Should the right to procreate eclipse future generations’ interests entirely? Book review of “Under the Sky We Make” by Kimberly Nicholas

Under the Sky We Make is an excellent exploration of what needs to be done to fight climate change. Its author succeeds in the difficult task of inspiring the desire to act. Yet she ignores the importance of reversing population growth, missing an important opportunity to educate readers on a key aspect of climate disruption and sustainability.  

By Pernilla Hansson

In March of this year, Dr. Kimberly Nicholas published a book titled Under the Sky We Make, covering the science of climate disruption and the tools for making real change. She stresses that the science has been done and the technology exists, and that the focus now should be implementing the necessary changes.

Nicholas is a global sustainability scientist and co-author of the very important 2017 article “The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions” which showed that the most effective way to lower your greenhouse gas emissions is to have fewer children. The Wynes and Nicholas study extended the 2009 study by Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax, which calculated the additional emissions of having children in the 11 most populous countries, for instance finding that one fewer American child might save more than five times the parent’s lifetime emissions, if the descendants followed current lifestyles. Wynes and Nicholas (2017) repeated this calculation for a number of developed countries. The paper gained a great deal of attention, not only among scientists (529 citations in Google Scholar) but also in media; according to the journal’s website, 238 news outlets picked up the article. The question on Google “How much CO2 does a child produce?” now has 182 million links.

In Under the Sky We Make, Nicholas writes passionately, exploring the different topics with well thought-out language and humour, in a way that lets lay people grasp the realities of the climate crisis. There is a section called “TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read)” where she highlights the most important points of each chapter. Almost all chapters start with a personal account that ties into the theme of that chapter, drawing on the feelings of someone who has gone through the journey of learning about the climate crisis and working to align her life with minimising climate harm. It is also written from a first-person perspective, hammering home the personal aspects of this profound change.

Importantly, the book is filled with references to support her claims, with almost 100 pages of references at the end of the book, neatly organised according to chapter and the page they are used. It is a very unobtrusive way to allow for fact checking and ensuring that anyone who wants to learn more about a specific point can find more information. The chapters are divided into three sections.

Section one delves into the science of climate change. Nicholas shows where we are now and paints a rather bleak picture of what the future may be like as well as what change is already unavoidable in the future. She also introduces the idea of the Exploitation Mindset vs the Regenerative Mindset, an idea she often comes back to throughout the book. In summary, the Exploitation Mindset, as the predominant mindset today, sees production and consumption of more material goods leading to progress and purpose. This is compared to the mindset she hopes takes hold for our future societies, the Regenerative Mindset, which values resilient and regenerative systems that can support life without waste.

Section two focuses more on the emotional journey and consequences of climate change, about learning to accept the agonizing truth and using it to spur personal change. Nicholas believes discussing climate change, and science in general, in a personal way as compared to the often dispassionate language of science, is a necessity, as the emotional angle is often most important to the public.

The final section is by far the longest of the three, covering almost as many pages as the first two sections together. This length is a reasonable choice, as it deals with the important topic of what we can actually do about climate change. As such, Nicholas brings up many concrete, and some semi-concrete, methods of change and actions that can be carried out, on a country as well as a personal level. She is hopeful that the changes can be made, even if they need strong action. The section ends with the need to overcome the current favouring of short-term gratification, comparing the work that we do for climate stabilisation to building a cathedral: “collectively working towards a transcendent purpose we may or may not live to see accomplished but that will outlive us all.”

So where does population fit into all this? Given Nicholas’ most cited journal article, we might expect it to feature among the solutions somewhere in section 3. It doesn’t. Instead, the choice of family size is discussed briefly in the second section, chapter 5. Starting off with an email from a man concerned for his child and possible future children, the focus of this chapter is to create personal meaning in a changing world. Nicholas seemingly retracts the importance of what her 2017 study showed, calling the initial finding of how choosing fewer children is good for the climate “awkward.” She correctly states that whether and how many children you want is a fundamental human right, yet the necessary connection between right and responsibility, which we have previously discussed, is nowhere to be found. Neither is any acknowledgement that the choice is still unavailable to many, either through social pressure or inaccessibility of contraceptives.

The framing of Nicholas’ discussion of ending population growth is done in a way that suggests that doing so would put the responsibility to act on future children rather than humans living today, writing how she believes “it’s deeply unfair to push adults’ urgent responsibility to slash emissions now onto someone more vulnerable in the future.” For all her talk of needing to act on all fronts, in her eyes addressing population growth somehow seemingly entails not doing anything else. Had her main argument against acting towards population stabilisation been that it takes time to come into effect, that could be a reasonable (albeit flawed) argument, as she stresses the need to reach net-zero carbon within this decade. She also does not address the fact that population growth has other negative consequences and that ending population growth would provide multiple environmental benefits beyond the climate issue.

