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Interview with Travis Rieder - Population, Bioethics, and

Climate Change

· Climate Change,Population,Bioethics,Podcast,Behavioural Change

In Podcast Episode #10, our guest is Dr Travis Rieder, Professor and Assistant Director for Education Initiatives at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University.

His work on population ethics and climate change garnered some major coverage last summer, including the NPR article "Should We Be Having Kids In The Age Of Climate Change?".

Travis joins us on The Climate Changer Podcast to discuss the moral dilemma of whether to have children in a resource-constrained, climate changing world.


Recent Media Coverage: This coverage stemmed from
(1) His new book 'Toward a Small Family Ethic: How Overpopulation and Climate Change Are Affecting the Morality of Procreation'. A personal investigation into whether the threat of climate change provides a moral burden - for all of us - to have smaller families.
(2) Recent research into the merits of policies that would promote smaller families.

Why is the topic of 'population' so important to the fight against global climate change:
Population is built into the math of climate change.

Climate change is an emissions problem. And one way to frame this problem is that:
(Emissions) = (emissions per person) x (the number of people)

Why are we so bad at talking about the topic of population? 

  1. It's too intimate, too personal. It instinctively provokes a negative reaction.
  2. Concern that efforts to 'manage' population would lead to human rights violations, a worry stemming from horrific violations that have taken place in the past (e.g. eugenics, forced sterilisations, forced abortions).

What are the ethical considerations for having a child in a climate changing world? Unlike other high-emitting behaviours, having a child is creating a new person, a new agent. Rather than a one-off decision, this new person will have their own environmental impact (separate from your own) and may go on to have children of their own. And so, if you decide to take ownership of your potential descendents' cumulative impact, this becomes a very serious decision.

Why title this 'Population Engineering'? As a contrast to geo-engineering, where the variable to be manipulated is the human population rather than geo-engineering's plankton blooms in the ocean or reflective particles in the sky.

Population Engineering is any set of proposals, interventions, or policies that give people the ability to - and possibly skew their interest towards - having smaller families. This can include:

  1. Increasing access to basic health care, education, and family planning services, as well as general female empowerment. When these basic services are available, people tend to choose smaller families anyway.
  2. Media campaigns that highlight the benefits of smaller families and put them in a positive light.

Promoting Smaller Families in the Media - how does one provide 'role models' for small families? 

It's interesting to think about the impact of a sitcom like Friends in the US or Hum Log in India. The aspiration is to show - in a positive light - the different types of futures young people can have. And to convey that it's ok to (1) not have children very young, (2) take time between having children, or (3) not have children at all.

What is a 'Small Family Ethic'?

The issues posed by limited natural resources and climate change provide a strong case to consider "Is it morally permissible for me to make a new child?". We jointly (1) don't want our children to further contribute to these problems, but also we (2) want to protect our children from the consequences of these problems.

In many Western countries, the cultural norm is for the child-less to justify their reasons for not having children. A Small Family Ethic would flip this need for justification to those bearing children.

For some people, the creation of a child is so meaningful and life-altering that one can argue that their life would be deficient by missing out on this experience.

However - once you have one child, can you justify this decision again for a second, third, or fourth child?

Have there been any similar movements like this in the past?

Japan and China both have smaller-family ethics - though for much different reasons.

Japan has extremely low birth rates. Its population growth has been zero since 2011, and the Government promotes pro-natalist policies in hopes of encouraging more children.

China previously had an extreme family planning policy ( The 'One Child Policy') that led to a generation of children - now adults - accustomed to one-child households as the norm.


Likewise - in the reverse case - several countries have run campaigns to promote an increased birth rate - including Germany, Denmark, Russia, Singapore...

Would a Small Family Ethic lead to different lifestyles or family structures/dynamics?

The US has been pretty steady on the two-child household. It's not clear that the drop from a 2- to 1-child household would change family behaviour that much.

DINKs (Double Income No Kids) are a bit of a reclamation project of 'no child' lifestyles.


But in the current political climate, isolationist policies that limit immigation coupled with a stable birthrate could risk economic growth. So we could face the politically toxic choices of (1) allowing the economy to shrink or (2) allowing greater immigration to faciliate economic growth.

The paradox of low birth rates and low immigration
In the current political climate, isolationist policies that limit immigration coupled with a steady state birth rate could cause economic growth to stall. So politicians may be forced to decide between (1) allowing the economy to shrink or (2) allowing greater immigration to facilitate economic growth.


Any positive news from your field? What's keeping you enthused and engaged?

  1. People are really interested in this topic. People want to talk about it.

  2. In Colleges and Universities, young people see this as a live, important conversation and come to it with open minds.

What can listeners at home do to help?

If considering having a child, think about the arguments presented, deliberate with your partner, and if you decide to have kids, be sure it's an intentional choice (e.g. you want to have children).

For those past child-bearing years, support informed family planning. Organisations in this space include:

Enjoy this episode? Tweet the love!

Questions, comments, reflections? Leave me a comment below!

Affiliate Disclosure: When I link to books on Amazon, I use an affiliate link. This does not effect the price of the book, but it does mean I would receive a small commission if one opts to purchase it and uses this link.

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