Have sex, not babies

Let’s start debating procreating.

I come from a very conservative and traditional village in the middle of the English countryside, where the local aristocrats go fox hunting, the local primary school has a thatched roof, and the Lady of the estate lost an 18-ct gold necklace in the local Morrisons (it’s called Somerleyton, look it up). So, naturally, as a 20-year-old woman, I am often asked when I’m going to settle down, get married, and have children. Indeed, I have thought about this, and whether I want it for my future; women think of little else if I am to believe the words of the farmer who lives next door. My answer is usually along the lines of “maybe, I suppose…I’m a bit young… ” Because the whole nuclear family thing has a number of glaring problems that Karen at the post office might have a few issues with. Firstly, I’m pansexual (‘Sharpen your pitchforks!’), secondly, marriage is kind of an archaic patriarchal institution (‘Light your torches!’), and thirdly, having children doesn’t have to form part of our life paths (‘Holy hell, burn her at the stake, she’s a witch!’).  

It is the last point that needs to be addressed now, and it is something that can be looked at from many angles. One way to do this is in light of the climate crisis: when marches are weekly and change should have happened yesterday. Overpopulation is part of the reason why global heating has occurred in the first place. In the last 100 years, the global population has nearly quadrupled, from around 2 billion in 1928 to around 7.8 billion in January 2020. Because of this, we have consumed more natural resources in the last 50 years than the whole of humanity before us, which, unsurprisingly, has lead to major resource depletion. Although going vegan and flying less will decrease our environmental impact, perhaps it is important to start considering socialised notions of the family unit, reproduction, and the implications of our decision to bare children in the West. 

Before I go on, I must point out two major caveats:  first, I am evangelically pro-choice. If you want children, fine. It is your uterus and you can do whatever you wish with it. But, like everything in your twenties, I think that the assumption that we all want or ‘need’ children is dangerous. Second, this is not the eugenicist words of an eco-fascist. I am not advocating for sterilisation or genocide, but rather that we should rethink our relationship with reproduction. Third, it is important to note disparities in carbon consumption for Western babies and those found elsewhere. Carbon consumption in the West is so much higher than in countries in the Global South: for example, a family of 10 in India is likely to have a smaller impact on the environment that a family of 3 in the US. The point I am trying to convey here is that, in the West, we have been programmed from childhood that the natural progression of our lives will be school, marriage and babies: we should challenge this narrative, not simply because of the heteronormative and, historically, patriarchal nature of this life path, but also because of its environmental implications. 

The  Environmental Research Letters estimates, conservatively, that having one fewer child than planned could reduce carbon emissions for each couple of parents by 58 tonnes for each year of their life. Population increasing exponentially means a greater demand for food, which PLOS ONE shows could result in an 80% rise in food demand by 2100. This is going to hit Africa the worst, particularly Sub-Saharan regions where population growth is the most rapid. 

The answer to overpopulation, despite what some may say, is not to cull the old people. The answer to many is that we must change who we call family. I have long argued that the most effective way to combat climate change is to break down the walls built up in communities, and focus on change at a local level: if you know and care about your neighbours, you will change your own behaviour to help them. We can find the emotional fulfilment of having multiple children by fostering stronger community ties instead.

Many of the critiques of this are directed at the construction of the white nuclear family that has come to be known as a social norm in the West, and how this is pushed on other cultures that may have more communitarian traditions, such as that among Native American tribes. Whilst legally the nuclear family falls neatly into the little boxes of the structured state bureaucracy, conformity only amounts to a mode of control and the further perpetuation of toxic ‘norms’. Furthermore, arguments that procreation is a human biological need are contestable at best. Even if we do feel a survival instinct to pass on our genes, we must, for the sake of preventing further climate change, entertain this solution. Indeed, for countries like Japan or Italy that have ageing populations, the answer should be to open borders and loosen migration policies rather than simply encouraging rampant procreation.

Of course, we must consider that choosing whether we have one, five, or no children is a form of Western privilege. Whilst in the UK we have access to contraception for free through the NHS, many other people are not so lucky. Whilst ‘marriage and babies’ are part of the carbon-copy life models forced on us from a young age – should they be?

The effects of global heating in the UK are often invisible. We cannot see our sea levels rising, and, luckily, we are not plagued by famine, drought, or natural disasters worsened by climate change. It is not the correlation between our small scale actions and large scale events that is the issue: it’s the culmination of those small scale decisions. The same is true of many high profile issues within this conversation: we know we need to limit X, Y, and Z but the question is how to do that and how to convince people it is the right decision for the planet. We are capable of finding meaningful connections with those around us through kinship structures and friendships, and child-rearing is certainly not for everybody. We have to normalise this.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that we now have ten years to limit the ‘catastrophe of Climate Change’. The conversation needs to be expanded into every facet of our lives. We not only need to reconsider why we have been bred to believe that we must have children, but also why the nuclear family structure became a norm in the first place. Yes, legally speaking, it can make sense to get married, and we often consider two parents a healthy means by which to raise a child. But in the UK, these norms are reinforced by centuries of white heteronormative structures underpinned by Christian notions of morality. We must, now more than ever, question our notions of ‘normal’ relationships with our neighbours, sexual partner(s), and our means of reproduction. Despite what we are told, having children is not an inevitable step in the saga of our lives, and much needs to be done to deconstruct why we feel it should be. 

Having lots of children, whilst great if you want to start a family choir, is not what is best for the planet. Having sex is great, so yes keep doing it – I am in no way advocating a return to the celibacy of Puritan England – but instead, it is the number of children we have that we need to limit in high Carbon emitting countries. So if the time ever comes, whether in two years, ten years or longer, when you start thinking about adding another human being onto this messy and complicated planet, maybe think again. 

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