Procreation is one of many issues environmentally minded people wrestle with when thinking about our role in combating or worsening climate change. If it isn’t completely irresponsible to have children on a warming planet, how many children are too many? Aren’t parents damning their kids to a life of ecological chaos and economic instability? Or will some of these kids actually save us from self-destruction? In a new probing essay, Sierra magazine‘s adventure and lifestyle editor, Katie O’Reilly, takes us along her journey to figure out whether or not to have kids during our time of human-made climate change. She isn’t just environmentally conscious. She works for Sierra, the print extension of the Sierra Club, the largest and oldest grassroots environmental group in the U.S, founded by none other than John Muir. “I’m worried that if I procreate,” she writes, “I will contribute to melting ice caps, rising seas, and extreme weather.” To help her make a decision about parenting, she visits what’s called a clarity counselor, and the junction of her climate anxiety and her reproductive anxiety is a timely situation many readers will recognize from their own lives, though one we will not have articulated as clearly, or as humorously, as O’Reilly.
When Davidman started clarity counseling in 1991, her typical clients were professional women in their late thirties or early forties. About five years ago, though, clients in their early thirties started coming in with climate anxiety. Generally, Davidman finds that as she works with these clients, other anxieties emerge. “It’s easier and more socially acceptable to say ‘climate’ than ‘I’m really ambivalent about having children.'” Ambivalence, she says, may be the least acceptable response in a pronatalist society that equates motherhood with women’s manifest destiny. “We often get judged and shamed for not knowing. But the climate argument shuts people right up.”
This makes me wonder whether I’m pinning all my unresolved personal issues onto the poor climate. Last Thanksgiving, when I mentioned to my mother that global warming was giving my ovaries pause, she rolled her eyes and told me that if she’d taken the out du jour back in 1984—in the midst of Cold War nuclear tension—I wouldn’t be here to navel-gaze about whether life is worth living without polar bears and autumn leaves.
Like the threat of nuclear annihilation, climate change demands a reckoning of everything we’ve been conditioned to believe about security and the future, but its fires, floods, and famines are already causing existing children to suffer. So try as I might, I can’t see my reproductive anxiety as something to just sequester in a jar. And I know that to some extent, my ambivalence is a privilege—unlike many women around the world, I have a choice about whether I have kids. Still, this doesn’t make the decision easier.
O’Reilly talked with other people about her reproductive predicament, including Blythe Pepino , a young British artist-activist who used to want children, until she accepted what she sees as the inevitable collapse of civilization. But as O’Reilly points out, Pepino’s position is not without issues:
Critics of Pepino’s approach point out that corporate power structures got us into this mess, and not having kids won’t get us out of it. They say that shoveling more guilt and shame for systemic, societal ills onto individuals, especially women—effectively expecting them to stave off the apocalypse with their uteri—detracts from holding the fossil fuel industry accountable.