Baby-Avoidance Carbon Credits

October 20, 2009

New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin unwittingly stirred up a blustery breath-storm in the steamy halitosis-swamp governed by right-wing bombast Rush Limbaugh when he asked, rhetorically, whether families should be compensated for not having babies. Media Matters has the full story. Among  those to cry foul, friend and colleague Tom Yulsman rightly takes Limbaugh to task.  Maybe I’ll do the same in a future post.  For now, on to more pressing matters.

In Revkin’s original dot earth blogpost, he poses a thought experiment. As a philosopher, I ♥ thought experiments. We philosophers eat thought experiments for breakfast, take them along with us as nutritional supplements, and frequently use them to cap off our long evenings. Unfortunately for Limbaugh, thought experiments require thought, which I think rules them off of his cognitive platter.  Here’s what Revkin has to say:

I recently raised the question of whether this means we’ll soon see a market in baby-avoidance carbon credits similar to efforts to sell  CO2 credits for avoiding deforestation.

Good question.  Rhetorical, but good.  The answer should be ‘no’ in both cases.  You do not get social props for doing something that you’re supposed to do anyway.  If you do something that you’re not supposed to do, you can get blamed, or get fined, or get in trouble, or have your eyeballs eaten out by fire ants, but nobody should be in the business of rewarding do-gooders for not behaving badly.  There are an infinite number of things that I could be doing right now, many of which are quite terrible.  It is moral insanity to suggest that somehow I should have legions of folks beating down my door to reward me for not doing them.  Revkin obviously knows this, which is why he poses the thought experiment in the first place.  (There may be other reasons he poses the thought experiment too, but I’ll ignore those for the time being.)

The notion of baby-avoidance carbon credits calls to mind the much more serious proposals that were a part of the once-electric regulatory takings debate, and particularly proposals to legislate fulfillment of the Kaldor-Hicks criterion.  This was all predicated on a similar sort of moral insanity.

Opportunity costs, like Kaldor-Hicks efficiency, are a theoretical construct.  We cannot trace out costs according to alternate possible universes when those possible universes branch out from our individual decisions; and, more importantly, we ought not to legislate as if we could.

It does make sense, however, to try to find ways to encourage people to have fewer children.  It is conceivable that, in a fit of political spinning, these ways might be characterized as credits, but as with all policy outcomes, the population reduction mechanisms could come in many forms, including straight incentives, draconian laws, or positive externalities associated with improved educational systems (for instance).


  1. See: encourage people to have fewer babies. It’s not very far off from the thought experiment and I bet you it is being seriously considered by the human hating AGW now fringe crowd. The Final Solution was proposed by once rational and civilized Germanic people. How far off are the AGW fanatics who want to send up back to the stone age — with disease and death — so as to “save the planet”?

    • There are many reasons to encourage people to have fewer kids, some of which are related to individual autonomy and others of which are related to certain demographic facts about large families. You may not agree with those reasons, or maybe not even see the logic of those reasons, but they are definitely not all tied to global warming.

  2. […] Evolutionarily speaking the trick is to convince the other guy not to have kids. […]

  3. […] Evolutionarily speaking the trick is to convince the other guy not to have kids. […]

  4. I would like to comment on the unstated logic (such that it is) behind Limbaugh’s rant. It goes something like this:

    “Revkin argues that humanity is destroying the Earth. So he should help save the Earth by killing himself.” (Never mind that he has never said anything even remotely like “humanity is destroying the Earth.”)

    The implied logic here is that violence is warranted in Revkin’s case (he should KILL himself) because he has advocated for something that is equally or even more violent.

    The flaw here is that Revkin never advocated for any violent outcome, either explicitly or in some implied fashion. He posed a thought experiment that was meant to spark thinking on a variety of issues, including these: the role of population growth in rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; how the logic of carbon credits could possibly be taken to an absurd extreme (my interpretation of his motivation); and, most important, providing women WHO WANT IT access to contraception, particularly in places like sub-Saharan Africa.

    Advocating for the provision of contraception to women who want it is not in any way advocating for a violent outcome.

    Of course, taking on Limbaugh’s logic is a futile exercise. As some commenters at my blog, CEJournal.net, have pointed out, he is first and foremost an “entertainer.” Never mind that his “entertainment” routinely involves hate-mongering, race-baiting, infantile expressions of rage, etc. (all driven, I sense, by a barely hidden self-loathing).

    • ‘Never mind that his “entertainment” routinely involves hate-mongering, race-baiting, infantile expressions of rage, etc. (all driven, I sense, by a barely hidden self-loathing).’

