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The pitter patter of tiny carbon footprints

By Michael Cook - posted Friday, 14 December 2007


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.

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.)

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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 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! 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 (see YouTube). 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 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.

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?

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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 well 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.

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First published by Spiked Online on December 11, 2007.



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About the Author

Michael Cook edits the Internet magazine MercatorNet and the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

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