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Less Feet, Less Footprint: Do the environmentally concerned intend to have less children?

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carbon-footprintPopulation matters, in all spheres of our lives. The exponential growth of the world population is bound to bring challenges that we are probably not able to anticipate. Optimists argue that more people promises more innovation and ingenuity simply from probability: larger populations have better chances of discovering a genius that will come up with a great invention to save the planet. While waiting for the genius to be born, the effects of growing populations are increasingly visible, for rather obvious reasons: more people simply need more resources. More people means more demand for food and water, more carbon dioxide emissions, probably more poor than rich, more headaches for social security systems, and simply more pressure on the planet and its resources. It has become difficult to deny anthropogenic causes of climate change, and relevant questions concerning the optimum sizes of global populations are being asked in scientific as well as popular discussions.

At the same time, the trendiness of eco movements is encouraging. Even if the idea of green consumerism is dubious since consumerism is still consumerism and not an ideology that should be nourished if we are ever to preserve the planet, it does in a way contribute to raising awareness about the importance of changing our habits and practices. Recycling, driving electric cars (if driving at all), becoming vegetarian, and many more individual actions have uncompromisingly positive connotations in the context of climate change. Someone still wondered if all this was all individuals could do to reduce their environmental footprint.

A recent study from two statisticians at Oregon State University has produced supporting evidence for a change in behavior that might be the most effective of all: refraining from having children. Needless to say, calling to curb the urge that most people see as the “most natural of all” is highly controversial. Murtaugh and Schlax calculated that having a child offsets the mother’s lifetime efforts to reduce her carbon footprint, and not only offsets it but, for most countries, it amplifies the emissions by three or four times. Various misinterpretations of their paper lead to serious threats, even though their paper was purely statistical and included no policy recommendations. Attempts to interfere in someone’s decisions over having children absolutely are a subject of ethical and moral debates, but that is a big and an interesting topic on its own.

However, the suggestion that stems from the results of Murtaugh and Schlax is nothing new. The support for arguments that overpopulation is harmful and would eventually bring about a collapse of natural eco-systems and extinction of human species came from scientists such as Thomas Malthus, Paul Ehrlich and Jefferey Sachs. David Attenborough, who managed to entice love for the planet from probably everyone who has heard him narrating the brilliant BBC series of documentaries Planet Earth, is also an advocate for small families through a UK-based charity Population Matters.

Despite the controversy around the topic in the popular press and everyday life, some academics assumed that there might exist a relationship between concern for the environment and intentions to have children. The research, however, produced conflicting results. This is why for my master’s thesis I attempted to give a modest contribution to the academic debate, but also satisfy the intellectual curiosity of whether my fellow students who appear to be environmentally concerned relate their reproductive actions to their environmental footprint. The study focused solely on students of Vienna University of Economics and Business, due to resource constraints.

The starting assumption was that the environmental concern with relation to reproductive intentions could be two-dimensional. One dimension is that the concern stems from the anticipation of unfavorable living conditions for the offspring due to worsened climate conditions or natural catastrophes. The other dimension is that the concern comes from altruistic, or rather eco-centric, intentions where a person does not want to have children in order to avoid adding further pressure on the planet.

The research was primarily done through a university-wide survey, and followed up with qualitative interviews of a small number of students. The environmental concern is of course difficult, if not impossible, to precisely measure. Numerous measuring methods have been employed in previous academic research, and this study settled with the New Ecological Paradigm by Dunlap and Van Liere.

In summary, the statistical analysis has shown that one particular dimension of environmental concern, “possibility of an eco-crisis”, potentially affects the intention to have children at all. This finding does not permit for making firm claims about the relationship between the two, but it does stir curiosity for further research. If we take natural disasters as possible manifestations of eco-crises, a substantial body of literature that investigated their effect on reproductive health, pregnancies and births can be used to justify why people might not want to have children in troubled times. World Health Organization (WHO) warns: “More than three million children under five die each year from environment-related causes and conditions. This makes the environment one of the most critical contributors to the global toll of more than ten million child deaths annually — as well as a very important factor in the health and well-being of their mothers.” Although WHO notes that this is particularly relevant for developing countries, the frequency of natural disasters and the severity of environmental hazards and pollution could cause adverse effects for children elsewhere as well.  For instance, similar correlation has been found in the United States, where severe storms have a negative effect on fertility.

