I Want Kids. I Want to Help the Planet. Can I Do Both?

Photo shows a woman hiking with a baby in a carry pouch. Some people are choosing to have kids despite their worries about climate change.

Like so many Millennials, I’m starting to question whether the time is right to start planning for a future that includes children. I’m asked so frequently, “do you think you will have a family?” But I’m not sure what to say. I love the idea of raising kids, but as more and more climate crisis predictions hit the headlines, I can’t help but think: what sort of world would I be bringing these tiny human beings into? 

The fact that I can even ask myself this question is a matter of privilege afforded to few. I have a supportive family, partner, and a steady, rewarding job. I am also white, British, and live where access to reproductive care is legal and safe. Hand on heart, I count my blessings on a regular basis. But, as I speed through my late twenties, the big question mark of whether it’s ethical to bring more people into the world hangs over my head.

kid running through forest
Climate change will undoubtedly leave a difficult future for today’s kids. | Noel Hendrickson/Getty

Those scary climate crisis predictions

I spend my working days reading some of the most frightening predictions for our future. August’s IPCC report was particularly rattling. To give a brief recap: we have caused irreversible, catastrophic damage to the planet. Drought, warming oceans, and melting ice are worsening and without intervention, we are set to go above the limit of 1.5 degrees of temperature rise by 2040. Passing this point means everything I just listed gets even worse. If I had a baby in 5 years, they’d be in their teens by then.

I know I am not alone in feeling this way—far from it. Earlier this year, Morgan Stanley’s financial analysts warned investors that climate change is impacting fertility rates “quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline.” Some are afraid that bringing more people into the world will make the climate crisis worse through overpopulation (a concept that is disputed). Others, like me, don’t want to subject a child to a potentially painful future, where the forests are burning and the fish are gone. 

Putting it this way makes it seem like the answer to having children is clear-cut, but I don’t believe it is. As a history graduate, I have a habit of looking to the past for answers. And when I feel fear around this topic, I think of several scenarios, and the first features some century-old manure.

The past teaches us that not only do we have the capacity to change and innovate if we need to, but that maybe, we do not always know exactly what the future holds.

Horse manure, the ozone layer, and hope

In the late 1800s, thousands of horses, used as transportation, lined the streets of major cities like New York City and London. They pooped and peed everywhere, and when they died, the bodies piled up, attracting flies that spread diseases. Horses had become a significant public health threat. In 1894, The Times newspaper predicted that in 50 years, London’s streets would be buried in nine feet of manure. But while people couldn’t see it at the time, the answer to the problem was in innovation. Cars, of course, removed the issue entirely.

I’m not the first to draw this comparison with the climate crisis. And to be clear, I understand that problems now are far greater and more complex than horse poo. Sea levels have been rising for a century and they’re not slowing down. We can’t save the 15 million people living in Bangladesh’s low-lying coastal region with a rake, a shovel, and a new method of transportation. But they could potentially be helped with infrastructure change, coastal development, and even ecological engineering. The global issues we face today require multiple solutions, for governments, corporations, scientists, engineers, and experts from all over the world to work together. They can do it, because they have done it before.

In the late 20th century and early 21st—when I was toddling about thinking only of climbing trees and watching The Tweenies—lots of adults were panicking about holes in the ozone layer. Holes that could cause deadly levels of UV-B radiation if nothing was done. So we did something. After scientists discovered what was causing the damage (chlorofluorocarbon gases, more widely known as CFCs), the public, the world’s biggest environmental organizations, and politicians rallied for change. In 2010, the landmark Montreal Protocol, which regulated the production of CFCs, was signed by all United Nations member states. Not every country kept its promise, but enough did that the ozone layer is now widely considered by scientists to be healing.

The past teaches us that not only do we have the capacity to change and innovate if we need to, but that maybe, we do not always know exactly what the future holds.

The problems that we worry about today may not impact our children’s lives in the way we believe they will. Or maybe they will. Or maybe the problems will be different. Fifty years after The Times’ 1894 headline, London’s streets weren’t covered in manure, but damage from World War II bombings. That sounds like another doom-and-gloom reason not to have children. But after the tragedy of war came joy. The fashion revolution of the 60s, the music of the 80s, the technology breakthrough of the 90s. But more important than that, the freedom to enjoy life’s little pleasures: best friend hugs, family dinners, movie nights, a great book, the perfect cup of tea.

Young female pregnant touching abdomen  and pose hand heart shape at home
Around the world, people are fighting for the reproductive rights that should be available to all. | Skaman306/Getty

The privileged choice of a childless future

As I mentioned before, to even be considering the choice of a childless future is a huge privilege. Last year, Texas made that much harder for its people when it passed a law banning abortion beyond six weeks of pregnancy, before many will even know they’re pregnant.

Unless successfully overturned by those who oppose it, the law states that any doctor who performs an abortion could be sued. But this means that those with money can afford to take the risk. As Senator Elizabeth Warren said: “This law is bearing down on the woman or trans person or non-binary [person] who is working three jobs, the one who is already stretched to the limit.”

And Texas is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, 41 percent of people with uteruses live under restrictive abortion laws. Egypt, Iraq, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic are among the countries that do not allow abortion to take place under any circumstance. But abortions happen, they’re just extremely unsafe. Figures from the World Health Organization show that around 23,000 people die due to botched terminations every year.

I am lucky enough to live in a region where, right now at least, women have access to abortion, as well as free birth control. We have the autonomy over our own bodies to decide whether the climate crisis will propel us into a life of choosing to be the fun aunt. And I don’t take it for granted. 

But for what it’s worth, when it comes to creating a better world for all, it is the young people, not the adults, who are leading the way. While lessons can be learned from the past and warnings heard in the present, hope is best served when looking to the future.

Photo shows a teenage girl unpacking groceries at home. Some people worry about the impact climate change will have on their future kids.
Despite the threat of climate crisis, young people and kids are repeatedly rising to the challenge. | Anchiy/Getty

Generation-Z: the most driven of us all to change the world 

In 2019, millions of teenagers from around the world campaigned for more to be done to combat climate change. Before she was 18, Greta Thunberg had spoken for the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and the European Parliament about the urgency of the climate crisis.

And teens are also fighting for a pro-choice earth. A Pew Research Center study shows that nearly 70 percent of people under 30 believe abortion should be legal. Many of those are Gen Z, some of whom have taken to TikTok to elevate the message. And it’s working: videos of pro-choice influencers have propelled non-profit abortion support organizations into the mainstream. North Carolina clinic defense group Charlotte For Choice, central to many pro-choice TikTok videos, now has a waitlist filled with young people who want to join.

So, perhaps the generation my child would be a part of would benefit from Generation Z’s drive and passion to tackle environmental and social issues. Maybe they would be a key part of solutions, or maybe they would detest the burden of saving the earth and everyone on it, or maybe it’s both. But maybe, rather than adults subjecting children to a fearful future, it’s them that will build us a more hopeful version after all.

The views expressed in opinion pieces are those of the author(s) and do not represent the policy or position of LIVEKINDLY.