The Ultimate Carbon Footprint
By Tom Hurst, 13 June 2008
With all of this talk about "carbon footprints" - whether we should worry about them or not - have you ever wondered what exactly has by far the largest footprint? Knowing such would surely enable some to cast at least mock blame on something or someone for supposedly causing the dreaded, supposed global warming. And it would allow one to properly plan their activities in light of the "carbon cards" (part of the nefarious cap-and-trade systems that are on the horizon) which will likely be forced upon us with the idea that when we exhaust our annual share of emissions, we would have to pay for more. Of course, one would suspect that eco-freaks (people with great fear and usually a very limited understanding of climate change science) and people in the developing world to somehow have small footprints, while the rest of us are probably stomping mightily on mother earth. But is that really the case?
In the past I've ribbed some of my eco-freak friends about their driving giant, low-mileage American land yacht cars - you know the type, 10 mpg at best. Certainly a substantial footprint, but what if one drives a hybrid, though several times as far? The result is an equal footprint, more or less. Unless one drives a big SUV an awful lot, like Al Gore likely does. Whoops, I shouldn't count that, as his being different places talking about his global warming religion must certainly be a net positive for carbon, right? In any case, how about flying? Well, though one might think that America is nation of flying fools, most people really don't fly that often or that far. Just a couple of times a year, if that, and usually not internationally. That is, except for Al Gore, who flits around the world doing so much good that the massive carbon footprint of his private jet is, well... it just doesn't count. Actually, calculations show that modern food, agriculture and food distribution systems are so energy intensive that, depending on one's diet, even producing the calories to allow one to walk somewhere can produce a carbon footprint similar to driving there. But, I digress...
What of our homes? Considering that most energy used in a home is for heating and cooling, might homes be the culprit? While I'll admit that while some of my eco-freak friends valiantly suffer daily because they refuse to "waste" energy controlling their indoor environment, others do indeed keep their houses comfortably cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Now let's consider the effect of the size of one's house. Surely, a 4000 square foot house is worse than a 2000 square foot house? And a 2000 square foot house is itself an energy hog compared to a small apartment, or better yet a mud hut, is it not? Well, it seems that heating or cooling can be a carbon footprint or not, depending on where one lives and how one lives, but without doubt a larger house requires more materials, more energy, and is filled with lots more things. Perhaps these material things cause a big carbon footprint? If they do, there's some serious hypocrisy going on again, as Al Gore happily continues to live in, I believe, a 10,000 square foot house, probably filled with all sorts of things. What's the logic there? Well, I guess his house doesn't count any more than his private jet or SUV's because he is just doing so darned much good for society. Hmmm... it seems to me that the real bottom line is that Al Gore and so many in the green movement are no greener than the average American. Even as they try in vain to not consume, no matter how they skimp and reduce, for the most part they really consume at essentially the same level as everyone else in developed countries, so necessarily emit carbon at essentially the same level. And even with their "limited" consumption, I'm certain they emit more carbon than an entire extended family in the third world. So, they are hardly the *true* eco-freaks they think, are they? Even if they buy "carbon offsets", those often just consist of someone clearing virgin rain forest and planting some high-carbon sequestering plants in its place, or building a low-grade hydro-power project that otherwise wouldn't be built - not exactly environmentally friendly, and not what they had in mind, I suppose.
