Most of us have enjoyed the much cleaner air since the great COVID-19 shutdown-caused economic collapse. Everything damaging that we normally dump into our common airshed is reduced — carbon dioxide that increases climate warming and the pollutant precursors that cause regional haze we notice as bad air quality and bad health outcomes — and the result has been cleaner air for all to enjoy.
Modified from the original published in Our Daily Planet (ourdailyplanet.com) on March 21, 2020.
In 2013, the United Nations designated March 20th as the International Day of Happiness to recognize the importance of happiness and wellbeing in the lives of people around the world. Last year I attended the launch of the annual UN World Happiness Report in New York. This year the UN is closed to the public, and the 2020 Report launch was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What a difference a year makes. As we self-isolate and practice social distancing, we begin to ponder the nature of happiness. Can we still be happy in the midst of a pandemic and the resulting recession? Can we—the collective we as a society—look at this as an opportunity to make the necessary changes to support our wellbeing instead of focusing on GDP growth at all costs? Where will the world be by next March 20th? What lies beyond the crossroads we’ve come to?
As stay-at-home orders are instituted across the country, we have time to consider what really makes us happy. (Image: CC BY 2.0, Credit: Rubbermaid Products)
The 2020 World Happiness Report FAQ indicates that COVID-19 poses great risks to some of the key drivers of wellbeing, especially to health and income. But, it also states, “A high trust society quite naturally looks for and finds co-operative ways to work together to repair the damage and rebuild better lives. This has led sometimes to surprising increases in happiness in the wake of what might otherwise seem to be unmitigated disasters.”
This is a profound finding, and one that can help us understand why some societies are more resilient in the face of disasters than others. The authors go on to say that when communities and institutions work together, their common effort “delivers a heightened sense of belonging, and pride in what they have been able to achieve by way of mitigation. These gains are sometimes great enough to compensate for the material losses. But, where the social fabric is not strong enough to support co-operative action on the required scale, then fear, disappointment and anger add to the happiness costs of a disaster.”
Those of us with the privilege of working from home have a rare chance to slow our lives down at the busiest edges (commuting, for example!) and reflect upon what really makes us happy. Some are conducting virtual meetings with cats and dogs on their laps as a form of stress relief. Others are having lunches or dinners with their family members, some for the first time in a long time. Still others simply get a sense of satisfaction seeing their car sit quietly on a work day, burning no gasoline and emitting no greenhouse gases.
During the COVID-caused recession, the world around us recovers. (Image: CC0, Source)
The social fabric also includes those who are not so fortunate with their working arrangements. Those who must serve the public in person—in hospitals, at the grocers, on the streets, and behind the scenes at municipal utilities—deserve our utmost appreciation and, for the faithful, our heartfelt prayers. The happiness of these essential non-home workers can be served under any circumstances, if we let them know how respected and valued they are by the rest of us.
In survey after survey by the UN, OECD, Gallup, and others, family relationships, friends and community, health and vitality, purpose and meaningful work, spirituality and religion, as well as being around animals and within nature, figure prominently in many respondents’ definition of happiness.
In the very short time that these COVID-19 restrictions have been in place, we have seen and heard some amazing stories of happiness and wellbeing in the face of difficult circumstances. Stories of Italian towns coming together (emotionally) by singing in concert from their balconies; birds filling the blue skies of Wuhan; canal water running clear in Venice; and smog lifting from European cities in lockdown. These examples encourage us with the fact that positive changes do occur—even during a pandemic coupled with a recession!
We are living through something historic: this is the year that Mother Nature or an act of God has forced the world to pause. While we are quarantined, the air is clearing up, deforestation has slowed, and our wildlife is living with a little less fear. For instance, the wildlife trade and consumption bans approved by China are a critical step forward for wildlife welfare and human health. On a broader scale, the “GDP bulldozer” has slowed, giving wildlife a break across the board.
As we look to the future, we see our wellbeing connected with Earth and animals as well. (Image: CC0, Credit: Tatiana)
Now is the time—indeed a rare opportunity—to look at what truly matters in our lives and for society, and to redesign our public policies to better support wellbeing for all. In my opinion this ought to include species conservation, habitat protection, and pro-climate policies. How happy could we be without all people, animals, and Earth thriving alongside us? None of these policies will succeed if the greater goal is GDP growth.
