Climate change: Should we be having children?

Kristin Hall
Source: Sunday

"We have absolutely f**ked this planet," I remember saying to my partner as we drove along a trash-riddled Italian highway - a comment which ignited years of tense conversations about whether to have children.

It’s a little ironic that I only fully understood the environmental damage humans are doing on Earth while I was participating in it myself, driving around Europe and Africa as part of my big OE.

It was an incredible few years full of tears, laughter and breath-taking natural beauty. But seeing the world is not a one-dimensional experience of perfect sunsets and heart-warming memories.

In Greece I spent hours clearing a small beach, no longer than 200 metres, of more than 200 plastic bottles.

In Ireland I marvelled at the number of homes, including new ones, still being heated with oil boilers.

Rubbish on a beach in Angola

In Mauritania I despaired at the number of foreign fishing vessels trawling along the coastline, as masses of discarded nets gathered on the shore of a monk seal reserve.

These were all human actions, culminating with devastating consequences for wildlife, and eventually us as well.

At the time it seemed not only inadvisable to purposely create another human, but downright immoral.

Not only would our hypothetical child have an impact on the planet in the things it did, thanks to the actions of its ancestors it would also grow up in a hotter, drier, more volatile world. Did I want that? And was I alone in asking that question?

Kristin Hall collecting rubbish in Greece

It turns out, I wasn’t.

A 2021 study of 10,000 16- to 25-year-olds in 10 countries found 39% are hesitant to have their own children because of climate change – a figure that was consistent across countries rich and poor.

And it’s not just those facing the harshest impacts who are worried.

I spoke to a number of young Kiwis who feel the same way. One cried on the phone as she described her deep desire to be a parent, yet had a gripping fear about what the next generation's future would look like.

Then, there’s the guilt factor. A 2017 study found that in the Western world, having one fewer child far outweighs any other individual action when it comes to reducing your carbon footprint.

It’s not large families in poor countries that are driving up emissions, it’s us – the ones who own multiple cars and buy more crap than we need.

The question then becomes, who among us should be making massive sacrifices in the era of global heating?

University of Canterbury’s Professor Bronwyn Hayward argues it’s not the young, but their parents and grandparents.

The ones who sit on boards and run oil and gas companies and influence governments.

A palm plantation in Ghana

Internalising huge societal problems, she says, won’t cool the Earth down any quicker and I think, after many years of internal angst, I’ve come to agree.

I’ve wanted kids for as long as I can remember and while not having them would substantially reduce my impact on Earth, it would also (probably) make me miserable - less hopeful, more inclined to sit back and wait until me and my loved ones are burnt to a crisp.

Whether or not to procreate is an intensely personal decision, and not always a biologically possible one for everyone.

The important part of the equation is choice, and that we are all empowered to do what we feel is right for us and for Mother Earth.