Last week, Donald Trump announced his plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, a non-binding agreement among 194 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and facilitate other “climate-resilient development.” It’s just one of many decisions the current administration has made that’s put the environment in danger. And decisions that accelerate the rate of climate change have some people questioning whether they should have children.
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Many adults in their 20s and 30s grew up with an awareness of protecting the environment, whether it was a Sesame Street segment telling them not to waste water, or learning about deforestation from National Geographic. “My first memory of worrying about the environment is from when we learned about greenhouse gasses in 7th grade science class,” said Victoria, 28. “I had heard of acid rain before then, but as a kid I didn’t really connect that to the environment or global warming in a broader way.”
“I was definitely the kid that made sure things got recycled and whatnot. I watched a lot of Discovery Channel when I was young, and I feel like I was really interested in environmental issues from a pretty young age,” said Zach, 27, who now works for a charity federation for environmental organizations in Washington, D.C. And for many, awareness quickly turned into anxiety. “As a kid I would stress about water conservation and recycling. I still do, really,” said Kyle, 24.
Studies show that millennials are having fewer children than their parents’ generation, and there are many reasons for that. Student loan debt and not having a guarantee of parental leave make having a child an expensive endeavor, and it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to admit you just don’t want to have kids. But some admit fear over the future of the planet is influencing their decision-making.
Zach said there are many reasons he doesn’t want kids, but as a teenager, he began doing research on climate change. “I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a good chance I would live to a ripe old age, given what we had done to this planet,” he said. “It just didn’t seem fair to bring a kid into a world that they would likely suffer greatly in, and be tasked with dealing with the immense fall out, even in a wealthy global behemoth like the US.”
“I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a good chance I would live to a ripe old age, given what we had done to this planet.”
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Victoria is on the fence about having children, but says the state of the environment “makes me feel super conflicted about bringing anyone into this world.” Kyle also says there are a lot of factors, but “the climate change aspect I had only considered recently.”
There are two arguments that typically come up when people discuss climate change and children. One is overpopulation, and whether or not it’s a legitimate threat to the planet. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, which sparked the Zero Population Growth movement. The idea was that adding more people to the planet, who would use resources and energy and space, would only accelerate our demise. Thus, people needed to commit to having smaller families, or no children at all.
“Realistically I don’t think that one child makes a difference either way, even though in other circumstances I don’t behave this way,” said Victoria. “Like, I never take shells from the beach because if everyone did there’d be no shells left. And I always vote, even though I know that my one vote for Hillary in California really didn’t change anything.” One child may not make a difference, but like with shells, it can add up.
But the more pressing issue for many who decide against children is the ethics of bringing a child into a world that is suffering. While estimates on just how much we’ve messed up the planet vary, the consensus is we have, in fact, messed it up. Back in 2007, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said it was “too late to avoid global warming,” and most agree we need to take drastic measures, fast, to protect the planet.
“These days I honestly feel like it would be irresponsible and morally bankrupt to bring a kid into the world!” said Leah, 28. She and her husband have been thinking about having children, but she’s been more reticent, given the state of the environment. “I feel like the recent shift and fear has been more of my issue than his, and we haven’t really fully reconciled that yet.”
“I don’t think that children born today will have the luxury of continuing to put off action on the climate,” said Zach, “and I feel they will be the first generation―in this country anyways, obviously there are places that are already suffering huge effects from erratic/extreme weather and rising oceans―to bear the brunt of the damage we have caused.” And to bring a child into the world knowing their future will likely be threatened by the climate seems unfair at best, and cruel at worst.
“If I had any confidence whatsoever in national leadership that prioritized climate change, I would feel much better about everything, and about the prospect of having children.”
The Trump administration isn’t helping either, and Victoria says that her thoughts on having kids might be different if Trump weren’t in charge. “Having this clown in office really, really does feel like we’re coming up on the end of the civilized world,” she said. “If I had any confidence whatsoever in national leadership that prioritized climate change, I would feel much better about everything, and about the prospect of having children.”
The issue of having children on a planet where the ice caps are melting boils down to optimism about our ability to make things change. That, or assuming the next generation will “save the world” the way our parents said we would
“I don’t think a child of mine would live to grow up. I don’t think your children will,” wrote Kate Schapira on Catapult about the subject. She struggled with telling her mom about her and her husband’s decision, made in the wake of Trump’s election. “One reason I didn’t want to tell my mom about James’s and my decision not to have children is that I didn’t want to tell her that I’d given up on the future. But who am I to set myself up as a prophet, even a failed one?” Having children requires us to divine the future. And, in some cases, to hope we are wrong.