My husband and I have decided not to have children. Neither of us feels the need to pass on our genes and memories to a tiny new human being. But this decision is more about our pessimism about the planet Earth that we will leave for a new generation. Despite our own activism and pugnacious attitudes, we don’t see a remedy for the unstoppable deterioration of the world. By having children, we would be exposing them to the suffering and pain of living in such a world. We often question whether it makes sense in a crowded world (9.7 billion people by 2050, according to the United Nations) with depleted resources to do something that seems more like a must-do than a real choice. At the very least, we should have the courage to ask whether we really should continue having children.
This is a personal column, because the decision to have children is and should be a personal decision. However, I would be dishonest if I didn’t confess that for a long time I justified that loving decision made with my partner with the delusion that we were doing something really important for this place we love so much. As feminist movements clearly say, the personal always ends up being political. But… is it true that we could mitigate the environmental disaster a bit if more women like me, more couples, stopped having children, or at least decided to have fewer children? Can I really think that by not having a baby, we are being more respectful of our world and its needs? A cursory review of the scientific research on this topic seems to confirm that this is not an unreasonable belief.
“The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions” (Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas, 2017) reports on a study of a wide range of individual lifestyle choices and their potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries. The study recommends four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions: “Having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6tons CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year; living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year); avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight); and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year).”
The study illustrated their conclusions with comparisons like, “… a US family who chooses to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives.” The study dismisses low-impact actions like turning off the lights when not in use, recycling and taking three-minute showers, and instead argues for science textbooks that focus on their four, high-impact recommendations.
Great! Now I have a science-backed figure for the potential amount of CO2 we would save by not having a baby. But another, more complex question immediately came to mind. Could women all over the world make decisions about their own bodies just as I could?
“Making decisions about one’s own body is deeply affected by existing power structures. It’s actually something that very few women are able to do, and that includes the decision to have children or not,” said Diana Ojeda (associate professor, Interdisciplinary Center for Development Studies, University of the Andes, Colombia), a co-author of “Confronting populationism: Feminist challenges to population control in an era of climate change.”
My naïve idea of becoming more active in convincing women and couples not to have children to help our planet was undoubtedly based on my own privilege, which led me to mistakenly believe that all women and couples enjoy the same resources and freedoms that my husband and I do. The reality is evidently very different.
“There are material reasons such as a lack of sex education or access to effective contraception behind the fact that millions of impoverished, racialized and marginalized people are deprived of the power to decide whether or not to have children,” said Diana Ojeda, who showed me that the problem goes even deeper. “It also goes beyond the material. In many parts of the world, women are viewed as nothing more than wombs, and their value is reduced to vessels for carrying babies. It’s much riskier for them to even consider questioning whether to have a child, because sometimes their very life depends on it. Not to mention the number of women who are raped in the world (15 million adolescent girls worldwide, aged 15–19 years, have experienced forced sex). In reality, even privileged women can’t fully make decisions about their bodies because of a pharmaceutical industry that is not transparent with women and that, for example, harms their health just to prevent a pregnancy.”
My idea of not having children to avoid contributing to the environmental crisis was correct, because any freely made decision about our bodies is inherently correct. As feminists rightly say, there is no environmental justice without social and reproductive justice. However, if this idea, which is slowly catching on with the help of celebrities who publicly express their intention not to be parents, were to somehow gain traction at the political level, then everything could get very problematic.
The idea of reducing the global population has been around since the 18th century when Thomas Malthus, the “first” demographer, wondered how the world could feed so many people if the population grew exponentially and agriculture only grew arithmetically, not to mention the problem of distributing that food. The notion of degrowth has led to restrictive measures such as China’s one-child policy from 1979 to 2015. This produced terrible, unintended consequences such as a whole generation of lost girls because families tried everything to have boys and not girls.
“Governments have no right to regulate how many children people can have. Instead of ‘optimizing’ its birth policy, China should respect people’s choice and end any invasive and punitive control over family planning decisions,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, Amnesty International’s director for China, when the country announced in 2021 that up to three children per family would be allowed.
“Those types of measures have proven to be ineffective,” said Diana Ojeda. “What would really help with climate change is shutting down businesses, restricting [rampant] capitalism and reducing consumption. Less effective measures that interfere in our lives, such as asking us not to have children or eat less meat, are useless. A very small percentage of the world’s richest people are responsible for most of the emissions that cause global warming. We don’t have an overpopulation problem — it’s a problem of economic patterns of production and consumption.”
Analyzing the problems behind our decision hasn’t weakened our resolve. My husband and I will not have a child, at least not a biological child. If someday we feel the desire that parents talk about so much, maybe we will decide to adopt, thereby contributing to a better distribution of the planet’s resources.