Many people believe it’s their duty to have children, but for me, the opposite is far more accurate. I feel it’s my responsibility not to have children, as part of a collective effort to respond to an unsustainable population size.
The world population is growing by approximately 83 million people every year, largely due to a high birth rate and falling death rate, and this is having a devastating impact on the planet. I often think about the environmental impact we have over our lifetimes, from the plastic we buy to the food and clothes we go through. I recognize that even with a concerted effort, we as individuals leave a significant carbon (and other greenhouse gases) footprint, contribute to crippling land use (over-cultivation, deforestation, urbanization, mining, etc.) and cause pollution.
In my mind, having a child means multiplying my impact on the environment. And due to our increased life expectancy, we are consuming resources and producing waste for around 40% longer compared to six decades ago. That makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. On top of that, the huge population and its density in certain areas exerts a strain on social infrastructure ― such as health care, welfare and housing ― and increases unemployment.
This is something I’ve been ruminating over for a long time, but the intense pressure I’ve felt as a woman to have children has still etched away at my thoughts. I feel comfortable with my individuality, which has often diverged from social norms, but that hasn’t made the decision not to have kids easy. I’ve often thought: Would I be missing out on something I’d be better off with? Would I regret not experiencing motherhood?
I was brought up in a nuclear family with two brothers, and I envisioned that I would have a family like that myself one day, but I truthfully never really gave it much thought, until I was 22 and my then-boyfriend was keen on having kids soon. It was definitely not the right time for me, but it started to make me wonder if it was something I would ever want for myself. It’s a very romantic idea, so I played with it for some time, as I was in no rush to make a decision.
Now, at the age of 36, I feel the decision is more pressing. Yet, I recognize the pressure is coming from my biological clock and a little bit from my parents ― not from within myself. I understand that people have children for deeply felt personal reasons, but I don’t want children, and a major deciding factor for me has been the impact this would have on the environment. Of course, such a major life decision is multifaceted. I’ve made a lot of choices in response to environmental concerns, but the matter of kids has certainly been one of the more challenging topics to ponder, because I’m interested in balancing my duty to our planet with making enriching life choices.
Over the years, spending time with friends and their kids, I got to see all sides of parenthood. This made me realize that social pressures to have a family in order to be fulfilled and happy are unwarranted. I also realized I was happy without kids, and the constant pressure I’ve always felt within me was not to have a family, but to live rightly — in a way that is good for our environment and society. This, for me, means not adding to my home city’s population density, global population growth, and further destruction of our planet.
Of course, the problem is not all about how many bodies there are in the world, but how these are distributed and their consumption patterns. I live in the U.K., which is not on the list of nine countries to which most global population growth is attributed, according to the U.N. However, The U.S. is. Although fertility has declined in nearly all regions of the world, people are living longer, which exerts a strain on resources and on the environment. A further reduction in birth rates anywhere in the world can help to tackle this ― particularly in urban areas where consumption patterns are most destructive.
A 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University found that the greenhouse gas impact of having one less child in the U.S. is almost 20 times greater than the impact achieved through adopting other environmentally sensitive practices ― things like recycling or using energy-efficient appliances and lightbulbs ― for an entire lifetime. The study found that under current conditions in the U.S., each child ultimately adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average parent ― about 5.7 times the lifetime emissions for an average person worldwide.
For me, this impact has been worth considering. Just as I can do my bit by recycling and limiting my waste, I can help to curb the population by limiting the number of children I have. Of course it’s no panacea for the climate crisis, but it’s worth really thinking about the environmental consequences of my reproductive choices. I respect other people’s choices, but these facts are important to me.
So considering the environmental impact I can have in my lifetime, I’ve decided not to have kids. There are so many great people in my world with whom I can share love and companionship, so I don’t feel the need to have my own child in order to feel fulfilled. And, over time, I’ve realized there’s so much I could miss out on if I do have children ― like dedicating my time to lifelong personal goals and having more time with family and friends.
There’s also certainly no fear of humans going extinct; on the contrary, we are causing other species to go extinct. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), most of the world’s land has already been modified by humans, with harmful effects on biodiversity.
With climate change and the conservation of our natural environment high on people’s agendas, people are making changes to their lifestyles and coming to terms with important life choices to reduce their negative impact on the environment. We affect the environment in various negative ways, and deciding to not reproduce feels like an important positive influence I can have, regardless of the societal expectations and questions I still encounter from family and friends.
A couple of people have told me they believe it’s selfish not to have a child; that it’s somehow wrong of me not to want to dedicate my life to a human being who doesn’t even exist yet. To each their own, but this feels like a strange paradox. Surely if you don’t have a baby, then there is no potential to be selfish, whereas if you do have a child, there is the potential to neglect them ― and that’s on top of disregarding the environmental impacts. With the number of orphans and neglected children out there in need of parents, I think that having your own child is the more selfish choice. Those who desire to be parents, and have the resources to support a child, also have the option to adopt or foster. What a fantastic way to present both a social and environmental benefit to the world.
Not everybody will make the decision not to have their own children, of course, and I recognize that reducing our impact on the environment is not an all-or-nothing scenario. Even stopping at one biological child can be a positive move. I hope people will ponder the environmental — as well as personal and social — impacts of having children, just as they agonize over plastic use and fossil fuel reliance. A change in perspective can help to tackle some growing problems in our society and for our environment. And, for many of us, the choice can lead to a more fulfilling life.
I expect many others feel as I do, but it’s a taboo topic. People feel more comfortable congratulating their friends for having children than for deciding not to have them. People are swayed by norms and changing the norm here is well overdue in my opinion. Surely, the norm should support a more sustainable environment for our planet. Family and societal expectations need not compete with life goals and environmental protection; they can harmonize.
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