Last spring, Columbia University’s writer in residence for biological sciences Meehan Crist published a searing essay grappling with the ethics of “childbearing in a time of planet-wide catastrophe.” The thesis to Crist’s essay, which was plainly entitled, “Is it Ok to Have a Child,” is pretty well captured by this passage:
The polar ice caps are melting. Is it OK to have a child? Australia is on fire. Is it OK to have a child? My house is flooded, my crops have failed, my community is fleeing. Is it OK to have a child? It is, in a sense, an impossible question… Having a child is at once the most intimate, irrational thing a person can do, prompted by desires so deep we hardly know where to look for their wellsprings, and an unavoidably political act that increasingly requires one to confront not only the complex biopolitics of pregnancy and birth, but also the intersecting legacies of colonialism, racism and patriarchy, all while trying to wrap one’s head around the relationship between the impossible extremes of the personal and the global.
Climate change is a defining issue of our time. During a recent conversation, Crist told us her essay (which is becoming a book that will be published in the U.S. by Random House and in the UK by Chatto & Windus) found its genesis in the conversations she had while considering starting her own family. “I couldn’t not think about climate and the environment and the impact of adding another human. I realized that I was stumbling through these conversations in my own mind, with my partner, with friends and realizing we didn’t really have the language to talk about these really intimate and often irrational decisions.”
On its surface troubling over the question, ‘Is it OK to have a child?’ seems reasonable, even responsible. Thinking it through proves far more complex, and troublesome. The reason is that such a question explodes the role and responsibility of the individual, rather than governments or multinational corporations, in ‘solving’ the climate crisis.
So what is our individual role? Crist leans on a widely cited paper by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas published in Environmental Research Letters to answer this with four high-impact ways we can limit our carbon output. They are: Eating a plant-based diet, taking one fewer transatlantic round trip by plane per year, living without a car, and having one fewer child.
That last one is a doozy. According to Wynes and Nicholas’s calculations, having one fewer child would lead to emissions savings more than 24 times greater than the next option, not having a car. A U.S. family that chooses to have one fewer child would, they write, “provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives.”
When the conversation winds its way to the topic of population control . . . Let’s just say that’s where the conversation gets thorny.
You’re not the first person to question in the public forum whether or not it’s OK to have kids.
Meehan Crist: So I had been tracking this emerging public discourse around children and climate change that I was seeing both in the sciences and in the media and I was really concerned about where this discourse was heading. In the sciences, I saw this trend towards quantifying human life through the particular lens of consumer choice. In the media, I saw a lot of pieces in varying registers of anguish and/or despair, about people deciding not to have children because of climate change.
I think that there are some very political reasons that people are articulating why they don’t want to have children. In particular, BirthStrike is a group that was really interesting and also problematic to me. And I spent hours and hours scrolling through posts on the BirthStrike Tumblr, listening to these voices of people who had decided not to have children as an act of political protest.
And those agonized voices, and sometimes even the moral clarity of those views, and certainly the moralizing tone of some of the magazine pieces I was reading, left me feeling really concerned. Even more concerning, I had noticed this growing number of conversations providing old eugenicist ideas about global population control, specifically arguments about who should and should not be having babies repackaged as a sort of new environmentalism. And so I was just curious about how all of these threads fit together and what it tells us about what it means right now to have a child and how we think about these changes across time.
“If I bring a child into the world, will they suffer? And the answer is yes, every child of the world had always suffered and suffered in ways that their parents probably couldn’t imagine.”
In ancient Sparta, to have a child was to birth either a soldier or the mother of future soldiers. So your procreation was necessarily wrapped up in the desire for the destruction of other human populations around you. I don’t think about having a baby that way but certainly, one can think about having a baby that way, right? Or, if you are part of an indigenous or native community, having a child can be seen as an act of resistance against an oppressive or even genocidal culture. So the way that we think about babies and what they are and why we have them is very changeable. And I was looking at this gap in a cultural conversation about what it means to have a baby in a time of climate change. And certainly, that is different for different groups and for different people in different circumstances around the world but it just felt like this gaping hole that I was really curious about.
That question — Will my children suffer if I bring them into this changing climate — is something I thought about when my wife and I we were talking about having kids. It’s a line of inquiry that seems natural, reasonable, responsible.
