A World Without Children

A generation facing an intractable problem debates whether to bring a new generation into the world.

A black-and-white image of a baby with a red globe as his head
Getty; The Atlantic

Miley Cyrus vowed not to have a baby on a “piece-of-shit planet.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mused in an Instagram video about whether it’s still okay to have children. Polls suggest that a third or more of Americans younger than 45 either don’t have children or expect to have fewer than they might otherwise because they are worried about climate change. Millennials and Gen Z are not the first generations to face the potential of imminent, catastrophic, irreversible change to the world they will inherit. But, it seems, they are the first to seriously entertain whether that means they should stop having children.

This question tends to cleave people into two camps: those who think considering climate change is reasonable and necessary when making decisions about having children, and those who find this premise unthinkable. “There’s a difference in caring about our climate … and asking a legitimate question about doing away with the human race,” the conservative television personality Abby Huntsman said on The View of Ocasio-Cortez’s comments.

At the margins of the climate movement, that’s basically what people are proposing: A very small number of women in the United Kingdom have launched a “birth strike” as a response to ecological devastation. But the question can be more nuanced than “Will you or won’t you?” Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli started hosting house parties and collecting testimonies about this topic roughly half a decade ago, in a project called Conceivable Future. They wanted people, and especially women, to be able to share deeply held and often silent worries, and to connect with the climate issue from a personal perspective. I talked with Kallman and Ferorelli about why the climate crisis is different from any other crisis in human history, whether they’re planning to have kids, and how that’s related to their hope for the future. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Emma Green: Who tends to gravitate toward this question about how climate change should affect childbearing?

Josephine Ferorelli: You know, it’s been an ongoing surprise who this resonates with and who it doesn’t. I’m aware of this being really present in the reproductive-justice movement. In conversations with people of color, climate is compounded with a lot of other threats to any children that they might wish to have. The climate crisis is only one way our leadership shows their hand—that they don’t put the health and safety of us or our potential children ahead of quarterly profits. I think our generation is unique in the number of pressures weighing down on it.

Meghan Kallman: The conversation is, in my experience, deeply gendered. Women—people who are raised women especially, but all women—face a lot more anxiety around having children, being parents, and, specifically, being mothers. Men who don’t have children or who choose to parent unconventionally are considered whole people. Women who are not having children or who are questioning their own desire to have kids are judged very harshly and much differently than men are.

Green: But are there shared characteristics along lines of education? Do people share a certain progressive political outlook?

Kallman: They tend to be at least college-educated. And they tend to be, certainly, pro-choice. For the most part, they’re on the left of the political spectrum. They’re certainly, on the whole, younger. Our house parties have been not exclusively white, but they’re pretty white.

Ferorelli: One thing that revealed itself to us pretty early is that, for a lot of white, middle-class people, climate is this stunner of an issue. It’s the first time a lot of us have noticed that our well-being is not cherished by our leadership. But for almost everybody else, demographically, that’s not a surprise. So some of the conversations we’ve been having with people are just reckoning with this idea that if you decide to have children, you’re doing it against odds, in the face of harm. Those are the conditions that people of color who have children in America have had from the beginning.

Green: I’d like you to unpack that a little bit more—what that means for you. Both of you, I assume, identify as white women. Meghan, you have one of the fanciest degrees the world has to offer: a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university. In general, we live in a country with unprecedented historical wealth and vast technological innovation, and you are both in positions to benefit from that. So I guess I wonder: Why you? Why would you be the people to not have children to try to answer the vast moral challenge that is climate change?

Kallman: First of all, neither of us have chosen to have children or to not have children. We’re both in our 30s. We both have a little bit of time to make this decision. And for both of us, there are personal considerations.

There is a really, really gross class—and by extension, race—underpinning of the premise that you should have children. Your children will save X. Your children will invent the cure for Y. That comment seems to mean: Because you are privileged, because you are white, because you are educated, your kids are more valuable and therefore you should have them (a) because you’re a woman, and (b) because they’ll fix everything. The stuff to unpack in there is dense as a brick, and it’s really destructive.

The point is that everybody’s kids deserve a chance at a healthy life.

Green: The question I’m trying to get at is different. Obviously, no one will escape the effects of climate change. But some people are globally situated such that climate change is an immediate problem: It is already affecting their lives or will imminently have catastrophic effects on their lives. Take women who live in coastal Bangladesh. It is almost guaranteed that in 20 years, what is now Bangladesh is going to be a significantly smaller geographic territory than it is today. People are already being displaced there because of climate change.

I assume, for you all, that kind of immediacy does not exist. Women in coastal Bangladesh are having children. Based on what you’ve said in the past, I don’t think that you would ever tell them not to have kids—and in fact, doing so would be offensive and reminiscent of population-control efforts of the past. How do you reconcile your questions about having children with the fact that the problem is so much more immediate for other people who live in other places, who are still having kids?

Ferorelli: There are a lot of moral evasions that people practice in order to not engage with the climate crisis as an issue. It’s a habit that people have developed in this privileged world to say, “Oh, these are first-world problems.” It’s a way to discredit concern but also to protect inaction. “Oh, I don’t have it that bad; climate change doesn’t affect me personally. Do I have a right to talk about this?” I think that a lot of people stall out at that point.

