Should you bring children into a crowded and ecologically declining world? More and more young people are asking themselves this question. One woman explores her personal choice in a global perspective.
by Gaia Baracetti
It’s definitely a thing now. Here in the West at least there seems to be an almost incessant flow of articles and media features about young people refusing to procreate or seriously agonising over it. Though many reasons are listed, from the most selfish to the most selfless, worries about human overpopulation, climate change, and the consequences of both appear to rank highest among the concerns.
Is it fair to bring a child into a world that is rapidly collapsing around us? And what would my child – that one extra child – mean for a planet where so many people are living in poverty and conflict, and humanity as a whole is destroying the biosphere through a combination of greed, desperation, and the sheer weight of its numbers?
Many react to these questions by shifting the conversation onto consumption as opposed to numbers, as if worrying about one precluded worrying about the other, or rehash the old idea that the more people there are, the higher the chance of one of them finding the solution to our problems – never mind that we already have most of the solutions, and one of them is ensuring there are fewer of us. Even if there weren’t (and there are) studies recommending having fewer children as one of the top solutions for the environmental problems we’re facing, it is an obvious fact that the root of all these problems is human presence and activity, and more humans means more of both, no matter how well you raise your child.
So, many people of reproductive age, of every gender, race, income level and sexual orientation, go on record saying that they have undergone voluntary sterilisation, or have broken up with partners who weren’t willing to renounce reproduction, or are considering having just one child or adopting or being content with becoming the cool aunt or uncle to other people’s kids. They want to be proud of their choices, not shamed; they have their own dating apps and lingo and acronyms and forums and publications.
At the most extreme end, one activist has founded the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. You can check them out at https://www.vhemt.org/ – where you will find the answer to questions you might have about this, such as: “Are you really serious?”
Even though our current predicament regarding climate disruption and planetary overshoot is unprecedented, the idea that it is intrinsically wrong to reproduce is not new. The Medieval Christian movement of the Cathars, for example, believed that the physical world they lived in was the creation of an evil god, and that to bring new life into such a world of sin was morally wrong. The Catholic Church considered them heretics and had them exterminated – thus unwittingly proving their point.
Nor is the refusal to reproduce as a conscious choice limited to Western countries, even though concern about the environment might be uniquely prevalent here. In spite of the government’s efforts in reversing the one child policy, the birth rate in China appears to keep falling because raising a child is so stressful and expensive; in South Korea, many women are foregoing marriage and children as a more or less conscious form of protest against a misogynistic society; and in his fascinating reportage Countdown Alan Weisman claims that, when it comes to Japan, people are having very few children by… not having a lot of sex.
Even when the natural world doesn’t factor into the decision, this still counts as witholding reproduction in reaction to environmental conditions: a refusal to bring a child into a world that is too crowded, too competitive, too unfair …
Still, these are all societies where fertility has already fallen below replacement – and, with the exception of China, those that happen to be among the wealthiest and, at least for now, the most peaceful and stable. It is hard to make generalisations about the behaviour of close to 8 billion people, but about as often as one reads articles about the childfree-out-of-worry, one can find contrasting sentiments expressed in reports about the breeders-out-of-hope.
In high fertility countries, such as those of sub-Saharan Africa, an apparently common sentiment is that God will decide how many children should be had and will provide for them, that children are a source of joy, that whatever little food there is will be shared, or variations on this theme of trust and hopefulness. It is striking that these are the same countries where poverty is most widespread and unemployment most dire, where climate change might hit the hardest, and where, according to most people’s criteria, children will have the worst prospects for their future.
This contrast of high fertility – and not just actual, but often high desired fertility – in struggling societies juxtaposed against low birth rates among the well-off is truly puzzling. It might be that the rich see decline where the poor see opportunities for improvement – that it is easier to see things getting worse when they are, admittedly, pretty good. The spectacle of low-fertility Europe and the United States on one side of the border torn about what to do about so many immigrants and asylum seekers who’ve come knocking on the other, with their young families, with their pregnant women, with their children born in refugees camps, during bombings or famines, during the perilous journey even … seems to condense in one snapshot this apparently paradoxical situation. If we were capable of a more open mindset, we could each ask the other: what do you see that I do not see?
Another question that might come to mind, of course is: what view will prevail? Will we converge, or will the prudent simply be out-bred by the hopefuls?
I was asked to write this post as a young person who might have given the issue some thought herself. Some aspects of it are too personal to be discussed publicly, and some come down to individual inclinations and preference – what you know yourself to be desiring, what you want to do with the limited time you have on this Earth.
I am used to being asked about it, though. I happen to live in a rural area in Italy where it’s perfectly acceptable for complete strangers to interrogate a woman: “why don’t you have children? When are you going to make one?”
I usually tell them what most childfree people would say about this – I mention the cost of raising a child, human overpopulation, the climate, the destruction of so many forms of life we should be sharing the planet with … some people, surprisingly, agree, others are horrified, or claim to have no idea what I’m talking about.
In our family-oriented society, it is common to call “selfish” those who refuse to have children, implying that they’d rather be spending their money on themselves and enjoying their free time. This narrative appears to be slowly changing – after all: selfish towards whom? The only group who could claim to be damaged by said “selfishness” are the pensioners, who would mostly be dead by the time our children are ready to pay their pensions, anyway.
But that’s not the point. As my generation watches the generation of our parents hoard all wealth, direct towards themselves most public spending, retire early into a standard of living that we cannot afford even when we work, all of this after they’ve made their contribution not just to wealth creation, but also to planetary destruction and the current deteriorating situation … well, let’s say that the “pension-paying” rhetoric is still very strong, but slowly cracking. Our parents will be fine. Our own children might not be.
Other objections are often raised. Leaving aside the idea that I have “good genes” to pass on I’ve been told that having a child is my best chance to pass on my values. But then, why do I write? Why do we even talk to each other, engage in activism, teach in schools, run for office, if our best chance of convincing anyone of anything is making kids and telling them what to believe? Also, watching how generations regularly rebel against their predecessors, and societies constantly evolve, the strategy of passing on ideas through family seems both too narrow and completely unreliable.
Others say that it is only when you have a child that you truly start caring about the planet and the future. This might be true for some, but certainly not for everybody, and even when it is, it leads some once again to the inevitable conclusion: many childfree people say that their greatest act of love towards their children will be… not having them.
When I answer questions about my own reproductive choices, knowing how personal this is, I am not actually hoping to convince anyone – mostly to be left alone. Since I am usually ready to discuss the theme of overpopulation, this specific reluctance might come down to my knowledge about my own deepest motivations.
The truth is that I despair about humans themselves. This is odd, since I like people, company, and the things humans make. Yet there’s something about us, our cruelty, our immense capacity for destruction, our abuse of each other and of other species, that makes me reluctant to put another human into this world – however unlikely this human would be to commit horrendous acts in his or her life. If you have an interest in history or current affairs, you’ll have noticed that the list of horrors we are capable of never seems to end.
We are not uniquely aggressive, but we have developed nuclear weapons whereas most predators settle for claws and fangs. We are the only species, as far as I know, that tortures and imprisons. Even our greatest achievements – such as modern medicine or surplus food production – are predicated upon the exploitation of other humans or life forms. There’s something probably incorrigible about us as humans. Sometimes I even think that the animals closest to us in terms of behaviour and intelligence share our worst traits, too.
Does this mean I am in favour of the voluntary extinction of the human species? I don’t know. Thankfully, unlike that of bringing a child into this world, this is not a decision a single individual or couple can make. And Earth will have a say, too, about whether our species survives or not.