Yet the book is filled with examples where population plays a key role. In chapter 1, Nicholas mentions 3.6 billion people are expected to be exposed to water stress at a warming of 2°C, but nothing on how population growth can act together with warming as a threat multiplier. She laments the loss of animals and plants to human expansion and exploitation, while not acknowledging how our increasing numbers contribute to this. The problems of our agricultural system are explored, how we leave little to nature, as well as how agriculture is the main driver of the biodiversity crisis. Yet she doesn’t connect the fact that population growth causes an increased need for food, conversion of wild places into agricultural areas, and agricultural intensification with its attendant pollution. In her conclusion, she envisions a beautiful future:

We are called to create, live in, and pass on a world where each person is treated with dignity and has the material and social fundamentals they need for a good life. A world where people can continue to grow sufficient food. A world where life is thriving in the oceans and on land. A world where life is no longer threatened by climate change.

How much of this would be possible with continued population growth? Ensuring a good life for all is not possible even with equal distribution of Earth’s resources without addressing population. If population continues to grow, so will agricultural lands to keep up with the demand. Our continued population growth is a continued threat towards other species on this planet. Reversing population growth can be an effective tool in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Considering that Nicholas stresses that we should be acting on the root causes of climate change and also cites the IPCC, it is unfortunate that she does not consider population growth, identified by the IPCC as one of two main drivers of climate change, as something worth actively addressing.

The lack of attention to the population factor is frustrating, as the book is excellently written and otherwise brings up many good points and valid critiques of current actions, as well as inspiring a desire to act for a better tomorrow. We might speculate that Nicholas has been warned off discussing population by the backlash from her 2017 paper, which she mentions in the book, and which led to accusations that she promoted suicide and euthanasia. But is self-censorship an ethical choice? It could mean that her book receives less criticism and is promoted by organisations that would shun it if it discussed population. But the good done by the book in motivating climate action might be undone if it contributes to inaction on population.

Actions to halt and reverse population growth may not have the most immediate effect, but the longer we wait to address it, the longer it will be a problem and the bigger the problem will be. To those who already know that, this is an excellent and engaging book to further your understanding of the climate crisis and what should be done to meet it. But if you buy a copy for a friend or family member, be sure they understand that despite Nicholas’ arguments, population degrowth is a necessity for a sustainable future.

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10 thoughts on “Should the right to procreate eclipse future generations’ interests entirely? Book review of “Under the Sky We Make” by Kimberly Nicholas

  1. How’s this for “inspiring the desire to act” to reverse climate collapse by addressing the single most important topic: too many humans using too many natural resources and producing too much pollution: Population Density Stress Is Killing Us NOW!? Stress R Us

  2. The irrefutable question any prospective new parent must be asking him/herself is this: what kind of life will my child have in a dying ecosystem struggling to stay alive when 206,000 more of us are being born daily? Still want a(nother) child to face this future world?

  3. It is not a ‘right’ to have children, it is a privilege!
    The world population must be reduced and controlled – if mankind doesn’t do it, Mother Nature will!

  4. It is really perplexing how population growth is such a taboo in some circles. It might have something to do with the current obsession with racism, sexism, and how certain groups of people are inherently guilty and others inherently blameless.

    Funnily, I think you find this attitude more among the “inherently guilty” people. If you read articles from Africa or South Asia for example, they know full well they have a population problem they need to do something about.

    (It is also strange how people can’t seem to grasp the difference between “killing people” and “not making new people”)

    1. I’m finishing up a literature review on climate ethics and population, and it’s true: concerns about racism and sexism disable many people’s ability to think clearly about these matters. It’s as if considering women or certain racial groups as part of nature, whose reproductive decisions have an impact on other parts of nature, is seen as inherently disrespectful.

      But as the literature review also reveals, more people are recognizing that ignoring population isn’t an option in a world in steep ecological decline. 10 years ago when I did a similar lit review, there weren’t many publications to describe. Today it’s a lot different, with good books by Partha Dasgupta, Sarah Conly, Travis Rieder, Trevor Hedberg, Eileen Crist and Donna Haraway. Also dozens of articles.

      People are waking up. A little late, but better late than never …

      1. I think an even deeper problem is related to the concept of “blame”. We have a hard time separating the idea of consequence from the idea of guilt – perhaps this is reasonable, given that human societies cannot exist without values.
        So, for some reason it is acceptable to say “if you fly often, you pollute”, but not “if you have many children, you will add to the pressure on the ecosystem.” This is because you are seen as “blaming” people, not merely as stating a fact (which it is), but, whereas in past times it was ok to blame just the poor, it now seems ok to blame just the rich (I’m simplifying here).
        Part of this is because the rich are assumed to have more agency and choice, and the poor to have less of both. And yet, if you assume that poor people, because they have or appear to have less power, bear less responsibility for their actions… I find that to be more dehumanising than saying: yes, even if you are poor, you should think about consequences.

        (Of course, ideally, there should be nowhere near the wealth disparities that we witness today. Yet, we have to act in a world in which there are)

  5. Ms. Hansson says: “She(the author) correctly states that whether and how many children you want is a fundamental human right,…” This, a clear statement of the human rights religion, is only true if other living things have no rights, or at best inferior rights. Humans, multiplying from 1 billion in 1800 to almost 8 billion now, have no intention of providing rights to other living things. If other living things have intrinsic worth, it’s not the right of any human to have as many babies as they want.

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