– These days, every time I open the news, there is reporting of yet another way in which the world is headed towards catastrophe. In the last week alone, we’ve seen bushfires in Australia, floods in Indonesia, record-breaking high temperatures, and accelerated warming of the world’s oceans.
And yet almost as often as I read about these unprecedented and alarming disasters, I see scathing comments on social media — and in the non-virtual world — towards people who decide not to have children because of climate change. As a child-free woman in my thirties, I am (unfortunately) accustomed to being judged for my choices, and asked to justify them in a way that people who become parents are never interrogated.
But a recent phenomenon I have noticed is that this criticism is no longer coming from people who seem to think that motherhood is a woman’s natural state. We are now also being derided by so-called progressives who believe — as I do — that climate change is responsible for increasingly extreme weather patterns on the planet.
These people are often quick to point out that they don’t think there’s anything wrong with not having children, but there is something wrong with not having children for a specific reason: because of climate change. Never mind that this makes no sense at all — the implication being that if someone chose to achieve the same outcome (ie remaining child-free) for a different reason, then this would be perfectly okay by them (as if it’s any of their damn business).
I am one of a growing number of people questioning whether I am prepared to have children in a world that, by scientific consensus, is going to be a pretty terrifying place by 2050. If I got pregnant today, my child would be almost thirty years old by that date, and presumably having to make their own decision about whether or not they will pro-create.
And yet recently, a smug tweet from left-leaning Australian celebrity chef, Adam Liaw, ridiculed people like me, by asserting, in an entirely reductive way, that there are only three reasons for not having children because of climate change and all of them are “bad”. According to him, these are:
1. I’m anticipating my children will die
2. I have no faith that they will be part of a solution, and/or
3. I’d prefer not to contribute to overpopulation
The decision of whether or not to have children is obviously life-changing — therefore, for most people it is likely to be one that is carefully considered and not easily explained in 140 characters. It is incredible to me that in 2020, having children remains the “norm” and is never challenged in the way that being child-free by choice is.
Only those who opt to go against the status quo find themselves on the receiving end of arguments that are designed to diminish the amount of thought that has gone into choosing not to have children. Adam Liaw himself has three children and has obviously never felt the need to justify this choice and its significant impact on carbon emissions.
In the last couple of years, I have made a number of lifestyle choices to reduce my carbon footprint: opting for a mostly plant-based diet, riding a bicycle as much as possible, buying all my clothes second-hand, and moving my savings to an ethical bank and super fund. I found these changes relatively easy, although I appreciate others may not.
But as bushfires ravage the country, the summer of 2019 has felt like a tipping point — for myself and for many people. At the start of this new year and decade, I am thinking more deeply about the sacrifices that individuals will need to make in order to commit to a more sustainable future. For me personally, this may mean taking the train to Sydney to see my family, instead of flying, and travelling within Australia far more often than overseas for holidays.
However, the fact remains that the single most meaningful action in terms of impact on climate change is not having children. In fact, a Swedish study in 2017 estimated that having one fewer child per family can save an average of 58.6 tonnes of carbon — which is far more than can be achieved by going vegan or ditching the car.
Actually, the reasons have nothing to do with the first two cited by Adam Liaw (and others). Nobody believes that before climate change, their children would have lived forever. But anti-natalists like myself look at the kind of future our children would have: in Australia, that means one in which the nightmare bushfire season of 2019/2020 is one that is considered mild.
Our summers are a hellscape, most recently with temperatures that reached almost 49 degrees in parts of Sydney. Australian summers used to be legendary for their beach weather — but these days, we are more likely to spend them indoors, huddled around our air conditioners and sheltering from the heat and bushfire smoke as I just spent most of my time over Christmas.
It would be nice to believe that my hypothetical child would be part of the solution — but that is, as one Twitter user pointed out, a “supremely arrogant” point of view. Despite inspirational posters imploring us to “Be the change you want to see in the world” (falsely ascribed to Gandhi), any single individual has very little power to enforce the massive structural and systemic change that is required to mitigate climate change, particularly one that isn’t a world leader. With all due respect to Liaw’s children, it is simply idiotic to believe that your kid will implement world-altering change in relation to our planet’s climate that would not have occurred had they not been born.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t all do what we can to reduce our individual carbon emissions, but it is extremely improbably that one as-yet-unborn person would be able to manifest enough change to offset their lifetime carbon footprint.
The third reason — not wanting to contribute to overpopulation — does not seem to me to be a bad reason at all. The only potential argument for this is, as an Australian ethicist pointed out, “seeing reduced reproduction as a solution is unlikely to target those who most need to change”. It is people in developed countries whose children create the greatest carbon footprint, yet those in developing countries who are likely to have the most children — and also bear the brunt of the effects of global climate change.
While this may be a concern with the concept of anti-natalism and how it is applied worldwide, it fails to explain how this is poor reasoning for those in developed countries who are deciding not to have children. (It should also be noted that the ethicist in question is a parent.)
In these theoretical arguments, posited by people who invariably have children themselves, a major reason for anti-natalism is completely overlooked: namely, not wishing to create a human being only to subject them to a world that is likely to be completely devastated by climate change within the span of their lifetime. This climate change is set to bring with it an enormous number of geopolitical problems: internal and external displacement, scarcity of resources, and right-wing governments gaining popularity in on the basis of their policies towards refugees (all of which we are already seeing).
The growth of the Youth For Climate movement is cited by many as a cause for optimism — “Look, the children are creating a better future!” they cry, as though the answer lies in simply creating more children and hoping they’ll fix everything that previous generations have screwed up.
But the fact that young people feel compelled to take action is a sign of how broken things are. The youth I have spoken to are driven by a feeling of desperation, not optimism. Perhaps unlike previous youth-led movements throughout history, there is an urgent sense that time is running out — not that we are on the cusp of monumental historic change. And they are right: soon it is going to be too late. In many ways, it already is.
I honestly don’t know whether I would have had children if it weren’t for my fears around climate change — because I have never lived in a world where this fear wasn’t real and pervasive. My belief is that a parent should provide their child with hope, and I am amazed that anyone who is currently witnessing the disasters unfold around us is able to do that. If they can, they have my utter admiration.
I am not proposing that everyone should stop having children and that the human race should become extinct. But why is my decision not to have kids considered offensive to those who’ve chosen to have them? It is a profoundly personal choice, which is why it is heartbreaking to see it diminished by those who should, at the very least, understand our predicament — even if they can’t entirely relate to it.
What I would like to hear, instead of constant ridicule — if indeed we must hear anything at all — is something more along the lines of “I can see why you have made this decision, and I share your concerns about the world we are leaving for the next generation, but here’s why I have decided to have children anyway.”
And for those whose response is to say that humanity has always feared the end of the world, and by this logic, even if I had been born at a different period of history, then I still wouldn’t have had children — I ask, “Would it have made a difference if I hadn’t?” The world has a population of seven billion, it could have handled a few more people in history deciding to be child-free.
Also, it’s still none of your fucking business.