The pitter patter of tiny carbon footprints

It sounds like a joke from Monty Python’s University of Woolloomooloo, yet the Aussies proposing a carbon tax on newborns are serious.

Michael Cook

Topics Politics

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Monty Python could not have dreamt up a sharper caricature of Australian intellectuals. Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, two academics made world headlines this week by endorsing a Chinese model of population control to reduce the human carbon footprint. Barry Walters, a professor of obstetrics at the University of Western Australia, has called for a carbon tax on newborns (1).

He who pollutes must pay: ‘Every newborn baby in Australia represents a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions for an average of 80 years, not simply by breathing, but by the profligate consumption of resources typical of our society’, Walters explained. His solution? A ‘baby levy’ of AUS$5,000 on third and subsequent children, plus an annual tax of AUS$400 to AUS$800 annually for the life of the child to purchase and maintain the four hectares of trees needed to sequester 17 metric tons of carbon dioxide. (The algorithm to calculate this was taken from a 15-year-old book, so the cost may, in fact, be much greater.)

As offsets, carbon credits should be granted for contraceptives, intrauterine devices, diaphragms, condoms and sterilisation procedures. The credits would go to the user and to ‘family planning clinics and hospitals that provide such greenhouse-friendly services’. (Enabling the likes of Professor Walters to buy their Jags and overseas holidays, presumably.)

Walters’ proposal was endorsed by one of Australia’s best-known medical personalities, Garry Egger, the founder of the Gutbusters programme to reduce male obesity, and a professor of health sciences at Southern Cross University. He lamented the fact that population control programmes are ignored, even by environmental groups. Eheu fugaces! Oh for the glory days of yore, when Paul Ehrlich was lighting the fuse on the population squib. ‘One must wonder why population control, which was such a popular topic during the 1970s, is spoken of today only in whispers’, wrote Egger.

Fair crack of the whip, cobbers! This sounds like yadda-yadda from the senior common room of Monty Python’s University of Woolloomooloo, where the lecturers, all named Bruce, wear slouch hats and corks, and knock back tinnies of Fosters (2). Not enough zinc cream to shield those addled pates from global warming, perhaps.

Predictably, there was outrage from family lobbies (3). ‘What a bizarre suggestion – so now we have to pay to have children!’ said Australian Breastfeeding spokeswoman Karen Commmisso. And Angela Conway, of the Australian Family Association, ridiculed the proposal: ‘Self-important professors with silly ideas should have to pay carbon tax for all the hot air they create.’

But many reactions were supportive. Apparently the world faces epidemics, famine and war unless we stop filling our schools with trailer trash and our atmosphere with their carbon. ‘The only argument I have with the professor is that taxation will just not work: the lower socioeconomic groups generally have the most children and would not be able to pay the taxes’, commented one earnest reader on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) website (4).

It’s hard to know where to begin unpacking so much confusion. The current flare-up of the population control virus, like a polio epidemic in a country that has been disease-free for 30 years, shows that the professorial brains are still fevered with the totalitarian temptation. Why bother with reality, when you’ve got an ideology?

The first reality is that calculations of the size of carbon footprints depend not only on population size, but also on consumption preferences. These vary enormously. Who left the bigger carbon footprint: Scrooge or Bob Crachett’s brood? Large families make do with more modest lifestyles. No holidays abroad, no expensive cars, no nights out on the town. China’s little emperor syndrome provides a cautionary tale. With only one obese little toddler, parents ignore the high-impact negative externalities of triple-scoop ice creams.

Second, the University of Woollomooloo senior common room hasn’t done a human rights impact study. Walters’ proposal would work exactly like China’s draconian one-child policy, with a green tinge to it. But China has an enormous sex imbalance, forced abortions, social unrest and a demographic overhang that will might cause the economy to collapse under the weight of caring for retirees. Admittedly, the likelihood of Australian family-planning police throttling infants whose levy has not been paid is small. But there would be other unpleasant consequences: pressure on women to abort a third child, bureaucratic discrimination against large families, and so on.

Third, why pick on polyphiloprogenitive parents? Why not apply the Stalinist logic of mandating eco-friendly social conformity elsewhere? A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that divorce creates more households with fewer people, which use more energy and water and take up more space (5). How about a ban on divorce, eh? On pets? On Formula One? On non-essential air travel? On restaurants? If we all dutifully dined on spinach and brussels sprouts and pedalled to work, we could keep our carbon footprint small enough to enable double-digit families for anyone who wanted them.

The Aussie proposals may sound wacky, but in truth they are the logical conclusion to today’s trend for measuring humanity by its waste and ‘carbon footprint’. After all, if human life is seen as fundamentally polluting, then why shouldn’t the creation of new human life be viewed as irresponsible and problematic? At the heart of this hostility towards new life is a lack of faith in the capacity of humanity to solve its problems. First food, then oil, then scarce metals, now carbon footprints. In another 20 years, it will be collisions with asteroids. This adolescent hankering for Doomsday by the University of Woolloomooloo senior common room, and its fellow travellers elsewhere, stems not from facts, but from a smouldering hostility towards their own species. Walters treats the oracular David Attenborough as sacred writ: ‘Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, we should control the population to ensure the survival of the environment.’ How about barracking for the home team, lads?

In any case, American economist Julian Simon’s optimism about harmonising the environment and population growth has again and again been proved right. ‘The ultimate resource is people – especially skilled, spirited and hopeful young people endowed with liberty – who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit and inevitably benefit the rest of us as well’, said Simon.

What Walters and Egger fail to take into account is that children create hope, not problems. Without the next generation – as Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning film Children of Men showed so vividly – there is no point in working for the future. Buildings decay, garbage piles up, injustice spreads like a cancer, and no one cares. But the birth of a child brings optimism and determination to make its world better than our own. The daft proposal for a baby levy would kill the very hope which sustains and drives our society.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet in Australia.

Previously on spiked

Michael Cook read a book by David Benatar, the miserabilist of them all. Frank Furedi confronted the New Misanthropy, and said that we should put the human back into humanism. Jennie Bristow argued that having children can be good for you – and society. Or read more at spiked issue Modern Life.

(1) Personal carbon trading: a potential “stealth intervention” for obesity reduction?, Barry N J Walters, Medical Journal of Australia, 14 October 2007.

(2) See YouTube.

(3) Baby levy plan to offset carbon emissions, Jen Kelly, HeraldSun, December 10 2007.

(4) Put carbon tax on babies: academic, Barbara Miller, ABC, 10 September 2007.

(5) A really inconvenient truth: Divorce is not green, Michigan State University, 3 December 2007.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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