So, let us do what we can to work toward a vision of the future that is happier for everyone. The COVID-caused recession is helping us realize that such a future does not include the rabid pursuit of GDP growth. What will make us happier in the long run is a deeper connection with people, animals, and the planet.
Next March 20th, let’s really have something to celebrate!
Beth Allgood is the US Country Director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Growing up Mormon, I was taught that having babies is part of God’s plan. Today, I believe that humans owe it to each other (and the world) not to.
Posted on July 24, 2019, at 1:29 p.m. ET
When I first made the decision not to have a baby, in 2008, I did it because I couldn’t imagine bringing another human into a world already so overheated and overcrowded. I didn’t know anyone like me at the time. But in the intervening decade, the world’s climate change problem has escalated to a crisis, and people across the world are grappling with the question of whether to have children in such uncertain times. In February, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez broke Instagram when she so much as raised the question. A few weeks later, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, on the opposite end of the spectrum, argued on the Senate floor that the solution to climate change is to “fall in love, get married, and have some kids.” Meanwhile, in the UK, environmental activist Blythe Pepino launched BirthStrike, a social media–focused movement that questions having children in the face of ecological crisis.
Each time, social media lit up with horror. People on the left were appalled that a sitting senator was responding to the defining crisis of our time with what amounted to a series of Star Wars memes. People on the right were appalled that ecofreaks were coming for their (unborn) children. And Tucker Carlson, in a near lip sync of Lee’s Senate performance, interviewed Pepino and then promptly advised her to forget about the climate and have babies.
There’s something strange about watching the rest of the world finally begin to confront a question I wrestled with for so many years. I firmly believe that my decision not to have a baby, 10 years ago, was the right one. And more than that, I believe having children is no longer just a personal decision, but a decision with ethical implications for all of humanity and the planet we live on. But as someone who grew up Mormon in Lee’s home state of Utah — and as a woman who gave birth to a child after a pregnancy I didn’t plan and didn’t want — I’ve been on more than one side of the debate. And I know how much is at stake.I believe having children is no longer just a personal decision, but a decision with ethical implications for all of humanity.
By the time I took my first breath in Salt Lake City’s Cottonwood Hospital in 1982 — the second child of what would be six — the world population had just hit 4.6 billion. But the population control movement in the US had largely come and gone already. Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s provocative 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb had urged the US to slash birth rates in order to protect the environment and avoid mass famines they warned would hit as soon as the ’70s. In that same year, Zero Population Growth — a group inspired by the Ehrlichs — sprung up on college campuses across the country, urging people to stabilize the population by having two children or fewer.
The Ehrlichs and ZPG were on the radical end of the spectrum, but the issue of population control was embraced by leaders and organizations across the left, from Planned Parenthood to the Sierra Club. Even Richard Nixon got in on the game in 1969, including a warning about the risks of population growth in the introduction to his landmark National Environmental Policy Act and convening a bipartisan Commission on Population Growth and the American Future.
But the movement floundered as quickly as it flourished, due in part to its successes — the US birth rate fell below population “replacement” levels by 1972, and Roe v. Wadepassed in 1973 — and due in part to its failures: The Ehrlichs’ apocalyptic predictions of disaster did not come to pass, delegitimizing the broader population concerns they had also raised. Population control activists had influential enemies, including the anti-abortion Catholic Church, which took umbrage at the movement’s positions on abortion and contraception, and a growing New Left, which prioritized socialism and race and class issues over what it criticized as the movement’s racist politics and bourgeois emphasis on conservation and environmentalism. By 1982, when I was born, environmental activists and politicians alike had largely abandoned population control as a central issue.
But for Mormons like me and my parents, the threat hadn’t gone away. The population movement hadn’t just insulted our love of big, nuclear families; it had directly defied our theology — and our God. In the Mormon belief system, every human being exists prior to their life on Earth. These “spirit children” live in a heaven-adjacent place known as the preexistence, where they wait for their crack at mortality down below.
