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The EFM Notebook

A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

by Susan Holloway | Bio

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To Be or Not To Be...A Parent

9 Jun 2022 9:23 AM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)

In the immortal words of Miley Cyrus: "We’re getting handed a piece-of-shit planet, and I refuse to hand that down to my child. Until I feel like my kid would live on an earth with fish in the water, I’m not bringing in another person to deal with that."

Miley is not the only person to question the morality of bringing children into a world that seems poised on the brink of environmental disaster. This question looms large in the minds of many women and men in their 20s and 30s.  

There are two basic questions at hand. As Katie O'Reilly wrote in a recent essay entitled Dispatches from One Millenial's Uterus: "I'm worried that if I procreate, I will contribute to melting ice caps, rising seas, and extreme weather. Worse, I might create brand-new victims of climate change — people who never asked to be part of this human-made mess."

It's not just a fringe group of pop stars and intellectuals who are debating these topics. In a 2020 poll of over 2,000 adults without kids, close to half of the Millenials and Gen Zers cited climate change as a major or minor reason why they do not have children. The number citing climate change was even higher for respondents of color than for white non-hispanic respondents in these two generations. 

Certainly, climate change is entwined with the economic insecurity faced by people in these generations, including student loan debt, wage deflation, inflated housing prices, health insurance, and childcare costs. Add in the fact that political polarization is impeding movement on any of these issues at the national level, and Miley begins to make more and more sense.

Don't Have Children, Save the Planet? 

Let's start with the argument that children are bad for the planet. People consume resources, leading to the emission of greenhouse gases (primarily methane and carbon dioxide). The amount of GHG a person emits is referred to as a carbon footprint. The average annual carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the average carbon footprint is closer to 4 tons. To have the best chance of avoiding a 2 rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop to under 2 tons by 2050. 


Curious about your own carbon footprint? Check out this calculator from the Nature Conservancy.

And shouldn't we consider that a child born is likely to have children, grandchildren, and so on? So the climate impact of today's baby is likely to increase exponentially. Egad! The case for not having children begins to sound tempting...

Fertility and the Environment: The Fraught History of Population Control

The contemporary arguments about childbearing remind me of the anti-reproduction movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, which was stimulated in large part by Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book, The Population Bomb. Focusing primarily on food insecurity rather than climate change, Ehrlich argued that it was essential to limit reproduction across the globe and increase food production to ensure the survival of the human race. He suggested a number of possible remedies, including putting "temporary sterilants" in the water supply, imposing a luxury tax on childcare goods, and ending food aid to countries that had not implemented successful plans to limit their population. 

The book sold over two million copies, and many mainstream environmentalists were supportive of the book's assertions. Indeed, Ehrlich had written the book partly at the urging of David Brower, Executive Director of the Sierra Club.

In the decade following its publication, population control became a salient part of US policy at home and abroad.  According to Mytheli Sreenivas, a professor specializing in reproductive politics, "Beginning in the mid-1960s, the U.S. government made controlling population growth a priority of its foreign policy...President Lyndon B. Johnson linked international development aid to population control, for example, and declared that he was 'not going to piss away foreign aid in nations where they refuse to deal with their own population problems.'” 

The Population Bomb was
widely covered
in the media.

In the US, serious and widespread abuses of population control practices were carried out in Native American, Black, and Latino communities. The Indian Health Service threatened Native American women with loss of their children or their welfare benefits if they refused to be sterilized. As a result, at least 25% of Native American women were sterilized between 1970 and 1976, with percentages as high as 50% in some communities. Dr. Connie Pinkerton-Uri, a Native physician who kept track of these statistics noted that sterilizations reflected the "thinking of warped doctors who think the solution to poverty is not to allow people to be born." 

The focus on population control began to wane in the mid 1970s. Public concern over forced and nonconsensual sterilization played a role in this policy shift. Additionally, passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973 as well as increased access to birth control increased women's power to make personal reproductive decisions on their own. The US population began to decline as  female education rates and per capita income when up, two factors associated with lower birthrates. And, in spite of the many environmental initiatives passed in the 60s and 70s, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, the dangers of climate change became ever more apparent, and public attention moved away from population pressures on food security. 

