The world’s ending so should I have kids?

Jack Cantillon explores the ethical dilemmas that arise when it comes to reproducing amid a climate crisis

This question may seem like the premise of a dystopian novel. Reproducing is often regarded as something ethically good — partially due to religious beliefs, but also because it seems like a natural process of all living things. However, very little research is required to see that the near future is potentially similar to said dystopian setting. Disappearing ice caps, rainforests, coral reefs, and Venice sinking are just a few stark images of what is being eradicated from the world. The increasing tempo and severity of natural disasters such as floods, drought, and famines are going to accelerate over the next 50 years, if not sooner. The grim question of whether or not reproducing is ethical no longer seems out of place. People are now asking themselves whether or not having kids is the better approach as it spares children from the bleak future ahead. Should we avoid procreating if that very act further increases the severity of our climate crisis? These questions are being asked more and more by potential parents. A 2020 poll by the New York Times found that for adults without children, 25% listed climate change as part of the reason. A recent debate by the Hist shows a more local increase in interest within College’s walls as students put forth arguments for either side of the topical matter.

“Overpopulation is not currently the world’s problem — it’s over-consumption.”

The discussion of what reproduction does to the environment was reignited in a paper by Murtaugh and Schlax, which ranked not having a kid as the most effective way to reduce your carbon footprint (24 times as effective per year as going car-free). However, some important details are left out of the research in this area. It generally overstates the difference that most people around the world would make by opting out of having children. Overpopulation is not currently the world’s problem — it’s over-consumption. We should be careful not to mistake having children as a cause of global warming; instead, the cause is our current way of life. As we continue to make improvements in our lifestyles and gain access to greener technology our average carbon footprint dramatically decreases. The average CO2 emission for our kids is likely to be much lower than ours as the dangers of global warming and climate change become even greater and more sustained attempts towards net zero are undertaken.

When discussing this question one cannot ignore the possible benefits of new generations. To some extent this is what reproduction has always been about: learning from past mistakes and striving to do better, evolving from those before us. Each new generation seems to be increasingly active in the fight against global warming. If Greta Thunberg’s mother had decided not to have children on moral grounds, we would have lost what many consider an influential presence in our progress over the last ten years.

I’m at risk here of mistakenly endorsing a position of no self-sacrifice to address climate change; a belief that eventually other people or technologies will save us from our own mistakes. However, the solution to climate change must and should involve some individual engagement and sacrifice. Not having children or choosing to reduce family size are just some of the possible individual sacrifices people can make to reduce the climate crisis. Ultimately, we’d prefer a world where we don’t have to face such a choice, but the best way to achieve that world is to make hard choices now.

“I for one am grateful my ancestors didn’t choose to save their kids from potential suffering.”

If the future will be filled with so much pain, would it be better to not bring children into the world? In some extremes maybe this would be the case, but I don’t believe that the current climate crisis makes all future life a net loss. It is past generations’ actions and realistically the actions of the current generation that will cause pain for future ones. They will be punished for our mistakes, but we would only go further astray if we denied them the opportunity to experience all the good things left in the world. I do not believe that the future is likely to be as bad as many of the periods of history that predate our current period of relative comfort. I for one am grateful my ancestors didn’t choose to save their kids from potential suffering.

One could argue that a loss in comfort is much more challenging in the modern age as kids will be aware of what they have lost, which differs from the tough times of the past when modern luxuries were only imagined. However, the impact of this depends on us as potential parents. Will we choose to constantly remind our kids of the past? Or instead, will we focus on how we’ve improved, looking at the beautiful things in life that have survived? I don’t think it’s right to mourn what’s been lost if those losses were built on immoral policies that lead to the deterioration of our planet. There is always some comfort in doing the right thing, even if we lose something in the process.

Many of us may see ourselves as future parents, and as potential future parents, we should tackle these questions rather than be ignorant of the wider issues outside our immediate existence. However, we should certainly worry more about the impact we’ll have on the environment than the impact it will have on us. Those of us who live in the developed world have the unfair advantage of not having to face the consequences of our previous actions, but this means we have much more responsibility to change the current course of the planet. Deciding not to have kids or to adopt instead is one of the many morally good choices people can make to do their bit in tackling the current climate crisis. But this does not mean that choosing to have kids is necessarily morally wrong as there are many other steps people can take to live less carbon-omitting lives. The only wrong choice in this situation lies with those who choose to completely ignore the climate crisis when making decisions; burying one’s head in the sand can only be described as immoral.