Author: Gray Griffin

I Chose Not To Have Kids Because I’m Afraid For The Planet

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.

Ash Sanders
BuzzFeed Contributor

Posted on July 24, 2019, at 1:29 p.m. ET

Tallulah Fontaine for BuzzFeed News

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 Sanders is a writer, radio producer, and climate activist with pieces published or forthcoming in Rolling Stone, Narratively, NPR, Stitcher, and the Believer.



  1. Climate Change

Where Is The Human Boom Leading Us In An Age Of Climate Change?

JULY 25, 2019


Map courtesy William H. Frey/Brookings Institution

Map courtesy William H. Frey/Brookings Institution Robert Thomas Malthus wrote about it and so has a series of others, including Paul Ehrlich, Donella Meadows and many of her contemporaries, pondering how exploding human population, unsustainable resource extraction and our consumption of varying kinds of raw materials can outstrip nature’s ability to function. 

Yet onward we’ve continued, paying no heed to the consequences of premising prosperity on an existential belief. It is the orthodoxy that growth and markets are the answer to everything,  and that markets lead to technological innovation which will ostensibly rescue us from whatever crisis we get ourselves in, no matter how dire. 

Indeed, the continuing human population boom has been the bedrock of an economic boom registering across sector after sector. It has also, according to at least some observers, been setting the foundation for its own bust. That’s old news. 

It’s true that the population is surging beyond our borders but even shifting areas of human concentration all around the world are resulting in greater stresses on finite resources. 

In the US alone, the booming human population has been the wellspring for surging numbers of visitors to the likes of Yellowstone National Park, city managers in the region bent on promoting inward growth, the basis of soaring demand for logging to supply housing for a growing human herd, and the foundation of profit boom for the fossil fuel combustion industries. But where is it leading?

Booms enjoy considerable public approval and political popularity. Over and over again, the long-ongoing human population boom has afforded the political elites and local boosters an opportunity to boast of a booming economy on a never-ending upward trajectory, sometimes raising local and even national concerns about touting growth at any cost.

Bust, on the other hand, is a dirty four-letter word.

We all know what follows an economic boom. In the preface to his 1992 book on the economic history of the United States, James Grant reminded readers that, “Booms have consequences.” 

Politicians and local boosters promising delivery of booms seldom if ever mention consequences, but they’re no secret to a state like Wyoming that has elected successions of leaders over the past 50 years who have claimed they will be the first to deliver a natural resource boom without a devastating bust. All have failed. Have you been reading the headlines relating to the downward spiral of coal and no back-up plan for dealing with this bust?

In July, 2001, The Economist advised its readers that “It is no coincidence that the deepest and most protracted recessions in recent decades have taken hold in countries that experienced booms.” 

So, too, can it be applied to states, be they in the rust belt, textile hubs, Appalachian coal country or outposts on the high plains.

More broadly, William R. Catton focussed on what follows a human population boom in his 1980 book, “Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. ” As one reviewer put it, “Catton believed that industrial civilization had sown the seeds of its own demise and that humanity’s seeming dominance of the biosphere is only a prelude to decline.” Catton spelled out his warning of decline in considerable detail, but the basics are — or should be — clear enough. 

° ° ° °
As a kid, I had the benefit of grownups who calmly informed me that, if you put 150 cows on acreage that can only support 15, you won’t have 150 cows for long. It’s about the same with people. Today’s 7 billion and tomorrow’s expected 9 or 10 billion can’t last on a planet capable of supporting maybe only one billion in comfort.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a devotee of Ayn Rand and who served during the George W. Bush Administration, warned in 2005, three years before the start of the Great Recession, that wealth disparities stood to destabilize the economy and others note that the widening gaps between uber-wealthy and working class threaten to destabilize democracy, which means destabilization of the world.  

A Pew study found that 84 percent of the world lives below the US poverty line so if the goal is to elevate the billions of others to our level of resource consumption, what does that mean for the impact of resource extraction on the planet?

But that inevitability is no longer likely to hit solely from overshoot alone, and not in some far-distant future. Instead, with the added pressure from our booming combustion of fossil fuels, a human population bust could plausibly be kicked into gear sometime “by” — a.k.a. before — 2050, or within the next 30 years.

Climate scientist Kevin Anderson has advised anyone willing to listen that, if we fire up the fossil fuels enough to hike atmospheric heat by 4C, only around half a billion people will survive. Anderson says, “I think it’s extremely unlikely that we wouldn’t have mass death at 4 degrees C. If you have got a population of nine billion by” — a.k.a. before — “2050 and you hit 4 degrees C, 5C or 6C, you might have half a billion people surviving.”

The consequences of human die off at that scale would sprawl widely across both ecological and economic realms. Just in economic terms alone, it would trigger a mass loss of customers for every business and industry across the world. The numbers of tourists flocking to US national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite would plummet with people obviously worrying more about other things rather than how they’re spending leisure time.

Vast supplies of housing would be left vacant, and the demand for logging crushed. In an irony to cap all ironies, the mass consumption of fossil energy would hit the floor. All in all, Anderson’s stark scenario would add up to economic catastrophe beyond compare.

