We need to talk about the ethics of having children in a warming world

In a recent Instagram live stream from her kitchen, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) raised a dimension of climate change few politicians would dare to touch.

“Basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?” she said.

The criticism from conservatives that followed was predictably swift and hollow. Fox News’s Steve Hilton called it “fascistic” and a “no-child policy.”

But Ocasio-Cortez was voicing a genuine concern of many young prospective parents today who can plainly see that climate change is already here and its worst effects are still to come. These anxieties are beginning to appear in pop culture — they were a major theme in the 2018 film First Reformed.

Business Insider conducted an online poll this month that found that 38 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed that climate change should be a consideration in the decision to have children. For Americans between the ages of 30 and 44, 34 percent said climate change should be a factor in having children.

As we’ve learned from climate scientists in several recent bracing reports, a child born today will be living on a planet that’s likely to be dramatically warmer by the end of the century. We’ve already experienced 1 degree Celsius of average warming since preindustrial times, and we’re currently on track to reach as much as 4 degrees by 2100.

One degree of warming has already delivered rising sea levels, deadly heat waves, wetter hurricanes, droughts, costlier disasters, bigger wildfires, and more illnesses, to name a few impacts, and these effects are only going to compound. So clearly, young people have good reason to be worried, not just for themselves but for their future families.

Many also feel angry that decades of political intransigence on climate change has forced them to make such a calculation at all. “The fact that our generation has to ask these questions is politically forceful and massively fucked up,” said Meghan Kallman, a co-founder of Conceivable Future, a group that frames climate change as an issue of reproductive justice.

The discussion of whether to have children on environmental grounds quickly leads to some important fundamental questions, like what parents owe their children: Are the resources of this planet something we rightfully inherited from our ancestors, or are clean air, safe water, and a stable climate things we are borrowing from our grandchildren?

However, the conversation can also raise controversial ideas like anti-natalism, the philosophy that each birth has a negative value to society. And the idea of limiting births has historically been informed by pseudoscience and leadened with racism and classism, often brought up by the powerful as a way to limit less desirable peoples.

So for families navigating their impact on the world, it’s all the more critical to make a decision about birth that weighs philosophical, ethical, religious, and environmental concerns properly to avoid these pitfalls.

Fortunately, there’s a growing discussion about the ethics of having children, with some groups trying to help parents grapple with their concerns without pushing them in one direction or another. Instead, their goal is to encourage political action. We’re in a make-or-break era of climate change, where our current actions or lack thereof will lock us into a certain outcome. A clear vision of the stakes for our own progeny is a powerful motivator to act aggressively to limit emissions, regardless of our own verdicts on having children.

Among people who have already given this much thought, here are some of their key concerns.

The decision to have children is deeply personal, but some are now addressing it publicly
Kallman and her Conceivable Future co-founder Josephine Ferorelli have collected testimonies from people concerned about balancing their desires to build a family with their concerns for the planet. It’s a way to have a public conversation about the rational and irrational worries of having children. “The nice thing about a testimony is that it’s your own truth,” Kallman said. “It’s a very, very public way to be vulnerable.”

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