I am the mother of two beautiful children. When I had my first, 17 years ago, I was blissfully ignorant about climate change. Now, not a day goes by that I don’t think about how it will impact my kids’ future. And that is why, despite the profound love and joy I’ve found as a mother, I’ve spent the last five years of my life working to influence people not to have children — or at least to have fewer of them.
I had been married 10 years before I decided to have a child. It was a carefully calculated economic, intellectual and psychological decision. I analysed my finances, the current state of my marriage, and my health. Although I was intellectually prepared, I was not prepared for motherhood to be the most fulfilling part of my life, in ways big and small. I devoted as much passion and devotion to being a parent as I had to my successful career in public relations. I filled seemingly endless days reading to my children, taking trips to the zoo, and cooking their favourite meals. There were the minor illnesses, nightmares and sports injuries, but I was so enthusiastic to spend time together that I even home schooled my kids for two years just to give us more time together as a family.
About six years ago, however, an unfamiliar feeling began to creep into my consciousness. I started to read more and more about the environmental destruction we, as humans, are inflicting upon the planet. Species are going extinct, forests are disappearing and aquifers are drying up at a startling rate. The steady drumbeat of dire news reminded me of how I felt being newly pregnant with my first child on the day of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when I questioned the sanity of bringing a child into such a chaotic, hate-filled world. Now, as a mother with two teenagers, I approached this latest existential crisis with less fear and more resolve. I wanted to help fix the situation. So I quit my job as a school librarian, and I took a job working on an environmental documentary.
We travelled around the world, documenting the impact our global population of 7.6 billion people is having on the planet, including the acceleration and exacerbation of climate change. Fishermen in Japan told us about the need to start eating “garbage fish” because other species were no longer available. Farmers in Kansas told us about the increasing competition between farms for use of the aquifer they depend upon to irrigate their crops, as well as the unrelenting demand for them to produce more and more to keep up with the world’s demand. Public health workers in India showed us the fetid water that the less fortunate must use to drink and bathe because there is no clean supply.
Working on the documentary, “8 Billion Angels,” opened my eyes to the scope of the problem, but, most importantly, it taught me about a practical, science-based solution that has a greater positive impact than any other “green” solution available: have fewer kids.
If explosive world population growth is the greatest driver of our environmental degradation, including climate change, and if even the most environmentally conscious person creates a significant carbon footprint simply by consuming food, using fuel for transportation and consuming energy for heating and cooling, wouldn’t having fewer children be the best way to address our problems? Plenty of scientists, environmentalists and economists think so — and for good reason. In fact, a highly regarded 2017 study in Sweden found that having fewer children is by far the most effective way to address global warming and reduce emissions in developed countries.
“I knew this was a sensitive topic to bring up,” said study co-author Kimberly Nicholas on NPR’s “Morning Edition” at the time of the study’s publication. “Certainly it’s not my place as a scientist to dictate choices for other people. But I do think it is my place to do the analysis and report it fairly.”
How could I, as a mother, tell women who want children to forgo the very choice I had made, for the sake of the planet and its inhabitants? I can’t and I won’t. What I can do is devote myself to giving others what I wanted for myself — the information to make the best possible decision for me, my family and my planet.
After “8 Billion Angels” wrapped at the end of 2018, the executive producer approached me with a question: “Are you satisfied that you’ve fulfilled your mission to help make the world better for future generations? If not, let’s not settle for the single burst of attention that a film, book or event can generate.” We were frustrated after repeatedly watching documentaries and reading books that admire the problem, only to tack on some generic DIY action steps at the end, leaving audiences feeling full of despair, uninspired and confused about what to do. To continue the conversation we started in the film, we created Earth Overshoot — an organization dedicated to changing social norms and demonstrating ways that we, as individuals and as societies, can live sustainably within the planet’s ecological limits.
I fight every day to redefine the narrative regarding population’s role in environmental sustainability. Speaking at conferences, screening the film and partnering with like-minded organizations, I help elevate the subject from out of the shadows. My goal is to correct misconceptions of what is considered normal and to support women who wish to limit or forgo childbearing in the face of societal pressure.
When I was growing up, the only story we, as women heard, was one that followed a pre-ordained script. Step 1: school; step 2: marriage; step 3: children. Today, we need to be able to pause throughout our lives to assess and determine our next move. Only then can we move beyond making the decision to have children based on some outdated, misguided and destructive obligation to society and put the focus where it should be — on the best interests of the child, the parent and the planet.
And what is the best way to promote having fewer children in a voluntary, human rights context? Ensuring that high-quality family planning is available for all women who want it, anywhere in the world, and increasing access to education for girls. Women with more education manage their reproductive health more, and have fewer and healthier children.
Studies have also shown that when women delay or forgo having children, there are not only environmental benefits, but the economic, health and educational prospects of the mother and child rise dramatically. Shouldn’t we view this decision to promote smaller families as opting for quality over quantity? Do we want a world of more people with less opportunity for good health, peace and prosperity, or fewer people with more of each?
I believe that forgoing children in the face of climate change is a chance for women to show strength, power and control. Women have the strength to heal the planet, women have the power to give the children they do have the best possible future, and women should have the control to make decisions about their own bodies — decisions that affect their lives, and the future of our planet.
Women don’t have to do it alone. There is a role we all can play, men and women, young and old, to promote a culture that recognizes the value of small families and supports women when they delay or forgo children. We can all support organizations that provide women access to high-quality reproductive health care and invest in girls’ education, and we can advocate — at local, national and international levels — for the resources and policy changes needed to help heal the environment and reduce ecological overshoot. We can all help to ease the burdens placed on the Earth’s mothers — and to ease the burdens we all place on Mother Earth.