There’s a moment in the evening when I go to check on my children in their beds. I stay and watch them sleep for a while, enjoying their peaceful, steady breathing and the rare stillness in their faces. I feel a wave of love for them but also a jab of fear.
There were many things I expected to experience when I became a parent. Love, a fierce sense of protection, exhaustion, bone-crushing tedium. What I didn’t expect was so much fear — not so much about grazed knees and high fevers, but an existential fear about what kind of life my children can expect in a world facing down environmental crises too enormous and terrifying to wrap our heads around.
I have covered the environment for many years; I knew climate change was a disaster already unfolding: waste was building up on a planet with nowhere to put it, wildlife and trees were disappearing at an alarming rate. And yet I decided to have one child, and then another.
Five years later and the world feels so much worse. My head is filled with statistics about soaring temperatures, sea level rises, and insect deaths, with images of fires ripping through communities and islands being swallowed by the sea.
In 2050 — by which time, according to a June study, the Arctic could be ice free, the Amazon ecosystem may have collapsed, and human civilization as we know it will be disintegrating — my children will be just 34 and 36. Maybe a stage in their lives when they’ll have, or be thinking about having, children of their own. Maybe they won’t ever have the luxury of that decision.
As scientists continue to punch out increasingly apocalyptic warnings about the state of the planet, and feelings of “eco-anxiety” rise, it’s perhaps not surprising that some people have started to question whether they want to bring a child into the world.
In this landscape of uncertainty, a nascent movement of grassroots organizations has sprung up to help people try to navigate these impossible decisions.
One of the most high-profile is Conceivable Future. Co-founders Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli met at a concert in 2014. Within minutes of being introduced, they found themselves talking about how the climate crisis was shaping their view of having children.
“We were really hungry to talk about this obviously, it was really close to the surface for us both,” Ferorelli, a writer, illustrator, and yoga instructor, told HuffPost. “And it was a powerful relief to say it out loud and to hear someone else recognize it.”
This connection between the two women planted the seed for Conceivable Future’s model, which centers on bringing people together to talk about the climate crisis through the lens of their parenthood hopes and fears.
“When you look at all the social movements in history that have been successful, a common theme is that people can really understand what this means for their own lives,” said Kallman, a sociologist and city councillor.
The organization helps people put on “house parties,” gatherings where participants — those without children as well as those who are expecting or already have kids — come together to tell their stories.
Some of these stories, which Kallman and Ferorelli call “testimonies,” are filmed and uploaded.
Mei’s is one of the most recent. For a long time, she says in the video, she didn’t want to have children. There was a knot of reasons: The potential hit to her career along with the lack of support in the U.S. for parents raising kids. But one concern really gnawed at her.
“I came to realize it was about climate change and anxiety about what kind of a world I would be leaving to a potential child,” said Mei, 37, who lives in Chicago.
She had lengthy debates with her husband. “The entire time the conversation centered on climate change and whether that was an ethical thing for us to do.” Eventually, they decided to go for it, and Mei’s first baby is due in August. But she remains deeply worried.
Other testimonies reveal the agony of indecision. Meghan Hoskins, a 23-year-old from New Hampshire who very much wants kids, lays out her dilemma: “I am afraid that they will eventually have to live in a world where there is no fresh water and that is increasingly full of dangerous and toxic chemicals.”
Back in March, during an Instagram livestream from her kitchen, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez paused from cooking to say: “There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: Is it OK to still have children?”
She triggered plenty of conservatives with this statement, including Republican Senator Mike Lee, who staged a bizarre presentation from the Senate floor claiming the answer to climate change was more American babies. But Ocasio-Cortez also hit a nerve with people around the country, tapping into deep-seated concerns that are rarely voiced publicly.
There remains a strong taboo around women deciding not to have children, whatever their reason: whether it’s the climate crisis, the growing number who choose to be childfree, or the increasingly divisive national debate about abortion. This taboo is even stronger in some developing countries, where often women have little agency over their reproductive choices, explaining why the conversation about climate crisis and reproduction tends to be a relatively Western one. In common with much of the climate movement generally, it’s a relatively white one, too.
Part of the reason that talking about reproduction can inspire so much pushback, said Colin Hickey, a researcher at Utrecht University who focuses on philosophy and climate ethics, is because the world is geared toward having children. “We celebrate when people announce they are going to have kids, it’s sort of expected, it’s built into our tax code, it’s built into our advertising and film representation.”
Groups like Conceivable Future, said Hickey, provide a counterpoint to this prevailing culture. “I think infusing the popular debate with some other sketches of viable alternative ways of living, where being childless is not necessarily seen as a kind of failing, actually can be helpful.”
