When people weigh up whether or not to have children of their own, they tend to think about their finances, health, the strength of their relationship and their parenting abilities. They don't usually consider the environment and the toll their decision would have on the planet (or the effects our climate could have on their future daughter or son's life.)
The 1st August was this year's Earth Overshoot Day, the symbolic day by which the world's population has already used up all the resources that it takes the planet a year to make, and the global population continues to balloon each year (by roughly 83 million, according to the UN). So, no wonder we're starting thinking seriously about the implications of population growth.
This includes thinking more deeply about whether or not we want to procreate at all. Having one fewer child per family can save an average of 58.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per year, according to research from Lund University in Sweden in 2017, making bringing one child into the world far more environmentally destructive than eating meat, driving a car or travelling by plane. But deciding how many – if any – children to have is a deeply personal choice, and it's an activity with the potential to give meaning and purpose to our lives in a way that driving a car doesn't.
Deciding against having children for environmental reasons is, therefore, viewed as an unorthodox – if not a downright extreme – stance. It's a position held by 25-year-old Jemima*, an actor in London who volunteers for an environmental charity. She has vowed to never have biological children out of concern for the environment, despite having always wanted to be a mother. Here, she explains why to Refinery29.
I first knew I didn’t want to have my own children about three years ago. I want them but I don’t think I should have them. My ex boyfriend was an amazing, passionate activist who changed my thoughts about a lot of things and the more that we looked at the speed of the demise of the planet, the more sure we were that if we ended up together we wouldn’t have our own children. I’m not with him anymore – we broke up last year and I’m now with a guy who does want his own children, but that’s another conversation.
If these climate and weather issues are happening when I’m 25, I can’t bear to think about what could be happening when my future child is 25.
Even though he wants his own kids, I don’t think I'd have children of my own if I ended up with him. I wouldn’t feel content knowing what my child’s life would be like in the years to come, and that wouldn’t change even if I ended up with my current boyfriend. I’d consider adoption. At the moment I’m quite ignorant about the process and I know it’s not as easy as it sounds, but if that was a possibility and all the boxes were ticked then that would be a brilliant and lovely thing to do.
You can go vegan and stop flying and all the other things, but bringing a child into the world is huge.
The key motivation for my decision is the speed at which the planet is changing. Take the heatwave we’ve been having in the UK recently, the wildfires in Greece last month and the ongoing fires in California. The climate is only going to get worse. If these climate and weather issues are happening when I’m 25, I can’t bear to think about what could be happening when my future child is 25. Even if we solve climate change tomorrow – with new policy regulations and a transition to renewables – it’s been so detrimental already that their life would be so much worse. I’d feel selfish because I’d be having a child for me and not for them.
For our parents’ generation it was very rare to have children and think about the climate, but it’s such a huge part of the dialogue among our generation. Discussions about whether or not people should have children are still generally kept separate from discussions about the environment, but the connection between the two is huge. You can go vegan and stop flying and all the other things, but bringing a child into the world is huge. The film First Reformed, which came out recently and stars Amanda Seyfried and Ethan Hawke, explores the dilemma of children and the environment, and the brilliant play Lungs also discussed it, so the debate is becoming more mainstream.
It’s hard because it’s such an emotional issue – it’s way more emotional than it needs to be. It’s difficult to put logic ahead of your heart. When people make the argument that the human race would die out if everyone thought like me, I point to the fact that the world is overpopulated already and at current rates of growth we’re going to get to almost 10 billion by 2050, according to the UN. That’s unsustainable for the planet. It’s unlikely that those 10 billion will all decide to get sterilised.
I don’t talk about my decision to many people because it’s so emotional – only my best friends. I never bring it up and will only talk about it if someone asks me. Often when people talk about something that another person isn’t doing it can come across like they’re blaming the other person, so I always feel awkward about what might friends might think. I don’t want them to think I’m trying to transcend womanhood, it’s not that at all. The environment is increasingly part of the narrative around reproduction, so some of my friends now say they’ll only have one child before adopting others.
My mum found it initially quite hard to deal with my decision because my sister is also quite sympathetic to my views. She’s open-minded and we’ve spoken about it in a practical way, without the emotion – about how for me it would be selfish to have children for the sole reason of wanting to pass my genes on. It’s possible to still have those emotions and that connection to a child without having the same colour eyes as them. I would rethink my perspective if there was a huge energy revolution. I’ve always wanted children and have had periods since I was 10 years old, so it’s annoying that my body has been training me for motherhood.
I’d never want to regulate people’s freedom by stopping them from having kids, that’s awful, but I do think people should think hard before having them and there should be more literature around it. It’s a decision that should be handled sensitively and it shouldn’t be considered polarising.