      Er, and the history of drug addiction and failed marriages? How and why his career survived the former says a lot about wingnuts.

      The obvious pleasure MS takes below in proferring as support for his views a list of competely out-of-contest quotes is informative.

  5. Yulsman wrote:

    The flaw here is that Revkin never advocated for any violent outcome, either explicitly or in some implied fashion.

    Depends on what you mean by a “violent outcome”. If you are implying that Revkin has never advocated the use of government force to achieve environmentalist goals, I suspect you are wrong.

    But even if Rush picked the wrong target for his question — and thus looks foolish for his remark — let’s not kid ourselves: the environmentalist movement most definitely includes many individuals that want the government to initiate the use of physical force (or threat thereof) to compel us to surrender our standard of living and move far, far backwards.

    Sure, the politicians claim that we can eliminate or reduce carbon emissions and maintain our standard of living by going with nuclear power, solar, wind etc. But not only is that economic nonsense, there are many in the movement that oppose all of that on principle — they simply want Western civilization brought to its knees.

    So Rush’s broader point is one that many of us find ourselves thinking about in our own “thought experiment“: “I wonder how many of the leaders of the environmentalist movement are willing to voluntarily impose on themselves the very sort of restrictions they want the government to ram down our throats?” The answer is: not many.

    And so you can take to the bank — in my opinion, at any rate — that in the world many of the leaders of the environmentalists movement want to create, the masses may be consigned to live in utter poverty, but the Environmental Commissars & the Climate Diktator will have their automobiles and their dachas, just as the Soviet leadership had in the wonderful workers paradise known as the U.S.S.R.

  6. MS wrote: “The point they are trying to make is that geoengineering is a more cost-effective solution than mitigation. Which is wrong. It might be cheaper, but you don’t get the same result.”

    That would be fine, but his argument sorely misses the mark if that’s the case. Revkin never once poses a question about suicide. He poses a question about baby-avoidance. The proper response for Limbaugh would be to ask Revkin to avoid having more babies than he otherwise would. Since asking this question relates to entities that don’t yet exist — there’s no tragedy in me not giving life to five more children — it is a far cry from asking Revkin to kill himself.

    Also, you might consider checking yourself on this claim:

    “let’s not kid ourselves: the environmentalist movement most definitely includes many individuals that want the government to initiate the use of physical force (or threat thereof) to compel us to surrender our standard of living and move far, far backwards.”

    It’s plainly very loaded. True, some environmentalists want to implement public policies (which are, by their nature, coercive), but no more so than other people, of any political orientation, who want to implement public policies. True, some environmentalists want people to shift their standard of living, but it is unclear where that standard of living currently sits, or even if that standard is one worth preserving. Movement can go up or down. Most advocates think that the public policies they advocate will make the world better; so at minimum, you have to address the question of whether the world will be made better or worse, not load up your criticism with a concern that environmentalists want to force us to surrender our standard of living to “move us far, far backwards.”

    There is no sense in which I would attribute such a position to you, even though I may disagree with you, and you should in no sense attribute such a position to them. What they want to do, just like what you want to do (I assume), is to move the world forward. The question is about how best to do that.

    • Here are some quotes from the people I accuse of wanting to take us “far, far backwards”:

      “We have wished, we ecofreaks, for a disaster or for a social change to come and bomb us into Stone Age, where we might live like Indians in our valley, with our localism, our appropriate technology, our gardens, our homemade religion — guilt-free at last!” — Stewart Brand (writing in the Whole Earth Catalogue

      “We must make this an insecure and inhospitable place for capitalists and their projects . . . We must reclaim the roads and plowed land, halt dam construction, tear down existing dams, free shackled rivers and return to wilderness millions of tens of millions of acres of presently settled land.” — David Foreman, Earth First!

      “The extinction of the human species may not only be inevitable but a good thing….This is not to say that the rise of human civilization is insignificant, but there is no way of showing that it will be much help to the world in the long run.” — Economist editorial

      “We advocate biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake. It may take our extinction to set things straight” — David Foreman, Earth First!

      “Phasing out the human race will solve every problem on earth, social and environmental.” — Dave Forman, Founder of Earth First!

