Growing up it felt like a foregone conclusion that one day I would have children. My family and I never really talked about it; everyone just assumed I would follow suit. As I got older most of my friends started dating and starting families and just before we got married so did my husband Nick’s brother and sister-in-law.
After we tied the knot, Nick bought two books about deciding when to have children and placed them prominently on the coffee table in our new home. But around that time something changed for me. If the decision felt rather theoretical, I viewed children the same way I would any other milestone: just another box I expected to tick on the path to adulthood. But as soon as it became a real possibility, I began to take stock of my place in the world and my responsibility to it.
As Nick and I talked about it, what we realized tipped our personal scales the opposite of what we expected. I’ve always been pretty ambivalent about kids, while Nick dotes on his nieces, thinking he’d give them cousins one day. On the one hand, children would add another dimension to our small family. On the other hand, it already felt pretty complete.
Also, I’ve always worried as my anxious brain tended to fixate on the worst-case scenario. As a child, my worries were pretty mundane: my house might burn down, my parents might die, or I might die. As an adult, the scope of my concerns has expanded to include not just the well-being of my own loved ones, but of all inhabitants of our rapidly warming planet. As we discussed having children, Nick and I looked around our crowded world and saw no compelling case for increasing the population. We worried even more about the kind of world they would inherit, which will almost certainly look very different from the one we grew up in.
It is human nature to tackle big problems with individual measures. For example, when we were kids, Smokey Bear taught us that “only you can stop wildfires,” so I always make sure my own campfires are put out, even as the planet continues to burn. I recycle, carry reusable bags, use public transport and shop as sustainably as possible – controlling what I can somewhat quells my climate anxiety, but at the risk of sounding overly pessimistic, I fear it’s all likely to little is too late.
That American Psychological Association defines climate anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental degradation” and psychology today calls it “an understandable response to growing awareness of climate change and the global problems arising from ecosystem degradation.” Unlike generalized anxiety disorder, which can stem from many sources or none at all, climate anxiety is specific: It’s a fixation on the warming planet and all the myriad catastrophes that come with it. While symptoms vary from person to person, they can include insomnia, panic attacks, obsessive thinking, and loss of appetite.
For me, it’s an increasing fear as the hurricane season lengthens and intensifies, a pit of despair in my stomach that yawns wider by the second doomsday clock Ticks down and a sense of foreboding that tells me bringing a child into this world would doom them to an existence more like it Mad Max: Fury Road as Sesame Street.
For many people like me, composting and driving a Prius no longer feels like enough. A Gallup Analysis 2018 reported that 70% of adults ages 18 to 34 said they were concerned about global warming, compared to 56% of adults ages 55 and older. A recent BBC poll of people aged 8 to 16 found that nearly three quarters said they were very concerned about the state of the planet.
A 2018 Morning Consult survey for The New York Times found that 33% of 20- to 45-year-olds surveyed cited climate change as a reason they had or expected to have fewer children than they would have liked under other circumstances, and a newly published study in The lancet found that in a global survey of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25, 39% are reluctant to have children because of climate anxiety.
Of course, that is by no means the only reason. Financial insecurity, lack of paid family leave or affordable childcare, and domestic and global political instability top the list of concerns. Then there is the COVID-19 pandemic. As white people, the fact that my partner and I are realizing right now that the world may not be safe for our future children is a privilege in itself. For people of color, the decision to bring children into the world has been a difficult one for centuries. “It can feel overwhelming, to be honest,” he says Jade Sasser, Ph.D.Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at UC Riverside and author of On Barren Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Age of Climate Change“Putting crisis after crisis can feel like too much.”
Nor is the question new to concerned citizens who have been working on the frontlines for years. It started with climate activist and sociologist Meghan Kallman and climate justice activist Josephine Ferorelli conceivable future to raise awareness of the threat that climate change poses to reproductive justice, and to call for an end to US fossil fuel subsidies, and to provide a space for people to speak out about how climate change is affecting their lives affects life.
Canadian student Emma Lim also started one “No future, no children” promise Two years ago, when she was 18, she decided not to have children until her government took the climate crisis seriously. “Until our government starts behaving like the adults they are supposed to be, we will make uncomfortable adult decisions ourselves and refuse to carry on as if everything is fine,” she wrote. More than 2,300 young people have registered.
“[Young people] want to look to the future with hope and their prospects of having a family, because families serve as a buffer against all these devastating social problems in the world,” says Sasser, who also researches how young people, especially BIPOC, think about the climate crisis and theirs reproductive opportunities. “But they also experience a sense of terror and a really deep sense of sadness. And before the sadness of just knowing that if they had children, they wouldn’t bring them into the same world they grew up in.
When deciding whether to start our own brood, Nick and I gave that some thought as well. We grew up with snowy winters and mild summers, camping trips in our national parks, and playing outside until the streetlights came on. But even in recent years, rampant forest fires and increasingly violent hurricanes and other natural disasters have not only threatened our natural playgrounds, but also life and air quality across the country. Will one or two more people make a measurable difference? Maybe, maybe not. But for us, exposing a child to a deteriorating world felt cruel.
But as Ferorelli also points out, none of these decisions are made in a vacuum. No one can dictate the right choice to another person because neither of us lives in the other’s circumstances. That’s part of what makes deciding whether or not to reproduce in a changing world so difficult.
“People’s concerns tend to fall on the spectrum of what climate damage a child will do to the world and what damage the world will do to a child,” says Kallman. “But having a systemic critique is more fruitful than being consumed by guilt.”
A 2017 study published in environmental research by Canadian climate scientists found that having one child less has the greatest impact an individual can have in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Closely followed by a vegetarian diet, avoiding air travel and using public transport instead of your own car. However, many activists argue that individual choices are only a small piece of the puzzle and that any meaningful climate strategy must focus on holding elected officials accountable for bringing about systemic change.
The problem is that it’s impossible to measure the joy children can bring to a family, or to accurately predict what that child’s life will be like a few decades from now. But the feeling of doing something about the climate catastrophe also has real value. “When we take responsibility for the environmental impact of our daily actions, we feel in control,” writes Jason Mark in expansive Sierra Club op-ed. “And when you’re in control of your own life, you may feel more empowered to take control of, or at least play a part in, larger political systems.”
Climate change is also inseparable from other social problems related to starting a family. “We want to make the world a safer place for everyone,” says Kallman. “The right to control the pace of your children, the health of your communities, and a broad view of what defines a community that is free from domestic violence, has access to safe food, safe schools, where police violence is not a threat.” By uniting to hold elected officials accountable, we can all effect meaningful change that extends beyond our own doorsteps.
Having children is a very personal choice, and no one should feel ashamed or guilty about whether or not they made the choice. I don’t know if Nick and I made (or will make) the right decisions about our family composition. I don’t think there is a “right” one, period. But no matter how enmeshed we are in the problems and our responses to them, it’s important not to become blind to the beauty of life in this world and the communities we work with to save it.
“There’s a cultural association with children and optimism and without children with nihilism, but that’s not correct,” says Ferorelli. “There is an immense amount of joy, freedom and privilege in both.”
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