“Standing before several dozen students in a college classroom, Travis Rieder tries to convince them not to have children. Or at least not too many.”J. Ludden, NPR
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key
“He’s at James Madison University in southwest Virginia to talk about a ‘small-family ethic’ — to question the assumptions of a society that sees having children as good, throws parties for expecting parents, and in which parents then pressure their kids to ‘give them grandchildren.’ Why question such assumptions? The prospect of climate catastrophe.
For years, people have lamented how bad things might get ‘for our grandchildren,” but Rieder tells the students that future isn’t so far off anymore. He asks how old they will be in 2036, and, if they are thinking of having kids, how old their kids will be.
‘Dangerous climate change is going to be happening by then ,’ he says. ‘Very, very soon.’ There’s also a moral duty to future generations that will live amid the climate devastation being created now.
‘Here’s a provocative thought: Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them,’ Rieder says…Scientists warn that a catastrophic tipping point is possible in the next few decades. By midcentury, possibly before, the average global temperature is projected to rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius, the point scientists and world leaders agree would trigger cataclysmic consequences.
Last year’s historic Paris climate agreement falls short of preventing that, so more drastic cuts in carbon emissions are needed. Adding to that challenge, the world is expected to add several billion people in the next few decades, each one producing more emissions… ‘It’s gonna be post-apocalyptic movie time,’ he says.
The room is quiet. No one fidgets. Later, a few students say they had no idea the situation was so bad.
Still. Even given the apocalyptic scenarios: Can you actually expect people to forgo something as deeply personal as having children? To deny the biological imperative that’s driven civilization?
Rieder and two colleagues, Colin Hickey and Jake Earl of Georgetown University, have a strategy for trying to do just that. Rieder is publishing a book on the subject later this year, and expects to take plenty of heat. But he’s hardly alone in thinking the climate crisis has come to this…Meghan Kallman is a co-founder of Conceivable Future. ‘I can’t count the number of times people have said, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so nice to know I’m not the only person that worries about this,’she says. In November 2014, Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli created Conceivable Future to make these personal struggles public.
The group’s ultimate goal is ending U.S. fossil fuel subsidies, though its immediate role seems one of commiseration…For activists of childbearing age, Ferorelli says, climate change isn’t just an intellectual problem but ‘a heart problem.’
At the New Hampshire meeting, 67-year-old Nancy Nolan tells two younger women that people didn’t know about climate change in the 1980s when she had her kids. Once her children were grown, ‘I said to them, ‘I hope you never have children,’ which is an awful thing to say,’ Nolan says, her voice wavering. ‘It can bring me to tears easily.’
One woman looks a little stunned. She’s not a climate activist — just tagged along with a friend — and says she had no idea that deciding not to have kids because of the climate was even a thing.
Not everyone is as pessimistic about the future. Becky Whitley still plans to have a second child. She’s with the advocacy group Moms Clean Air Force and says becoming a parent is precisely what motivated her to care about the climate.
Back at James Madison University, Travis Rieder explains a PowerPoint graph that seems to offer hope. Bringing down global fertility by just half a child per woman ‘could be the thing that saves us,’he says.
He cites a study from 2010 that looked at the impact of demographic change on global carbon emissions. It found that slowing population growth could eliminate one-fifth to one-quarter of all the carbon emissions that need to be cut by midcentury to avoid that potentially catastrophic tipping point.
Rieder’s audience seems to want an easier way. A student asks about the carbon savings from not eating meat.
Excellent idea, Rieder says. But no amount of conservation gives you a pass. Oregon State University researchers have calculated the savings from all kinds of conservation measures: driving a hybrid, driving less, recycling, using energy-efficient appliances, windows and light bulbs.
For an American, the total metric tons of carbon dioxide saved by all of those measures over an entire lifetime of 80 years: 488. By contrast, the metric tons saved when a person chooses to have one fewer child: 9,441.
A student asks: ‘What happens if that kid you decided not to have would have been the person who grew up and essentially cured this?’
Again, great question, says Rieder, but the answer is still no. First, the chances are slim. More to the point, he says, valuing children as a means to an end — be it to cure climate change or, say, provide soldiers for the state — is ethically problematic.
So how do you persuade millions or billions of people around the world to sacrifice that? To avert climate disaster, the fertility rate would have to fall much faster than it has been. It would require more than educating women and expanding access to contraception, as aid agencies have been doing for decades.
Rieder and his Georgetown collaborators have a proposal, and the first thing they stress is that it’s not like China’s abusive one-child policy. It aims to persuade people to choose fewer children with a strategy that boils down to carrots for the poor, sticks for the rich.
Ethically, Rieder says poor nations get some slack because they’re still developing, and because their per capita emissions are a sliver of the developed world’s. Plus, it just doesn’t look good for rich, Western nations to tell people in poor ones not to have kids.
He suggests things like paying poor women to refill their birth control and — something that’s had proven success — widespread media campaigns.
