Carbon footprint, eugenics and surveys

An interesting survey was issued in April by IPSOS, and was reported in the Financial Times. It asks over 21000 people in 30 countries which actions they think will be most effective at reducing their carbon footprint.

The survey shows that there is a wide gap between people’s perceptions and the actual carbon impact of their actions. Thus, for example, recycling as much as possible – which 60% of people perceive as a very effective way of reducing their carbon footprint – only has marginal effects (it will only save 0.2 tons of CO2 a year). By contrast, not having a car – which only 17% consider as effective – has a major impact (it will save 2.4 tons a year).

Then eugenics rears its head: IPSOS points out that the most effective way of reducing CO2 emissions is to have one less child. This would save a whopping 58 tons of C02 a year.

Why do I use the term eugenics? Well, eugenics is about manipulating the population (by way of selective breeding, interfering in family planning – or worse) in order to bring about a better society. ‘Better’ is, of course, defined by those who devise the selection procedures.

So, the inference that one is meant to draw from the IPSOS survey seems to be that we should have fewer children. That society will be better – i.e. will have less climate impact – if we reproduce less.

There are two issues with this argument – and with the survey -, one logical, and one ethical.

Logic: the survey is double-counting

The logical argument is as follows: the carbon impact of children exists only because each person on the planet is a consumer of cars, meat, materials, aeroplane journeys, clothes driers, etc… So, if we manage to reduce all of these carbon emitting activities, then the emissions impact of having a child will tend towards zero.

The IPSOS poll is therefore double-counting: one cannot logically infer that reducing the number of children will reduce human’s carbon impact. This inference is only valid if we assume that all else (i.e. all of our other carbon emitting activities) remains equal.

Indeed, emphasising de-population as a way to reduce carbon emissions is also a way of saying that we don’t really need to alter our consumption habits. All we need to do is reduce the number of consumers.

Ethics: why stop at birth control?

And this brings us to the ethical issue. If people are viewed solely as consumers, as a burden on the eco-system, why should we stop at birth-control? Why not carry the logic further and start culling consumers using other criteria and methods?

I will leave this to your imagination, but none of the ideas or historical precedents that spring to mind are pleasant.

Surveys: good headlines, bad information

I am surprised that a major survey of this sort is asking questions that are not conceptually independent (where there is a double-counting of impacts) and that the results are interpreted to suggest, however mildly, that consumption habits can be maintained if only we reduce population.

Historically, birth-rates have declined as countries’ healthcare improves and as standards of living improve. Furthermore, many popular new technologies and consumption habits are very energy intensive.

Rather than allowing the whiff of eugenics to permeate the survey, why not ask other questions, such as:

  • would a more equitable distribution of wealth and income reduce CO2?
  • would universal health-care reduce CO2 emissions?
  • would curbing the explosion of bit-coin and server farms reduce CO2?

Polls and surveys can only obtain answers to questions they ask, questions that are often premised upon unstated (but implied) beliefs.

This poll chooses to ask somewhat illogical questions, some of which can lead to eugenic interpretations. It also asks questions that focus on what individuals can do to limit climate change: it is premised on individualism and personal choice.

We need a survey premised on more communitarian, more social, and less techo-optimistic ideas: but who would finance and interpret it?

And would such a survey be intelligible in a context where individualism and competition are at the core of the way most people and governments understand society?

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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