Growing up, having kids someday felt like a foregone conclusion. My family and I never really talked about it; everyone just assumed I’d follow suit. As I got older, most of my friends started pairing off and starting families, and shortly before we got married, my husband Nick’s brother and sister-in-law did, too.
After we tied the knot, Nick bought two books on deciding when to have kids, placing them prominently on the coffee table in our newly-purchased home. But something shifted for me around that time. When the decision felt mostly theoretical, I looked at kids the same way I did any other milestone: just another box I was expected to check along the path toward adulthood. But once it became a real possibility, I began to take stock of my place in the world and my responsibility to it.
As Nick and I talked about it, what we realized tipped our personal scales in the opposite direction of we expected. I’ve always been pretty ambivalent about kids, whereas Nick dotes on his nieces and used to think he’d give them cousins someday. On the one hand, children would add another dimension to our little family. On the other, it felt pretty complete already.
Plus, I’ve always been a worrier, with my anxious brain given to fixating on the worst-case scenario. As a kid, my worries were fairly pedestrian: my house could burn down, my parents could die or I might. As an adult, the scope of my concern has expanded to include not just the well-being of my own loved ones, but everyone inhabiting our rapidly warming planet. As we discussed having kids, Nick and I looked around at our overcrowded world and didn’t see a compelling argument to add to the population. Even more so, we worried about the kind of world they’d inherit, which will almost certainly look far different than the one we grew up in.
It’s human nature to try to address large-scale problems with individual measures. For example, when we were kids, Smokey Bear taught us that “only you can prevent forest fires,” so I always make sure my own campfires are doused, even as the planet continues to burn. I recycle, carry reusable bags, take public transportation and shop as sustainably as possible — controlling what I can quells my climate anxiety somewhat, but, at the risk of sounding overly pessimistic, I’m afraid it’s all probably too little, too late.
The American Psychological Association defines climate anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” and Psychology Today calls it “an understandable reaction to one’s growing awareness of climate change and the global problems that result from damage to the ecosystem.” In contrast to generalized anxiety disorder, which can stem from many sources or none at all, climate anxiety is specific: It’s a fixation on the warming planet and all the myriad disasters that come with it. While symptoms vary from person to person, they may include insomnia, panic attacks, obsessive thinking and loss of appetite.
For me, it’s a gathering dread as hurricane season grows longer and more intense, a pit of despair in my gut that yawns wider with every second the doomsday clock ticks down and a sense of foreboding that tells me bringing a child into this world would doom them to an existence that looks more like Mad Max: Fury Road than Sesame Street.
For many people like me, composting and driving a Prius no longer feels like enough. A 2018 Gallup analysis reported that 70% of adults aged 18-34 said they worried about global warming, compared to 56% of adults aged 55 or older. A recent BBC survey of people ages 8-16 found that nearly three-quarters reported being deeply worried about the state of the planet.
A 2018 survey conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times found 33% of the 20- to 45-year-old people surveyed cited climate change as a reason they had or expected to have fewer children than they might have wanted in different circumstances, and a newly published study in The Lancet revealed that, in a global poll of 10,000 people aged 16-25, 39% are hesitant to have children because of their climate anxiety.
It’s far from the only rationale, of course. Financial insecurity, lack of paid family leave or affordable childcare and both domestic and global political instability all feature prominently on the list of concerns. Then there’s the COVID-19 pandemic. As white people, the fact that my partner and I are just now realizing that the world might not be safe for our future children is a privilege in and of itself. For people of color, the decision to bring kids into the world has been a fraught one for centuries. “It can feel overwhelming, to be honest,” says Jade Sasser, Ph.D., associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at UC Riverside and author of On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change, “Layering crisis on top of crisis can just feel like too much.”
The question also isn’t new for concerned citizens who have been working on the front lines of the issue for years. Climate activist and sociologist Meghan Kallman and climate justice activist Josephine Ferorelli started Conceivable Future to build awareness of the threat climate change poses to reproductive justice and demanding an end to U.S. fossil fuel subsidies, as well as to provide a space for people to talk about how climate change is impacting their lives.
Canadian student Emma Lim also started a No Future, No Children pledge two years ago when she was 18, resolving not to have children until her government takes the climate crisis seriously. “Until our government begins to act like the grown-ups they’re supposed to be, we will make uncomfortably grown-up decisions of our own and refuse to carry on as though all is fine,” she wrote. More than 2,300 young people signed on.
“[Young people] want to be hopeful about the future and about their prospects of having families because families serve as buffers against all of these devastating social problems in the world,” says Sasser, who is also conducting research into how young people, primarily BIPOC, feel about the climate crisis and their reproductive options. “But they’re also experiencing a sense of terror and a really deep sense of sadness. And pre-grieving, just knowing that if they did have children, they wouldn't be bringing them into the same kind of world that they've grown up in.”
When deciding whether to start our own brood, Nick and I thought about that, too. We grew up with snowy winters and mild summers, camping trips in our National Parks, playing outside until the streetlights came on. But even over the past few years, rampant wildfires and increasingly intense hurricanes and other natural disasters have threatened not only our natural playgrounds but lives and air quality across the country. Will one or two more people make a measurable difference? Maybe, maybe not. But to us, it felt cruel to subject a child to what feels like a worsening world.
But as Ferorelli also points out, none of these decisions are made in a vacuum. No one can tell another person the right choice to make, because none of us are living in each other’s circumstances. That’s part of what makes the decision of whether or not to reproduce in a changing world so hard.
“People’s worries tend to fall along the spectrum of what climate harm a child will do to the world and what kind of harm the world will do to a kid,” says Kallman. “But it’s more fruitful to have a systemic critique than be consumed by guilt.”
A 2017 study published in Environmental Research by Canadian climate scientists found that having one fewer child is the greatest impact an individual can have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That’s closely followed by eating a vegetarian diet, avoiding air travel and relying on public transportation instead of your own car. But many activists argue that individual decisions are only a small piece of the puzzle, and that a meaningful climate strategy must focus on holding elected officials accountable for making systemic change.
The problem is, it’s impossible to measure the joy that having kids can bring to a family, or to predict exactly what that child’s life will be like a few decades down the road. But feeling like we’re doing something to address the climate catastrophe has real value, too. “When we take responsibility for the environmental consequences of our daily actions, we feel like we are in control,” writes Jason Mark in an expansive Sierra Club op-ed. “And when you’re in control of your own life, perhaps then you’ll feel more empowered to take control of — or at least play a role in — larger political systems.”
Climate change is also impossible to untangle from other social issues related to raising a family. “We want to make the world safer for everyone,” says Kallman. “The right to control the pacing of your children, the health of your communities and a comprehensive view of what makes up a community that’s free of domestic violence, has access to safe food, safe schools, where police violence is not a threat.” By banding together to hold elected officials accountable, we can all make meaningful change that goes beyond our own doorsteps.
Having kids is an intensely personal decision, and no one should feel ashamed or guilty for choosing to do so, or not. I don’t know if Nick and I have made (or will make) the right decisions about the composition of our family. I don't think there is a "right" one, period. But no matter how mired we are in the issues and our responses to them, it’s important not to become blind to the beauty of being alive in this world and the communities that we’re working with to save it.
“There’s a cultural association with having kids and optimism, and not having them with nihilism, but that’s not accurate,” says Ferorelli. “There’s an immense amount of joy and freedom and privilege in both.”