As climate anxiety builds, these women are choosing to not have children
Nancy Madrid and her husband aren't climate activists, but do pride themselves on being "very intentional" about reducing their carbon footprint and living in an environmentally conscious manner. They limit their meat consumption. They conserve energy and avoid buying unnecessary items. They donate to underserved communities and vote for pro-environment measures. They recycle.
It's an eco-friendly lifestyle fueled by small household habits and one significant decision: no kids. "We do feel that our biggest contribution to reducing our carbon footprint is, of course, not having children," she says.
While the climate crisis isn't the only factor behind the couple's determination to remain childfree — "there isn’t really a desire to parent for either of us," the 34-year-old tells Yahoo Life — it is what "ultimately solidified" the choice. Married for five years, the Texas-based pair represents part of a growing movement of young people for whom reproductive choices have been greatly affected by anxiety about climate change. For some, that means limiting the size of their family in order to reduce the impact a child might have on the environment. For others, it means not having kids at all, for fears of the impact a volatile, resource-depleted environment might have on a child.
Climate anxiety and children
A study published in the journal Climatic Change last November found that climate anxiety is factoring into reproductive decisions. Of 607 Americans between the ages of 27 and 45, 59.8 percent expressed being "very" or "extremely concerned" about the carbon footprint a future child might leave, whereas 96.5 percent were "very" or "extremely concerned" about that a child's well-being amid a climate-compromised world.
Whether or not to bring a child into the world is a decision that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, co-sponsor of the Green New Deal addressing climate change, acknowledged can have high stakes right now. "Even people my age are stressed and have anxiety about having kids just because we want to make sure we are bringing our kids into a healthy world, into a stable future, and we shouldn't ever have to be anxious about that," the 31-year-old congresswoman told TMZ in January 2020 as devastating bushfires raged in Australia.
"The climate crisis specifically brings me a lot of anxiety, especially as we have begun to see more of the impacts in wildfires, extreme temperatures and displacement of communities," Madrid, who works in the nonprofit sector, says. "The lack of urgency for politicians to adequately address these issues while there is an inevitable threat of environmental disaster and a shortage of resources is pretty frightening. I think the pandemic, and more recently the winter storm crisis in Texas, definitely reaffirmed our decision and we were truly fortunate that we only had to worry about taking care of each other during such stressful and uncertain times. So, if there was ever any real desire to become parents, it would be greatly outweighed by the fact that we feel we are currently unable to provide a safe environment and future for our children."
For Sarah Baillie, getting a firsthand look at the challenges facing the planet through her work as a population and sustainability organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity affirmed her decision to not have children.
"It gave me confidence in my decision because it meant the effects of my choice go beyond my own life," the New York-based 31-year-old tells Yahoo Life of her work curating the Crowded Planet database, which looks at the impact population growth has on climate and extinction crises. "Similar to how you can switch to a plant-based diet for your own personal health, it’s nice to know that the decision reduces your overall impact on the environment too."
Normalizing being child-free
Both she and Madrid hope to normalize the child-free experience, whether it's motivated by environmental concerns. They've each had presumptive comments cast their way, and Madrid says she's "had folks take issue with me celebrating and even talking about being childfree, even though they are given all of the space in the world to celebrate parenthood." Married for almost two years, Baillie often encounters the warning: "You'll change your mind."
Not necessarily, says L.A. Sokolowski, an equestrian journalist who tells Yahoo Life she has no regrets about ruling out motherhood decades ago; she'll turn 60 in June. Sokolowski says the idea of "not overextending the capacity that the earth has to give us" resonated with her as a young woman, as did the rise of the birth control pill and an opportunity to not be defined by motherhood. Now divorced after 26 years of marriage — wanting kids was a "deal-breaker" that she and her ex agreed upon early on, much to the chagrin of her in-laws — the writer says that over the years, most of the pushback she's received has come from other women who have deemed her childfree lifestyle "selfish."
"I don't think there's anything selfish about having a bigger picture of the planet," she says.
Madrid admits that deciding to be childfree for ethical reasons can be a delicate topic to broach in certain company; some parents, or aspiring parents, see her choice as an indictment of their own lifestyle.
