When I had my daughter I felt like the first person to have a baby; now I’ve had my son, I feel like I might be the last. An academic study into how young people factor climate change into their reproductive choices makes for dark reading, with 96% “very or extremely” concerned about their potential children in a climate-changed world. For some the concern is so severe they’ve decided not to have children at all. “I can’t in good conscience bring a child into this world and force them to try to survive what may be apocalyptic conditions,” one 27-year-old woman said.
More shocking even, were the 6% of parents who confessed to feeling remorse about having children. One 42-year-old father painted a Goya-like picture of his children’s adult life, “a hot-house hell, with wars over limited resources, collapsing civilisation, failing agriculture, rising seas, melting glaciers, starvation, droughts, floods, mudslides and widespread devastation”. After reading this, I put the kettle on and had a small cup of tea and waited until my hands stopped shaking. Bloody hell. Literally, bloody hell. Man, I feel for that dad, singing his children to sleep before curling up on the landing and rocking, slowly. As well as pressing upon one of my archipelago of dready bruises, his quote made me consider the intellectual compromises required in order to have a baby.
There are the physical details – a person growing inside you – which, at the beginning especially, are so unlikely they feel more akin to a metaphor or fable than science. There is the naming of the child, a task better suited to a god, who at least would not be burdened with class prejudice or negative associations with snotty classmates. There is the folding of tiny empty vests, the fantasies of their talents. And then, the stories one must tell themselves to stave off the terrors that come free with every child. Terrors including but not limited to: the child rolling off the sofa, going hungry, being bullied or, at the far end of the continuum, being drowned aged 38 in a town-sized mudslide. This catastrophising leads to such things as the purchase of knee-pads or, in the case of this 42-year-old dad, terrible, terrible regret.
Which is not to say it’s irrational. All signs, yes, lead to horrible devastation, and indeed, it is a good idea for a child to wear protective clothing when careening on their scooter down a bumpy hill. But these doom-tinged prophesies are not unique to those with climate anxiety – they are baked into parenthood. Ask any group of childless young people today if they want kids and many of the reasonable ones will say no, partly because it is no longer taboo to be honest about wanting to keep your independence, and live a beautiful life of freedom with the responsibility of only your own arse to wipe, and partly because until one has a child, such a thing remains abstract and completely bananas. It is a trick question, grounded in the privilege of choice. There are thousands of reasons not to have kids – the fact that the world is ending is simply one of them.
I do not begrudge for a second these people choosing to remain childless either in an attempt to save the planet, or for fear of the child having to live through its death rattle. It is entirely sensible – in fact there are few rational reasons to have a child. But I do feel uneasy about the load of responsibility and sacrifice placed on to individuals, rather than companies or countries.
The problem for those surveyed is that having kids increases global warming. But if our polluting industries and the governments that support them limited their energy use, the children themselves would not cause such harm. If world leaders made serious changes, actively reducing carbon emissions and the use of fossil fuels, the basic needs of children, like staying warm or even travelling abroad, need not be so impactful.
In a conversation like this the stakes are so high that the largest reasons for having children – love, hope – can be dismissed in an inch of ink. But, well, maybe that’s for the best.
Because, of course, the choice to procreate and care for a stranger for the rest of your life, to carry them first in your belly and then on your back and then in every line on your face is a mad and objectively silly idea. And yet, some people will continue to do it in the same way that they will continue to fall in love. This is what humans do. And each child’s future will always be uncertain, because that is the nature of future. But we know that humans adapt, because we’ve seen ourselves adapt.
In the same way that having a baby makes a person suddenly aware of steps a buggy can’t manage, so it can radicalise them, creating a family determined to improve their planet’s future. To have a baby is to indulge in an ancient form of magical thinking, where fairytales are made flesh. Where all terrors must be swallowed and their stones spat out, clean now, and ready to plant.