Regardless, all things being equal it's pretty clear that Al Gore has a far bigger carbon footprint than the average American, who again has a larger impact than most third-worlders. Nevertheless, the enviros will claim to the last man that Al Gore is the messiah of global warming and that his ultra-intensive carbon emissions, therefore, are certainly forgiven by any powers that be. So, back to our original investigation, what really does cause the largest carbon footprint of all? Well, I'm going to turn all of the preceding on its head now, for regardless of whether carbon emissions to the atmosphere are bad or not, the cause of the indisputably, without-doubt, scientifically factual largest carbon footprint by far is --- drum roll, please --- our Children. Yes, the beloved little ones that most of us spew onto the earth are the real problem. The indisputable reason? Well, it's pretty simple and obvious that no matter how much carbon any given individual emits, four, two, or even one semi-clones of oneself will produce, respectively, four times as much, twice as much, or as much as the original. And then, to heap carbon on top of carbon, each of the children has several children themselves. And the cycle continues ad infinitum. So, it's not just the children that one has that are part of one's carbon footprint legacy, but all of the children that all of the subsequent generations will have. By that method of calculation, the carbon footprint of a single person who has but one child - even considering that in reality it takes two to make a child - will be huge given enough time! [Postcript, March 2009: Indeed, Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax have recently written in their article, "Reproduction and the Carbon Legacies of Individuals" (in Global Environmental Change 19(1):14-20), "Under current conditions in the United States, for example, each child adds about 9441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average female, which is 5.7 times her lifetime emissions." So, as I predicted, a huge impact for just one child, let alone the several that many people have! So, you might as well drive that Hummer, for it's just a drop in the bucket compared to someone having even one child!]
Ironically, I've actually heard a socialist member of Congress announce on the House floor something to the effect, "I support strong pro-environment legislation so that my 10 children and 14 grandchildren will have a healthy planet to live on." Now, in light of my contention about children, that's really some magnificently grand hypocrisy that no amount of environmental legislation could ever correct for. So, those of us who have no children clearly have the moral high ground here in that we only produce carbon ourselves, and don't have a veritable army of semi-clones helping us out 'till the end of time. On the other hand, those of you who have children must accept the ugly fact that by doing so you will be infinitely less green than even the worst energy hogs who do not have children -- even if you were to wear animal skins, eat weeds and live in a cave for your entire life. And on a larger scale, it may well be that the nations with the highest population growth rates ultimately emit more carbon than people in low-growth, energy consuming countries. But then again some say it's the cows (and with them it's not so much the quantity of gas as the type - methane). Oh, well, either way someone's got an awful lot of sterilizations to perform before the earth is anywhere near being saved! Or, do they...
Many scientists do indeed view population as a serious problem in terms of pollution, resource depletion, ecosystem destruction and such. In fact, there are any number of supposedly intellectual, activist ecoscientists whose ranting books - which have, I might add, become a very prosperous cottage industry for them - are as much left-biased green opinion as scientific fact. The particularly radical among them such as Eric Pianka (University of Texas) are said to advocate an earth where most of the population has been wiped out by virulent biological plagues: "I am convinced that the world would clearly be much better off without so many of us.", he states. That's really something, isn't it? Well, I think it's pretty obvious that even though many in the green movement may accept such rabid proclamations as truth, such rants sound totally ridiculous to normal, rational people, and even to many respected scientists. And they are.
So, what's the logical solution - the one that doesn't involve a tyrannical government implementing mandatory mass sterilizations? If you're a student of history and economics, you might have guessed it: let liberty, free markets and property rights sort everything out as they will. You see, one of the most obvious demographic trends throughout history is that prosperity reduces family size and promotes "green" living. People who enjoy life do not need more than a child or two (replacements, essentially), and they have the money - and therefore the luxury - to be more sensitive to their environment than their less well off brethren. Less prosperous people, history tells us, are simply too busy trying to get by to worry about pollution, resource depletion and such, and they are encouraged by their dire situation to have lots of children that will work to support them. Further, the impoverished society they constitute certainly doesn't have the resources to expect technology to solve their problems. To create the necessary prosperity, I would call on another of history's most obvious demographic trends, that countries are prosperous to the degree they are free. Free people and free markets; freedom from government, regulation and taxation; freedom of information, thought and expression; freedom to own and control one's property -- in short, all of the classical liberal freedoms or rights that are enshrined in our Constitution (which is, sadly, often ignored by politicians). To the degree that these things exist in a country, its people will be prosperous. So, in the end, the best path to prosperity, and hence "green-ness", is to simply allow free and sovereign people to work in a free market, protected by property rights. Every country that has instituted these three things has immediately leapt into prosperity. And out of the dirty grind where small polite families, clean air and ample resources do not exist and matter not.
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