The environmental ethics of having kids: why millennials are skipping babies in order to save the planet

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In a new interview with British Vogue, Prince Harry has revealed he and Meghan Markle will have a maximum of two children.

Speaking to primatologist Jane Goodall for the September issue of British Vogue - which the Duchess of Sussex guest edited - Harry revealed: "I've always thought: this place is borrowed. And, surely, being as intelligent as we all are, or as evolved as we all are supposed to be, we should be able to leave something better behind for the next generation."

Harry has a point. In less than 100 years, the world’s population has nearly quadrupled, rising from a population of two billion in 1928 to over seven billion in 2019.

This growth in population has directly impacted our environment. We’ve consumed more resources in the last 50 years than the whole of humanity before us which means, as our population dramatically increases, our resources deplete – something we combat by using intensive farming methods which have an adverse effect on the environment.

In April of this year, Sir David Attenborough warned of a ‘man-made disaster on a global scale’ and a ‘devastating future’ if action is not taken during the BBC documentary Climate Change: The Facts. On top of that, a 2018 report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that humanity has just 12 years (now 11) to limit the ‘catastrophe of Climate Change’.

While hardly the most cheery subject, something that isn’t helped when one of our most powerful world leaders refuses to believe Climate Change exists, Climate Change and our impact on the environment is something we need to address, and urgently.

Prince Harry has said climate change is the reason he and Meghan Markle will have two children maximum (Getty Images)
Prince Harry has said climate change is the reason he and Meghan Markle will have two children maximum (Getty Images)

While we can lessen our environmental impact by flying less and reducing our use of single-use plastic – the answer could well be in the number of children we bear. A study from 2017 found that the ‘greatest impact individuals can have in fighting climate change is to have one fewer child’.

The study, published in Environmental Research Letters, found having one fewer child than planned could reduce carbon emissions for each parent by 58 tonnes for each year of their life.

“Globally, we are already in environmental crisis, with climate change and biodiversity loss particularly representing a genuine threat to the sustainability of human civilisation. Human population is driving that crisis,” Alistair Currie, head of communications at Population Matters, tells the Evening Standard.

“We all need resources like food, water, energy, infrastructure and land, and we all produce carbon. The current human population is already using more of the planet's renewable resources than it can regenerate, and billions more of us will make that pressure unbearable. With more people, more habitat will be lost for wild species, our soils will erode more quickly, more forests will be chopped down and more greenhouse gases will be produced.”

This grim future was echoed earlier this year in David Wallace-Well’s book The Uninhabitable Earth, which began with an equally grim statement: “It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps and pernicious as the one that says is isn’t happening at all.”

I cannot see my life without children in it but I also cannot bear the thought of bringing children into a world that has such a dark or non-existent future.

Eliza Blake

Is this a world we should be bringing children into? In a recent interview with Elle magazine, Miley Cyrus told the publication: “We’re getting handed a piece-of-shit planet, and I refuse to hand that down to my child. Until I feel like my kid would live on an earth with fish in the water, I’m not bringing in another person to deal with that.”

As a millennial, Cyrus is part of the age group which grew up during the ‘golden years’ of the 1990s and early 2000s, and entered adulthood during our current decade where, suddenly, it felt like the world had started to accelerate towards near-certain extinction at a rapid pace. But it's not just celebrities who are worried about bringing children into this new world, it's at the forefront of many millennial minds too.

“I cannot see my life without children in it but I also cannot bear the thought of bringing children into a world that has such a dark or non-existent future. It breaks my heart to think I may not be a mum, but it would break my heart more to know that I have brought children into a crumbling world,” 23-year-old graphic designer Eliza Blake says.

“My concern about having kids isn't about the damaged world they'd be growing up in, but more because of the damage they will potentially be doing to the world,” 25-year-old Jessica Bahr adds. “We are already so overpopulated and the environmental toll of having kids is huge. I am trying really hard to reduce my environmental footprint, but the impact of all of that is minuscule compared to the damage that my hypothetical child would have in their lifetime. Regardless of how environmentally friendly I raise them to be, it is much more environmentally friendly to not have any kids at all.”

Alicia Rohloff, 25, looks at the situation completely differently. “When I have kids, they’ll be brought up with an environmental conscience from the get-go. We didn’t have that as kids, but times are changing and I believe that the world isn’t as completely doomed as we think, considering how rapidly we are changing our footprint.”

Callum*, 23, who is on the millennial-Gen Z cusp is currently studying the impact of human consumption and climate change at university. He says: "We're studying structural injustice in relation to climate change. But climate change is a double-edged sword as industrial progression has enabled future generations to have better quality of life. It's the kind of thing where every single person will need to mobilise in order to stop the effects of climate change, but due to the structural realities of how we go about our lives, no one is willing to bite the bullet. I honestly don't think people are selfless enough to really ensure sustainability for future generations. Climate change will definitely be a factor when thinking about having kids."

The late Swedish physician Hans Rosling, who posthumously released his optimistic world view manual, Factfulness last year, said the key to slowing down climate change is to slow down population growth, hence the suggestion we should have less children. Rosling explained in his 2010 TED Talk that population growth could halt by 2050 if people in the world’s poorest nations have more access to education and to family planning.

Rosling said: “For the poorest countries, population is growing. The two billion people [in the poorest nations] will increase to three billion and will thereafter increase to four billion. If, and only if they get out of poverty, they get education, they get improved child survival, then population growth would stop in 2050.”

But Currie from Population Matters disagrees, noting that the average Brit produces 60 times the carbon of someone in Niger, so to have an immediate benefit on climate change, it's people in the developed world who need to start having less children.

Currie also warns that if the population continues to grow at its current rate, most people’s lives will be ‘a lot harder’ than they are right now.

“We can expect to see hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species gone forever, more and more land and water needed to produce less and less food for more people, and more conflict over resources," he says. "Right now, we use up renewable resources like healthy soil and clean air faster than the Earth can renew them. By 2050, we'll need the resources of three Earths, unless things change - and we haven't got three Earths,” he says.

The recipe for ending population growth is good family planning, ending poverty, empowering women, providing education and encouraging smaller families.

Alistair Currie, Population Matters

“We have an opportunity to prevent that by doing the right things now. The recipe for ending and reversing population growth is simple: good family planning, ending poverty, empowering women, providing education and encouraging smaller families.”

While writing his book, The Uninhabitable Earth, Wallace-Wells welcomed a child of his own and said although there is ‘much worry about bringing new children into a degraded world’ he doesn’t think the answer is complete withdrawal.

He writes: “I think you have to do everything you can to make the world accommodate dignified and flourishing life, rather than giving up early, before the fight has been lost or won.

“The fight is, definitively, not lost yet – in fact, will never be lost, so long as we avoid extinction, because however warm the planet gets, it will always be the case that the decade that follows could contain more suffering or less.”

Currie agrees that we have to choose what we do ‘thoughtfully’ and minimise the harms these choices make.

He continued, “Having fewer kids is absolutely beneficial to the environment, but we should no more judge people morally for having kids than we should judge people for not having them.”

When it comes down to it, the decision of whether or not to have kids – before even considering the environmental impact – is a deeply personal one. And this is if you’re lucky enough to have that choice. For some, fertility issues and other factors means children are not an option.

But while there are so many factors contributing to the advancement of climate change, the best thing we can do is concentrate on lowering our personal carbon footprint as a matter of urgency. As Prince Harry says in the British Vogue interview: "What we need to remind everybody is: these are things that are happening now. We are already living in it. We are the frog in the water and it’s already been brought to the boil. Which is terrifying."

*Names have been changed.

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