An Environmentalist on Having Children
A recent article in The Conversation suggests there will be no Covid Baby Boom in Australia, despite many lucky couples celebrating more adventurous sex lives during the pandemic. It cites reasons such as economic uncertainty, relationships being more strained by forced togetherness (highlighted by the horrific statistics of increased domestic violence during lockdown), and the postponement of elective medical procedures, including IVF. Other research from the US shows 34% of surveyed women said the pandemic was stopping them from getting pregnant or having another child, primarily due to the uncertainty of the future in terms of jobs, healthcare and childcare.
These stories have reminded me of the growing group of environmentalists who are remaining child-free by choice*. In the UK, the Birthstrike movement demands system change and shares personal, often heartbreaking, stories from its members on how they decided to not have children in relation to the planet's ecological destruction. There is a similar movement in the US called Conceivable Future that includes video testimonials. I greatly appreciate that both these movements give people the opportunity to share their personal stories and speak their truth, even if that truth remains in the "I'm still undecided" category. Many environmental campaigners and journalists have also shared their thoughts and anxieties around the choice to have children (or not).
As someone entrenched in the environmental movement I completely relate to those who share their thoughts on the taboo subject to be child-free by choice in a world that celebrates reproduction. One of the most common reasons discussed is the morality of bringing children into a world that will be largely uninhabitable by the end of the century if radical climate action does not occur within the next decade. When Australia was experiencing the devastating bushfires this past summer, I was consumed with anxiety and sadness at the world that awaits my son, who is now just 2 1/2 years old. I don't think I will ever forget the particular evening we watched ash falling like black snow against a fire-tinged orange sky. And I hope I don't forget it, such a powerful reminder that the climate has already changed, and urgent action is required to halt its progress toward even more devastating ends.
Another common reason for choosing to be child-free is to avoid bringing another "superconsumer" into the world, particularly the industrialised nations where these movements are most vocal. I write this from the comfort of my first world home complete with WiFi, lighting, heaters, devices, furniture and so much stuff. Even as a climate activist my lifestyle has a heavy footprint, and the last time I measured it would take 1.7 Earths to sustain my lifestyle (the average Australian lifestyle uses 5.2 Earths - meaning, if everyone on the planet lived like Aussies we'd need 5.2 planet earths to sustain us). Bringing another western "superconsumer" into the world is hardly a pro-environmental act.
And yet, despite these very valid concerns, I never considered not having a child for environmental reasons. In fact, I actively pursued reproduction. My first child was conceived via IVF after years of "unexplained infertility", multiple tests and treatments. And last year I had two surgeries to address complications from my son's birth because without doing so I would never be able to have another child. Even after the devastation and resulting fear from the summer's bushfires, I scheduled an appointment with my fertility specialist to start another round of IVF to try for Baby #2 in February of this year.
And then 2020 continued to unfold in surprising ways.
Somewhere between the bushfires and the pandemic, and before my IVF cycle could begin, I became unexpectedly pregnant.**
I view this surprising, joyful, twist of fate emblematic of the way I view parenthood in the time of climate change - a brazen sign, or act, of hope. Even though the familiar climate horror stories initially inspired my involvement as an activist, I have never once thought we couldn't solve the problem. Never.
This doesn't mean I think everything is solved, or that we can afford to be personally or politically complacent. But that I know collectively humans have the knowledge, willpower and tenacity to overcome the climate crisis. I know, I know, I hear your concerns...
- There are conservative and corrupt governments to overcome.
- There are covert corporate interests that interfere with our governments that also attempt to greenwash us with beautiful climate commitment statements.
- We continue to emit dangerous levels of greenhouse gases, even during the pandemic.
- There are countless issues of biodiversity loss, drought, and planetary health to address.
But, we also have:
- A growing, powerful youth climate movement.
- A robust Indigenous climate movement.
- Growing awareness of the many effective grassroots environmental justice programs led by BIPOC.
- Thousands (or is it millions?) of scientists, engineerings, social scientists, writers, and other experts and activists finding solutions all across the globe.
As a result, the culture is changing.
I've said it before, but one of the great privileges of my work is meeting with people who are actively improving the world. Often quietly, behind the scenes, no fanfare (no Instagram!), just hard work, often unpaid and voluntary. So in addition to my naturally optimistic view of the world, I am lucky to be surrounded by signs of hope (as long as I don't linger on social media or the news for too long). I don't mean to discount the feelings or fears of others who have chosen the alternate view, and of course there's a chance I could be wrong, but I genuinely feel the best is yet to come for humanity. You can feel change in the air (even amongst a global pandemic, or perhaps it's enhanced because of it).
I yearned for a family for a myriad of reasons, not at all connected to the environment (except, perhaps, wanting to share the love I have for the natural world with the next generation). But I do consider the fact that I am an active environmentalist having a second child to be an act of hopeful rebellion. I refuse to accept we have lost. I remain ever hopeful that we are pulling ourselves toward a cleaner, safer future. And now I will have one more reason to continue dedicating my life to the cause. And just maybe, if I do my parenting job correctly, I'll have the privilege of raising two humans with a generous, selfless, compassionate, collaborative, justice-oriented worldview (no pressure, kids).
* Please note, I am writing specifically about people who actively choose to be child-free, and I am deeply sorry if this post triggers difficult emotions for anyone experiencing infertility or being child-free for any other reason.
**My intention here is not to provide any false hope to anyone experiencing infertility, or to offer one of those stories we're so often told to try and give us hope that miracles can happen. My heart truly goes out to anyone who has ever dealt with the emotional reality of infertility. I merely aim to tell my full story here.