Laura Formisano says she has never felt a huge desire to have children, but she always presumed that would change.
Now, married for seven months, she feels climate change could make the planet so uninhabitable, she’s not sure she can bring herself to become a parent.
“It almost feels like a con, to bring a child into the world when it’s probably not going to be a place we’re really going to want to live,” says Formisano, 30, who manages a co-working space in Los Angeles.
Is the future simply too horrific to bring children into? Some couples, frightened by the prospect of droughts, wars, famines and extinctions brought on by climate change, are making that decision.
A Facebook group for women to discuss the idea launched this month, and it’s already winning over supporters in Europe and the United States. Conceivable Future, a U.S.-based group, has held more than 50 house parties in 16 states in recent years where women worried about global warming discuss forgoing motherhood.
“There are around 70 new signups in the last seven days,” says Blythe Pepino, who helped create the #BirthStrike Facebook page.
The reasons women come to this decision are many and varied, but they tend to focus on what the women call a clear-eyed view of the changes a warming planet are likely to bring.
For some, the consequences are all too easy to imagine.
Eight years ago, a massive tornado devastated Christy LeMaster’s hometown of Joplin, Missouri. The monster storm was 22 miles long and at times a mile wide. It killed 158 people, injured 1,150 others and destroyed almost 7,000 homes. LeMaster’s family was OK, but she knows many people who weren’t.
“The reality is, they’re still rebuilding. Tornadoes on that scale are only supposed to happen every 50 or 60 years. When catastrophes on this scale start happening more often, what does life look like?” says the 38-year-old, who now lives in Chicago and curates public programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
While LeMaster says she’s not someone who has “a deep drive for child-bearing,” she’d long thought she would have children in her life. But with climate change stoking the prospect of serious economic dislocation and fights over resources, “I feel even more scared now,” she says.
“If I’m honest with myself, I don’t know what water will look like in 10 years. What temperatures will look like in 15, or even food distribution,” she says.
A congresswoman asks: Is it OK to have kids?
New York’s popular Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, who is pushing for a Green New Deal to help fight climate change, broached the topic last month on Instagram.
“There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult, and it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question — is it OK to still have children?” she said during a video streaming live from her kitchen.
Newlywed Luci Kade, of Atlanta, says her friends don’t talk about climate change much, which she attributes to the shift “happening on a larger and slower scale than we can comprehend.” But the trends are clear to her, and she doesn’t feel she can ignore them.
“It’s really important to respond to the climate change crisis by actually treating it like a crisis. One way you do that is you don’t go on with business as usual,” says Kade, 28.
The forest fires, hurricanes and other drastic weather events in recent years give her pause about what kind of world humanity will be living in 30 or 40 years from now.
Because of that, she and her wife have decided to adopt. Kade works in the foster care system, so she knows how many children there already are who need families.
“It just feels morally and ethically irresponsible to have my own children,” she says.
Climate change poses a real danger
There’s growing concern over the dangers climate change poses, with people in 13 of 26 countries polled by the Pew Research Center last month saying it is the top international threat.
And women more than men are worried about it. In the United States, 66 percent of women cited global climate change as a major threat to the nation, while only 51 percent of men did.
Such fears are based on solid science. Last October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that mankind has 12 years to act to avoid “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Even in the best scenarios, it said, the world will face more extreme weather events — more wildfires, more droughts, more floods, rising sea levels and the loss of almost all coral reefs.
Whether that’s affecting women’s family planning isn’t known. The U.S. birthrate has been falling for years, and in 2017 was just 60.3 births per 1,000 women — the lowest fertility rate since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began keeping records in 1909. Causes such as women marrying later, worries about the economy and the difficulty of finding affordable child care have all been suggested.
No one has yet polled American women to ask if climate change is a part of this. But in Australia, a survey of 6,500 women released last month found that 22 percent of respondents in their 30s said they were considering having no more children, or not to have children at all, because of climate change.
“It would break my heart having this child that you love, that you nurture and raise, and then you’re leaving them behind with a ‘Well, good luck! Things aren’t going to get better, you’re on your own,’ ” says Formisano, of Los Angeles.
Her husband agrees, she says. “He always says, ‘We’re too many. We don’t need to have this many people on Earth.’ “
Feeling like ‘part of the solution’
Forgoing children is a stance many women, and some men, in the climate movement have long thought about, but the first organized discussions appear to have happened in 2014. That was when Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli met at a concert in New Hampshire.