The qualitative analysis, on the other hand, did not find that an expectation or a fear of an eco-crisis has an effect on fertility intentions. On the contrary, even though all students expressed worry and awareness of environmental issues, they all still indicated intentions to have at least two children in the future.

Since the quantitative method captured a much larger sample than the qualitative method, the relationship that was found should not be dismissed because it was not found in the qualitative sample. Rather, the qualitative data helps to explain why the large portion of the survey respondents who scored high on the New Ecological Paradigm scale also intends to have children in the future.

Even though my study did not investigate behavior, it was valuable to search for insights from behavioral theories if intentions are regarded as antecedents of behavior as it is the case in this study. Australian psychologist Robert Gifford proposes seven different categories of psychological barriers that stand in the way of conducting a certain behavior, or “dragons of inaction” as he refers to them. Some of the “dragons of inaction” could be used to explain why environmentally concerned individuals intend to have children.

The issue of limited cognition is possibly present among the quantitative sample, as well as among one of the interview participants: not knowing that a problem exists, and not knowing what to do once one acknowledges the problem. Deliberate action against climate change is very unlikely to happen among people who are still unaware of the proportions of climate change and problems related to it, or in this case, about the cause and effect relationship between climate change and population pressure, or knowledge about the carbon dioxide footprint that having a child adds to the environment.

People tend to undervalue distant or future risks. For example, if environmental risks are perceived low because the conditions are presumed to be worse elsewhere and that they will appear later than science predicts, then people can be expected to have less motivation to act in order to mitigate climate change. As explained by two interviewees, the adverse effects of climate dynamics are still not present in their immediate environments, or the population pressure specifically is not very pronounced in countries like Austria. At the same time, optimism bias can be applied to climate change too, because one might not act pro-environmentally because they might have a more optimistic projection about the future than the facts would predict. This would be aligned with the optimism shared among the interviewees – that social relations are changing and that the momentum towards eco-lifestyle is growing. At the same time, it is not uncommon to notice the sense of discouragement among average citizens that stems from their belief that they can do nothing about climate change as individuals, or as one of the interview participants remarked: “I never thought I could change the world.”

Although such explanations did not emerge in the interviews, sentiments that appear from comparisons with others might be another reason for action or inaction. This tendency can serve as a very powerful tool for influencing one’s pro-environmental behavior, by indirectly implying that the others are doing or not doing it. People might accept or refuse to change their behavior if they know that others will or will not.

Most people could do more than they are doing, and studies often report that almost everyone agrees they could do more. Behavior is limited in various ways. There is generally a tendency to choose in favor of easily adoptable environmentally conscious behaviors, where these actions tend to be chosen over higher cost but more effective actions. This could be the reasoning behind opting for recycling and driving an electric car for instance, rather than reconsidering reproductive choices. At the same time, it happens that some mitigating effort is made, but the gains made are diminished or erased by subsequent actions, which would be in line with the findings from the controversial study by Murtaugh and Schlax: having a child offsets the mother’s lifetime efforts to reduce her emissions, but that reducing footprint through reproductive choices is not a common decision.

What the results are jointly told was unsurprising – reproductive intentions and the subsequent behavior are very complex psychological processes. As it is often the case – there is still plenty of room for additional research – but this is one of the great things about it, that there will always be more to seek to study and ideally discover a novelty. Certainly, environmental behavior is on the rise, and coming up with ways to stimulate such behaviors for the sake of shared well-being remains a challenge that many (not to imply that large population is necessary) will embark on.


By Marina Andrijevic, master student of SEEP at WU. This is the short summary of Marina’s thesis „Less Feet, Less Footprint: Do the environmentally concerned intend to have less children?“ which is going to be submitted in September 2016.

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