For the sticks part of the plan, Rieder proposes that richer nations do away with tax breaks for having children and actually penalize new parents. He says the penalty should be progressive, based on income, and could increase with each additional child. Think of it like a carbon tax, on kids. He knows that sounds crazy.
‘But children, in a kind of cold way of looking at it, are an externality,” he says. ‘We as parents, we as family members, we get the good. And the world, the community, pays the cost.’
Of course, there are ethical concerns. Rebecca Kukla of Georgetown University worries about stigma, especially against poor and minority women. If cultural norms do change, she says, there could be a backlash against families with more children than is deemed socially appropriate.
Kukla appreciates that Rieder’s penalty on procreation would be progressive. But since it could not be so high as to be coercive, she says it would inevitably be unfair.
‘What that will actually translate into is it becoming much easier for wealthy people to have children than for other people to have children,’ Kukla says.
An even bigger hurdle is the sheer unlikelihood of it all. Rieder has no illusions. In fact, he says, some countries that have successfully reduced fertility rates have since reversed course, afraid that falling population will hurt their economies…‘The situation is bleak, it’s just dark,’ he says. ‘Population engineering, maybe it’s an extreme move. But it gives us a chance.’
Still, Rieder wonders: Is it really so crazy? Scientists have proposed incredibly risky schemes to geoengineer the clouds and oceans. They’re researching ways to suck carbon out of the air on a mass scale. Some have even called for overhauling the global system of free-market capitalism. Compared to all that, Rieder says, bringing down the fertility rate seems downright easy.
‘We know exactly how to make fewer babies,’ he says. And it’s something people can start doing today.”
Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex may have just welcomed their first child together, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor — but Harry already has an idea of how he’d like to see his family evolve. And it has a lot to do with the state of the environment. In a lengthy and wide-ranging interview between Prince Harry and famous primatologist and environmental activist Jane Goodall, the two discussed being a steward of the environment even before having kids. Goodall suggested having “not too many!” The Duke’s response: “Two, maximum!”
“U.N. Forecasts 10.1 Billion People by Century’s End,” Justin Gillis and Celia W. Dugger discuss some of the reasons the United Nations revised its population forecast upward for 2100
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
The K-W-L chart is used to activate students’ background knowledge of a topic in order to enhance their comprehension skills.
Directions: Have students use the KWL chart to list the information they already know about Climate change. Later in the Post- Reading segment of the lesson, students can fill in what they’ve learned about the topic.
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- Travis Rieder tries to convince them not to have children.
- Rieder talks about a small-family ethic.
- He questions the assumptions of a society that sees having children as good.
- There is the prospect of climate catastrophe.
- For years, people have lamented how bad things might get.
- Rieder arguments against having children are moral.
- Americans and other rich nations produce the most carbon emissions per capita.
- The average global temperature is projected to rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius.
- It’s going be post-apocalyptic movie time.
- One student says he appreciated the talk but found it terrifying.
Grammar Focus: Structure and Usage
Directions: The following groups of sentences are from the article. One of the sentences in each group contains a grammatical error. Students are to identify the sentence (1, 2, or 3 ) from each group that contains the grammatical error.
- One woman looks a little stunned.
- Shes’ not a climate activist.
- She just tagged along with a friend.
- U.S. birth rates plummeted during the Great Depression.
- The comments are well-intentioned.
- Not anyone is pessimistic about the future.
- Rieders’ audience seems to want an easier way.
- To avert climate disaster, the fertility rate would have to fall.
- Rieder proposes that richer nations do away with tax breaks for having children.
Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentencestaken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.
Of course, there are___ concerns. Rebecca Kukla of Georgetown University___ about___especially against poor and___women. If cultural ___do change, she says, there could be a ___against___ with more___than is deemed socially appropriate.
WORDLIST: families, minority,norms, ethical, stigma, backlash,children,worries,
III. Post Reading Activities
Directions: Have students use the WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.
Who or What is the article about?
Where does the action/event take place?
When does the action/event take place?
Why did the action/event occur?
How did the action/event occur?
Discussion Questions for Comprehension /Writing
Directions: Place students in groups and have them discuss the following questions/statements. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the topics mentioned.
- The article states, “Scientists warn that a catastrophic tipping point is possible in the next few decades…Adding to that challenge, the world is expected to add several billion people in the next few decades, each one producing more emissions.” What does this mean?
- What are some of the reasons people give for wanting to continue having kids?
- What years did the birth rates drop in the U.S.? Why?
- Rieder lists some strategies for both rich and poor people, to persuade each group from having more children. What are these strategies?
- After reading the article, do you think that having less kids is a good idea or a bad idea? Provide reasons for your answers.
Extra Group Activities
Main Idea / Debate
Directions: Divide students into two teams for this debate. Both teams can use the article as their source of information or sources from the Web.
Team A will list and defend five reasons for continuing to have children during this dangerous climate change.
Team B will list and defend five reasons against having more children during this dangerous climate change.
Each team will have time to state their points of view, and the teacher decides which team made their points.