The mis-framing of our work as “These are eccentric women who are vowing not to have children, and they’re hysterical”—that was something we got a lot in the early days. Some groups have organized around a pledge not to have children, and I understand why they do that, but that’s not what we’ve ever done. What we’re saying is: There’s a generation of people who are looking at the world around us and saying, “Oh shit. It might not be safe for me to have a child,” or, “Oh shit, if I commit to activism, I won’t have time to parent a child during the next decade.” To us, it has no political significance whether you have one child, five children, or none. The political significance comes from seeing the threats, naming the threats, and organizing to address them in a systemic way.

Green: But for a lot of people, it’s not obvious why the natural response to looming climate disaster is to consider not having kids or limiting the number of kids you have. I don’t think it’s “A + B = C.”

When I see people write about this topic, they say things like, “Oh, you know, during the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, when something like one-third of the population in that area died, people had babies, so why stop now? People have always had babies, even during horrible times.” Why do you think taking climate change seriously necessarily leads to a conversation about personal reproductive choices?

Kallman: There are two concerns that people at our house parties frequently show up with. One is: What kind of harm will my child do to the world? The number of diapers these kids produce would eventually circle the Earth; they’ll create X tons of carbon, X tons of trash. And then the other question is: What kind of harm would a hotter and less stable and more potentially violent world do to my kid? It’s thinking about entering this system that feels so very fragile and so very unstable. We’re living in a time of entwined, unending crisis.

Ferorelli: I’ve always been pretty sensitive to climate anxiety. I can’t remember a time when the warming climate wasn’t a part of my considerations about my future. It weighed heavily on any future I could imagine for myself. It’s true, what you’re saying: This is not obvious to everybody. But our initial organizing efforts were mostly with people already doing climate work, and the No. 1 thing we were hearing from all of them was like, “Oh my God, I thought I was the only person who felt this way.”

Kallman: We had a series of disappointing conversations with women who did activism in the ’70s and ’80s. We thought they were people who had similar concerns and similar fears, and that we would find natural allies there. Instead we found a series of comments more or less akin to, “Oh, we had kids and it was fine. If you want to do it, just do it. It will work out.” There is a lot of paralyzing guilt and fear from people with different ages and social positions, classes, races, etc. And there’s a really strong sense of intergenerational grief and tension around this. There are folks who are grandparent-age who are watching their adult children struggle with this and feeling the grief and sorrow and guilt of the whole system.

Green: Meghan, I saw a clip of a speech you gave in which you talked about a gruesome process of reading the news every day, searching for some sign that things are looking up enough that you might feel confident enough to have a child. What would have to change for you to have kids? Is there any point in the future where you could imagine feeling confident having a child?

Kallman: Well, I think that’s not the point, right? For me, at least, it’s not about if you’re ever comfortable enough. I can’t promise any child a safe future.

I want to be really clear that my decision around this is unmade. What I want to see is a sign that people are taking this seriously—that there is a good-faith, collaborative effort to make the world safe.

Is there a threshold? No. For every single person, this is a complex assessment of partner or partners and financial security, age, whatever. To me, it’s not a useful framing, either to myself or to say out loud to you: “Is there a threshold? What’s the threshold?” We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re already in the age of uncertainty. The question is: Can we use the collective power that we have to push that uncertainty into the best possible outcome?

Ferorelli: People who have children are doing so because they know they have to have hope located in the future. It’s a way of staking a claim in the future that you care about on a really deep level. There is no one right outcome. If we were advocating an outcome, I think we would have closed up shop years ago. We’re advocating broad participation in a conversation that gets people to engage with the levers of power.

Kallman: It’s the fact of the question, not the answer. The outcome doesn’t matter in any individual case.

Green: This may seem like a non sequitur, but are either of you religious? I’m wondering because being religious or not strikes me as a big part of how people experience hope. Some religious outlooks involve a notion of hope, or even of salvation, that comes from beyond just our life on Earth. And I think that creates a definitive divide in terms of how people view the future and how they experience moral demands on their lives.

Ferorelli: I think it’s a really beautiful question. I tend to find philosophical meaning in stuff that a lot of people experience as prosaic. I teach yoga, and I find that my experience of my physical body connects me to the world around me. There’s an idea of God in my life, and the succession of generations, and the ongoing power of life. I don’t believe in a literal reincarnation, but I do believe in a woven thing that is life, that makes us deeply, intrinsically responsible for each other and what comes next. I feel often that I’m coming up short that way, and I feel like having these conversations about a future we can imagine together is a spiritual practice.

Kallman: That is really beautifully said. I think for me, being alive is a practice of faith. Getting up and doing my work for the day and seeking out work that needs doing—these are the most holy things that I experience. But it’s not framed as a religious undertaking in my head.

Green: Do you all feel hopeful when you think about the future?

Kallman: Rebecca Solnit has a definition of hope as living in the unstuck place between optimism and pessimism where action is possible. Optimists think everything’s going to be fine, no matter what happens, and they excuse themselves from action. And pessimists think we’re fucked no matter what happens, and they excuse themselves from action. But hope lives in the unstuck middle place where agency is possible. I believe that what I do matters. So, by that definition, yes, I feel hopeful.