OLast summer, I was running through a field on my Vermont farm with my 10-year old and a bunch of dogs. We were laughing and barefoot. My daughter looked at me with serious eyes and suddenly, she turned to me.
“I didn’t realize things were going to get so bad so soon,” she said.
“What things?” I asked. Was she thinking about the California forest fires or the heatwave in Vermont?
“Climate change,” she said, staring hard at me. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”
Lately, when my daughters begin the sentence “when I have children … ” my chest aches. I know they can live fulfilling lives without traditional parenthood, but I wish them a future where they have options – one that I suspect is moving quickly out of reach. Some models predict significant global ecological and environmental collapse by 2040 – within my lifetime, as well as my children’s.
It’s not only my children seeking honest answers and advice. Two students approached my office shortly before the pandemic and stated that they don’t believe it is wise to have children. Recent polling shows that four in 10 young people are “hesitant to have children as a result of the climate crisis” and “fear that governments are doing too little to prevent climate catastrophe”.
Each one of my students asked me: What would your idea of a good time be?
Are we ready to answer these questions honestly for those we love and advise? And should we? As a mother of two, my decision – fraught even 13 years ago – has already been made. My challenge now is to help them process reality in an age-appropriate manner and prepare for it.
My eldest daughter was making blueberry pancakes last week. “Mom,” she said. “I just read an article that says anyone under 40 will have a hard life because of climate change. Is that true?”
“I think it will be hard,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “But we’ll continue to find beauty in the world, and help others.” My daughter returned to her pancakes.
I felt sick. This is the first year I’ve had to witness my daughters’ fear of the future. I respect their feelings too much to conceal the truth: The world is becoming increasingly hot, volatile, and inequitable. Research indicates we have a mere decade left to address climate change in “an unprecedented, transformational way” in order to avoid global catastrophe.
Young people are already calculating the amount of suffering they will see or bear, and what this means for the future, especially in relation to child-bearing.
“I do feel like this is something that’s been discussed a fair amount in circles I run in,” my former student Mollie, 22, shared with me via email. “Especially when conversations turn more pessimistic. Someone usually says, ‘I don’t even want to have kids’ or ‘the next generation is totally fucked; we can’t have kids.’ This conversation often leaves me angry and unsettled, because it forces me to wrap my mind around something completely unfathomable at the moment: what is our earth going to look like in 2050, when I might have kids trying to start lives of their own? Would it be unethical to bring someone into that world, however it may look?”
Ellie, Ellie’s 23-year-old former research assistant, agreed. “I hope it doesn’t sound melodramatic to say that I’m deeply afraid of the things I’ll see in my lifetime. Even if humanity gets its act together, I can’t imagine what my kids would see in theirs.”
Whether or not to procreate is an extremely controversial question, and another example of how climate scrutiny often falls upon individual actions, when it’s the governmental and capitalist systems that have made life on the planet untenable. It’s abhorrent that the burden of environmental collapse falls first on the shoulders of young people and the global south, when oil corporations and countries like the United States carry an outsized responsibility for the crisis.
And yet our planet’s resources are straining under the global population, which is approaching eight billion.
Many climate activists avoidIt is important to mention childbirth due to its association with population control, eugenics, and other issues. “The conversation is often reductive and racist,” farmer and environmental sociologist Dr Isaac LeslieI spoke to her on a phone call. “White people too often blame Black and Brown women for having children when the issue isn’t population – it is consumption. Consumption is what’s linked to environmental destruction. The conversation should be about capitalism and climate change, not about controlling the bodies of people who give birth.”
The Center for Biological Diversity notes on their population growth page: “Under current conditions, a child born in the US will be responsible for almost seven times the carbon emissions of a child born in China, and 168 times the impact of a child born in Bangladesh.” Children born into poverty are not driving the climate crisis, but they will suffer its impact in an outsized way.
Dr Jaya Tiwari, vice-president Boma ProjectThe NGO focusing on the graduation of women from extreme poverty to combat climate change has experienced the inequalities in child-rearing firsthand. She made the right decisions.
“As someone growing up in India”, she told me, “the second most populous country in the world – and as someone who has devoted a majority of her professional life to working on development issues in the dry lands of Africa, and in regions that sit at the intersection of poverty, gender inequality and climate change – I agonized about the question of motherhood and what my choice to have a child meant for myself, my family and my planet. The fact that we ended up with an only child is an indication of where I ultimately landed.”
