Having Kids Doesn't Need To Be Unsustainable: Here's A New Perspective
To breed or not to breed? It's a subject so loaded with pain that it feels almost unbearable to think about. The question comes up in environmentalist conversation in two mutually reinforcing parts: There's the environmental impact of the child on the world and the potentially horrifying impact of climate breakdown on the child. Put the two together and it's easy to see why so many people are deciding that it's unjustifiable to breed. Embedded in the decision over whether or not to have a baby are further questions such as: "Is it reasonable to hope?" and "Is life worth living? And, if so, what's it for?"
While it might appear to many to make logical sense not to reproduce, that doesn't mean the idea is free from profound emotional impact. Can we coolly concede that the world is no longer a viable human habitat and get on with living out the rest of our lives as harmlessly as possible? I would say not, or at least not for many people.
What's missing from the conversation about whether having children is unsustainable.
Reproduction is an important factor in the shape and direction of an economy. In spite of relative economic stability, birthrates in many developed countries are declining1 (although America saw a tiny 0.09% increase in 2019, after four years of falling figures). The reasons for this are complex and varied. It certainly can't solely be put down to nervousness around climate change. In many developed countries, it's becoming increasingly hard for younger people to set themselves up in careers and stable housing. There may also be other factors, like cultural shifts away from ideas around tradition and continuity and toward individual happiness.
Perhaps counterintuitively, wealth and low birthrates often go together. In countries with a high standard of living and good medicine, people might have fewer children but expect more for them. They will want them to have the finest educations and to aim for the most well-respected forms of work. Life becomes about connoisseurship rather than survival—a luxury experience rather than a hard grind. One lives for oneself rather than for the family or community.
It's precisely these sorts of societies that are causing problems for the planet. It's not poor people in Africa who are supposedly overpopulating. It's careful, rich people with 1.87 children (or fewer) who constantly upgrade their iPhones, have nice freezers, and go on yoga retreats in the Himalayas. So, when people say that the best thing you can do for the planet is to have one less baby, it matters very much to whom this baby is born.
The problem isn't the children but the stuff we associate with them.
The otherwise largely saintly David Attenborough has got himself into trouble over the question of overpopulation by suggesting that it's our urgent responsibility as individuals to breed less. One problem with this is that it touches on the extremely fraught topic of race and women's reproductive rights. Attenborough himself apparently couches his argument within feminism. (A privileged, nonintersectional version of it.)
He tells us, "Wherever women are given political control of their bodies, where they have the vote, education, appropriate medical facilities and they can read and have rights and so on, the birthrate falls—there are no exceptions to that." And, for Attenborough, this is simply good. Fewer people equals less pollution. It's straightforward, numerical, and surely well-meaning.
Still, the first problem with it is that it lands the problem of saving the planet squarely on the shoulders of women in developing countries, as they are the ones who may currently lack access to education and birth control. The second problem is less immediately apparent but intimately connected to the first. It has to do with the effects of falling populations on societies. If things were as straightforward as David Attenborough seems to suggest, women would be given rights and contraceptives, numbers of humans would quickly decrease, less stuff would get used, and our climate and ecosystems could begin to recover. As it turns out, declining populations don't just keep going as they are but on a smaller, more planet-friendly scale. Instead, shifting demographics can cause major social upheavals.
The problem with babies isn't the babies themselves but the things people associate with them. For instance, having a family needn't mean owning a big "family" car. Or even any car—especially not if you live in a large town or city. It also needn't mean living in an enormous overheated house, using a ton of nonbiodegradable disposable nappies, dressing your kids in a constant parade of new clothes, and eating meat. The problem with the extra person isn't the person but the stuff extraneous to that person.
So, maybe the "to breed or not to breed" answer sounds more like this in the end: "Less stuff, more love. Keep going."
Adapted from an excerpt from A Guide to Eco-Anxiety: How To Protect the Planet and Your Mental Health by Anouchka Grose, with permission from the publisher.
Anouchka Grose is a British-Australian psychoanalyst, writer, and author of A Guide to Eco-Anxiety: How to Protect the Planet and Your Mental Health.eeA Guide to Eco-Anxiety: How to Protect the Planet and Your Mental Health. She is passionately concerned about the effect of the climate crisis on our mental health having witnessed the phenomenon of eco-anxiety grow exponentially in her own work as a therapist over the last two decades. She writes for the Guardian and has appeared on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour and Beyond Belief, and is the author of several books on subjects from psychoanalysis to love to vegetarianism.