"I think it’s really difficult for child-free people to talk openly about their decision in general without some people getting upset or trying to convince you otherwise," she says. "I think when it comes to ethical reasons, it becomes even harder. The few times I have talked about this with parents, or people who planned to have children, I was made to feel as if this reasoning was kind of ridiculous. Someone once told me that the world has always been a bad place and that this day in age is no different, so that isn’t really a good excuse not to have children. I have encountered defensiveness on their part, and I do think that a lot of times this stems from guilt and the fact that some people may not have just not really taken the opportunity to think through this, or even simply chosen to ignore the reality we live in."
But neither she nor Baillie cast judgment on those who do want children, though they hope that being candid about their own choices and the environmental implications will spark reflection and, as Madrid says, "at least get more folks thinking about what more we can do now for future generations" by organizing and pushing for pro-environment policies.
"Speaking more openly about my decision might at least get more people thinking about what more can be done to protect their own children," she adds. "The reason for these conversations is obviously not to shame people for their choices, but instead to create unity and put the pressure on leaders to implement changes that would promote a safer and healthier world for our future generations."
Notes Baillie, "the decision of whether or not to have kids is incredibly personal and it's human nature to defend our personal choices. If I want no judgment for my choice, it’s important to also be sure to respect others's decisions. I want everyone to have the information and resources they need to choose the right family size for themselves. I think everyone should appreciate the work it takes to raise kids and understand the environmental impacts of having them."
As anxiety over the climate crisis builds — in 2018, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report warning that there were just 12 years to prevent irreversible and catastrophic damage — protests over the pressure to reproduce amid government inaction to address climate change have gained momentum. Over the last few years, members of BirthStrike in the U.K. and No Future No Children in Canada have pledged to not give birth, either at all or until substantial progress is made.
But the founders of Conceivable Future, Josephine Ferorelli and Meghan Kallman, are quick to clarify that their women-led network is not anti-natalist (considering giving birth immoral) or in favor of population control measures which, they note, have historically been rooted in eugenics and targeted developing countries and low-income communities of color. They do not advocate for either giving birth or not giving birth, but rather for recognizing and "bringing moral clarity to the threat climate change poses to childbearing." Raising awareness about the impact climate change has on reproductive decisions can serve as an "entry point" into organizing and pushing for meaningful, large-scale progress, Kallman tells Yahoo Life.
"The point of these conversations is to build a little bit of political pressure and help people develop a language for whatever it is they're feeling," she explains. "How do we connect to the human stakes of this huge, huge crisis? How do we make a little bit of sense of it for ourselves around an issue that comes up for a lot of people, and then use that to really plug into the work that needs doing? ... The point is not whether or not to have kids; the point is, what can this political moment teach us about what we have to do? The fact that people are asking themselves these questions, having these thoughts, that's the problem. The problem is that we have built a world where people need to ask [themselves if the climate is too much of a threat to a future child]."
They hope that the personal stakes will motivate people to demand action — an end to U.S. fossil fuel subsidies, for example — that will make a bigger dent in the climate crisis, as opposed to an individual decision about whether or not to reproduce, or to recycle, or to car-pool, or any of the countless other choices humans guiltily contemplate day in and day out.
"We've been trained to see that it boils down to this individual decision," Ferorelli says. "We've been trained to see that as the only place where we have agency. And when we look at it that way, we're training ourselves from asking the bigger questions. So like, why is municipal water bad enough that people are drinking this much water in plastic? Why are people forced to choose between a 15-minute car ride and a two-hour bicycle ride to work? Why isn't there a good public transit option? All of these are questions that we're not in the habit of asking, because we think it's our own personal culpability. We think we're lazy and selfish Americans and it's all our individual fault."
It's all part of a "narrative" that industries — who are culpable, and have the power to implement substantial change — promote so that people feel that "it comes down to you."
"You might grow up thinking that overpopulation is this huge, gruesome problem and that it's your fault," she notes. "And [you feel like] it's your responsibility to make the only ethical choice there is, whatever that might be. But there is no right answer in this scenario — there's only a huge amount of guilt and anxiety that people carry because we don't have the analysis to turn the question on its head."
Madrid says she knows the burden of saving the planet doesn't fall on her shoulders alone, but the decision to not add a biological child is one that she and her husband still stand firmly by.
"At the end of the day, we know that it is the biggest corporations and economic systems that are most responsible for the climate disaster," she says. "The little things we do as individuals cannot compare, but I think we can make a significant impact when we reconsider societal expectations.
"We truly feel that our best life possible is one that does not include children," she adds.
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