I'm one of those women passing on pregnancy for the sake of the climate

Aug 23, 2016 at 5:25 p.m. ET
Image: Cristinairanzo/Getty Images

Global climate change might seem disconnected from our daily lives, and its consequences far off in the future, but for me, it’s been right here and right now for as long as I can remember. Somewhere between Hurricane Katrina in my beloved New Orleans and Superstorm Sandy in my hometown of New York City, I realized that the most personal decision of all — whether or not to have biological children — had everything to do with saving the planet for future generations.

How ironic. I decided not to have kids in order to protect the planet for someone else’s kids. Why did I choose not to have biological children? It’s not that complicated.

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It is inevitable that our oceans will rise — they're already rising. As I sit here writing this, our president is visiting devastated, deluged Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the scene of the latest 1,000-year flood. These events are no longer rare. Every month we set new records for the hottest month on record, then the hottest year on record. Climate change is something we can no longer ignore, and for any delusional people that continue to outright deny it — I hope your family never has to face a monster storm.

There is good news, though, in the midst of tragedy — we can ameliorate the most dangerous effects of planetary warming in the next 50 years, but not by recycling or screwing in environmentally appropriate light bulbs. We should, of course, take these small, simple steps, like carrying a reusable grocery bag and conserving energy at home, but they are a drop in the proverbial bucket.

If we want to make the planet safe for the children and grandchildren we already have, we must make some very hard choices about whether or not we should have them in the first place. Conceivable Future’s premise is that “the climate crisis is a reproductive crisis” and I couldn’t agree more.

This organization describes itself as "a women-led network of Americans bringing awareness to the threat climate change poses to reproductive justice, and demanding an end to U.S. fossil fuel subsidies." They started by targeting activists immersed in scary climate data, but through NPR's editorial on the subject, I suspect they'll reach many more everyday women. Climate change is not just an issue for activists and scientists — it impacts all of our lives, present and future.

How I got here

I was an environmental activist in college and became a vegetarian after reading Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet. I’ve long believed in the old hippie adage, “Think globally, act locally.” This seminal book showed me that our very personal food choices have wide-ranging impacts on the entire globe. (In fact, going vegetarian or vegan is, to me, the second best thing you can do to slow down climate change.)

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But it wasn’t until I began doing research for my book Eco-Sex: Go Green Between the Sheets and Make Your Love Life Sustainablethat I officially decided that my “uterus was closed for business,” as I wrote for Huffington Post in 2011. When I looked at the science and digested the impact of what is seemingly such a simple, natural, inevitable biological act — that of having kids — I knew that this would not be my path. My decision holds firm years later.

It was a number that shook me to my core: 9,441. That’s the number of metric tons of carbon that every single “extra child” adds to our already overloaded atmosphere. I won’t be adding any more to that number — and if I do end up being a mother, I will adopt, foster or be a stepmom. Any of those options would be wonderful, as would remaining child-free.

For me, the decision was not painful and fraught, as I’m sure it is for some. I had a notion about having two biological kids when I was a teenager because I come from a family with two kids, as do both of my parents. It seemed like a natural, logical, culturally sanctioned number. But that’s the thing I think we need to shift — cultural consciousness.

For many women, becoming a mom (biologically) is absolutely fundamental to living a full life. I’ve often wondered whether this is nature or nurture. Do we feel this because we’re wired to feel it or because we’re programmed to believe it? Many child-free women are finally feeling safe enough to question it — and the backlash can be harsh. It certainly has been for me, both from friends and strangers on the internet.

Years before I understood the realities of overpopulation and climate change, I started to think that I would adopt a child — perhaps I’d give birth to one kid and adopt the other. Then I thought it through even more, and quickly realized that I’d love both of these children equally. I didn’t need a genetic replica to feel like a mother. Being a mother exists in the act of mothering. So why not adopt or foster two?

That’s precisely what Conceivable Future wants women and their partners to start thinking and talking about. They’re not interested in creating an abusive one-child policy like the one China used to have. They just want people to think about what their lives might look like if they simply had one fewer biological children. And further, how much safer the planet would be for that first child if they chose to forego having a second.

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Climate scientists believe 2036 will bring “real” climate change to the fore — imagine the current flood in Louisiana happening weekly, everywhere on our continent, summer temperatures in New York City exceeding 115 degrees Fahrenheit, Superstorm Sandy-like storms ravaging our coasts five, six times per hurricane season and most coastal cities becoming uninhabitable. That’s only 20 years away. If you’re about to have a kid, he or she will be in college by then.

One thing is absolutely certain. Unless we radically remake the world we live in now, a child born in 2016 will face challenges far more terrifying than we can possibly imagine now. But if we are willing to shift our consciousness in the here and now, we can make that future world a little bit safer.