Kelli Maria Korducki is the author of Hard To Do: The Surprising, Feminist History of Breaking Up.
The first thing people want to reassure me of, when I mention my ambivalence toward having children, is that I’m young. I get that it’s meant as a permission slip to wait and see – a pastime afforded the young for their time to spare. Only in youth can you wait with gusto. “Young,” of course, is relative. If you asked a current university undergraduate whether someone in her early-mid-30s is “young,” I imagine they’d politely agree, then qualify their answer after a gentle, yet pointed, three-second pause. Maybe my cohort isn’t “young” or “old,” but a third demographic: “algorithmic chum for egg-freezing ads.”
Our perceptions of time attach different meanings to the goalposts we’ve laid out for our futures. Whether or not I think of myself as young, in relation to my body’s continued ability to release reproductively viable eggs, helps determine the urgency with which I visit a question that I’d sooner put off indefinitely. But where it comes to that question – the one of whether or not to bring new life onto the planet, by way of my body – I and my presently fertile peers have chronologies to consider beyond our own.
In October, a United Nations climate report gave us a deadline: 12 years. A failure by world leaders to enact drastic environmental regulations within that time frame would ensure an irreversible blow to the future of human life on the world as we know it. A new report from Environment and Climate Change Canada, released on Monday, issued Canadians something of a postscript on the UN’s existential siren: Act now, or risk everything.
I’m not a gambler, but I am a millennial, which is effectively the same thing. I was celebrating my 33rd birthday on a transatlantic flight to Andalusia when the U.S. congressional superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently kicked up a minor storm on her Instagram feed. In a livestream from her kitchen, the 29-year-old New York representative voiced a reality of her young constituents as they venture to plot their futures in the shadow of climate change. “Basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult,” she mused. “And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?”
Although Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks were a far cry from policy recommendations for population control, some of her critics on the political right were swift to make that equation. When I returned from vacation 10 days later, her remarks were still being digested by media – another shock of chronology, given attention spans in the 24-hour news cycle.
A story in Vox entertained the bioethical legitimacy of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s question, and cited groups on- and offline that have been formed to hash out this specific dilemma. When I shared it on social media with the caption, “I think about this all the time,” I soon learned I had company. But beyond the dozens of likes and responses of “same!”, the post pushed not-surprising buttons among some friends who have children. One pal from high school remarked that she’s too busy raising her three kids to stress over the implications of their existence; two Gen-X dads noted the parallels between “climate extinction” and “nuclear war,” the culturally agreed-upon menace of their own formative years.
I tend to view the “both sides” card as an intellectual cop-out; but in this debate, I don’t. I see them, the sides, and I’m living them both.
Climate change has not yet had its “cigarettes are bad for you, says the Surgeon-General” moment; when I told my liberal newshound dad that the threat of environmental apocalypse keeps me clinging to my IUD – at least, that’s part of it – he laughed in disbelief. At least once, I’ve clicked on the targeted ad in my News Feed in which the sexy cartoon egg entreats me to throw her cousins into a freezer. Why wouldn’t I want to learn the going rate to literally buy time? Why wouldn’t I want to believe?
“Some of us get to experience climate change as something like a mood,”American journalist Ben Ehrenreich wrote recently, in a dispatch for The Nation from the drought-stricken Horn of Africa. He does not name those “some” – the ones with the luxury to “imagine everything we know and love in ruins.”
As he lists the droughts and floods and famines that have been concentrated, and accumulating despair, for years in the global south, where there resides “the majority of humankind, dark-skinned and poor,” he points no fingers. But, if you’ve read this far, you already know who you are. Don’t worry; I know it’s me, too.
There are myriad perfectly sensible reasons not to have children; doubters need only ask a well-adjusted person who has had them. The logical angles for the “con” column are well covered.
To consciously embark on the creation of new human life is alternately, in many respects, an act of faith. Try as we might to bring up our children in the likeness of our values, we cannot predict the people they will be, nor guarantee that they will follow our example. We also cannot, in the face of accelerating climate catastrophe, know with certainty that the global actors best positioned to act radically on their behalf will elect to reverse course. (By every indication, collective urgency is decisively lacking.)
For some people, these unknowns in and of themselves make an ethical case against procreation. Others will take it upon themselves to bet on a future, to take a chance on – to paraphrase my friend, Matty, a father of three – the exquisite potential in seeding the cosmos. Without such optimism, the human race would become destitute of both zeal and, eventually, members. But optimism won’t ensure they have someplace to live. For that, we need decisions. No matter whose clock is counting, time is running short.