What conclusions did you come to or not?
I have kids.
There you go, right?
I do think this is one of the most interesting and tender points around this conversation. If I bring a child into the world, will they suffer? And the answer is yes, every child born into the world has always suffered and suffered in ways that their parents probably couldn’t imagine. So that’s not different, today, and depending on who you are and what kind of resources you have access to and what kind of documents you have, the risks that your child will suffer are greater or less, right?
But we are in a unique historical moment in the sense that while the future is not written in stone, it’s a little bit more determined than it used to be when we’re talking about carbon and global trajectories, right? I don’t believe that we know what’s going to happen. I don’t believe that we know how this climate crisis is going to play out. I think it’s going to be really bad and I think it’s going to be bad in ways that we’re not currently anticipating. And yet, that very unknowability is where I find the locus of hope, because it’s possible to have a worse disaster or a better disaster, if that makes sense.
And it’s possible that things might be better than we can expect right now, for reasons we can’t know right now.
“I think the future is always going to be more terrible and more wonderful than we can possibly imagine and it’s that particular unknowability that keeps me going. And it’s also the unknowability of who my child is going to be and how the world that they live in is going to shape them.”
This is not to say that I’m some kind of techno-optimist that thinks that carbon capture is going to save us all. I feel a lot of humility in the face of historical futures. I think I’m maybe more aligned with John Berger, who talks about the concept of undefeated despair, which is this idea that when things look incredibly bleak, you can look round and you can recognize the actual bleakness of the world and you can feel that despair without also feeling fear or feeling resignation. I think the future is always going to be more terrible and more wonderful than we can possibly imagine and it’s that particular unknowability that keeps me going. And it’s also the unknowability of who my child is going to be and how the world that they live in is going to shape them. And how they, and their generation, in turn, might shape the world.
I should say if you really feel like it’s not worth it to you to have to go through the suffering you will feel and the fear and anxiety that you will feel if you bring a life into the world, then don’t do it. You don’t have to do it. It’s a totally reasonable response to our current moment, and I say “reasonable” with air quotes because none of this is actually rational. But if one doesn’t want to have a child because of the climate crisis, that seems to me, a valid response. There’s no right or wrong answer here.
The question of having kids and not having kids gets thorny really quickly. Early in your essay, you discuss four ‘high impact’ actions people can take to help stem climate change. A U.S. family that chooses to have one fewer child would, you point out, provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives.
If you focus just on the problem of climate change and global warming, not having babies is not a very good lever to press in response because it doesn’t work on the timescale on which we need to change things. We need to focus on organizing the global economy and changing political and economic structures immediately. Changing agriculture, changing transportation, all of that. Those are levers that can be pressed immediately, if there is the political will.
The relationship between population and environment relies on this really complex interplay of forces, right? So you have your humans and sure, we’re all eating and breathing and doing all the things we do but you also have institutions and markets and patterns of consumption and technologies. And that relationship between population and environment and all these forces is not well understood at all. So when people start talking about the total number of humans on the planet and how many is too many and how many would be more ideal, I think what we should be talking about instead is how we organize to better use the available resources we have before we start talking about culling humans.
Tell me about this character Thomas Malthus.
It is impossible to talk about global human population without talking about the history of the ways we’ve thought about global populations. Malthus said something like, “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”
Basically, he was looking at England in the late 1700s, and he was looking at human populations in relationship, particularly, to food production. He observed that when production increased, there was this very temporary increase in the standard of living, which led to people having more babies. And then because there were more babies, the standard of living dropped. So his analysis was that humans will tend to use abundant resources to just create more humans, rather than to actually improve their own standards of living. Over time, a human population would just swell and swell and swell until there wasn’t enough food to support everyone and then there would be this catastrophic decimation of the human population. Only the very strong would survive.
Malthus’s thinking was really sticky. Policymakers and economists and scientists really glommed on to this idea which helped people arrive at things like social Darwinism and eugenics. So then you get things like forced sterilization programs. In Puerto Rico between 1936 and ’68, the U.S. government used poverty and unemployment as justifications for sterilizing women. Basically, these people are too poor and there’s no work for them, so why would they want to have kids anyway? We should make sure that they don’t have any more babies. During this period, the government sterilized nearly 35 percent of women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico. This kind of thing happened all over the world and continues to happen. Like in 2012, you get reports from Uzbekistan that the forced sterilization of women with two or sometimes three children is happening in an effort to keep the population down.