But if people aren’t having babies? If ecoactivists get in the way of God’s plan? Long lines in heaven, with billions of children waiting, interminably, for their one chance to be saved. The zero-population-growth movement had come dangerously close to foiling God’s plan. And even if it was already mostly dormant, the adults still talked about it. They knew that somewhere out there, somewhere beyond Salt Lake City, there were still people who wanted to stop Mormon families from existing.
The whole population debate could have easily sailed over my head and remained a conversation among adults. But then two Mormon thespians made a musical, which in 1989 became a video, that let kids in on it — and I became its superfan. Saturday’s Warrior follows a nice Mormon boy named Jimmy who falls in with a crowd of “zero population” activists at his high school. Jimmy’s mom is pregnant for the eighth time, and Jimmy’s sister-to-be, Emily, is up in the preexistence in a fluttery green dress, waiting for her chance to be born. Jimmy is torn. He loves his siblings, and he wants to be a good Mormon, but at lunchtime, his new friends invite him to sit with them on the hood of their shiny red convertible, where they talk, like, um, all high schoolers about the importance of family planning.
What starts as an argument about childcare — “Kids. They’re a life sentence!” — quickly morphs into a conversation about scarce resources. (“Hey, what about the country?” a girl in a pink crop top asks. “The world?”) Inspired by the question, the most popular boy stands up and makes a declaration. “We as citizens of planet Earth have a solemn obligation to preserve our natural resources by limiting our numbers,” he says, his jaw chiseled with conviction, his acid-washed jean jacket resplendent.
“Who can survive? / Who can survive? / Not one of us will be alive,” Jimmy’s new friends sing while girls in high ponytails pirouette and leap to underscore the point. “Who can be strong? / Who can be strong? / When all the food is gone?”
Jimmy is convinced for a while, but don’t worry! The bad kids don’t win. With the help of some angelic interventions, Jimmy sees the error of his ways and reunites with his family — just in time for Emily to be born. And That’s When He Realizes: All this talk of scarce resources is nothing compared to holding your kid sister in your arms.I knew that we, as Mormons, were threatened by people who cared more about the planet than family. But I didn’t know why.
Growing up, I always cheered at the movie’s final scene. But when it was time to choreograph some sleepover dance numbers to the soundtrack, I’d beg to play a bad kid, crimping my hair and tying my (modest) shirt into a midriff-baring top. That’s because, secretly, I liked them. It wasn’t just their scrunchies and short shorts and palpable sexual energy. It was what they were saying. I’d lived my whole life in a white Mormon bubble. Because of this, world politics always came at me sideways — through the counterargument, not the argument. I knew that we, as Mormons, were threatened by people who cared more about the planet than family. But I didn’t know why.
In church, the only time we talked about the Earth was when we talked about Jesus coming back. Since the world would burn, we reasoned, we could do what we liked. And after Jesus separated the righteous from the wicked, he’d presumably fix everything else — organizing a plastics cleanup in the ocean and patching up the hole in the atmosphere and whatnot. But the bad kids seemed to disagree. What did they mean, for example, when they said that zero population growth was the answer? What were these natural resources that needed protecting? And what the hell was the ozone layer?
I’d been taught that the scriptures were clear: Humans existed to multiply and replenish the Earth — to bring more spirit children down here and eventually back to God. But the bad kids in Saturday’s Warrior suggested the opposite: that bringing more kids into the world destroyed it. So was the real answer to replenish by not multiplying? I had no idea, and no one to talk about it with. So I put the thought away. I kept watching my favorite movie. Except now, I rooted — secretly — for the bad kids.
I first learned about climate change at Brigham Young University, the Mormon school where I went to college. It was the early 2000s, and the fight over population growth and the ozone layer had been replaced by an even more dire, if nebulous, threat. NASA scientist James Hansen was sounding the climate alarm across the country. The world had tried, and failed, to get the US to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol. Al Gore was about to release An Inconvenient Truth. But on the BYU campus — a place conservatives once extolled for being an eye in the political storm of the radical ’60s — you’d have been hard-pressed to notice.
The day I arrived at the dorms, the biggest news wasn’t about the climate. It was about a celebrity. The hall gossip knocked on my door to break the news. “Emily’s here,” she told me, hands jazzing out in excitement. “Emily from Saturday’s Warrior!” She jumped up and down, then ran to tell the next person.
