Save the planet; tax babies

A carbon tax on newborns to reduce human pollution? Now there's an idea for your Christmas stocking.
Michael Cook | Dec 12 2007 | comment  



Monty Python could not have dreamed up a sharper caricature of Australian intellectuals. Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, two medical 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. She 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," says Walters.

His solution? A "baby levy" of A$5,000 on third and subsequent children, plus an annual tax of A$400 to A$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 would 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 McMansions, presumably.)

As offsets, carbon credits would be granted for contraceptives, intrauterine devices, diaphragms, condoms and sterilisation procedures.

Walters's proposal was warmly endorsed by one of Australia's best-known medical personalities, Garry Egger, the founder of the Gutbusters program to reduce male obesity, and a professor of health sciences at Southern Cross University. He lamented the fact that population control programs are ignored, even by environmental groups. Eheu fugaces! O 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," he wrote.

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. Not enough zinc cream to shield those addled pates from global warming, perhaps.

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

But many reactions were supportive. 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 ABC website (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

It's hard to know where to begin unpacking so much prejudice. The current flare-up of the population control virus, like a polio epidemic in a country which has been disease-free for 30 years, shows that the professorial noggins 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 Crachitt's brood? Large families make do with more modest lifestyles. No holidays abroad, no expensive cars, no boozy nights out. China's little emperor syndrome provides a cautionary tale. With only one obese little toddler to lavish their affection on, parents ignore the high-impact negative externalities of triple-scoop ice creams.

Second, the University of Woollomooloo senior common room forgot to do a human rights impact study. Walters's proposal would work exactly like China's draconian one-child policy, with a green tinge to it. But China has an enormous gender imbalance, forced abortions, social unrest, and a demographic overhang which will probably cause the economy to collapse under the weight of caring for its retirees. Admittedly, the likelihood is small that Australian family planning police would throttle infants whose levy has not been paid. But there would be unpleasantness nonetheless: 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. 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 brussel sprouts and pedalled to work, we could keep our carbon footprint small enough to enable double-digit families for anyone who wants 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 disdain for new human life is a lack of faith in our capacity to solve our problems. First food, then oil, then scarce metals, now carbon footprints. In another 20 years, it will be collisions with asteroids. There is no end to this morbid adolescent hankering for Doomsday by the University of Woolloomooloo senior common room and its fellow travellers elsewhere. Why? Because it stems not from facts, but from a smouldering self-loathing. Walters, for instance, treats the words of the BBC's beetle hagiographer 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 cheering for the home team, lads, not for the beetles!

In any case, the facts speak for themselves. Thirty years on, we still haven't run out of food, oil or copper. 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 the renowned American economist.

What Walters and Eggers fail to take into account is that children create hope, not problems. Without the next generation -- as Alfonso Cuarón'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 her world better than our own. This daft proposal for a baby levy would kill the very hope which sustains and drives our society.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

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