This article originally featured on Threemag.co.za as part of my Stay Sustainable Column
In my debut Stay Sustainable column exploring sustainable ways to have sex, I joked that, considering the planetary resources it takes to have a child, the most sustainable condom around is likely the safest one! Jokes aside, having one fewer child has been touted as one of the most environmentally-friendly actions an individual can take.
Just take a look at this chart from the 2017 Environmental Research Letters which looks at 12 lifestyle choices and their carbon impact.
I mentioned it once and I’ll probably continue to mention it in every column I ever write, that lifestyle changes are not enough to save the world – cause fam, we need serious system change to get out of this mess. Like i’m talking reframing our entire economic and financial systems and ending human and white supremacy kind-of-shit.
But, be that as it may, lifestyle changes count. Especially when that individual change results in the individual change of billions of people. So, should we be having less kids? And why are some people choosing not to have kids at all?
Many people are choosing not to, or delaying having children, due to the fact that they just don’t want to (yes, it’s fine not to want to) or that it’s expensive AF. Many people can’t afford to buy a home or a car and many are drowning in student debt (#feesmustfall) – nevermind being able to financially support another human being.
However, there are a growing number of individuals around the world who are choosing not to have children because they 1. don’t feel comfortable bringing a child into a world where climate chaos and environmental breakdown will only accelerate if we don’t change course, and 2. because they want to reduce their personal environmental footprint as much as possible. Birth Strike is just one example of a growing movement of these people who are hesitating to reproduce, some saying they will refuse to have children until the ecological crises comes to an end.
“humans have always existed in uncertainty and with the threat of annihilation – our times are no different in that regard.”
Some say there is growing scientific evidence that life will be far harder for children in the future and that on this basis people should carefully consider having children. But we should also acknowledge that humans have always existed in uncertainty and with the threat of annihilation – our times are no different in that regard.
The overpopulation simplification
Whenever I see climate and environmental solutions discussed online – or have them in person, there’s always that one person who turns around and blames it all on overpopulation.
Um, ok boomer.
This argument links back to the 1960s when populations spiked and apocalyptic prophecies emerged that the poor would procreate endlessly and overrun the ‘developed’ world. Er, classist and racist much? But the truth is, that overpopulation is not a “permanent feature of some countries or cultures” as this video by Kurzgezacht points out. Rather, it is a process called a ‘demographic transition’ whereby population growth eventually stabilises. And PSA: the whole world has or is going through this transition. Countries in the global south are just going through them a lot later because well, they were just a bit busy being colonised and pillaged for their resources before.
I’m not saying that a growing population doesn’t put strain on our ecology or that it doesn’t come with its own challenges. Rather, that we should be careful to fall into the trap of believing that it is the pinnacle issue driving environmental breakdown and climate change, when it is far more likely the current system which promotes rampant consumerism and extreme wealth.
“Consumption’s the problem”
As Charles Eisenstein writes in his piece for the Guardian, Concern about overpopulation is a red herring; consumption’s the problem: “If everyone on Earth lived the lifestyle of a traditional Indian villager, it is arguable that even 12 billion would be a sustainable world population. If everyone lives like an upper-middle-class North American (a status to which much of the world seems to aspire), then even two billion is unsustainable.”
Just take a look at the fact that the richest ten percent of the world are responsible for 49% of the world’s consumption emissions, whilst the poorest 50% are responsible for just 10%.
No matter which way you look at it, it is clear that the question of parenthood is one that is a far more loaded and considered question that it once was. But as Kate Marvel answers in this New York times Q&A: the question of whether or not to have children “is a deeply personal question that science can’t answer.”