I never met the girl who’d played Emily (she was two dorms over) but I didn’t have to. Years had passed since the release of Saturday’s Warrior, but at BYU her pronatalist message was alive and well. The first Sunday of the semester, my bishop gave a talk imploring us to get married — hopefully within the year. Once we were hitched, he urged us to listen to the Spirit and forgo all forms of contraception. There were babies that needed to come to Earth, he said, and we needed to help them. To get us started, there were weekly activities. On Monday you could hit up a speed dating event, followed by a dating panel on Wednesday, and a group date night on Friday. During the day, there were mandatory religion classes with titles that ranged from “Marriage Prep” to “Eternal Families.” All over America, other kids were filling prescriptions for the Pill and partying — being bad kids. At BYU, we had a higher purpose: to get married and pregnant before graduation.
I was still a teetotaling, no-sex-before-marriage, churchgoing Mormon. But I didn’t fit in. I didn’t attend dating panels or pore over wedding magazines or go for ice cream with righteous boys. I wanted to talk about ideas, to learn about the world. I wanted to talk about politics — whatever that meant. So I started a weekly discussion night, a place for Mormon misfits to gather and try to find a way into what our leaders would call “worldly” conversations. We talked about sweatshop labor and the war in Iraq, anarchism and public breastfeeding. We were naive and desperately earnest. We had no idea what we were doing.
Discussion night is how I first learned about climate change. In the fall of 2004, a friend stood in front of the group and talked about the warming atmosphere and then opened his laptop so we could calculate our carbon footprints. As homework, the friend gave us a challenge. For the next week, we had to carry all our garbage around with us in a plastic bag. He told us it would remind us of our impact on the Earth. And it worked.The fate of civilization was at stake. And most people didn’t seem to care.
For seven days, I dragged my bag around as it filled up and began to stink, a mishmash of banana peels and Hostess cupcake wrappers and takeout containers from the local sandwich shop. By day seven, I was neurotic, refusing all disposable items when I went out to eat. This ended in a dramatic standoff at the local deli, with the manager loudly refusing to put my vegetarian sub on the reusable plate I’d brought along for the purpose.
Soon I stopped driving, opting to wait for the three different buses that would get me home on the weekends. When I ate a burger, I was overcome with images of fallen trees in the Amazon cleared for acres of bleating cows. So I stopped eating burgers. But there was always more to learn, and more to cut out. The world was burning, and my entire existence was organized around petroleum. The fate of civilization was at stake. And most people didn’t seem to care.
By the time I graduated from BYU, I had two secrets. I’d lost faith in the religion of my parents, grandparents, and pioneer ancestors, and found a home in what I now realize amounted to a sort of basic humanism. My other secret was almost worse: I did not want to have a baby.
I did not want to bring a person into this world to generate tons of carbon. I didn’t want to raise a person who would push another animal out of its home, or put island nations underwater. I thought about the garbage bag experiment, and then I imagined what that bag would look like over a lifetime — the plates, cups, clothes, diapers, cars, shoes, shampoo bottles, and barrels of oil it would contain. I knew I wasn’t supposed to think like that. I was supposed to look at a baby and see a child of God, a cooing joy bundle, a future missionary or a father or a grandmother. I was supposed to feel joy. But instead I felt grief. And anger. And nausea. For the first time in a long time, I thought of Saturday’s Warrior. (Who can survive? / Who can survive? / Not one of us will be alive.) And I understood.
Blythe Pepino didn’t set out to become an environmental activist. As the lead singer of UK pop band Vaults, she was focused on her musical career. But when she turned 31 in 2018 and started to think about having children, everything changed. The world was already in turmoil, of course. Brexit had just passed, the far right was rising, and — after three failed harvests — Syria was in a civil war, causing refugees to stream into the camp in Calais, France, where Pepino volunteered. Still, she had hope. For her, she told me over the phone, the thought of having a baby was “a beautiful idea,” a nest in turbulent times.
