The choice of whether to have kids has never been more fraught, as parents today have no way to guarantee a habitable future for them.
I didn’t really think about climate change until I had my daughter. I viewed the natural world—as most Americans seemingly do—as a stage set, a background to my own actions. It was being used up, but I was using myself up, too. Someone who stays up all night and smokes a pack a day, as I did, does not spend much time thinking about what the world will be like on her 80th birthday, because she doesn’t expect to have one.
My daughter changed things. I had implicated myself in nature; the continuance of the species was now my job, and that meant I was at least partially responsible for the planet my species lived on. Just as I stopped my toddler from eating safety pins or earbuds that found their way onto the carpet, I had to make sure she had air to breathe, water to drink, ground that was fertile enough to grow food.
This is where I found myself, in the grand scheme of things, when FOX News broke the news of yet another “controversy” surrounding Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the primary force behind the Green New Deal. This time, they warned, Ocasio-Cortez was coming for your babies.
“There is a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult,” Ocasio-Cortez said during an Instagram live Q&A, responding to a question about accelerating climate change. “And it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: is it okay to still have children?”
By morning, FOX was informing the red half of America that the rising star of the Democratic Party was advocating high-speed rail, universal healthcare and total species extinction: “If you don’t believe in kids, and families, and the flag, you’re effectively admitting to civilizational suicide,” Fox & Friends host Pete Hegseth sputtered.
I have no idea how the flag comes into it. But then, it always does.
The left has mostly battled this on grounds of fact: It really is true, for example, that 38 percent of people between 18 and 29 believe that “climate change should be a factor in a couple’s decision about whether to have children.” Ocasio-Cortez is also correct that climate change is happening fast, and that people giving birth today have no way to guarantee a livable future to their children. She was pointing to a difficult choice, not shaming people with babies.
But facts aren’t enough to shift this framing. The pleasure of parenthood, or the right to have as many children as one wants, are very real. For many people, the drive to have children can be overwhelming; families pour years, and life savings, into fertility treatments, in vitro fertilization, or adoption, and even the existential threat of climate change cannot take that primal desire away. Yet increasingly, people who want to start families are unable to do so, due to conditions that limit our ability to safely have and raise children. Climate change, then, should be viewed the same way we view any other condition that limits our choices this way: as a reproductive-justice issue.
My own daughter will be AOC’s age in 2047. If climate change continues along its current trajectory, droughts, wild fires, and heat waves will make the Western half of the United States all but unlivable by that time—not to mention un-farmable. The Eastern United States, including its major cities along the coast, will deal with flooding due to rising ocean levels, increased hurricanes, and a general increase in “precipitation.” (My upstate New York city, already famous for its snowy winters, will be buried under snow or flooded by rain pretty much all year long.) Global food supply will plummet as harvests fail and the ocean loses its fish, putting more pressure on the remaining fertile zones to produce enough for everyone. The world will be wetter, but the water will be dirtier, as the increased runoff washes “sediments, nitrogen from agriculture, disease pathogens, pesticides, and herbicides” into our supply.
This is only the beginning. The conditions of her middle age, or old age, are unthinkable—because, as climate change escalates, it becomes increasingly unpredictable, making it impossible to foresee just how bad things will get. But it is certain that unless there are massive changes within the next few years, things my generation took for granted—food, clean water, land that is temperate enough to live on—will become increasingly scarce, causing wars and sending seismic tremors through the world economy, and making her world a dangerously unstable place.
Was it cruel or irresponsible to have a baby under these conditions? I don’t know. I’m an animal, doing what an animal does; obeying the urge to reproduce, something bodily and primordial, and which I could not reason with any more than I could think my way out of hunger or sleep. I made way for my genetic strain to continue, like the feral cats outside my old Brooklyn apartment or the zucchini in my mother’s garden, because this is what living things do. From a scientific perspective, this may be why we live—to make more lives like ours. I do not know the moral implications. I know that, if I experience any fulfillment in my life, I experience it through caring for this child. I would not choose differently.
But I have the right to be angry that corporations and governments are making her future so precarious. I have the right to demand that the people in power find some way to preserve a livable ecosystem for her and for her own children. Women aren’t obligated to have children under unsafe conditions, but we are also not to blame for the unsafe conditions that others have created.
Of course, we are reasoning beings, not polar bears or a strain of lichen; we have the ability to cap our reproductive urges, even if we want children. Some of us just don’t want them. Climate activists have argued for years that investing in women’s reproductive rights, including making comprehensive sex education, birth control, and abortion widely accessible, is key to solving concerns about overpopulation: “We have decades of research showing that investing in women’s human rights, including access to education and sexual and reproductive rights, is a significant part of how we can combat climate change,” Bridget Burns of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization has said. “We need to stop seeing this as an add-on to effective climate action and actually as central to it.”
But it is a mistake to view women’s reproductive choices purely as a matter of individual responsibility. In the reproductive-justice framework, as pioneered by black feminists, people are not only entitled to the abortions or birth control they want—they are also entitled to livable conditions, in which having and raising children is possible.
Put simply: If the only reason you are not having children is fear of what they’ll suffer from climate change, then the problem is not you, the problem is your government’s unwillingness to take aggressive actions against climate change. Reproductive freedom means that no one can force you to bear a child against your will, but it also means freedom to reproduce. Without a guarantee of food, water, peace and air for our children, women are having that freedom taken away.
The women hit hardest by this, as always, will be women of color, poor women, and single mothers. Even when the global food supply runs short, and the water becomes too dirty to drink, the children of the rich will eat and drink and bathe. Even when our cities flood or burn, families with the money to move will be able to make their way toward the remaining temperate zones. Families without those resources will bear the full brunt of the ecosystem’s collapse; they will not be able to pay for the pretense of a livable planet. In the United States and globally, climate change will hit women worst, simply because we are the majority of the poor.
As long as we view reproduction primarily as an individual choice or responsibility, those women will likely be shamed for any decision they make: Slammed as “irresponsible” when they choose to have children, pressured not to have the children they want because of the “burden” they impose on the natural world, or forced to have children and watch them suffer thanks to restrictions on birth control and abortion. Patriarchy invariably sets up a no-win system, giving women a long list of bad options and then shaming them for taking any available choice.
It is only by reckoning with the structural impossibility of parenting through an ecological collapse that we can take the blame off those women, and put it where it belongs. The people committing “civilizational suicide” are not the families limiting their size or remaining childless; they are the fossil fuel corporations pushing the planet to the brink of its next great extinction, the regulatory agencies that have failed to sufficiently regulate, and the conservative pundits on Fox News scare-mongering about the Green New Deal.
Climate change is a feminist issue, and a reproductive-justice issue, if only because it is predominantly women who make these choices; we are still the people who bear most of the children, and who spend the most time raising children, and it comes down to us whether or not humanity will have a next generation. Yet we cannot expect individual women and trans people to stave off the apocalypse with their uteri. We have held up our end of the deal, making children and a world for them to live in, since the beginning of time. If we stop now, it is only because those in power have taken the choice out of our hands.
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