Standing before several dozen students in a college classroom, Travis Rieder tries to convince them not to have children. Or at least not too many.
He’s at James Madison University in southwest Virginia to talk about a “small-family ethic” — to question the assumptions of a society that sees having children as good, throws parties for expecting parents, and in which parents then pressure their kids to “give them grandchildren.”
Why question such assumptions? The prospect of climate catastrophe.
For years, people have lamented how bad things might get “for our grandchildren,” but Rieder tells the students that future isn’t so far off anymore.
He asks how old they will be in 2036, and, if they are thinking of having kids, how old their kids will be.
“Dangerous climate change is going to be happening by then,” he says. “Very, very soon.”
Rieder wears a tweedy jacket and tennis shoes, and he limps because of a motorcycle accident. He’s a philosopher with the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and his arguments against having children are moral.
Americans and other rich nations produce the most carbon emissions per capita, he says. Yet people in the world’s poorest nations are most likely to suffer severe climate impacts, “and that seems unfair,” he says.
There’s also a moral duty to future generations that will live amid the climate devastation being created now.
“Here’s a provocative thought: Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them,” Rieder says.
His arguments sound pretty persuasive in the classroom. At home, it was a different matter.
“I have been one of those women who actually craved to have a baby,” says Sadiye Rieder, smiling as she sits next to her husband in the sunroom of their Maryland home. “To go through pregnancy and everything, that mattered to me a lot.”
Sadiye also wanted a big family. She grew up among extended relatives in the Turkish part of Cyprus and says she enjoyed having people around all the time.
This was not a problem early in their marriage, as each focused on their studies. But by the time Sadiye began feeling ready for motherhood, Travis’ research had delved into the morality of adoption, which led to the ethics of procreation and to its impact on the climate.