Then the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its November 2018 climate report. According to its findings, the world will face dire threats to civilization and ecological stability as early as 2040 unless we can reduce carbon emissions enough to restrict global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Coral reefs will disappear; low-lying islands will be swallowed by water; humans will face serious and prolonged food and water shortages. Preventing that will require nothing short of a total transformation of society, government, and the economy.
Pepino had learned about environmental destruction in college, and she knew climate change was a problem. But for years she had hoped — however fleetingly — that “some overarching authority would come in and stomp it out.” Now she realized that nobody was coming to fix it. And she began to despair. So she read more, trying to find her footing among vertiginously bad news. And in 2018, she went to a talk put on by a new, disruptive climate group known as Extinction Rebellion.
The presentation, “Heading for Extinction (and What to Do About It),” shook Pepino to her bones. She knew about the different aspects of climate change, from social unrest to rising seas. But then she learned about feedback loops: vicious circles where a small change can set off a chain reaction — for example, melting permafrost releasing carbon and methane, which melts more permafrost and releases even more greenhouse gases. These loops could function as hair triggers in climate change math, factors that could wildly intensify the impacts of warming. When Pepino learned about the idea, she freaked out. “It starts to paint a really dark picture,” she said. “You start to think about collapse.”
After that, when Pepino thought about having a baby, she felt scared. She didn’t want to bring a child into a world of such uncertainty and strife. “That’s when the climate crisis and my desire to have a baby really started to collide,” Pepino said. “And I couldn’t marry the two anymore.” Pepino got more involved with Extinction Rebellion, getting arrested at demonstrations to call attention to the crisis. At meetings, she’d approach other people around her age and ask them about it: “I’d say, ‘Okay, you are my age. Are you considering having kids? Are you worried?’” Almost always people would say yes, but that they didn’t know how to talk about it because it was so taboo.
Pepino became certain that something needed to be done. She wanted to create a place where people could be honest about the choice to have a child in a time of climate crisis, and she wanted to leverage that conversation to drive the crisis into the mainstream media. And in early 2019, BirthStrike was born. Largely a social media phenomenon, the group was intended to create a space where people who were worried about climate change could work through their grief, confusion, or ambivalence over the decision to have children, and to find support and solidarity in the conversation.
The group’s Tumblr starts with a declaration (“We, the undersigned, declare our decision not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face [of] this existential threat”) and quickly becomes an act of reassurance. Acutely aware that conversations about family size can lead to accusations of being anti-family, the group’s mission statement underscores that its members stand with parents and children everywhere. And, conscious of the racist specter of past population movements — from the anti-immigration politics of ZPG to the overlap of eugenics and environmentalism to the forced sterilization of poor women of color in the US and beyond — the group is quick to point out that it “disagrees with any population control measures” and “recognizes the colonial violence” that those measures have entailed in the past. (ZPG, also acutely aware of the baggage its name carried, rebranded as Population Connection in 2002.)The decision to reproduce doesn’t feel like a personal choice among several equally valid options. It feels like a moral decision.
Pepino herself stresses that the issue is not about whether to have children. It’s about using the conversation to hammer home the scale of the crisis, get the government to make systemic changes in consumption patterns, and push the mainstream media to cover the issue. And, from her perspective, it’s working.
When I talked to Pepino in May, she told me she’s done over 300 media interviews since starting the group. Meanwhile, hundreds of people have submitted testimonials on Tumblr, sharing the reasons behind their own decisions not to have children. Erin Kamler, 44, talks of living in an age of “profound grief,” an Earth filled with so much loss that it demands “a complete reckoning with the vision we have been taught to carry our whole lives; a vision of family, of security; a vision that takes for granted the future of our own species.” That vision, she says, is a luxury we can no longer afford. Matthew Swanson, 28, confesses that he goes around “wearing a mask, playing a character who believes everything will somehow be ok.” In reality, though, he says he feels “robbed of his possible future,” haunted by a “shadow few others seem to see or care about.” The list scrolls on and on.
I appreciate Pepino’s efforts to launch BirthStrike, not just as an activist but as a person. Thinking about the end of the Earth is lonely, and it’s even lonelier when you start to talk about not having children. There have been many nights when I’ve sat up well past midnight, scrolling through BirthStrike’s Tumblr, reading post after post. I do it for the company, to remind myself I’m not alone. And yet, when I am done, I still feel lonely.
