Should I Have Kids…Or Save the Planet?

When did climate catastrophe change the calculus on having children?

Photo illustration by Benjamen Purvis

When I made the decision two decades ago to become a parent, I didn’t think much about climate change. Living with my then-husband in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the time, my concerns after becoming pregnant with my daughter were far more immediate: decorating the nursery, filling the bureau with tiny onesies, and mentally preparing myself to become a mother.

It’s not that I wasn’t aware of what was happening around me: Though the term “climate change” hadn’t been popularized yet, the effects of air pollution, deforestation of the Amazon, and depletion of the ozone were well known—and quite noticeable on our leafy suburban street, which was often blanketed in thick smoke from nearby wildfires. We didn’t get much relief when we moved to Singapore for work in 2005 with our two young children. As I watched the locals dart around outside in face masks during the times of year when a noxious haze drifted over the island, I couldn’t help but wonder what effect this unfiltered brown smog was having on my family’s health.

Despite the pollution that seemed ever present, like most people at the time I still believed global warming was something that could be reversed. From my admittedly privileged perch as a writer with the freedom to live anywhere in the world, I took civilization’s resilience to be an unassailable truth. And if for some reason we couldn’t figure out a way to stave off future disaster? Well, I was sure it wouldn’t happen in my lifetime, my children’s, or even their children’s.

Then, about a year and a half ago, I lost faith that we’d ever turn the tide on climate change. Back home in New Hampshire after years of traveling the globe, I was working on an article about the subject when I read something that would change the way I thought about the future: the 2018 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which described the impact of a seemingly modest temperature increase (more than 1.5 degrees Celsius) in devastating detail. Suddenly, the direst effects of global warming went from happening at some vague, far-off point in the future to happening very soon—in precisely 12 years, according to the IPCC’s projections.

As I devoured more studies and articles, I became even more fearful about the future. For months, I’d wake in the middle of the night with visions of melting Arctic ice and rising sea levels, record-high temperatures, hurricanes, and raging wildfires. When I thought of the future, I saw environments completely transformed, even more pronounced income inequality, mass migration, and an eventual global struggle for resources. This wasn’t run-of-the-mill climate anxiety; it was a visceral fear that my now-teenage children and I might not survive.

Lying in bed, I began to nurse a fantasy of buying a piece of land in rural Vermont, learning to grow food, and living off the grid. When the time came, I thought, my adult children could move home and I’d be able to keep them alive. Never mind that I have a brown thumb and struggle to keep my meager flower beds in bloom, or that I detest winter and had always planned to move to a warm climate after my son graduates from high school next year. Or, most important, that my two children might have their own ideas about their futures.

As I pondered this dystopian scenario, a question popped into my mind that initially seemed so terrible, I didn’t dare tell anyone about it: Should my kids even consider having their own biological children? If they did, what kinds of lives would my future grandchildren have, and how might their existence contribute to the climate catastrophe? Choosing not to have kids goes against 6 million years of human civilization and is fraught with socioeconomic and sexual politics. But could it be our only choice?

I’m hardly the first to consider whether we should punt on procreation amid unprecedented uncertainty about our planet’s future. In fact, last March a Business Insider poll found that 30 percent of Americans think climate change should factor into a couple’s decision about whether to have children. Perhaps not surprisingly, younger generations were more concerned, with 38 percent of millennials but only 20 percent of those over 60 saying it should be a consideration.

Local science journalist Jessica Colarossi is one of those millennials. I came across her article “Feeling Stressed about the Environment? You’re Not Alone” on Boston University’s website during one of those sleepless nights last year. When I reached out to Colarossi, 25, at her Allston home recently, she told me she’s thinking about having children—but isn’t ready to make any decisions until she sees how the decade unfolds. “I would like to start a family if I meet the right person in the next 10 years, and that happens to be the same time we have to seriously reduce our emissions and keep the climate from warming another 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Colarossi explained. “However much progress we make in the next decade will determine what I plan to do and the kinds of decisions I’ll make.”

Meanwhile, Boston-based engineer Erika Tsutsumi, 27, has already made up her mind. When I spoke with her this January amid record-high temperatures in the city, she told me she’s personally never seen the appeal of having kids and, given the state of the climate, has doubled down on that conviction. “We’re almost guaranteed that the next generation of people born in the world are going to have a less stable overall environment, and it doesn’t feel great to contribute to that,” she said. “I kind of feel that as a society we should be at a replacement rate or lower; we shouldn’t be in population-growth mode.”

Her partner, 41-year-old Kenn Sebesta, wasn’t always on the same page, but Tsutsumi was so adamant that she eventually won him over. “I believe our way of life is going to change so rapidly that it’s going to be gut-wrenching,” said Sebesta, also an engineer. “But that’s not to say there won’t be individuals who survive and thrive. Still, I wouldn’t want to decide for a hypothetical child that this one will suffer.”

Even if you don’t believe doomsday is quite so close, there’s the very real question of how adding more humans to the world affects our already fragile environment. To avoid the most devastating consequences of climate change, scientists say we must reduce CO2 emissions to net zero by 2050—a goal that’s pretty difficult to achieve when you consider that the average person emits 5 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, and the average consumption-happy American more than three times that much.