Contemporary Perspectives on Efficacy of Population Control

In addition to the possiblity of abuse, another fundamental problem with population control solutions is that they take too long. We need to cut greenhouse gases in half within the next decade. Check out this thought-provoking interview with Kimberly Nicholas, a climate scientist who has studied these issues intensively. She basically argues that even if we could reduce the birth rate in the US or abroad without being coercive and racist, we do not have enough time to wait for the expected reduction in carbon emissions from not having children. Nor can we depend on the next generation to solve the problems that prior generation have failed to address successfully.

As she argues, "In the case of climate change, we should not be planning for somebody else to save us. We actually have to save ourselves."


"To never have been born may be the greatest boon of all." Sophocles

Bringing a Child into a Hellscape...Good Idea?

One heartwrenching aspect of the antinatalist upsurge is how many "ordinary" people are now convinced that children born into this world in contemporary times are doomed to live horrible lives. 

In 2020, researchers Schneider-Mayerson and Leong surveyed 656 individuals between the ages of 27 and 45 selected because they were "connecting climate change to their reproductive choices." The goal of the study was to learn more specifically what it was about climate change that was causing concern. Respondents described an imagined future of "overlapping and reinforcing climatic, ecological, epidemiological, social, economic, political, geopolitical, and migration crises." As a 30-year-old software engineer in California wrote, “I strongly believe that children alive today are going to live through a long period of trauma, violence and devastation on a global scale that will rival World War I in its sheer terror unleashed on an unprepared population.”  


Throughout history women experiencing severe hardship have taken steps to limit their childbearing. In the US, some enslaved women resisted bearing children that would themselves be enslaved by terminating pregnancies. Those working on cotton plantations chewed the roots of the cotton plant as an abortifacient. 

But wait, can't we assume that future generations are going to get smarter about reducing carbon emissions?

Enter David Benatar, philosopher and prominent advocate of antinatilism, one of whose books is called Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Benatar argues that pain is inevitable in life and that no amount of pleasure will outweigh it. To those who argue that humans will eventually learn how to make life less painful Benatar says: “It’ll never happen. The lessons never seem to get learnt. They never seem to get learnt. Maybe the odd individual will learn them, but you still see this madness around you".

Well, whether or not we are smart enough to learn these lessons about climate change is indeed hard to forecast with any certainty. But before you sink into despair and intertia, let's consider some options for action.

Personal Narratives, Emotional Connection, Effective Action

From an organizing perspective, the question is how to take this deep pessimism and channel it into collective action. I guess there is still an optimistic part of me that thinks we still have time to turn things around, and I am interested in exploring how to motivate a sense of hope and agency to energize action. 

Josephine Feorelli and Meghan Kallman  

In an earlier Notebook post I wrote about the principles of public narrative developed by Marshall Ganz. Ganz talks about the power of narratives to provoke the positive emotions — including hope — needed to inspire action. These ideas are brought to life by sociologist Mehgan Kallman and activist Josephine Feorelli, who started Conceivable Future, an organization structured around houseparties for people to meet and talk about climate change's impact on their reproductive lives. The goal is not necessarily to spur a commitment to having or not having children, but rather to bring the emotional impact of climate change into public perception through their stories, thereby fueling the anger, hope, and solidarity needed to work towards reducing carbon emissions. 

What Can You Do?

Find a group of allies with whom you can share your story, find common goals, and make an action plan. In Marin, a great option is to join a climate action team through Resilient Neighborhoods and get step-by-step support for making important household choices.

Make a personal action plan. Check out the Nature Conservancy's informative website and learn how to calculate your carbon footprint. Then commit to having an impact. Here are two of the fastest and most effective things you can do.

  1. Switch to a renewable energy option like MCE, a public, not-for-profit electricity provider that gives all PG&E customers the choice of having 60% to 100% of their electricity supplied from clean renewable sources at stable and competitive rates.
  2. Reduce the impact of car and travel. If you can, switch to an electric car, take public transportation, and/or ride your bike. When you travel by air, neutralize your carbon footprint by purchasing carbon offsets. Organizations like Terrapass will use your purchase to fund projects that reduce carbon emissions and provide green jobs in local communities. 

Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written. It’s informed, astute open-mindedness about what can happen and what role we may play in it. Hope looks forward, but it draws its energies from the past, from knowing histories, including our victories, and their complexities and imperfections. Rebecca Solnit: Why Giving Up Hope is Not An Option


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