There remains a strong taboo around women deciding not to have infants, whatever their reason: whether it’s the climate crisis, the growing number
who choose to be childfree, or the increasingly divisive national debate about abortion. This taboo is even stronger in some developing countries, where often women have little agency over their reproductive choices, explaining why the conversation about climate crisis and reproduction tends to be a relatively western one. In common with much of the climate movement generally, it’s a relatively white one, too.
Part of the reason that talking about reproduction can inspire so much pushback, said Colin Hickey, a researcher at Utrecht University who concentrate on philosophy and climate ethics, is because the world is geared to having children. “We celebrate when people announce they are going to have kids, it’s sort of expected, it’s built into our taxation code, it’s built into our ad and film representation.”
Groups like Conceivable Future, said Hickey, offer a counterpoint to this persisting culture. “I think infusing the popular debate with some other sketches of viable alternative ways of living, where being childless is not necessarily seen as a kind of failing, actually can be helpful.”
Conceivable Future’s Kallman and Ferorelli insist they have no desire to prescribe or magistrate people’s options. Discussions about children and the climate crisis “tend to get stuck in this question of’ what people are doing’ with their reproductive lives, ” said Kallman. “We are totally agnostic about what people actually choose, whether they have five children, whether they have none.”
The aim, she said, is to draw attention to the fact people are having to ask this question at all: “It’s an impossible question in an impossible time.”
For the more than 330 members of the U.K. organization
BirthStrike, the impossible decision has been induced. Each has signed a voluntary declaration that they’ve decided not to have children while the political will to tackle climate change continues to languish.
The group’s founder, Blythe Pepino, a 33 -year-old musician from the U.K ., wanted to have children with her partner. But then she found herself haunted by climate change research — in particular the grim 2018 U.N. report that
warned we have just 12 years to get our act together on climate change. Suddenly awakened to the fullest extent of the crisis, her motherhood ambitions dissolved.
She wondered if others felt the same. “I put it out on Facebook and I got like 50 people coming back saying,’ I think I’m in the same situation as you, I’m interested in this, I’m willing to sign up’.”
And so, in 2018, she formed BirthStrike. The purpose of the organisation is not to judge people for their choices, said Pepino, but instead to get the message out about ecological breakdown, “to wake people up, ” and bringing them together.
As with Conceivable Future, Pepino takes aches to distance herself from the population control movement. Instead, she wants to galvinize this anxiety around having children into an activist movement and a subsistence network.
public dispute her organization inspires helps her reach people with her climate activism message. It also uncovers her to online vitriol. “I insure people saying’ I wouldn’t rape you anyway’ or’ You’d be a terrible mom, thank god the libtards are all stopping giving birth’, ” said Pepino.
One of the reasons the topic is so divisive, is that people fear that they will be judged for having children, said Hickey( even though both Birthstrike and Conceivable Future hammer home the point that they respect all selections ). “The decision that’s always seemed natural and inevitable and personal , now it faces a kind of moral criticism that we haven’t been confronted with before.” People bristle at the implication that having a child is selfish, he added.
birth rates in the U.S.and other western countries are declining, the climate impact of having a child in a developed country is much more intense. A 2017 study found that having one fewer infant was the best thing an individual could do to tackle climate change, saving a family in a developed country 58. 6 tons of carbon a year. To put that in perspective that is far more than the report calculates you could save running car-free( 2.4 tons ), quitting flying( 1.6 tons saved per transatlantic flight) or eating a plant-based diet( 0.8 tons ).
But making reproductive decisions based on carbon metrics can feel unbearably pessimistic. And for some, having a child is a form of hope.
This has been true for Londoner Lucie Brown. The mother of two, who works in the nonprofit sector and is a climate activist, told HuffPost, “Maybe having children and experiencing that heartbreak and anxiety for the future is what spurred me on to find the power within myself and a community of other mothers to say actually we can — and we have to — alteration the systems that we’re living within.”
Still, she fears for the future. “I don’t know in this moment[ whether] I would have children if I was currently without children.”
Jessica Garrett feels the same. After spiraling into a depression after the birth of her son — “How could I do my first chore as a parent: maintain him safe and healthy? ” — the science educator from Somerville, Massachusetts, joined activist group Moms Out Front, where she found a community.
“We could share our fears and heartbreak and hopes for our children. And then we go out together and speak up.”
But if she were deciding now, she said, she might not have had any children. She entirely understands would-be parents agonizing over their own future. “It’s an utterly heart-wrenching kind of decision to make.”
“We do not like to think or talk about a terrifying future that we do not seem to be able to do anything about, ” said Jem Bendell, a sustainability prof at the University of Cumbria and the author of a
2018 viral paper on how to adapt to the inevitability of climate breakdown. “We feel it is more kind to agree about visions of a better future, ” he said, “it is a way of not facing loss and demise until we have to.”
Conceivable Future’s Ferorelli concurs. “It’s not a particularly hopeful project, ” she admitted of her cause. “It involves acknowledging what a dark situation we’re in.”
Even under normal situations, so much about parenting can feel tinged with grief. From the difficulties many have with conception, or observing someone with whom to conceive, to the frequency of miscarriage, the ache and desolation of labor, the abandonment of an old life, the little of punches of sadness as
your children grow up and away from you.
I once held tiny, utterly dependent newborns in my limbs. Now I have two boisterous preschoolers. I don’t know what their future holds and I don’t know how I will prepare them for vastly uncertain lives. The climate crisis brought on a whole new form of heartache. But what I am certain about is, that knowing all this, I would still have infants again. There are no right choices here but, for me, there is hope in humanity. There has to be.
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