Conceivable Future’s Kallman and Ferorelli insist they have no desire to prescribe or judge people’s choices. Discussions about kids and the climate crisis “tend to get stuck in this question of ‘what people are doing’ with their reproductive lives,” said Kallman. “We are totally agnostic about what people actually choose, whether they have five children, whether they have none.”
The aim, she said, is to draw attention to the fact people are having to ask this question at all: “It’s an impossible question in an impossible time.”
For the more than 330 members of the U.K. organization BirthStrike, the impossible decision has been made. Each has signed a voluntary declaration that they’ve decided not to have children while the political will to tackle climate change continues to languish.
The group’s founder, Blythe Pepino, a 33-year-old musician from the U.K., wanted to have children with her partner. But then she found herself haunted by climate change research — in particular the grim 2018 U.N. report that warned we have just 12 years to get our act together on climate change. Suddenly awakened to the extent of the crisis, her motherhood ambitions dissolved.
She wondered if others felt the same. “I put it out on Facebook and I got like 50 people coming back saying, ‘I think I’m in the same situation as you, I’m interested in this, I’m willing to sign up.’”
And so, in 2018, she formed BirthStrike. The aim of the organization is not to judge people for their choices, said Pepino, but rather to get the message out about ecological breakdown, “to wake people up,” and bring them together.
As with Conceivable Future, Pepino takes pains to distance herself from the population control movement. Instead, she wants to galvanize this anxiety around having children into an activist movement and a support network.
The public controversy her organization inspires helps her reach people with her climate activism message. It also exposes her to online vitriol. “I see people saying ‘I wouldn’t rape you anyway’ or ‘You’d be a terrible mother, thank god the libtards are all stopping giving birth,’” said Pepino.
One of the reasons the topic is so divisive, is that people fear that they will be judged for having children, said Hickey (even though both Birthstrike and Conceivable Future hammer home the point that they respect all choices). “The decision that’s always seemed natural and inevitable and personal, now it faces a kind of moral criticism that we haven’t been confronted with before.” People bristle at the implication that having a child is selfish, he added.
And while birth rates in the U.S. and other Western countries are declining, the climate impact of having a child in a developed country is much more intense. A 2017 study found that having one fewer child was the best thing an individual could do to tackle climate change, saving a family in a developed country 58.6 tons of carbon a year. To put that in perspective, that is far more than the report calculates you could save going car-free (2.4 tons), quitting flying (1.6 tons saved per transatlantic flight), or eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tons).
But making reproductive decisions based on carbon metrics can feel unbearably pessimistic. And for some, having a child is a form of hope.
This has been true for Londoner Lucie Brown. The mother of two, who works in the nonprofit sector and is a climate activist, told HuffPost, “Maybe having children and experiencing that grief and fear for the future is what spurred me on to find the power within myself, and a community of other parents, to say actually we can — and we have to — change the systems that we’re living within.”
Still, she fears for the future. “I don’t know in this moment [whether] I would have children if I was currently without children.”
Jessica Garrett feels the same. After spiraling into a depression after the birth of her son — “How could I do my first job as a parent: keep him safe and healthy?” — the science educator from Somerville, Massachusetts, joined activist group Mothers Out Front, where she found a community.
“We could share our fears and grief and hopes for our children. And then we go out together and speak up.”
But if she were deciding now, she said, she might not have had any children. She completely understands would-be parents agonizing over their futures. “It’s an utterly heart-wrenching kind of decision to make.”
“We do not like to think or talk about a terrifying future that we do not seem to be able to do anything about,” said Jem Bendell, a sustainability professor at the University of Cumbria and the author of a 2018 viral paper on how to adapt to the inevitability of climate breakdown. “We feel it is more kind to agree about visions of a better future,” he said, “it is a way of not facing loss and death until we have to.”
Conceivable Future’s Ferorelli concurs. “It’s not a particularly hopeful project,” she admitted of her cause. “It involves acknowledging what a dark situation we’re in.”
Even under normal circumstances, so much about parenting can feel tinged with grief. From the difficulties many have with conception, or finding someone with whom to conceive, to the frequency of miscarriage, the pain and devastation of labor, the abandonment of an old life, and the little of punches of sadness as your kids grow up and away from you.
I once held tiny, utterly dependent babies in my arms. Now I have two boisterous preschoolers. I don’t know what their future holds and I don’t know how I will prepare them for vastly uncertain lives. The climate crisis brings with it a whole new form of grief. But what I am certain about is, that knowing all this, I would still have children again. There are no right choices here but, for me, there is hope in humanity. There has to be.