experience through living their own lives.

why "as a distant second"?

The magnitude of their impact on the climate is likely to be much, much smaller than any of the three other factors I have raised.

how do you know that?

it seems to me like that's a lot of claims that aren't backed by anything

might also be worth considering the other indirect impact of having children

Yes, I tend to think that any one individual's impact on the world around them probably balances out roughly neutral.

So I don't use the argument that your own children might do a lot of good for the world and therefore you should raise children. That seems too speculative. And so the more known direct impact of having children on your own happiness and their happiness balances out the very speculative, almost entirely uninformed prior of the indirect effects having children might lead to.

Where you have a clear idea of a high and direct impact career that would be difficult to pursue were you to have children, then yes that might win out. Again, direct impacts are important, indirect impacts I think are so speculative that they probably don't count for much.

As for earning to give, this is another challenge to my argument. I am sceptical that someone who really wants to have children will be happy in the long term sacrificing that for earning to give and this I'm sceptical that their commitment will be sustained and thus it may not be particularly impactful anyway, vs some compromise between personal desires and earning to give that is sustainable over decades.

That's pretty speculative on my part but maybe borne out by observations made by 80k on people who enter morally neutral, high impact careers just to earn to give.

From a total view, I think this does outline a potentially compelling case against the climate change argument, but I don't think it's compelling from an average point of view. Even from an in-between perspective (which I think roughly represents my feelings) which evaluates overall welfare as the product of average quality of life times the square root of population, it seems that marginal hits to the climate may outweigh marginal gains in quality of life.

Even from a totalist POV, it's important to consider lives with negative value. It matters where the line is drawn- some people may feel all lives have positive valence, others may set a high standard, and say that a life with positive valence must have very little suffering, even an absence of suffering that may be fairly unheard of in modern life. By having children, you might increase the value that your life contributes to overall welfare, and contribute the lives of your children, but have an impact on many people which changes their lives from making a positive contribution to a negative contribution, or greatly increases the suffering of a person who already has a negative-valence life.

This certainly isn't to say that I think you're wrong - I think the structure of your argument may be usable to make a compelling case which addresses my concerns, and in general I do feel (though am not certain) that on net, the average person will contribute more to other's well-being than they take away.

Great to put the climate externality of a child explicitly in relation to other positive and negative values that come with having a child. Thanks for doing this and doing it so well.

A question: where else in the population ethics debate can I find the kind of reasoning that you employ? More specifically, where else can I find (1) lists of the bazillion positive and negative externalities of an additional child and (2) some argument -- however weak -- that takes us beyond agnosticism on the question whether an additional child is overall a *net* positive or negative externality (and, in case it is a net negative externality, where can I find some argument -- however weak -- whether it is *sufficiently* net negative so as to outweigh the value that the life has to the child itself)?

PS: I've laid out 9 further reasons (plus a version of the point that you make) why the initially appealing case for less children here is surprisingly unclear at closer inspection: I've grown convinced that the climate case for less children is much more difficult than people think and think it's important to highlight this fact.

More specifically, where else can I find (1) lists of the bazillion positive and negative externalities of an additional child and (2) some argument -- however weak -- that takes us beyond agnosticism on the question whether an additional child is overall a *net* positive or negative externality

Hello Dominic,

I do something of this in my DPhil thesis in chapter 2. I'm pretty uncertain whether the Earth is under- or overpopulated whatever one's views on population ethics.

Thanks for this, Michael! I will look at it.


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