This has been a really powerful and pernicious and profoundly racist way of dealing with individual humans for a very long time. And so when we jump to today and think about climate and the “problem of global population”— and you look at these scientific studies coming out saying ‘hey, the thing that you can do is have one fewer child, that would be really helpful to climate’—it’s important also to look at how these ideas feed directly into the eco-fascist fantasies that you see in the Deep Green right. These are ideas that helped incite mass shooters in Texas and New Zealand.
The Deep Green right?
This is linked to some degree to the history of deep ecology. Basically, there was shift during the environmental movement between the ’60s and the ’90s, where people started arguing that humans are no more morally worthy of life than any other life on this planet.
When you decenter the human from what you value, you start coming up with more value for nonhuman life, which in many ways is perhaps arguably a good thing. But you also run on this very, very slippery slope towards devaluing human life to the point that you arrive at eco-fascist fantasies, where there are these visions of closed borders and racial purity and death squads that are going to kill the people who have been deemed unfit. People who have been deemed unfit, genetically or socially, will not be allowed to have offspring. There’ll be birth licenses. In order to save the valuable, beautiful, green, wonderful thing that is life on Earth, we need to be ruthless with humans — and with some humans more than others.
“You can feel despair without giving into fear or resignation; you can still try to be in the world, how you wish the world was.”
It’s not just far right eco-fascists that are thinking this way; there are much more centrist ways of thinking that have a complicated relationship between women’s advocacy and birth control and climate change. And the idea is, when women are educated and have access to birth control, they have fewer babies, so we should give women birth control and make sure that they are educated in order to reduce the global human population. There’s a very important ‘we’ in that sentence. ‘We’ is usually industrialized Western nations going into cultures that are not their own and imposing these ideas.
There is very much an unmet need for reproductive care and birth control in many places and there are places where women are fighting for those rights and really want to have those things and want to have fewer babies… But too often the idea that we should aim for lower emissions via access to contraception and family planning puts the onus onto Black and brown women in developing countries to have fewer babies.
People coming in from outside of communities and outside those cultures, actively attempting to change cultural norms in communities that have been historically subjugated by those very same people in order to have fewer people on the planet, so that consumption can continue to some degree the way that it’s continuing, is deeply problematic, right? The ideas for lower emissions through access to contraception and family planning puts the onus onto Black and brown women in developing countries to have fewer babies. I think that placing the burden of solving the problem of climate change onto women’s bodies, and particularly onto the bodies of poor Black and brown women, is a really problematic approach.
So population control is out.
But I’m still concerned about climate change, what do I do?
So the ‘What do we do?’ I think we could take a cue from Black feminists like Sister Song who coined the term reproductive justice. In that framework there’s a focus on the right to raise children in a healthy environment. And so some people have suggested that we should be fighting for the right to have a carbon-neutral child. My question is, what would that look like? What would it mean to be able to have a carbon-neutral child on this planet? It would probably mean that we had organized our resources differently and better. My inclination is to push for that, rather than to push for less people.
I recently spoke with the climatologist Gavin Schmidt. He made the point that you can’t get so caught up in worrying about getting the recycling out every week because in reality, you getting all of the plastic bottles into the bin, it doesn’t matter. But I do that thing: I don’t use single-use plastic bags; I do get all of the Gatorade bottles into the bin every week; I’m thinking about an electric car and solar panels on my roof.
And you’re like ‘Fuck it, if we’re hurtling toward oblivion, why bother?’
I actually feel just the opposite. I feel like being good and trying to help, no matter what, is still a worthwhile struggle.
I think that ties into the John Berger idea, right? You can feel despair without giving into fear or resignation; you can still try to be in the world, how you wish the world was. And I do think that Gavin’s not wrong in the sense that if massive transformational changes are not made at the government and corporate levels, it won’t matter if you live in a yurt and eat only seaweed and don’t have kids, right? But I don’t think this means that individual action is meaningless. I tend to be skeptical of narratives that emphasize individual action, just generally. Particularly consumer choice because the need to be these good green consumers has been used and propagated by fossil fuel companies to shift responsibility away from corporations and away from powerful industries onto individuals. And I’m also skeptical because as Gavin pointed out to you, individual choices can’t actually address the systemic drivers of climate change, right? Governments and corporations will need to be held accountable for practices that pollute the environment and drive climate change and literally kill people every day.