Both 30 at the time, they began talking about climate change and “within five minutes” came to the topic of not having children because of their worries about just how bad things seemed likely to get, they say.
Despite this being a top-of-mind concern for both of them, they’d never found a place to share their fear before. After talking most of the night, they decided that they couldn’t be the only ones wrestling with these concerns. They launched house parties where people could talk about the ethics of family planning and climate change.
Kallman, a professor of international development at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Ferorelli, a climate activist in Chicago, acknowledge that whatever happens in the future, as two white women in the United States, it won’t be as difficult for them as it will for women elsewhere in the world. Even so, they’re consumed by “the knowledge that what we’re facing is so much worse than we imagine,” says Kallman.
Ryanne Hoogeboom, now 38, attended one of the early events. She lives in Albuquerque with her 4-year-old daughter, Kit. While she loves her daughter dearly, she and her partner have decided not to have any more children. “He’s in the same camp I am,” she says.
Hoogeboom says she made many changes in her life, including traveling less and moving into a smaller home, as she realized she “was part of the problem.” She’s now gone back to college to get her bachelor’s degree, while she works as a file clerk and tries to raise her daughter “so she’ll be part of the solution.”
When Hoogeboom explains to relatives why Kit doesn’t have any siblings, she gets confused looks if she mentions climate change.
“People don’t really understand what I’m so freaked out about. ‘It’s going to get figured out,’ is their attitude,” she says.
Hanna Scott, 23, is one of the people who say it won’t get figured out. “We’re on a trajectory towards a real hellscape,” she says.
A resident of Bicester, England, she heard about the #BirthStrike Facebook group in early March, finally finding common ground on a topic that had been gnawing at her.
At 23, she sees things getting dicey in her own lifetime, much less a child’s. Even the idea of a quiet retirement is inconceivable to her.
“The climate will have changed, sea level will be rising, people will be migrating, it will cause huge geopolitical issues,” she says.
Although she’s not seeing anyone now, she’s clear this would be something she’d bring up if she started a serious relationship.
“I fully respect that my partner might have a different perspective. If my partner really, really wanted a child, then I guess adoption is potentially in the cards. But more likely I don’t think the relationship would continue,” she says.
On Facebook, #BirthStrike is a closed group. To join, women must agree to a declaration that says they won’t bear children “due to the severity of the ecological crisis.” Participants also must state they are in compassionate solidarity with all parents, celebrating their choices and not judging those who do bear children. So far, 225 women have signed up.
Pepino, one of the founders, says she wishes her vision of the future wasn’t so full of famine, violence and global wars over resources. “I’m 32 and I absolutely love my partner and I want his kid so badly. But I just can’t figure out how I would do that,” she says.
For some, that vision of the future comes just as their biological clocks are ticking the loudest.
“Up until about two years ago I said I didn’t want children anyway. Then I started to be drawn to the idea of motherhood at the same time I was becoming really aware of what was going on in the world,” says Jen Witts, 38, in Bristol, England.
“I thought, ‘How could I bring a child into the world knowing what we face and how bad it’s going to get?’ ”
The discussion didn’t go well with her family. “My mother is absolutely devastated, she says it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done because she simply can’t understand it,” Witts says.
Not all mothers are distressed. Lori Day, 55, in Newberry Port, Massachusetts, has come to terms with her 27-year-old daughter not having kids, even though she had been “so looking forward to having grandchildren.”
Mostly her daughter just “doesn’t have that biological clock ticking, but she also doesn’t believe it’s going to be a world to bring a child into,” Day says.
Day sees her daughter’s point. “I have solar panels on my house, I drive a hybrid car. But deep down, I think it’s too late. I don’t know what the speed is at which things are going to unravel — but I believe it will affect the end of my life and it will affect her when she’s my age,” she says.
Not population control
To be sure, the decision to not have children isn’t a full-on movement; it’s more a discussion that’s beginning to bubble up in people’s consciousness. And organizers are clear that this is not about population control.
“It’s not like my choosing to have a kid or not is going to solve the climate crisis,” Kallman says.
The goal isn’t to get women and men to pledge not to have children, but instead to provide a place to talk about a topic that most people don’t want to discuss even as humanity barrels into what they believe will be a dark and dystopian future.
“It’s not anybody’s answer to this question that matters, it’s the fact that people are even having to ask this question. That’s what’s messed up,” Ferorelli says.