Some quit school for the day and take to the streets to protest, while some simply invest in a stylish keep cup. With the ecological crisis coming fast down the line, how far will people go to combat climate change? What kind of lifestyle choices are people willing to make? The Birthstrike movement was founded in early 2019 by Blythe Pepino. It is a group that have pledged not to have children until the climate and ecological crisis is addressed. It originally began on Facebook and now has pages on numerous social media sites, such as Instagram and Tumblr.
“The uncertainty surrounding the quality of life of any potential future children has led Laura to decide against “bringing a child into a world that’s continuing down such a self-destructive path.”
Laura Kehoe, from Castleknock, is currently a conservation scientist at Oxford University. She and her husband discovered the Birthstrike movement through her involvement with Extinction Rebellion. She found that the ideas of the movement aligned with their previous decision not to have children due to concerns about their welfare in such a tumultuous environmental period for the earth. She describes how our global food system is “very susceptible to large-scale shocks and food shortages”. She expresses her concern that “based on thousands of scientific studies, we aren’t taking anywhere close to the action needed to avert a complete crisis”. Indeed, the severity of the situation is personally being felt by Laura, whose father-in-law saw his entire corn crop fail last year because of extremely heavy rainfall. The uncertainty surrounding the quality of life of any potential future children has led Laura to decide against “bringing a child into a world that’s continuing down such a self-destructive path”.
The Birthstriker manifesto states that they “disagree with focusing on the topic of population before equality based system change, in regards to tackling the environmental crisis”. Despite this, Eléana Ní Mhurchú, a fifth year studying Medicine in Trinity, is a member of Extinction Rebellion and sees the message of the group as unclear: “Is it a group of people expressing grief at having come to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be fair to bring children into this world or is it a political movement, a strike with demands?”. This is a movement with demands but these are the same demands for the system change that Extinction Rebellion, the Green Party and Trinity Young Greens advocate for. Although the decision not to have children is what has brought this group together, their purpose is to protest the system that facilitates the destruction of the planet, not to protest procreation. Laura explains: “This isn’t a movement to create some kind of direct impact. It is a statement of how bad things have become. It’s really just about being honest and having open discussions.”
Several members of other environmental groups have voiced concerns that creating a group centred around abstinence from procreation may promote the wrong message or distract from the main goal of system change. Kate Benson, a member of the UK Green Party, worries that “the movement, like veganism and not using plastic straws, distracts us by placing emphasis on individual action as opposed to calling for the radical, systemic change needed that must be enforced by governments”. She says that she “personally would never be actively involved in promoting or advocating for the movement” as she would prefer to be promoting “the core actions we must take to combat the climate crisis”.
Ciara Finan, a member of Trinity Young Greens, similarly believes that “scientific research and development, massive reductions of energy consumption and the end of fossil fuel use” are the most efficient means to directly tackle climate change. Eléana also voices her concerns with the movement. She describes it as promoting “individualistic action which, while shrinking your family’s carbon footprint, risks amplifying the anti-natalist voices within the green movement, as well as those insisting overpopulation is the problem”. She sees unequal resource distribution as the key issue and is concerned the movement will “promote the idea that there are ‘too many people’ which will make it all the easier to rationalise the deaths of climate refugees”.
“In terms of raising awareness I think it has the shock factor as it still comes as a shock to our society whenever a woman decides not to have kids.”
According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, having fewer children is the best way people can cut down on CO2 emissions. However, the decision of the Birthstrikers not to have children is a symptom of the uncertainty produced by the wider climate issue, rather than an attempt to combat climate change itself. Kate Benson says having fewer children “compared with other individual climate actions, is statistically really quite effective,” although she emphasises the need for this action to be “used in conjunction with other radical change”.
However, founder Blythe Pepino, in an interview with the Guardian, cited her fears surrounding the wellbeing of hypothetical children as what encouraged her to start the movement. Ciara can empathise with this concern of the Birthstrikers: “it is possibly an act of cruelty, and based on quite a selfish impulse to bring a child into the utterly unstable situation of the current climate, if it can be avoided.” For most members, the reduction of environmental damage is not their goal. The key motivation for joining the movement is the sharing of anxieties surrounding the welfare of potential future children. Laura explains that her involvement with the movement is not about direct impact. She agrees that “the best way to make an impact at the level we need is to join social movements fighting for change, Extinction Rebellion and the school strikers are my favourites right now”.
Both Kate and Ciara can see the formation of the movement as being valuable in highlighting the severity of the crisis to those not involved in environmental initiatives. Kate states: “In terms of raising awareness I think it has the shock factor as it still comes as a shock to our society whenever a woman decides not to have kids.”
“Are we willing to give up the one thing humans are programmed to achieve during their lifetime as a reaction to the state of the climate?”
Ciara believes that the movement “conveys how serious a situation we are in” and she elaborates on this by asking: “Are we willing to give up the one thing humans are programmed to achieve during their lifetimes, as a reaction to the state of the climate?”. She states that the Trinity Young Greens, in general, would support the movement. She describes the current ecological crisis as “a sorry state to be in” and says: “It shouldn’t need to be the case, but the reality of the environmental state is that this movement will be essential in improving humanity’s situation.” She says she “can’t speak for each member but at a guess, most would at least be in support of the movement if not willing to take part themselves”.
Kate expresses her concerns about the potential direction of the movement. She explains: “We must be pushing for radical policy changes and cannot allow a movement like this to move into shaming women for their reproductive choices.” She also worries it could foster “malthusian eco-fascism where the blame is placed on women of colour in the Global South who are often the lowest contributors to climate change and who bear the brunt of its effects”. The movement, however, has made great attempts to avoid this, with Laura emphasising that “it’s a personal choice” while the official Birthstrike page states that they are aware of the “colonial violence” of population control methods and strongly disagree with their implementation. They also emphasise their “compassionate solidarity with all parents”, arguing that they celebrate “their choice and fight for the safety and lives of their children”.
Although the Birthstrikers are keen to emphasise their support for parents, Eléana worries that the centering of this movement around not having children could lead to “missing a real opportunity to link with those who have kids and worry for their future”. Ciara also has concerns about “running the risk of alienating people and having people who already have doubts about the climate movement dismiss us all as crazy or extremists”.
Record breaking global emissions, accelerating deforestation and the fact that humans have produced more CO2 in her lifetime than ever before all have informed Laura’s decision to join the Birthstrike movement. Ciara can empathise with this concern, voicing a similar one: “If we didn’t add a single additional molecule of CO2 into the atmosphere, methane trapped in the ice caps would still get released.” The idea that the state of the environment will continue to deteriorate for decades after we stop actively damaging it adds to the severity of the “overwhelming and insurmountable” anxieties that Ciara suggests may be driving people to join this movement. Laura echoes this sentiment: “by talking about this choice more people will become aware of how difficult it is for young people today to even think about having a normal future. We need to wake up to this crisis before it’s too late.”