In comparison, sweeping changes in individual habits, particularly in wealthy countries, where there is very high per capita consumption, could lead to lower emissions. When the coronavirus lockdowns were happening, people were talking about how the reduction in air travel could reduce global emissions.
And it’s true that a reduction in air travel could decrease aviation emissions, but aviation only accounts for 2.5% of global emissions and passenger travel, individual consumers buying tickets and hopping on planes, is not the bulk of plane traffic. A lot of that has to do with industry. So what matters in terms of the climate crisis are things like heavy industry, energy, and agriculture. And changes in consumer habits are going to mean very little going forward if we also fail to decarbonize the global economy.
I tend to think that individual action may matter less in terms of direct reductions in global carbon emissions and a lot more because of what social scientists call behavioral contagion, which refers to the way that ideas and behavior tend to spread through a population. So in terms of climate action, individual actions can have a ripple effect in a community that actually leads to changes in voting and even policy.
If you’re taking out all your Gatorade bottles, your neighbor sees you doing that and they start taking out their Gatorade bottles and then you have a conversation about how, “Man, recycling actually seems to matter because climate change and hey, did you know they’re building a pipeline in our neighborhood? Wow, maybe we should care about that.” Individual action can really reaffirm one’s own political commitments, and it can help to build community around shared values, which can then become the bedrock of collective political action. So I wouldn’t say it doesn’t matter, don’t recycle, don’t do those things because you’re not going to pull carbon out of the air. I would say it does matter, just in a different way.
So if we’re talking about stewardship, should we dial up the carbon footprint calculator and live that way?
It is very, very important to note that BP–that’s British Petroleum–are the ones who popularized the idea of the carbon footprint. They plucked it out of academic obscurity and they made these web based carbon footprint calculators that you could use, which you now see everywhere, right?
But the carbon footprint is such a ubiquitous idea at this point. It’s incredible how good fossil fuel companies are at propaganda and how good they are at framing cultural conversations. We are all now living in their world, we are using their language, we are thinking their thoughts because they worked very hard to make it that way.
Ideas like the carbon footprint calculator shift responsibility for global emissions from systemic actors, like BP, onto individuals. Systemic actors, including governments, certainly benefit from us thinking this way. It gives corporations a pass while placing this incredibly heavy burden of moral responsibility onto people living inside systems where they’re not free to make carbon-neutral choices. So you’re caught in this incredible bind.
It also troubles me because it accepts that this neoliberal order that has driven the climate crisis is inevitable, right? And insists that the responses to this crisis have to take place in the same system. And so it’s your job to reduce your carbon footprint by eating less meat but you can’t ever buy carbon-neutral food. You really should take public transportation but if you have a job that is on the other side of the city, you would have to take a car to work and then you’re morally responsible for the emissions of that car. But what are you going to do? Quit your job? You need your job because you need to buy that non carbon-neutral food.
I also think that this particular framing ignores the fact that people who live in different parts of the world have really different per capita emissions and that overconsumption in the global North means that children born in the global North have much higher per capita emissions. And it also means that people in the global South are going to be feeling the effects of the climate crisis with far greater force without having taken the actions that supposedly this moral system makes us responsible for.
Ok, the carbon footprint is out. Instead, we’re stuck in big picture thinking. When it comes to choosing what to eat and what politics to support and whether or not to bring a child into this world, we need to think about… everything.
I think that in the coming decades, the ways that conversations around climate change, immigration, energy, and population, how those things unfold, is probably going to map the shape of our future democracy and potentially, the shape of the world. I guess I would put agriculture and food production in there, as well as distribution. Food, energy, climate, immigration, and population. The nexus of those things and the ways that we make policies around those things, even when they don’t seem to be interconnected, I feel like they probably, on some base level, will be foundational to our future.
These things are in our most intimate conversations and decisions. When you are sitting in a room with your partner talking about whether or not you want to bring a life into the world, that conversation is being shaped by all of these forces in profound ways. And it doesn’t mean that that conversation is not, in fact, also intimate and honest and the meeting of two minds. It’s just that our minds are shaped by the water in which we swim.