Why Would Anyone Want To Have Kids When It Feels Like The World Is Ending?
In an extract from her new book, writer Gina Rushton asks the difficult question: Should we be having kids in the face of climate catastrophe?
“Why would anyone have kids?” my boyfriend muttered, looking down at his phone screen, smouldering tangerine with footage of flames tearing through our state, razing hundreds of homes.
We were lying in front of a fan, learning of the destruction as we do all modern disasters: incrementally, pulling down to refresh feeds while news outlets pushed articles onto our home screens.
Months before the coronavirus outbreak reached Australia, we were already acclimatising to a kind of dystopia in which face masks were selling out as people rushed to protect their lungs from the smoke billowing through much of the country. Fire and emergency chiefs agreed that bushfire season, which killed nine people and destroyed more than 3000 homes, was made longer and deadlier by climate change.
On 30 December 2019, volunteer firefighter Samuel McPaul died when extreme winds lifted the back of the ten-tonne truck he was travelling in, encasing it in a tornado of fire. His wife was pregnant with their first child. Two days later, a couple of hours into the new decade, Dr Steve Robson drove through Australia’s capital city, Canberra, as it recorded its worst air quality on record. The air quality index reading peaked that morning at 7700 — more than 23 times the hazardous AQI of 300. His headlights barrelled through the smoke as he made his way to hospital to deliver a baby. When he flicked on his spotlight to examine his patient, he noticed this beam of light was also cloudy with smog. “This baby was born into bushfire smoke,” he told me afterwards.
Robson reminisced about the deliveries two decades earlier, when he experienced an unadulterated joy in chaperoning new life into the world. It was a different time, when parents believed their children faced abundance and nothing was insurmountable. We had just survived the Y2K bug, he remembers, laughing. “There was a sense that people could solve big problems but that sense seems to be very ephemeral, it has evaporated,” he said. “Every single mother-to-be and every single dad-to-be I’ve seen today has expressed to me anxiety about what the future holds for the child they’re carrying.”
“This baby was born into bushfire smoke,” he told me afterwards.
I interviewed Melbourne obstetrician Dr Nisha Khot, who said pregnant patients close to their delivery date were asking about whether they should induce labour due to the bushfire smoke, which unbeknownst to either of us would a week later cause the worst air quality in the world. “They’re asking, ‘Is my baby safer inside or outside of me right now?’, they’re asking, ‘What does this mean for my baby’s growth?’ and ‘Do I need extra ultrasounds?’ and I have to say, ‘I can ultrasound scan but it won’t pick up any effect of the bushfire smoke that may or may not occur because there isn’t a test that picks that up’…Those are the difficult conversations.”
People start families throughout wars, recessions, and ecological degradation but millennials are statistically more likely than those who came before us to be anxious about climate change, perhaps because we can no longer deny it. A survey of thousands of millennials across 13 countries at the end of 2020 showed even a global health and economic crisis couldn’t shift climate change and protecting the environment as their top concern, above unemployment, healthcare and disease prevention, and income inequality.
“Maybe it’s the case that every generation has felt themselves at the end of the earth, on the brink of disaster, though I suspect never with as much evidence as we have now,” Léa Antigny writes. She describes a “fundamentally physical, bordering on erotic desire to feel pregnant”, to sense new life growing inside of her even at a time when rising temperatures will affect the timing and seasons of our natural world.
“I want to be reduced by love to just bodies and to grow a family from it. But what comes after that?” Antigny realises that she might be “rich enough to shield her descendants”, as the New York Times put it, from the incoming impacts of climate change. “Is the fact of my privilege reason enough to forge on? I want to be able to answer why beyond simply saying, I want to, and I can.”
I am still deciding, but if the answer was yes, could I find and hold my why or would I allow it to become eclipsed by a how? How on earth? How on this earth?
My friend Alex says that he has always imagined himself as a father but climate change has become the biggest factor in deciding whether or not he and his wife will have kids. “Some days I’m really hopeful, like at the start of spring I sit in the backyard with Mary and we’re surrounded by flowers in bloom in a garden that cannot be stopped and the bees are thriving and everything smells glorious and hopeful and I think we are going to have a dream life,” he says. “And then the bushfire season starts.”
Their simmering worry always boils down to the question of whether existence is a gift or a curse. “Are we leaving behind a world that is better or are we kind of cursing someone to deal with the impacts of whatever it is we have done, or if not done, been mildly complicit in?”
