Below is my article, as published in yesterday’s Irish Times, under the headline (not my wording) ‘Is having children bad for the planet?’ I’ve added in some of the sources below that I used when researching this piece. The features editor suggested adding a picture of me with my two daughters, given that I had mentioned my own circumstances. I have tried as far as possible to keep my personal life out of my writing, but having penned a piece posing the question as to the wisdom or otherwise of bringing a child into a climate-changed world, I felt it only fair to put my cards on the table regarding my own situation and how it has informed some of the choices I have made.
ONE OF the biggest decisions any of us will ever face is whether or not to become a parent. While for women, bearing children was until recently almost a foregone conclusion, today in Ireland one in five women, either by choice or circumstance, will never become mothers.
The drive to reproduce is as ancient as it is powerful, but can become derailed, in humans as in other species, in situations of extreme stress. For instance, birth rates have plummeted in Greece since its economic crash. This also happened during the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s.
More modest but marked declines in fertility rates have been measured since 2009 across most of Europe, the US and Australia as widespread anxiety about the future caused people to postpone or abandon plans to start families.
A far longer shadow now stretches over our collective future. A child born in 2016 will still be in their early 30s by mid-century, and likely by then to be facing their own decision on parenthood. For those paying attention to environmental science, the year 2050 has a deeply ominous ring.
On current trends, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels will by then have more than doubled since pre-industrial times, locking in dangerous climate change for millennia. Meanwhile, acidification, pollution and overfishing are on track to have rendered much of the world’s oceans almost lifeless in the same time frame.
Between 1970 and 2010 the total number of vertebrate wild animals on Earth declined by an astonishing 52 per cent, according to the World Wildlife Fund. It is no coincidence that as the natural world went into freefall, human numbers exploded, increasing by 3.1 billion in the same 40-year period.
If half of the volume of the world’s wild animals have been wiped out in the last 40 years, what can we expect to happen to the remainder between now and 2050, as human population is slated to expand to well over nine billion, requiring another doubling of agricultural output and water use as more people adopt western diets and consumer habits? This is playing out against a backdrop of rising temperatures, ever-increasing weather extremes and sea level encroachment in the same period.
Ironically, among the species most vulnerable to human activities are those – including bees, bats and birds – which provide natural pollination services upon which between a third and a half of all our food production depends. Wiping out nature is arguably humanity’s most spectacular own-goal yet.
Today’s babies face a daunting panoply of converging resource and ecological crises as they become young adults in the next couple of decades. Unsurprisingly, some people are beginning to think again. For example, an initiative called ConceivableFuture.org was launched in the US in 2014. “The climate crisis is a reproductive crisis…. As we consider having families, it becomes clear that the perils of climate change have made this a terrifying time to make such choices. We now have to worry that the planet won’t support our children”, according to its manifesto.
In the era of climate change and global ecological contraction, a growing number of people are coming to believe that the best thing they can do for their future children is not to have them in the first place. As retired Nasa chief, Dr James Hansen stated recently, “we’re in danger of handing young people a situation that’s out of their control”.
US meteorologist, Eric Holthaus put it more bluntly: “Why the hell would someone of procreating age today even consider having a baby? It feels like an utter tragedy to create new life, fall in love with it and then watch it writhe in agony as the world singes to a crisp”.
As if to answer his own question, he recently became a father for the first time – as much perhaps an act of defiance as of hope. Suffering from acute anxiety, as is now widespread among climate scientist and activists, Holthaus added: “our baby has brought us back from the brink. It’s impossible to be hopeless with a newborn”.
A new word – solastalgia – has been coined to describe a profound sense of loss for the ongoing loss of the natural world, and the contemplation of its total destruction. The realisation that the very real gains in human welfare in the last century and more have been secured as a result of a Faustian bargain with nature is profoundly disconcerting.
And me? I have two children, many fears but absolutely no regrets. Becoming a parent almost 14 years ago forced me to contemplate time spans beyond my own lifetime, and this was the spark for a fraught journey into environmental journalism and lobbying. In the words of author Alice Walker, activism is the rent we pay for living on the planet.
– John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and blogs at Thinkorswim.ie
I overheard two people having a really earnest conversation on the DART at the weekend about whether or not it was ethical to have children, given how the world is going to hell with climate change, pollution, overpopulation, animals being killed off, etc. Only when I got to pick up the paper later that evening did I realise what had sparked their exchange – it was your piece from Saturday’s paper, which I had missed earlier in the day. I has always thought of the issue from the other end of the telescope, ie. too many humans in the world is driving almost all the negative changes now being experienced in our wider environment. That’s still the case, but as you put it, maybe truly the greatest kindness we can do to the next generation of children is not to have them in the first place (too late for me, BTW!)
I read with interest your article.
You talk the same talk as David Attenborough who is a patron of https://www.populationmatters.org/
Population and family size is an incredibly thorny issue in this country. Nobody is prepared to talk about it. Continue your good work.
Emma, thanks for your feedback. Yes, I’ve followed David Attenborough on population issues for some time, and admire him for taking it on when it’s such an unpopular topic. As a naturalist, he sees human incursions and constant expansion of agricultural lands as the critical near-term threat to the natural world, while climate change looms ever larger, emerging from the middle distance.
@Logically – Glad to see it helped spark discussion, that was my intention alright. I’m aware that a growing number of people are quietly freaking out about the impending climate/ecological crunch, and inevitably this comes back to the question about what kind of a world we are leaving for the next generation. For those of us who are already committed to the next several decades via our kids, the imperative to get involved and do what we can is (or should be) pretty overwhelming.