Examining the Environmental Consequences of Parenthood

Welcome to a world in which our carbon legacies matter as much as our family legacies

Examining the Environmental Consequences of Parenthood
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova via Pexels

My nephew is deeply concerned about the amount of plastic waste in the ocean. He has nightmares about it. That is, when he’s not having nightmares about deforestation or the loss of habitat where we live, in the Pacific Northwest, due to wildfires.

He’s seven years old.

I remember being his age and also being deeply concerned by similar issues. You could say I was a born environmentalist.

But it’s painful to think of my own concerns back in the early 80s, compared to what we face now. My parents could tell me that it would be okay, that we’d figure something out before it was too late, and I believed them.

Today, I can’t give the same reassurances to Felix. He reads dozens of library books and watches videos on YouTube about conservation and the state of the world. He’s the smartest kid I know – too smart to fall for empty promises and false optimism.

My heart breaks for him. I remember how overwhelming it all felt as a child. And how perplexing. How did we get here? Who was in charge? How could adults be so incompetent that we let it get so bad?

But now…now, we’ve passed multiple tipping points that scientists have been warning us about for decades, yet an alarming number of Americans don’t believe in climate change or don't feel it is an important issue…

Growing up in an environment like this, I can only imagine the heaviness in Felix’s heart.

I have twelve niblings and one grand-niece, and I’m horrified at the world we are passing on to them. What did they do to deserve this literal Dumpster fire? I can’t even imagine the horrors that await them over the course of their lifetime. I’m genuinely terrified for their survival.

I don’t have children of my own. Not having had the chance to become a mother is one of the deepest sorrows I carry. I would have loved to have had children.

But I have to admit, there are times when that sorrow is a little lighter. I have enough fear in my heart for what my niblings will face as a result of climate crisis. In some ways, I’m grateful that my line ends here. My children will never have to suffer with this mess.

I often look back on my life and wonder what would have happened if my partner had come around and announced that he was finally ready to have a baby. After all the years I had hoped and waited, would I have said yes?

I remember feeling torn about the decision. Of course I wanted to become a mother. I had dreamed of my daughter since I was 12. But I also knew that, measured by carbon output, having a baby was quite expensive.

By 2008, when I was in my early thirties and getting serious about the notion of having children, we were in the height of the green blogging movement. Fake Plastic Fish (now My Plastic-Free Life), Green as a Thistle, and Crunchy Chicken were taking over the internet with their environmental exploits, inspiring people like me to bicycle commute, grow our own vegetables, and reduce waste.

Thanks to these pioneers in the field, I learned that one infant can generate an enormous amount of trash in the form of wasteful plastic used to package baby care items and baby food, and the 8,000 diapers that the average infant goes through before they are potty trained.

In fact, current estimates tack over 9,000 tons of CO2 onto the “carbon legacy” of every parent – per child.

Did I want to inflict that on the earth?

Truth be told, math wouldn’t have won that debate. My heart had already decided. Yes, I wanted to be a mother. Yes, I would have been overjoyed had my partner declared himself ready to start a family. Yes, I would have welcomed that extra 9,000 tons of carbon legacy with open arms.

Like many, I wanted another kind of legacy, too. And it seemed worth the cost to shoulder one in order to experience the other.

He never came around. In fact, he up and left just before I turned 40, and the chance to build a family with someone else eluded me.

But being a childless woman in the midst of environmental disaster has had its perks. You notice things other people don’t always see.

For instance, you become an expert at spotting pronatalist propaganda, the insidious pressure to have children – and lots of them – that consistently circulates through major media outlets. It’s typically spun as a celebration of traditional family values, but underneath it all is political and economic strategy.

Keeping men in power is as simple as keeping women busy with other things – like childbearing and -rearing. And when you add capitalism to the mix, a machine driven by the myth of infinite profit, we must provide a matching infinite growth to the workforce. How do we do that? By producing more and more people.

Never mind that infinite profit isn’t possible in a world with finite resources. Never mind that the earth cannot support any species’ infinite growth.

Many scientists believe we’ve already surpassed carrying capacity, though the debate is fierce. Regardless of the conflicting figures and estimates, it seems anyone with even a moderately-functioning brain should be concerned about population growth, and therefore, reproduction. It might not be the only factor involved (over-consumption is a huge issue, as well as economic inequality), but it’s an important one.

There’s no question that, going forward, those concerned about the well-being of their species will have to put heavy consideration into their reproductive choices.

Is this the answer to climate crisis? Having fewer – or no – children?

A 2017 study asserts that having one less child would be more impactful than any other lifestyle choice a person could make when it comes to tackling climate change.

But don’t ever believe that such conclusions will be left to linger too long in a pronatalist society that depends upon robust reproduction in order to feed the machine of capitalism. Three years later, another study was published claiming the data from the previous study was inaccurate because it was interpreted without context. This new study believes that after taking into account likely policies that will develop in response to climate crisis, the impact of having one less child is severely reduced.

However, even within this context, the study proves that having one less child will, indeed, make the most positive impact on the environment. Interestingly, the study spins that impact as negligible when one could, they say, take a few less transatlantic flights, and make up the difference. Further, it fails to mention that the potential policies they are banking on are nothing more than fiction, particularly given that our current policies are wildly inadequate and ever-moving targets.

But let’s not get lost in the debate. The truth is, there’s no way to know, one way or the other. And no one should feel pressured to not have kids – nor to have them. (Ahem.) Reproductive decisions are a deeply personal matter.

Perhaps we can at least admit that we’ve entered moral territory here. Should we bring children into this world? Do they deserve to be left with this mess we have made, one that will likely negatively impact their well-being and perhaps even shorten their lifespan? Do they deserve to spend their childhoods wringing their hands like my nephew, Felix?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I know we must start asking them. And frankly, at this point, I’m just grateful the decision has been made for me.

 You can find more of Y.L. Wolfe's work on her website or on Medium.

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