      “If radical environmentalists were to invent a disease to bring human populations back to sanity, it would probably be something like AIDS” — Earth First! Newsletter

      “Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, is not as important as a wild and healthy planets…Some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.” — David Graber, biologist, National Park Service

      “The collective needs of non-human species must take precedence over the needs and desires of humans.” — Dr. Reed F. Noss, The Wildlands Project

      “If I were reincarnated, I would wish to be returned to Earth as a killer virus to lower human population levels.” — Prince Phillip, World Wildlife Fund

      “Cannibalism is a ‘radical but realistic solution to the problem of overpopulation.” — Lyall Watson, The Financial Times, 15 July 1995

      “We, in the green movement, aspire to a cultural model in which killing a forest will be considered more contemptible and more criminal than the sale of 6-year-old children to Asian brothels.” — Carl Amery

      “Every time you turn on an electric light, you are making another brainless baby” — Helen Caldicott, Union of Concerned Scientists

      “To feed a starving child is to exacerbate the world population problem” — Lamont Cole

      “The only hope for the world is to make sure there is not another United States: We can’t let other countries have the same number of cars, the amount of industrialization, we have in the U.S. We have to stop these Third World countries right where they are. And it is important to the rest of the world to make sure that they don’t suffer economically by virtue of our stopping them.” — Michael Oppenheimer, Environmental Defense Fund

      “The right to have children should be a marketable commodity, bought and traded by individuals but absolutely limited by the state.” – Kenneth Boulding, originator of the “Spaceship Earth” concept (as quoted by William Tucker in Progress and Privilege, 1982)

      “Everything we have developed over the last 100 years should be destroyed.” — Pentti Linkola

      “If you ask me, it’d be a little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it. We ought to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won’t give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth or to each other.” — Amory Lovins in The Mother Earth – Plowboy Interview, Nov/Dec 1977, p. 22

      “The only real good technology is no technology at all. Technology is taxation without representation, imposed by our elitist species (man) upon the rest of the natural world” — John Shuttleworth

      “I suspect that eradicating small pox was wrong. It played an important part in balancing ecosystems.” — John Davis, editor of Earth First! Journal

      “Human beings, as a species, have no more value than slugs.” — John Davis, editor of Earth First! Journal

  7. Thanks. Nice collection. I don’t think they all imply that, but certainly some may. Clearly, there are all manner of environmentalist views. What you’re doing, however, is making a strawman of environmentalism to further your point. It should be clear to you that Bill McKibbon is not in the same camp as Dave Foreman, that Reed Noss is not in the same camp as Murray Bookchin, that Barack Obama is not in the same camp as Arne Naess. If you want to dismantle environmentalism, you’d be better served to take representative positions and debunk those, each on their own merits.

  8. Ben wrote: Thanks. Nice collection. I don’t think they all imply that, but certainly some may.

    “Some” “may” “imply” a desire to move backward? Did you even read the quotes?

    Hoping for the extinction of mankind — advocating the abandonment of all technology — calling for a return to the Stone Age — wishing smallpox were still around limit population — advocating cannabilism to reduce population — declaring that man is no more valuable than a slug — hoping for “the right virus to come along” to kill us off — and all you are willing to concede is that “some” fo these things “may” “imply” a desire to move backward?

    The quotes speak for themselves. Why on earth you want to interpret them to mean something other than what they say is beyond me.

    What you’re doing, however, is making a strawman of environmentalism to further your point.

    A straw man argument is when you misrepresent a person’s position to make it something easily refutable. Now where have I done that?

    I did not say that all environmentalists want to move us backward — only that the movement includes many individuals that do. The quotes substantiate that fact, at least by any rational reading that I can imagine.

    • Yes, I read them; and I’ve read some of their books; and I teach some of their material to my students. Nothing about those quotes indicates anything about desire. I can say that something is required of me or of us and not desire it. I did not desire to get the flu shot today, but I got it because I felt that it was my responsibility.

      Moreover, nothing about most of those quotes indicates anything about wishes, which are related to, but different than, desires.

      Finally, nothing about those quotes suggests that they are (a) coherently linked to other aspects of that person’s view, or (b) representative of the majority view.

      Even if these quotes represented a position held by someone that the majority esteems, they would neither be necessarily representative of the views of individuals within that majority, nor would the view represented therein be the view that you should scrutinize.

      If I want to debunk libertarianism, for instance, I take the best representatives of libertarianism — Robert Nozick, say — and debunk that. I do not go out to a Ron Paul rally and seek out the guy in a goofy T-shirt to scrape up quotes. Dave Foreman, while influential, has a platform partly because he’s articulate, charismatic, and he locks himself to logging equipment. So too with Julia Butterfly Hill and Ingrid Newkirk.

      I don’t really want to get into it with you on these fine points, but you’re wrong about not beating strawmen.

  9. I stand by my statement that the quotes speak for themselves. Unless you’re a mindreader, the claim that those statements don’t represent the speaker’s wishes or desires is too preposterous to take seriously.

    And it is you who are making a strawman argument by your continued reference to the proper way to “debunk or rebut environmentalism” when I attempted no such thing.

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