Some people know whether they do or don’t want kids from a young age — call it an instinct. For others though, like 31-year-old Charlie, the decision is less clear cut. Despite having always been “deeply ambivalent” about the prospect of becoming a parent, in recent years, an external factor we are all grappling with has pushed her more resolutely towards the idea of not having children: climate change.
Charlie is far from unique in this respect. Research shows that growing eco-anxiety among young people is prompting many to reconsider their plans to become parents. In a recent survey by the Modern Fertility blog on how climate change is affecting decisions on whether or not to have children, more than half of 2800 respondents said they were “considering having fewer kids or are reconsidering kids altogether because of issues related to climate change”. Among this group, the top factor given for their decision was concern about the world their children will inherit. In addition to this, 1 in 4 respondents said they’re considering adoption, and almost 1 in 3 shared that they are considering moving to an area less impacted by climate change.
The results are aligned with the outcome of a poll by Yougov in November 2021, which found that 40% of people cited climate anxiety as one of the top three issues facing the UK, a number that has quadrupled since 2018. In such a context, alongside the soaring cost of living and the ongoing pandemic, a rapidly declining birth rate in the UK makes a lot of sense. Why have children when the future looks so uncertain and unsustainable?
Katherine who is 32 says she really does want to be a mother, but fear of the future is holding her back. “It’s terrifying,” she tells me, “we constantly hear warnings of increased droughts, floods, food shortages, extreme weather — I cannot fathom having to cope with all that, so why would I have children that will have to deal with that too?” To Katherine, putting more people through the stress of climate anxiety would be “cruel and selfish,” which is hard to argue with. It is a hard decision to come to, because she states explicitly that she really does want to be a mother. “Why should my dreams be crushed because governments and corporations have ignored all the warnings for decades and not done enough to get this under control?”
Charlie feels similarly. “I'm an active travel campaigner, try to live a low-waste/low-plastic lifestyle, don't have a car and just felt like having a child runs contrary to all those principles,” she explains. “It's so hard to look at the pressure we are putting on the planet, and see how current levels of population growth work with that.” She says she is resolute in her decision not to birth a child, though may consider adoption down the line.
It’s an issue that psychotherapist Dr Akua K Boateng has noticed come up more and more among her patients. “Culture has shifted to people thinking about their mental health and what it takes to have a positive quality of life,” she explains. “It is a priority for people to feel authentically connected to their life path they are investing in.” Especially among millennials, she says, she had noticed people asking about the nature of the world we are building. “They are questioning…what will the world be like in the future? Will it be safe? Will we have what we need? Will it be emotionally sustainable?” An extension of this, she says, is whether or not the future world we live in will be emotionally safe and environmentally viable for children. “Safety is required for us to envision rearing children, and people are experiencing anxiety [...] about this reality.”
A strong sense of ethical responsibility is at play, too. ‘I’ve seen people question the ethic of bringing a child into a world that feels unsustainable,” Dr Boateng explains. They question whether or not it is fair to the child, she continues. “Or they worry about how they will provide safety and quality of life for children amidst the inequity and challenges we now face — it’s challenging for so many people.”
For 23-year-old Asthon, not having children doesn’t feel like a big sacrifice. She says though as a child she imagined a future with children, in her late teens this began to change. She now feels certain that she won’t become a mother. “I would say about sixty to seventy percent [of her decision] is based on our worsening climate crisis [...] I am constantly reading articles in science and environmental publications about how bad things are getting — and how bad they will get.” She also says that if things improved, she would still not have children. “I have a lot of other reasons for not wanting kids,” she says, “I feel at peace with it all. Without kids, I'll be able to travel and have all my free time to myself till the day I die. I'm fine with that!”
For others though, like 36-year-old Claire*, although climate change is definitely a factor influencing her decision-making, she has come to the conclusion that she will have children anyway. “Others may see it as selfish, but I have always wanted children and my window of opportunity is closing as I age,” she explains. “I don’t have the luxury of time to wait and see if governments and scientists can mitigate the disaster — but I am trying to stay optimistic.”
The ramifications of decisions of this nature are affecting more than just parents-to-be, too. Mum of one Animah says that her daughter had decided against becoming a parent because of the ongoing threat of climate change. “I’ve been informed I won’t have grandkids,” she says. “I wonder whether those with a power to change things have considered their line might just stop at their kids while they do nothing for the planet.”
As Dr Boateng says, one of the most important environmental factors for raising children is a feeling of safety — for both the parent and child. It is clear that the oncoming threat of climate change, among other challenges, is severely influencing the fertility decisions of many. Politicians struggling to address the implications of a falling birth rate would do well to focus their attention first on the health of the planet.
*name changed to protect anonymity