With Environmental Disasters Looming, Many Are Choosing Childless Futures


Over the past decade, birth rates in the U.S. have dropped to a historic low, with several contributing factors such as the dipping economy and, more positively, advancements in sex education and family planning. But among those deciding whether or not to have kids is an increasingly pressing worry: How do we justify bringing new life into a world that’s becoming environmentally unlivable?

As a recent New York Times report by Maggie Astor demonstrates, the threat of climate change is featuring in more and more heavily in people’s plans to procreate:

A 32-year-old who always thought she would have children can no longer justify it to herself. A Mormon has bucked the expectations of her religion by resolving to adopt rather than give birth. An Ohio woman had her first child after an unplanned pregnancy — and then had a second because she did not want her daughter to face an environmental collapse alone.
Among them, there is a sense of being saddled with painful ethical questions that previous generations did not have to confront. Some worry about the quality of life children born today will have as shorelines flood, wildfires rage and extreme weather becomes more common. Others are acutely aware that having a child is one of the costliest actions they can take environmentally.

As someone who’s nearly at the point at which I need to decide whether or not to have biological children, it’s these considerations that weigh on me the most. I’ve even tried to write about it several times, but always hit roadblocks because, as Astor notes, “few, if any, studies have examined how large a role climate change plays in people’s childbearing decisions.” That, and the fact that after surveying mothers and women without children alike, I couldn’t find anyone who related to my own, deeply personal conundrum of desperately wanting children, but feeling ethically barred from having them.

Instead, I mostly encountered mothers who decided to have children regardless of the effects of over-population and climate change, and—similarly—currently childless women who were settled on having kids no matter what. And then, on the other side of the coin, were those who are not having kids—in part because of climate change, but mostly because it’s never been something they’ve desired, which is fair enough, but makes the “should I/shouldn’t I” question much easier to answer.

It’s a deeply painful question to grapple with, though I know I’m fortunate to be able to grapple with it at all. And of course there are realistic options and solutions for those of us with the money and resources to pursue adoption, but the biological urge to reproduce is very real—at least in me—and not easy to ignore. As one 36-year-old mother of two succinctly told the Times, “If a family is what you want, you’re not just going to be able to make that disappear entirely. You’re not just going to be able to say, ‘It’s not really good for the environment for humans to keep reproducing, so I’ll just scratch that idea.’”

True, but then again:

…Maram Kaff, who lives in Cairo, said she had been deeply affected by reports that parts of the Middle East may be too hot for human habitation by 2100.
“I’ve seen how Syrian refugees, who are running from a devastating war, are being treated,” Ms. Kaff, 33, said in an email. “Imagine how my children will be treated if they have to flee their country due to extreme weather, drought, lack of resources, flooding.”
“I know that humans are hard-wired to procreate,” she said, “but my instinct now is to shield my children from the horrors of the future by not bringing them to the world.”

Ultimately, the decision is up to (or certainly should be up to) the individual to decide if bringing another human life—destructive in its own serious way—onto a failing planet is worth it. (I have no idea what my decision will be, though I predict, as with most people, biology will win out in the end.) While every century of civilization has predicted that the world is ending, our generation has the unique challenge and privilege of scientific proof (climate change is a real and dangerous) and choice (in the 1900s, family planning largely amounted to whether or not you or your baby died during birth), so big win for 2018, I guess. It’s nice to have options. But that doesn’t mean it’s simple.

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