The topic of children frequently comes up in the climate discussion.
Not merely about the kind of future the children of today – and future generations – will inherit, but should people be even having children at all?
Such thinking stems from the belief there are “too many people” on the planet; if we simply reduced our numbers it will mitigate our species environmental impact.
It’s a fraught debate to say the least.
However I wanted to write as a parent concerned about climate change, but also sympathetic to those who express this view.
Let me begin: the decision to have, or not have, a child is one of the most significant decisions an individual can make. I know, I’m the parent of a 5-year-old.
To have a child – or not – cannot be labelled a selfless or selfish act. We all have the right to control our life and bodies – regardless of gender, age, race, and sexual orientation. The question about having children is personal. No one should answer it for you.
But the question people sometimes ask is how much difference will it make to the environment if they remained childless? And is that the only course of action?
To answer this question, let’s start with some perspective.
All organisms – regardless of the species – leave an imprint and shape the Earth. Humanity does, so do ants and so do microbes. All life shapes the biosphere – life is an integral component of the climate system itself. Consider the role of plants in regulating the climate. But also consider the impact humanity is having: changing the atmosphere and ushering one of the six major mass extinction events of the last 560 million years.
Those who understand the deep history of the Earth and the climate know how radically different the planet has been over the vast eons. Remove humanity from the planet, and the climate will continue to change.
What matters to us – today – is the type of change we are inducing. How fast, how disruptive and how much potential suffering will these changes induce?
Thus to my mind, the question about having children is framed incorrectly.
Let me rephrase it thus: is having any impact negative?
My response: no, not at all.
Even if we substantially reduce the individual carbon footprint of every person on the planet, we will continue to have an impact at the local, regional and global level.
What matters is the scale of the impact an individual or community has. It is not the numbers of individuals that matter, it their level of consumption and resource use.
If you move through world disregarding the impact you have, thoughtless about the harm you are inflicting it does not matter if you have a child or not.
A childless CEO flying from point to point in their Learjet, driving a SUV and investing in the fossil fuel industry will do more harm than 1000 families living modestly and within environmental constraints.
Help life find the places to grow
Let me tell you a story.
A few weekends back my five-year old daughter and I were tending our vegetable patch.
We started growing it with neighbors in the front yard of our apartment, right on the street. Anyone who walks past can see the vegetable patch (see the photo above). I’ve seen people grab a sprig of rocket – and that’s OK.
As we tended our garden people stopped to talk. Others smiled as they walked past. My daughter helped, but really she spent a couple of hours playing in the mud. I planted an olive tree. I’m hoping it will fruit in a few years so I can start preserving my own home grown olives.
Out the back of the apartment complex you’ll find the spaces for the residents cars – a grey, flat and dull expanse of concrete. But in places the concrete is cracked, exposing the soil beneath.
A neighbor planted a cherry tomato plant in one of those cracks – it flourished, yielding the most delicious fruit. All during summer my daughter and I ate cherry tomatoes fresh of the vine. Food from a place were the only plants normally to be found are invasive weeds.
And why shouldn’t we plant food in that space?
It is merely a matter of perspective and convention that tells us certain spaces are for certain things.
Life can grow anywhere: sometimes it is our role to help life find those cracks in the pavement. In doing so we make something wonderful.
Through this simple activity of helping the garden grow I’ve come to know my neighbors; my daughter learns something about where food comes from; we all share fresh food.
This is what it means to be human: we are social creatures. We flourish when we belong to a community.
As a parent you experience both joy and hardship: but overall, children bring delight. Children bring joy. This is part of being human.
And yet I would stress (just as strongly) one can also live a joyous and flourishing life without being a parent. I know many such people, and regard their choices as valid. The lives they live are just as flourishing. At times, especially when parenting is hard, I envy their freedom from the responsibility of child rearing.
But that makes me human.
You can tread lightly: even as a parent
I live in the inner city: I use public transport, I sometimes walk to work and have a hybrid car. I cycle to social engagements. I’m active in the climate discussion.
I’ve changed my life in accordance to my values: but I’ve not made myself poorer in any way.
I work for a large company, but I restrict flying for meetings: I video-conference. I enjoy my role in a large professional services firm and receive a decent salary; I do not reject the free market outright, though I believe it needs to be appropriately regulated.
Ditching a large mortgage and most of the trappings of consumption was liberating. I don’t have a TV.
I’ve not sacrificed – I’ve gained.
I save more, have less stress and more time by having a smaller place.
In doing so I’ve rediscovered the insights philosophers over the centuries have extolled – live modestly; reflect on your actions; act ethically; the rest will follow.
What matters is the life you wish to lead – what will make that a flourishing life?
Only the individual can answer that. Picture that life, work towards it.
You can tread lightly – that can be done as a parent, or by making the valid choice not to be.
Remember, to have a child is not to commit oneself or your child to a life of mindless consumption.
You have a choice – you can teach your child to have the skills to make valid choices.
What better legacy is there but teaching your child about the universe, their responsibilities to others and the environment?
When they grow up, they may go into the world and teach others.
The legacy we leave does not have to be one of abstinence, or sacrifice only.
What matters is what you choose to value.
There are many paths and options open to you: don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
The rest will follow.
[Note: I will watch the comments on this post carefully, NO debates about how climate change is a conspiracy between Greens and those advocating a radical eugenics program to de-populate the Earth. If comments becomes too “heated” offending posters will be banned.]