Pepino — and most of the commenters — are choosing not to have kids because of the impact it will have on their child. They don’t want to bring a person into a world of uncertainty and pain. For me, though, the issue is not what sort of world my child might inherit. The world is often painful and frequently violent, for many people today and most of human history. What’s different today is our impact — on other humans, especially poor people and people of color, but also on animals. And for me, that’s much more motivating — and much more painful.
I was devastated by the IPCC’s 2018 report on the collapse of civilization, of course. But I was equally if not more gutted by the less-publicized follow-up report this spring on the impact of human activities on all other animals. One million animals are set to go extinct by 2100, the report notes, and the state of the natural world as we know it is in freefall — all because of human actions. In light of this, the decision to reproduce doesn’t feel like a personal choice among several equally valid options. It feels like a moral decision about what we get to take and what others must lose so we can get it.
Bioethicist Colin Hickey spends most of his time thinking about these questions: the moral duties each person has toward making the world an equitable place. And Hickey believes that as a species, we simply cannot reach our carbon goals — and, by extension, survive — without rethinking how quickly humans are multiplying.
“Climate change is the most serious threat facing the word,” Hickey told me, “and we need to be looking at every tool in the toolbox.”
Even if we followed every IPCC suggestion to the letter, Hickey argues, we would still be far beyond the safe limit for human and animal survival. To restrict global warming to less than 1.5 degrees — itself a “goal” with catastrophic environmental consequences — we have to find more ways to bring carbon emissions down, fast. And as he sees it, that requires talking about population.
“If you reduce fertility by .5 children [per family] it would be the equivalent of reducing over 5 billion tons of carbon by 2100,” Hickey said. To put that number in perspective, humans emit about 12 billion tons of carbon a year. “That’s a big chunk of the way there,” he said. “It could get us upwards of a quarter of the way to our emissions targets.”
Pepino agrees about the urgency of reducing emissions, but disagrees on the method. When I asked her about population and climate, she sent me a paper arguing that even with a rapid shift to a global one-child policy, there would still be about the same number of people at the end of the century as there are today. For Pepino, the risks of resuscitating population control arguments marred by racism and sexism are not worth it, especially if the math doesn’t add up to a meaningful population decrease soon enough.
“One, it’s immoral,” Pepino says. “Two, it’s a moot point because it’s too late.” Instead, Pepino argues for systemic change to decrease consumption (carbon and otherwise) and increase education and empowerment for women.
It’s a compelling argument. After all, who (at least among liberals) wants to position themselves in opposition to responsible consumption and women’s empowerment? Certainly not Hickey, who has studied the history of the population control movement and is deeply concerned by its authoritarian, racist, and sexist past. But for Hickey, the bare fact is that other methods of controlling emissions — even if we could make governments adopt them the world over, which is its own question — do not get us below 1.5 degrees. Reducing consumption is a noble goal, but — beyond complicated math models — the logic of reducing consumption and population seems to make a lot of sense. As Hickey says, the ideal should be “fewer emitters emitting less.” Which leads Hickey to his core question: What if there were a way to drive down population without engaging in the authoritarian atrocities of the past?
Hickey thinks there could be. In his view, population reductions sit on a spectrum from totally voluntary to coercive. He rejects the coercive method but believes that there are lots of ethical options that go beyond issues of access and education. One, which he calls “preference adjustment,” is really about storytelling — using mass media, from television to billboards to television ads, to push back against the pronatalist messaging that everyone should have kids. That might take the form of a television show where a complex, relatable main character chooses not to have children, or something like a public health campaign that uses facts, mass advertising, and celebrity endorsement to reduce the stigma of having fewer — or zero — children.“We can’t have this conversation unless we realize that we currently live in a deeply, profoundly pronatalist society.”
In addition to these mass media strategies, Hickey also suggests a responsible system of (carefully considered, ethical) incentives that pay or charge people in order to encourage smaller family sizes. Wealthier people with higher levels of carbon emissions would be charged for having large families, while poorer people would receive small incentives for doing things like, say, attending family planning classes or filling prescriptions.
