A bed with a green bedspread in front of a green wall. Photo © poligonchik \ Fotolia.com

From San Antonio to Singapore, couples and singles are considering their environmental impact in a personal way. These environmental do-gooders shop organic, buy biodegradable detergents and drive hybrid cars. Yet when it comes to reproduction, some don’t think twice. When popular articles today talk about “green sex,” they are usually referring to what happens before one enters the boudoir and the purchases that are made to create a green sex life.

Modern environmental concern for the “greening” of sex first appeared about five years ago when Grist ran an article on how to make the sexual experience greener. In this and many other articles, green sex means integrating a naturalist mindset into one’s lovemaking: a romp in the great outdoors; using candles to set the mood instead of lights; or even making sure your sheets are 100% organic cotton. Some articles have even looked at which birth control method is the most green and correlated condom distribution to mitigating climate change.

Other suggestions from the green sex movement have boldly discussed accessories or enhancers to the sexual experience. And, while these are important aspects of a holistically ecological life, the colloquialism “green sex,” as it is commonly understood, fails to take into account the end result of union for many people: children.

Instead of looking at the warm-up to sex, we need to look at its after-effects. Procreation that leads to increased resource consumption and population is arguably the single biggest issue in the environmental movement and this needs to be factored into romantic excursions. After all, how green can sex really be if it is leading to a massive carbon legacy?

The Carbon Cost of a Child

The journal Global Environmental Change has determined that the long-term impact of a child born to a couple in the United States is a whopping six times that of a child born to a couple in China. Each child born in the industrialized world ultimately adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average parent – about 5.7 times a person’s individual footprint. Even when split between two parents, the number is still extraordinarily high because children are not a one-time environmental investment like an automobile; they reproduce themselves, multiplying the carbon impact with every generation.

Consumption has skyrocketed in the developed world, yet the (relatively infrequent) procreation of these high-consumers flies under the radar of many environmental activists. Many couples believe that if they only have one or two biological children they are not harming the planet because they are only thinking of overall population growth. Often, literature on the environment will even include a section on “green parenting” but I would contend that this is an oxymoron.

Having two children in America is like having a dozen children in China. Even with fertility hovering at replacement rates in developed countries, having any children at all compounds the high impact of our consumptive lifestyle, and vice versa. There is no decision more significant to planetary conservation than if and how many biological children one has. And if a couple does have a child, no amount of green parenting, short of moving to a developing country, would compensate for carbon emissions of one child born in the industrialized world.

It is better for the environment if a couple enjoys international air travel, eats a high-meat diet, each drive an SUV, never recycles and lives in a large, free-standing home, but never has a biological child. 

Even if a couple with a biological child became vegan, stopped using airplanes, got rid of their cars, and lived off the grid in a tiny apartment, there’s simply no way to negate the carbon emissions of even one child born under current consumption patterns in many developed countries because much of our carbon impact is simply an unavoidable fact of living here.

To put it another way, it is better for the environment if a couple enjoys international air travel, eats a high-meat diet, each drive an SUV, never recycles and lives in a large, free-standing home, but never has a biological child. This jarring and counterintuitive premise was pointed out in an article by Grist’s Lisa Hymas on the second Sex and the City movie. The protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw, is a childfree woman who is featured jetting off to Abu Dhabi, excessively shopping, eating decadent high-impact food from animals [and wearing their hides on her feet] and reveling in a consumptive lifestyle.

Hymas contends that although Bradshaw is not an environmentalist, she is more eco-friendly than any woman who has even one child. Indeed, Carrie could “could lead a lifestyle that’s twice as carbon-intensive as a parent’s – even three, four, five times – and still come out ahead.” While ecologists could not endorse this sort of profligate consumption, those opting out of the reproductive race like Bradshaw are the new environmental heroes. They are having green sex. Really green sex.

GINKs and the New Green Sex Movement

GINKs [Green Inclinations, No Kids] are the emerging group of couples and singles who feel that a proper response to the environmental crisis is to live their lives as sustainably as possible and not have biological children. When they make love, they don’t make babies. In some ways GINKs are the new DINKs [Dual Income, No Kids], but with an eco-conscious character.

While DINKs are childfree and therefore ecologically sound, their intentions might not be environmental. In contrast, for a GINK the motivation for not reproducing is the carbon impact of that child. GINKs also have an additional argument for green sex: not wanting to subject their children to this world of pollution, eco-destruction and waning biodiversity. And who can argue with that?

Self-proclaimed GINKs take pride in their contribution to the environmental movement through not leaving a carbon legacy. GINKs interviewed in the The Daily Mail argued that “having children is selfish. It’s all about maintaining your genetic line at the expense of the planet.” Environmentally conscious individuals and couples are no longer willing to be shamed by a culture that expects one to procreate, especially when they know the damage it does to the planet. The GINK Manifesto encourages people who are childfree by choice because of the ecological concerns to proclaim their status proudly and not beat around the bush when interrogated by others why they don’t have kids.

With all the information out there on how to buy green or shop organic, it might be easy to overlook what happens behind closed bedroom doors. Green sex is not just an event; it is a life-long commitment. From now on when we talk about green sex, our definitions must include the biggest determinant of what makes sex green – not having biological children. Otherwise it’s just sex with a side of ecology. 

Cristina Richie is an ethicist in the Boston area, currently teaching Health Care Ethics at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science, Boston. She is working on a PhD in Theology at Boston College and has been published in over a dozen journals and magazines.

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