Friedrich Nietzsche described how Silenus, a friend of the god Dionysus, declared the best thing for men is “not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing”. At a picnic, my friend with a toddler says to me “no one regrets being born”.
“How do you prepare? How do you prepare for having children and then how do you prepare children for whatever the world is going to be next?”
It is this tension, strung with guilt, that hangs above me and other people I know who are undecided about having children. Although I do feel it in waves, it is hard for me to authentically buy into the deep-throated anti-natalism that has captured many of my peers. Even in my darkest moments, I can’t bring myself to accept the period between birth and death is so perpetually painful and sparingly joyous that I’d never have jumped aboard. It is hard to predict precisely how the cataclysmic shifts in our climate will cause pain and steal joy from the next generation, and so when Alex and his wife do let themselves imagine a life with kids, they feel ill-equipped. “How do you prepare? How do you prepare for having children and then how do you prepare children for whatever the world is going to be next?”
I want to know how I might temper the ambient dread about the climate for long enough to evaluate whether I wanted to foist another carbon footprint onto the aching earth and, I believe more significantly, foist these increasingly untenable conditions onto another human.
If I choose not to have children and the climate becomes the biggest feature in that decision, I need to be able to explain to myself why I believed the prospect was too much to bear even on the days when I am not concerned with rising tides and blanketing smoke. If I choose to have children I need to have a justification that feels less fragile than the foetus growing inside of me. And so, I sought out people who were forced to stare directly into the future of the climate crisis. I found them swinging, just as I was, between hope and fear.
Joëlle Gergis is an award-winning climate scientist. She is a lead author on the Sixth Assessment Report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body that assesses the scientific basis of climate change so governments around the world can develop climate policies.
“I’m watching the things we talk about theoretically actually unfold on a planetary scale, that is the stuff that freaks me out,” she says. “There is no analogue in the geologic record for where we are. We are kind of off the map…We have never had 7.6 billion people on the planet altering the earth’s surface and the chemistry of the atmosphere and the ocean on this scale.”
When we speak, Joëlle has just worked through the weekend to meet an IPCC deadline and she’s knackered. The workload is grueling but Joëlle wants to know that at this “important juncture” for turning emissions around, she did what she could. Joëlle is an expert in Southern Hemisphere climate variability and, I soon notice, an expert in loss — the potential, the inevitable and the irretrievable. “Kids that are alive today are going to see the Great Barrier Reef deteriorate and die, and kids that come after that are going to learn about it in the same way we watched grainy archival footage to learn about [extinct] Tasmanian Tigers,” she says.
I went to the Great Barrier Reef as a child with my dad. It was surreal, borderline unreal: the tiny tiger-striped clownfish weaving in and out of translucent anemones, the manta rays soaring down steep coral shelves, the dopey green sea turtles, most of whom were at least twice my age, disinterestedly drifting past as I gasped into my snorkel. At that age, my understanding of environmental catastrophe was a series of disjointed incidents in which criminal corporations or careless citizens harmed innocent animals — dolphins starving to death, their noses caught in plastic bottle rings, harpooned whales bleeding out on the deck of a ship, sea birds black and greasy from petroleum oil spills.
These individual battles to save distinguishable species were sad but tractable. I didn’t understand how changes in the ocean temperature, runoff and pollution and overexposure to sunlight would stress, bleach and eventually kill this dreamlike ecosystem. There have been five mass global bleaching events of the Great Barrier Reef since I was born. If I had children, they would never experience the beauty of what should have been guarded as a national treasure but the loss feels bigger than the reef itself; after all, most generations enjoy something the next do not, even if coral hosts a quarter of all marine fish. It feels like defeat. We didn’t preserve this UNESCO World Heritage site from rising sea temperatures, we didn’t guard a 46,000-year-old sacred Indigenous site from mining companies, we didn’t protect the 250 hectares of tropical rainforest (previously thought to be non-flammable) from the flames. There is so much to lose and not enough political will to save it in time. Joëlle uses the word “planetary” eight times in our conversation to describe the scale of the climate crisis. Each time, I feel my stomach drop.
“We have never had 7.6 billion people on the planet altering the earth’s surface and the chemistry of the atmosphere and the ocean on this scale.”
As Joëlle watched flames destroy more than 20 percent of Australia’s forests in a single bushfire season, she felt as she had when her father died — a deep awareness that something so loved was now gone. Grief. “The planet has always been able to cope with us, hasn’t it?” Joëlle ponders. “Climate change is taking the worst, most extreme aspects of Australian climate variability and just amplifying it.”