Hickey says that getting people to even entertain discussions about reducing population requires a lot of trust and two big shifts. First, he’d like to see the decision to have a child shift to being “a moral decision instead of just a personal decision.” And that requires us humans to think — hard — about the obligations we have to each other in a scenario where mass extinction of both human and animal life is a real possibility.
Basic bodily autonomy is fundamental, of course, and no one should be allowed to violate a person’s physical integrity. But for Hickey, autonomy is also complex. If our rights conflict with someone else’s rights — say, if bringing more kids into the world threatens the lives, livelihoods, or dignity of other people (and, I would add, animals and many other living organisms) — then there has to be a trade-off. Or, as Hickey says, “sometimes we have to accept certain limitations on our autonomy to protect another person’s autonomy.”
Hickey points out that we generally accept these sorts of trade-offs in other welfare-based conversations, from anti-litter campaigns to gun safety laws. (To be fair, many Americans refuse trade-offs in these arenas too; but in general people agree that discussing the trade-offs should be allowed — a concession I have rarely found when discussing family size.) I agree with Hickey, but, still, I am afraid. After all, in a world where misogyny and racism have stripped women, trans, and nonbinary people of their bodily autonomy for centuries, it’s hard to believe that a conversation about childbearing could be deployed with the same nuance.
Ultimately, Hickey believes that we are free from coercion but not from influence — from argument both reasonable and emotional. And in order to have a humane and ethical conversation about reducing human fertility, we have to acknowledge that we already live in a society that pressures, unethically incentivizes, and forces conversations about birth.
“We can’t have this conversation,” Hickey said, “unless we realize that we currently live in a deeply, profoundly pronatalist society” — one that is patrolled and enforced by everything from the tax code to the mass media. In this context, facts, storytelling, and other methods can provide an antidote to what is otherwise a seamless, 360-degree expectation: that everyone ought to, deserves to, and must have a child. Autonomy is not the only value, and bias is baked into our current system. If we want to get out of that — if we want to survive and ensure that so many other species don’t go extinct — we have to start a new conversation about what we owe each other, and what we owe to the future.
As for me, I appreciate Pepino’s attempts to distinguish BirthStrike from larger conversations about population control. I share the concerns over the movement’s racist past, and I also personally understand Pepino’s other worry: that conversations about population control are just another way of controlling women’s bodies. I know this fear personally, not just as a woman who happens to be alive in 2019, but as someone who — just three years after swearing I wouldn’t in 2008 — did get pregnant and have a baby.
The pregnancy was an accident, and I tried to get an abortion. But I was broke and the hotline for help rang and rang, nobody on the line. I told the man I’d slept with, and asked him to help. Instead, he said he loved me and convinced me to have the baby. As soon as I agreed, he left, his truck flashing in the sun as he rounded the corner. I was stuck. I went to a crisis pregnancy center, not yet familiar with their reputation. When I got there, the staff prayed with me and handed me my sonogram pictures with a tiny knitted hat. I cried in the parking lot.
When I told my Mormon friends about my pregnancy, they were sad at first (unwed mother) but then ecstatic (baby). They brought me Chex cereal (the only thing I could eat) and threw me baby showers; one woman gave me a collection of precious stones, each with a different message of strength for my journey.
When I told my environmentalist friends, they froze. Did I know that abortion was an option? they asked. As if I did not. One friend sat silently for a long time after I told him, and then sniffed. “That baby will use up a lot of resources,” he said, then got up slowly and biked away. I now felt the double-edged blade of being who I was: a pregnant woman with very few options. I would have this baby because a Congress full of mostly men had decided I would have no other choice. I would be celebrated for having it because a religion led by men had decided that this was my destiny.
Months later, I gave birth in my living room, surrounded by family, and then placed my baby girl in the arms of a couple from North Carolina who wanted to adopt her. We are family now: her, her parents, me, and my partner of seven years — love that makes a complicated shape. But that experience didn’t change my mind about having more kids. My one child is 8 now; in 2040 she will be 29. I think about that more days than not.
