Climate Anxiety and Parenthood

Words by Helena (she/her), 20 QLD 

There exists an increasing body of commentary surrounding the morality and ethics of procreation in our increasingly deteriorating planet.

Living in an era marked by radical destabilisation of life on Earth greatly complicates the act of bearing children, with the personal desire towards creation of human life coexisting with intimation of its imminent destruction.

Many are concerned with the trials and dangers their children will face within the world they are bound to inherit, while others grapple with guilt about the enlarged carbon footprint that each new child will impose. Just by existing, each new child will make the world slightly less liveable for everyone, themselves included.

Choosing to have fewer children is one of the most effective ways individuals can moderate climate change – in a developed nation, having one less child prevents 58.6 tonnes of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere each year.

When considering personal impact on climate emissions, procreation is the most critical decision we can possibly make as individuals. Contemplating our carbon footprints is essential to minimising our complicity and participating in collective change. Our way of life and our choices must be viewed as an ongoing crime against the future.

However, the question of whether it is ethical to have children touches on a moral dilemma at the heart of the environmental movement: how much should we focus on individual choice versus collective action?

Many argue that focusing on population numbers obscures the true catalyst of our ecological disasters – the waste and inequality generated by modern capitalism and its focus on endless growth and profit accumulation.

Fossil fuel companies and other invested actors have deformed the conversation surrounding culpability, conning individual consumers into blaming themselves – and their potential or actual children – for the destruction.

The moral blame and guilt that bounds the choice to have or not have children should not fall on the mother’s shoulders alone, but rather the corporate and governmental actors who choose profit and power over social and environmental responsibility. We must not stage cultural battles on the bodies of women.

Inequalities in wealth, power, and access to resources are the key drivers of environmental degradation – not mere numbers. The consumption behaviours of the world’s wealthiest 10% produces 50% of the planet’s consumption-based carbon dioxide emissions, while the poorest half of humanity contributes only 10%. With 26 individual billionaires currently in possession of more wealth than half of the globe, this estrangement of the ultra-wealthy will likely only intensify.

Overpopulation is defined as the state where there are more people than the amount that can live on Earth in comfort, happiness, and health, and still leave the world a fit place for future generations.

However, overpopulation must also consider values as well as numbers. The planet is not necessarily overpopulated in a numeric sense. The world is only overpopulated if people in affluent countries value their lifestyles – and the opportunity for others to access the same lifestyle.

We would need more than five Earths to sustain every person taking up the average US lifestyle. The lifestyle of a person born in the developed world can be sustained only if there are no more than two billion people on the planet – there are now more than eight billion.

Therefore, people in developed nations who wish for children are faced with a dilemma. Creating a child who will be responsible for high emissions over their lifetime requires others to stay in poverty if the planet is to operate within its physical limits – this, of course, furthers injustice and inequality.

Issues of ecological and social justice cannot be alienated. Placing blame on human population growth (often in poorer nations) risks inciting racist rhetoric and displaces culpability from the domineering industries that continue to pollute the atmosphere. Developing regions in Africa, Asia and Latin America often bear the brunt of climate and ecological catastrophes, despite having contributed the least to them.

The problem is extreme inequality, the excessive consumption of the world’s ultra-rich, and a system that prioritises profits over social and ecological well-being. This is where our attention must be directed.

While the choice to not have or to have less children is highly beneficial, it still remains a deeply personal choice for which either outcome should not face judgement – everyone has a right to bearing children and parents should not be criticised for making this choice.

However, in choosing to have children, we must make a concerted effort to foster a new future, redefining the capitalistic criteria for success and holding governments and corporations to account.

‘Good parenting’ in affluent nations has been defined as devoting energy towards cultivating our children’s talents and skills, preparing them for financial success and a life of accumulating wealth and conspicuous consumption. We must move away from this notion of focusing on buying our children stuff or advantages, and instead devote energy and carve time to work collectively, through activism and advocacy, for a just and flourishing planet for everyone.


Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

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