Matt Yglesias scoffed at a commenter who pointed out that requiring companies to provide maternity leave constitutes a subsidy for having children, excess children is bad for the planet and therefore we should remove such subsidies:
The beginning of wisdom here is to note that pollution isn’t “bad for the planet.” The planet is a gigantic roughly spherical chunk of rocks that can easily survive whatever level of greenhouse gas emissions or whatever else we care to pump into the atmosphere. The big picture ecological threat is a threat to human beings [...] Radical population reduction would sharply reduce the quantity of anthropogenic ecological impacts, but to what end? The goal needs to be to reconfigure human activity in order to make it sustainable over a longer time horizon.
I won’t get into how I feel about the conservative notion that it’s the government’s job to encourage people to live the standard American lifestyle – suburbs, cars and kids – or, indeed, any lifestyle* beyond to say that I’m not exactly a fan and that he neglects that lower population is a saner alternative to lifestyle adjustments alone for ecological issues. I’ll just address the specieism his post espouses and the oversimplification of what exactly our planet is and does.
If you take a raccoon from the woods, take it into your home and then drown it, you will rightly face animal cruelty charges (among others)**. If you purchase property that is habitat to a hundred raccoons and flood it to provide a reservoir, somehow the mass cruelty flies under the radar. This of course makes no sense. If cruelty to one animal is indefensible, then cruelty to many is more so.
Biodiversity itself may only be of instrumental value. Just like there isn’t much of a difference morally between a mass murder of 1000 individuals and genocide consisting of 1000 individuals, there isn’t that much of a reason to get worked up about minor biodiversity loss itself so long as it is eventually recovered and there remains enough in the present time. However, habitat destruction and the reduction of numbers means that individual sentient organisms are starving to death or otherwise dying in a bad way or living a more impoverished existence. For this reason, any environmentalism that doesn’t make the welfare/rights of all beings, not just humans, central isn’t worth discussing. Matt Yglesias seems to be suggesting we all need to do our part to use less resources to make room for more people. This fails because as we can see it disregards the welfare of wildlife and it also fails because it takes a total view of happiness. Two people living okay existences aren’t really better than one person living a fabulous existence. In a true eco-utopia, everyone will have plenty of unharmed wilderness to explore and achieve oneness.
Another minor point is his assertion that the planet is just “a spherical chunk of rocks.” Clearly, when people say planet, they are not referring to its geology, though the bulk of the mass is, indeed, lifeless silica and minerals. They are referring, of course, to the ecosphere, which supports us and all the other life on the planet. It is perhaps of only instrumental value but very great value indeed. If we fix up Señor Yglesias’ comments accordingly, we still don’t see a powerful argument to reduce humanity to the stone age nor to view children as little packets of evil (however annoying they may be), but you also certainly don’t come to the conclusion that child rearing, something people gladly voluntarily do anyway, needs to be subsidized so as to encourage it anymore than our biology and existing social pressures already do.
* I don’t want zen fascists telling me to live in an apartment, ride the bus and not have kids either.
** Actually, this depends on the jurisdiction. If you at least feed the raccoon first, it will then be your [illegal] pet that you are being cruel to. If you at least agree that someone ought to get in trouble for kidnapping, then drowning a raccoon, then you should agree with my logic, even if the law isn’t quite like I make it sound.