I think other things too, mostly contradictions. I love my daughter, but I gave her an impossible future. I want her to be happy, but I worry with good reason that she will, at best, survive. I am glad she exists, but I know that her existence — white, middle class, pampered — will make it harder, in some slippery, maddening math that is not her fault, for others to do the same. These are not motherly thoughts. But I am a mother, and they are mine.
That’s one way to say that as much as I agree with Pepino, I agree with Hickey more. I grieve that my child will live in a broken world, and how she will feel, yes — but I also grieve for the world and for my part in breaking it. And that somehow feels the most taboo.
I’m not Mormon anymore, and I left Utah — a state that’s toed the line in the battle over freedom of choice. It’s tempting, from this vantage, to blame my pregnancy on a lack of choice, and to insist on my individual autonomy as the most precious of things. But I find that, more than anything else, my story looks the same with different details. I still live in a world where having children is culturally mandated, societally encouraged, and constantly, chronically, gymnastically protected — even if that means endangering or punishing the mother, even if it harms the other humans and creatures she shares a world with.
The people who disagree with my decision to birth strike now might not believe in a preexistence, but they believe in its secular cousin: that kids have a basic right to be born. They might not be climate change–denying conservatives, but they still accept that their personal desires for a family, in combination with everyone else’s, are worth potentially catastrophic consequences for the planet. And they might support abortion and women’s rights, but they don’t support a conversation that goes further — that talks about what we owe our own bodies, and others’.
I still think about Saturday’s Warrior and its cartoonish face-off between planet and family. No matter how much I make fun of it, I can’t get that song out of my head — the one that sounds so hokey but tells it so plain: Who can survive? / Who can survive? / Not one of us will be alive / Who can be strong / Who can be strong / When all the food is gone?I believe this conversation requires more of us ethically — and fewer of us, ultimately — than we are willing, yet, to acknowledge.
This question follows me around. It breathes down my neck. It’s this question that motivated me to go on birth strike. And it’s why I feel compelled to agree with Hickey, to go beyond the idea that having a baby — or even not having one — is merely a personal decision. I try to talk about this feeling with people. I try to tell my friends, my peers — good, progressive people who believe, on some level, that climate change is real. But they stare at me, blank or angry. They tell me autonomy is sacrosanct, that reproductive choice is limitless, and that the decision to have or not have children should be individual and automatically supported.
They tell me other things too. They say But your kid will be good. They say But my kid will solve the crisis. They say We need more people who care, like you; they say But we will figure this out; they say Look at this baby; they say Recycling will save us.
And I want to agree with them, but I can’t. Because we are in a crisis, an emergency. And my kid won’t solve it, and your kid won’t solve it. If they are empaths they will feel just as trapped as I do, just as complicit in something they cannot solve — and they will pollute and harm and gobble up the world because that is what it means to live in the 21st century.
So, no, I didn’t become a birth striker because I was afraid my future child would suffer — although I understand that fear. I didn’t even become one to save the human race — although I believe, emphatically, that the people who have done the most to cause this mess should not take everyone else down with them.
I am a birth striker because I spent most of my life in a world where I was told that my only value came from having children — in a world where I had no other option. I’m a birth striker because every day brings another news article, another ugly contour of the coming catastrophe. I am a birth striker because at night, I dream of refugees in boats that capsize, always capsize, their scarves and clothes pooling around them as they sink. Because I dream of animals standing in a line that bends to infinity, an endless trudge of species waiting for the flood like a perverse reprise of Noah’s Ark. I wake up wanting to say: I had the most terrible nightmare. But it is not a nightmare, and almost nobody is listening.
I am a birth striker because I carry these griefs like a hot coal on my tongue. I’m a birth striker because I believe that talking about who we bring onto this planet and what we think they deserve reveals that we owe so much more to each other — to all the other humans and creatures who share this planet with us — than we give ourselves permission to imagine, or speak.
I am a birth striker because I want humans to do more than save themselves. I want to talk about what is worth saving: what relationships, stories, and obligations we will keep and discard. And I believe this conversation requires more of us ethically — and fewer of us, ultimately — than we are willing, yet, to acknowledge. ●
Ash Sandersis a writer, radio producer, and climate activist with pieces published or forthcoming in Rolling Stone, Narratively, NPR, Stitcher, and the Believer.