Joëlle says that the 2019-2020 bushfire season will be average by 2040 and cool by 2060. “This will absolutely barrel through everyone’s life, whether you’re holed up in your home from regular 50-degree summer temperatures or your property becomes flood-prone and uninsurable because you live on the eastern seaboard or you’re paying $13 a kilo for bananas because the farmers who grow our food keep having crops devastated.”
Joëlle does not have children but she does not judge anyone making this decision and says self-flagellation is unproductive. “I’m not sure if it is helpful for people to feel even worse about something that is already a very fraught and deeply personal question because then the issue becomes very heavy. I think if you are bringing kids into the world, you just have to go into it eyes wide open knowing that they are not going to have the life you had,” she says. “I think it needs to be really firmly grounded in the reality that it’s going to be a more dangerous world, particularly if we don’t turn things around.”
As the summer approached in 2020, Rebecca, a GP in a regional town, discovered babies born to her patients who were pregnant the previous bushfire season were coming early and underweight. The placenta is normally pink and healthy and comes away easily during birth but these were grey and grainy, as they are in pack-a-day smokers, requiring an operation to remove them.
“One patient brought in photos and I know what placentas look like, I’ve seen a lot of births during my obstetrics training, and this one was just horrifying,” Rebecca tells me. “The placenta is a magic filter that feeds our next generation and we have these smoke particles lodging in there.”
Rebecca lives on the property she grew up on. The dam that supplied the farm with water for 60 years is completely dry and the summer berries now come in spring. Fires burned the farm out a few seasons ago and she has since had to evacuate twice with the kids and dogs while her husband stayed to defend it from flames. “I have been in that position holding a six-week-old baby and racing out of the house while a bushfire comes over the hill,” she says. “For three months of the year, actually now six months of the year, we have generators ready, we have fuel ready, we have bags packed ready to go at any moment.”
Rebecca is passionate about preventative health — she speaks in factories and at pubs to men in lower socioeconomic demographics about reducing alcohol, smoking, and blood pressure. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think what is the point of doing all this work every day to save people from having heart attacks if we’re all going to be living in a world that is two degrees hotter by 2050?”
Air pollutants have been linked to premature birth, low birthrate, and miscarriage in the first trimester. A friend and I sit at a café, estimating the ideal month someone would conceive to avoid smoke damage to a foetus. “I guess in like March, so the baby comes during summer and you’re inhaling the smoke when it is most developed and almost ready to be born?” It is disorienting to imagine the dangers of climate change reaching a baby when they are yet to feel the safety of their parents’ touch.
I lost all sense of time when I spoke to Chris, an evolutionary and conservation biologist, about his deep desire to start a family despite witnessing devastating biodiversity loss every day. There is an urgency to his work — mapping the consequences of rapid environmental change for native animals — but he logs it on a timescale that makes most species, including humans, look like an imperceptible last-minute arrival on earth.
“What is the point of doing all this work every day to save people from having heart attacks if we’re all going to be living in a world that is two degrees hotter by 2050?”
“Do I think about climate change? Constantly, because I study any rapid changes or novel scenarios that shift the playing field and totally disrupt species,” he tells me. Chris is currently helping to develop a model that can better calculate what proportion of animals die under different fire scenarios, a project that came about when scientists realised they didn’t have a way to accurately guess the animal death toll in that 2019-2020 bushfire season.
The latest imperfect estimation is that three billion animals were present in the areas that burned. These animals long ago learned to burrow lower or climb higher when they sense fire, then a carefully managed phenomenon, but scientists are wondering how native species will cope with the increased severity and frequency of Australia’s new fire regime. Any significant environmental change discharges a starting pistol in a race between adaptation and extinction. “Extinction will win if the change is too quick, and the problem is changes are happening at a rate that is unprecedented,” Chris says, before correcting himself. “Well, there have been multiple global extinctions across the planet.”
As we talk, I fleetingly group humans in with our treasured marsupials and reptiles for their ingenuity and resilience — a comforting comparison — until I remember that we, settlers, are both the perpetrator and the victim, the invading and the endangered species; we are lighting the match and then fleeing the fire. Over the past 20 years, Indigenous community-based landowner groups in Australia’s very fire-prone north have used traditional fire management practices — burning early in the dry season instead of suppressing fires that ignite late in the dry season, which is a post-colonial practice that creates bigger and more severe fires. I wonder how these practices will be maintained in unprecedented heat and aridity.