In other words, nearly every job and industry we associate with American greatness and prosperity would be threatened.

But even the rise in average temperatures don’t have to be that extreme to be extreme.

Anderson’s reference to reaching 4 degrees C added heat is within the realm of possibility. But his scenario of mass death doesn’t have to reach the extent he indicates in order to be extreme. For example, if 4C won’t wipe out all but half a billion people, it would still have profound effect if it wiped out all but a billion, or two billion.

Even if it “only” wiped out all but 3.5 billion worldwide, it would wipe out half of today’s human population. Human die off at even this less extreme scale would put the politically popular cause of economic growth in sharp reverse.

And recent research has turned up signals of economic damage even without mass death. The June 30 2017 issue of Science published a densely detailed article under the title, Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States. The authors found that the mid-Atlantic and southern states would be hit hard by the heat forced on the region by continued combustion of fossil fuels. 

But the impact wouldn’t stop there. Instead, the impact would ripple across the nation, partly just because of mass migration away from the hardest hit states. When Time Magazine interviewed the lead author, he told Time that  “Conflict and political instability — those kinds of things we don’t see today, but could be baked into the future.” He said, “If we continue to emit, you go into this recession and you get stuck in it forever,

In the quest to prime the pump of our economy, we use more fossil fuels which raises temperatures which will result in less precipitation in the already-arid and water-challenged West.  Lance Olsen says it's no prescription for sustaining a human and environment-friendly economy.  Photo courtesy Pexel

In the quest to prime the pump of our economy, we use more fossil fuels which raises temperatures which will result in less precipitation in the already-arid and water-challenged West. Lance Olsen says it’s no prescription for sustaining a human and environment-friendly economy. Photo courtesy Pexel The only way to avoid that change is to embrace the change we need to make.

The first sentence of the executive summary of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 C advises policymakers that, “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” 

In a nutshell, if we avoid making the sacrifices necessary to further that particular set of far-reaching and unprecedented changes, we’ll get another — and plausibly nastier — set of far-reaching and unprecedented sacrifices in all aspects of society. We’ll give up a lot to get a soft-as-still-possible landing, or give up a lot more in a crash. 

In a nutshell, if we avoid making the sacrifices necessary to further that particular set of far-reaching and unprecedented changes, we’ll get another — and plausibly nastier — set of far-reaching and unprecedented sacrifices in all aspects of society.

There’s a lot of money at stake. The moneyed world has recently come wide awake to the economic damage made likely by continuing the combustion of fossil fuels. In an article under the headline, Climate change threatens to wreak havoc on the global economy,” the January 25 2019 issue of World Finance magazine advised its readers that, “It is becoming more and more apparent that the developing threat of climate change is not simply damaging the earth’s natural ecosystem, but is also harming the world economy.”

More specifically, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, reportedly managing climate-vulnerable assets worth more than twice the value of the entire Chinese economy, has launched a campaign of lobbying governments to get away from thermal coal, andput an end to subsidizing all the fossil fuels, and to get on with putting a price on carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion.” This amounts to a direct pushback against policy touted by Trump and the Republicans and, since pushing back, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change ranks have grown from 415 to 477.

Plainly enough then, the moneyed world’s worries are  beginning to sound a lot like those voiced by advocates of the Green New Deal and campaigners of Fridays for the Future and the Extinction Rebellion.

So, where are the Republicans? Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee recently grilled Fed Chairman Jerome Powell on the Fed’s response to a changing climate. They made no reference to Kevin Anderson’s dire scenario, or to risk of a recession that goes on forever. They did, however, succeed in getting Powell’s opinion that human-caused climate change does pose financial risk.  

Republicans, meanwhile, launched a conservation caucus aimed, according to The Hill, at battling the perception that their party doesn’t care about climate change. Like the Democrats, they made no reference to Kevin Anderson’s dire scenario, or to risk of a recession that goes on forever. Instead, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina where the coastal Low Country is vulnerable to going under water, said the Green New Deal is “crazy economics,” adding that “We believe our friends on the other side care about the environment, but they care so much they’re going to destroy the economy in the name of saving the environment.”

In an editorial on July 13, 2019, the right-leaning Washington Examiner picked up that accusation with a headline declaring that, “The Green New Deal was never about climate change; it’s just AOC’s excuse to destroy America’s economy.”

Interestingly, according to The Hill, the Republican “caucus members… stressed that traditional energy sources like coal, oil and gas would remain a part of the mix.”  This is happening at the same time insurance companies are warning possibly not issuing policies to property owners who build in areas prone to climate-related natural disasters, such as wildfire and coastal areas. Republicans, standing by their reputation as guardians of the economy and advocates of capital investment, now promote a continuing push toward 4 degrees C? Huh?  

About Lance Olsen

Lance Olsen has been involved with science and wildlife conservation in the Northern Rockies for more than four decades.  A former executive director of the Missoula, Montana-based Great Bear Foundation, he worked with noted bear researchers, including Drs. Charles Jonkel and John Craighead. He is based in Missoula, Montana.  

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