The choice to have children in a climate crisis

This article was first published on Dumbo Feather.

A year ago my friend Sarah asked me a question. Like all good questions, I wasn’t able to offer an answer straight away. I needed to, in the words of the great poet Rilke, take the time to live my way into the answer.

The question went something like this: “How has climate change affected your choice to have kids?”

She asked me this, I suspect, as over the years I have made a number of personal changes to reduce my climate impact. Things like switching to a bank that refuses to fund fossil fuels, eating less meat, slashing my food waste by composting, and flying less. These changes came without too much consternation – they were relatively easy choices to make and I found they had great knock-on effects like making me happier and healthier. Then, early last year a climate scientist friend of mine named Kim Nicholas (who has been the inspiration behind a lot of my aforementioned life changes) published a paper that found, by far, the biggest change that those of us living in industrialised countries can make to reduce our climate impact is to have fewer children.

Having kids was a decision I had been mulling on for some time already but this research finding kicked my rational mind into overdrive. And when I’m rational-mind-mode I start to do things like compile pros and cons lists.

Pro – the world needs more people who care about climate. Con – the world needs less people. Pro – raising a child may make me a better climate activist. Con – if we don’t cut emissions by half in the next decade, we are headed for a unhealthy and unstable future, and it would be irresponsible to bring a child into that.

The more I delved into these head-heavy arguments, the more confused I became. Despite having all of the information at hand, I couldn’t seem to come at a rational decision on this issue. Something within me felt unreconciled and was begging me to traverse a deeper emotional landscape.

I wondered if I had possibly been considering the wrong question. The question I felt I really needed to get to the heart of was one articulated most eloquently by bioethicist Travis Rieder: “Is it one of your central goals in life to procreate?” He elaborates in a recent Vox article: “If the answer is ‘no’, that can really tell you a lot about how justifiable it is to have…kids. There’s this whole group of people who actually aren’t that passionate about it, but they’re going to do it because isn’t that what you do when you get married and you get close to 30 and your parents start asking about grandbabies?”

There was no way I could get anywhere near the wisdom that Travis’ question required of me with my mind as hyperactive as it was. In order to answer this core question, I was going to have to turn the volume on my mind down. Way down.

When trying to get out of the buzzing noise of our heads, many turn to meditation. For a question so closely connected to the current and future state of the earth, I knew my meditation needed to be outdoors. I happened upon the opportunity to participate in an ancient rite of passage called the Vision Quest, which saw me spend three days meditating alone in a beautiful banksia grove on Gunaikurnai land.

For the first two days, my mind whizzed away. When it had exhausted itself, that question popped up again but in a slightly different form. “Do you want to be a mother?” I asked myself gently. Before I could think, I could feel it in my body that the answer was a simple and resounding “yes”. The answer felt primal, instinctual and supremely joyful.

Not too long after that I was lucky enough to have a child – a beautiful boy. In his infancy, I’ve tried to make environmentally friendly choices when I can – we use cloth nappies and wipes, we borrow toys from the toy library, we buy most clothes second hand. I am raising him to see himself as a steward of nature, to fight against the injustices exacerbated by climate change, and to tread lightly and carefully on this planet of ours – in the hope that his carbon footprint can be even smaller than mine.

What I didn’t realize then, but I know now, is that each choice I have made for the climate has been a choice to slow my life down and to build a deeper relationship with the planet. Naomi Klein argues that confronting the climate crisis requires a new way of thinking – one that involves slowing down and being place-based.

Choosing to fly less meant I took the time to appreciate a place and spend time with people I love. Composting my food scraps has mean I spend more time pottering in the garden and, quite literally, feeding the earth. Having a child has been the most visceral of slow downs; connecting me to the very essence of life on earth.

When asked about her research, Kim said: “If [people] know the science, recognise how serious the risk is, and how urgent it is that we reduce emissions but they want a child and they want to raise that child in a safe planet, then having a child, in that case, is a vote of hope. It’s a vote that the world is going to be a better place and we can actually tackle this challenge.”

Tackling this challenge means getting to zero emissions really fast. “We have to do at least half the job before your son turns 10,” Kim tells me.

In telling my story, I recognize that being able to contemplate the question of whether or not to have children is a privilege that not all people (particularly women living in poverty or those without reproductive choice) around the world have. Given the current state of the world and, as a white middle class person who lives in an industrialised nation, I see that I have a responsibility to take this choice seriously.

When it comes to climate change, personal reproductive choices are rarely talked about – not by governments, educators, activists or the mainstream media. It’s unsurprising why we would want to steer clear of this topic. Limiting births has historically been laced with racism, ableism and classism, brought up by the powerful as a way to limit so-called ‘less desirable people’.

But if we are serious about tackling climate change, we need to start talking about this issue in a way that doesn’t blame or shame others for their very personal decision but encourages us all to make the choice to have children with at least as much intention and mindfulness as the choice to use keep cups, eat less meat, or travel by train.