By Lauren McCue
As if the decision to have kids weren’t complicated and personal enough, now we have to think about the possible, and very literal, end of the world, too.
Climate change is a global issue inextricable from almost every aspect of our everyday lives. Its current and predicted impacts — ranging from but not limited to drought, wildfires, rising sea levels, and insect infestations — will stretch resources thin for a global population growing faster than it ever has before. Many published reports have projected wide-scale food shortages and less clean water for future generations as well as an increase in global temperatures by an estimated 2.7 degrees by 2040 — the year at which a child born now will be coming of age. Considering the scale of the crisis, many Millennials and members of Gen Z are wondering if it’s even ethical to have children — that is, if they have them at all. (According to the CDC, the number of babies born in the U.S. in 2017 was the lowest it had been in 30 years, and continued a downward trend of fertility rates being below replacement level since 1971.)
Having a child is one of the most environmentally impactful things many people will ever do in their lifetime. Lifestyle changes such as giving up driving or changing our diets matter less in comparison to starting a family; one study published in 2017 found that having one fewer child is the best thing that a person in a developed country can do to reduce personal carbon emissions. Giving birth to a child in America only adds to an overall population that accounts for five percent of the world’s people but creates half its solid waste, according to Scientific American. Our generation’s children and grandchildren will absolutely have to face the same question — if they even live that long; reports posit that we have to make drastic changes by 2030 before the point of no return for climate change. That puts more responsibility on me and people around my age to carefully consider not only if we want kids, but if we should have them at all.
Environmental factors are only another weight put on people’s decision — and especially women’s decision — whether to have children. As a woman, I shouldn’t be shocked at yet another obstacle when it comes to reproductive choices: There’s the more familiar problems — finances, the uneven burden of housework and childcare, and cultural pressure to settle down and have kids — which is only compounded on some women of color. Ours is also a country with a labyrinthine system of abortion and birth control restrictions, where the cost of having a child has shot up 40 percent in the previous decade, and which has no guaranteed parental leave. The U.S. is clearly not invested in helping its citizens with the most basic issues when it comes to having children, much less considering how environmental impacts will change these questions in the future.
It’s worth pointing out that this discussion about choice often centers on people mostly from industrialized countries who typically have the power to decide if and when they have children. Those lucky few — the ones simultaneously more responsible for unsustainable lifestyles that have a higher negative impact on the environment — are actually the minority in the global population. Though scientific studies are not giving them the same attention, the people who are often left out of the conversation will also have children affected by global warming, and in a more devastating way.
“There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in an Instagram livestream posted in February. “Even if you don’t have kids, there are still children here in the world, and we have a moral obligation to them. To leave a better world for them... We need a universal sense of urgency. And people are trying to, like, introduce watered-down proposals that are frankly going to kill us. A lack of urgency is going to kill us.”
The group Birthstrike, which advocates for people who have chosen to not have children because of climate change, states that their position on not having kids is “out of despair” rather than being a solution to problem. Their mission statement notes that they “[stand] in solidarity with the environmental justice movement, [and] the academic and scientific community who are encouraging acts of rebellion and widespread system change in order to urgently save our future.” One 24-year-old, named Alice, told them: “I’m gutted to not be able to start my family, and I resent that our self-destruction and planetary destruction all for greed and ‘economic growth’ has stopped me from doing this… My decision not to have a child I truly feel is a necessity not a choice.”
Many would argue that it’s unfair to put the burden of fighting climate change on the individual decision to have children. The pollution and carbon generated by one new person is a drop in the bucket compared to the over 70 percent of global emissions generated by just 100 companies. Still, Alice isn’t the only person considering its very serious ramifications.
“I feel that I haven’t given any future kids the space they need to thrive, and it’d be cruel to bring them into such a mess of a planet,” Rachel, 22, tells MTV News. “I feel guilty thinking that I have a responsibility as a mother to give my kid the best conditions possible and I’m not fulfilling that. To think that I would force them to be born into a world that is going to make them struggle makes me wonder if the best thing for them is to not bring them in, whether that’s for them or for society as a whole.”
Kristina, 30, agrees. “Climate change is definitely a factor for me in deciding when and whether to have kids, along with money and lifestyle concerns,” she says. “I worry about starting a new life when I know their future will be more uncertain and most likely less comfortable than my own.” She and her husband have talked seriously about whether the decision to have a family during the current crisis is selfish; she also tells MTV News she “can’t imagine” having more than one child at all, a decision she credits to both climate change and personal finances.
When it comes to the impact of the environment on future generations, Rachel adds, "You [can't not] think about it."
Every world crisis, from economic havoc to nuclear war, prompts heated debates on whether it’s ethical to bring new children into the world at all — and it’s a discussion that isn’t going away any time soon. Travis N. Rieder, a Research Scholar at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, caused a strong reaction when he suggested in a 2016 NPR interview that people should aim to have fewer children because of climate change. Critics accused him of being “anti-life and anti-human,” but Rieder held strong in his argument.
“The premise seems to be that those who wish to lower fertility rates must be misanthropic, or fail to see the value of humans,” he wrote in response for the Conversation. “But that gets things exactly backwards: A radical concern for climate change is precisely motivated by a concern for human life – in particular, the human lives that will be affected by climate disruptions.”
Among the many organizations seeking to promote activism around climate change, young activists all over the world — from Sweden to Uganda and in over 100 other countries — are helping to lead conversation and action around the issue. In the U.S., Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is co-sponsoring the Green New Deal, which aims to reposition how the country sources and uses renewable energy in almost every industry.
That focus fits in perfectly with the aims of youth-led organizations like the Sunrise Movement, which has brought high school and college-aged activists to the front of the fight for climate action, including the group's highly-publicized meeting with Sen. Dianne Feinstein in February 2019, when they lobbied her to vote in favor of Green New Deal legislation. If the youth shall inherit the Earth, they’re not wasting any time holding past generations accountable for their errors.