Some experts have used those numbers as an argument for officially encouraging people to have fewer kids. In their pivotal 2016 paper, “Population Engineering and the Fight Against Climate Change,” bioethicists Colin Hickey, Travis Rieder, and Jake Earl posited that reducing fertility rates by roughly half a child per woman could net us about one-fifth of the emissions savings we need by midcentury. For them, the question isn’t whether encouraging people to have fewer children is necessary, but how to get people to do it. Their recommendations include education, improved healthcare, altering costs and benefits to influence reproductive choices, and, perhaps most important, changing cultural norms. (It’s important to note that Hickey and his colleagues categorically reject what they term coercive methods—such as forced abortions and sterilizations—that involve violations of bodily integrity.) “We have a really pronatalist culture,” Hickey said of society’s inclination to celebrate people who choose to have children. “It’s built into our tax code; it’s built into the way our companies advertise. It’s everywhere as the natural, inevitable end of human behavior.”

Even if Hickey and his colleagues overcome the cultural hurdles, though, their approach raises major ethical questions about which populations would be targeted. It’s not a stretch to imagine that certain groups, such as the poor, immigrants, and people of color, might be encouraged to have fewer children than affluent whites, for example. Then there’s the very real question of who will support our aging population and the social programs they need to survive if no one is coming up behind them.

Moreover, we cannot ignore one of the most basic elements of human nature: the innate drive to pass along our own DNA. Jamaica Plain resident Elizabeth Tamton, 35, told me she had many discussions with her husband, Nigel, about whether to have kids in the face of climate change. “I was concerned about whether or not it was a responsible decision when a growing population seems like part of the problem and the world is becoming more dangerous to live in,” Tamton said. In the end, she and her husband decided to have a baby, but she still struggles with anxiety around her decision. When we spoke, her son was 20 months old and she was nine months pregnant with her second child, whom she said will be her last.

Tamton, a school psychologist, told me that she and her friends often talk about how to manage the anxiety they feel when thinking about their children’s futures. To help offset her decision and assuage her sense of guilt, Tamton has immersed herself in environmental activism. She joined Mothers Out Front and started a Facebook group for reducing waste in her neighborhood. She also makes her own deodorant and lotion, and tries to curb her plastic use any way she can. “I can either go down a road of thinking about all of the really depressing things that are happening with the climate,” she said, “or surround myself with people who are taking action, and that seems to be a more positive approach.”

This reminds me of some of the ways I’ve grappled with my own anxieties about the issue. When my son announced last year that he wanted to stop eating meat, I also became a vegetarian. (Cattle and other grazing animals are responsible for about 40 percent of global methane emissions, a major contributor to climate change.) When a friend told me about washable mesh produce bags and bamboo toothbrushes, I promptly bought both. We purchased metal straws and biodegradable dog-waste bags and strove to banish single-use plastics from our home. But no matter what I do, I fear it won’t be enough to save the next generation.

Deep down, I know I can’t control my kids’ reproductive decisions any more than I can control any other aspect of their lives. Eventually, just like Tsutsumi and Tamton, they’ll have to choose for themselves whether they want to bring a child into an uncertain world. When it does come time for them to make that difficult decision, though, I hope they’ll have someone like Ellen Hendriksen on their side.

A clinical psychologist at Boston University, Hendriksen says just about everyone she sees talks about climate anxiety. Choosing not to have children, she explains to me, is one way that someone can feel they have some control over a dire and overwhelming crisis—“It takes away the anxiety that someone you love might suffer in the future,” she says—but notes that it’s worth looking at all of the pros and cons, both on a personal and collective level, before coming to a final decision. “If that solution is chosen out of fear and nothing else,” she says, “if there’s not a broader look at values and other reasons one might want to or not want to have children, then I think it’s incomplete.”

Knowing everything I do now, I think about where I ultimately come down on that difficult question that popped into my head a year and a half ago—the one I was initially afraid to utter out loud. On the one hand, there are plenty of valid reasons to be terrified about the impending climate disaster and what it means for my kids. On the other, the idea of giving up on the next generation reaches a level of despair that’s almost too bleak to think about, and is self-defeating in any case. If no one has kids, after all, our species will die out anyway. Hendriksen, though, offers one more alternative to contemplate: Sit with the uncertainty. After all, she says, we don’t know that the worst-case scenarios will come to pass. It probably won’t be rainbows and unicorns, but it won’t necessarily be Mad Max racing across the desert, either.

Ironically, my children are far less worried about climate change than I am. Perhaps it’s because they’ve never known a world where it wasn’t a concern, or maybe they’re just better at sitting with uncertainty. Or maybe they’re just young and feel invincible. In any case, neither of them is making major life decisions based on what might happen with the environment. When I bring up the idea of not having children because of climate change with my teenage son while driving him home from school one day, he dismisses it as ridiculous.

“You worry too much, Mom,” he says, then reminds me that he wants to eventually adopt children from all over the world, something he’s been talking about since he was a young boy. I smile and tell him I’m glad he wants to be a parent in some way—it means he feels hopeful about the future. And in these dark and uncertain times, a little hope might be exactly what we need.