Given the increasing impact and risk of childbirth, it’s imperative that people who give birth have absolute control over their bodies and unfettered access to reproductive healthcare. “The vortex of poverty, the lack of access to education and reproductive rights, the struggle for resources and continued climate pressure creates a cycle that feeds upon itself,” Tiwari tells me. “We have indisputable global evidence that education for girls correlates to having fewer children and living healthier lives.” According to Project Drawdown, a non-profit focused on data-driven climate solutions, increased family planning and education of women “could prevent 120 gigatons of greenhouse gases by 2050 – more than on- and offshore wind combined.”
If someone is relatively wealthy, they may think of childbirth as a way to avoid the nightmares that their parents are living. More than 100,000 children have been born in refugee camps in Myanmar and in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, the largest refugee settlement in the world, which is vulnerable to extreme flooding and landslides.
“We often talk tongue-in-cheek about the apocalypse”, Leslie told me. “Society and humanity will continue, but the question is what gross inequalities will continue with it.”
To be clear, I fundamentally believe it’s unethical to interfere with reproductive choices at the individual level. A family makes largely emotional decisions, not data-driven.
Although they are afraid, my students expressed hope that technology and legislation could be used to improve their lives. George, 23, told me via email that “as someone who just spent his entire summer outside with kids, I still definitely want children. I think I will have to see how climate legislation evolves in the next five years to make the call whether or not they are biologically mine – because I’m certainly anxious about bringing a child into calamity.”
These are my thoughts. Considerations for someone who is thinking of having a child.
Connect deeply with your motivations for bringing a child into this world
Take a look at the climate change scenarios for your area. Imagine yourself raising a child in these scenarios. Note your ability to manage risk.
Be open to having a difficult, honest conversation with your partner about family planning or domestic labor
Imagine helping your children to build the financial, psychological and physical resilience that they will need to overcome the challenges ahead
You might also consider other ways to help people and build climate resilient communities.
Younger generations are more open to the idea of building families.
My student Ellie wrote, “While I don’t believe the changes we’re seeing have to signify end-of-days, I do believe there are incredibly thoughtful solutions at hand which – if we can pull them off – would bring about a world I’d very much want to have children in. But I also think my generation may have found itself at a unique moment in which more people isn’t the answer, and alternatives like adoption represent more eco- and ultimately, human-conscious choices.”
Queer communities are a source of inspiration for parents. Leslie told me that they had lost the desire to have biological children for years and were grieving losing them. “Queerness and climate intersect in the talk about children,” Leslie said, noting possible plans to create a family through fostering, and building space for queer community on a farm with their partner, Wichie.
“It’s hard to separate what we really want from what we’ve been socialized to think we need to be happy,” Leslie says. “Now that I’ve seen what chosen family can be, I’m no longer attached to the concept of biological family.”
“Climate resilience is community resilience,” Leslie’s partner, Wichie, tells me. “We understand that we’re preparing for the future. We’ll teach our children how to grow food and think about the betterment of their communities.”
Many of us, as parents, friends, and mentors of the younger generation, must be open to listening and engaging in meaningful conversations about climate pressures and child rearing. These are my top tips:
Don’t limit the conversation to women. Talk about child-rearing in ways that honor and welcome contributions from men, nonbinary and queer parents, and other caregivers.
Do not reduce the procreation conversation from a series of platitudes. We will not help someone we care about if they are unable to see the future with oppressive optimism, if they are pressed with old agendas or bludgeoned with doomsday scenarios.
Allow for anger and grief. The unjust and frightening future has been created by older generations.
The argument should not be centered on labor shortages, nationalist concepts or putting more in a particular political party. Child rearing is an individual decision.
If you have accumulated wealth, consider what support you’d be willing to offer families in your community or in regions of the world suffering because of climate pressure and displacement
Conversations about procreation are sometimes less about parenting logistics, and ultimately more about the health and promise of the future – and how we will care for one another as things get harder.
“Despairing is easy,” Leslie said to me, “and it’s offensive. You must believe that there is a joyful future. Queer culture has always been a celebration of sex, life and death. These things can be held together. People are creative. As a Jew living in the diaspora, this is something I am constantly reminded of. Marginalized communities still have the spirit and strategies from their chosen families and ancestors. Social connection and joy are part of building resilient communities.”
I will tell my daughters that they shouldn’t have children if they ask me again. Instead, I will say, “I leave that decision up for you, but you will want be intentional about it, and consider how your participation in a resilient society.
I will listen to you, ultimately.