Chris doesn’t think people should deny themselves a family because of climate change.
“It is like when people can’t really appreciate evolutionary change because it happens on a scale that is incomprehensible to us,” he says. “This problem is incomprehensibly big and it is more than any individual can take on and while I think people should live responsibly, I don’t think they should be racked with guilt for choosing to have a child which is a totally natural decision to make.”
His desire to be a father feels more than biological. “I can’t really describe it but there is an innate desire in me to have [fatherhood] as an experience and I don’t know how I know this or why I feel this way but I feel like I could make a child’s life happy and fulfilled and good,” he says, his voice changing in a way I can’t understand in the moment. “This is ridiculous but you’re the first person that’s going to hear this…this has become much more, ah, practical than theoretical because we just found out that [my wife’s] pregnant.”
Just as Chris finds it hard to articulate the scale of fathomless evolutionary timeframes, I struggle to capture in words the bolt of celebratory joy that crackled through the phone line. In between his peals of laughter and my blaring exclamations and repeated congratulations, I later hear him on the tape in stoked disbelief say quietly, almost to himself, “Yeah so…I am going to be a father.” Hope itself needed to become more practical than theoretical. “My feeling is even when things are difficult, it is better to be alive than not to be.”
“I don’t think they should be racked with guilt for choosing to have a child which is a totally natural decision to make.”
Writer Mark O’Connell wonders whether he has selfishly acquired a new sense of optimism about the world at the expense of his son. “Given the world, given the situation, the question that remains is whether having children is a statement of hope, an insistence on the beauty and meaningfulness and basic worth of being here, or an act of human sacrifice. Or is it perhaps some convoluted entanglement of both, a sacrifice of the child — by means of incurring its birth — to the ideal of hope?” he writes. “You want to believe that it is you who have done your children a favour by “giving” them life, but the reverse is at least as true, and probably more so.”
It is uncomfortable to admit but when I see the appeal of early motherhood, I am drawn towards this eternal presentness of children. It is self-interest — I’m reaching back to a time before I could see any rottenness in the world, before I was aware of my own fallibility, before I lay awake at night obsessing over my collisions with all that I found painful in the universe and in myself, pressing my fingers into these bruises, mauve with shame and fear.
A proximity to children tugs your gaze beyond your own navel and into the present moment — following their eye line and experiencing with them the novelty of things you take for granted, answering the disarmingly specific questions about how things work, lunging to prevent bumps and falls, and the sheer relentlessness of cleaning and feeding. I can’t hear my own neuroses above the noisy nowness of children.
Jenny Odell believes that we live in a culture that puts novelty and a cancerous rate of unchecked growth before all that is cyclical and regenerative. “Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way,” she writes.
Is it fair to produce, primarily for myself, a human object of hope to live on a planet I have done little to care for and maintain?
Is it fair to produce, primarily for myself, a human object of hope to live on a planet I have done little to care for and maintain? Am I drawn not just to their nowness but the sparkle of their newness? Somehow, this impulse towards the immediacy of children sits adjacent to an anxiety about what the world will look like when they are adults. I know that to have a child involves extending yourself into a hypothetical future, where they will have to survive in a world you have left.
In September 2019, as the fires began in Australia, millions of children around the world went on strike from school, demanding action on climate change. ‘There is no planet B’ their signs, replete with wonky crayon globes, reminded us. The yelling, the chanting, the laughing, the uncompromising belief in the most basic of human rights. I let myself believe these tiny marchers would save us, even though our fear, not our hope, was what they were demanding.
“Adults keep saying, ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day,” Greta Thunberg told those gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2019. “And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
Yet, as Thomas Whyman has pointed out, Thunberg was addressing the business and political elite gathered in the Swiss Alps, not us. “Their hope, she is suggesting, is toxic — like bad air, choking out the stuff that we can breathe,” he writes. “We need, as Thunberg points out, to found an almost entirely new world — just in order to survive. But they, who benefit from the existing order of things in such disproportionate magnitude that they might realistically expect to survive a massive crisis in the provision of basic resources, have a vested interest in our never doing so.”
Our hope is rooted in the potential of transforming our world, Whyman insists. The hope of the very elite is founded on the likelihood that we cannot.
This is an edited extract from Gina Rushton’s book, The Most Important Job In The World, which is out now through Pan Macmillian Australia.