When Kiran Desai won the Booker Prize in 2006 for her post-colonial novel The Inheritance of Loss, she found herself facing questions as to whether she would consider turning down the prize. How could she accept a prize so deeply rooted in colonial history when her novel speaks so powerfully of the scars of colonisation? Would it not be the ultimate hypocrisy to write a novel decrying British imperialism, only to accept a prize that essentially celebrates it?
It was as if by writing this novel Desai had been elevated to another ethical plane: a place where her actions would be measured against a more stringent standard than those of other prize winners. Through her novel, she had spoken out against colonisation, meaning she was now expected to speak out against colonisation in every action and decision she made – even when those decisions, from the point of view of an author, are completely life changing.
For those involved in political activism, a more onerous set of imposed ethical standards is part of the territory. Activism, especially environmental activism, is about changing behaviours: be it of individuals, organisations or governments, it invariably calls into question the behaviours of those very people advocating for change. These standards can be imposed externally and often unfairly – the environmental activist ridiculed for travelling by air to a climate conference – but often they are self-imposed: a voice of conscience deep inside demanding personal action match personal activism.
That voice, external or internal, is hard to ignore when you are consumed by your activism. No personal choice is off limits, not even the most base and fundamental of them all: children.
Let’s start with a common premise in environmental activism: the planet is in a dire situation. As the population of the world swells, the intensiveness with which we use its land and resources intensifies; the willingness of governments and individuals to address their impact on the planet continues to be tokenistic at best and plain antagonistic at worst; there seems little hope that we’ll get out of this mess we got ourselves into. Countless reports from numerous experts speak of dire consequences, closing windows of opportunity, and, recently from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), ‘a final warning’ that time is running out if we want to keep within what is considered the safe limit of a 2°C increase in global average temperatures.
Let’s consider another common premise: population growth is a major strain on the resources of the globe and, as a result, one of the many factors contributing to climate change. Simply put: in a world of finite resources, the more people using the resources, the faster those resources will run out. Furthermore, when the use of certain resources contributes to climate change and wider environmental degradation, more people using more resources further accelerates the deleterious environmental impacts.
‘The extra population the globe has these days puts a strain on resources,’ Graeme Hugo, Professor and Director of the Australian Population and Migration Centre*, says in explaining the link between environmental harm and population growth. ‘This means all kinds of environmental deterioration. With climate change, that can be exacerbated and accelerated with the larger number of people in terms of all sorts of pollution.’
Take these two premises together and, at least at first glance, they point to an uncomfortable conclusion: if we have children we are not only significantly contributing to the demise of our planet, but we are bringing those children into a world of unprecedented global uncertainty. While climate change is a reality now, the most catastrophic impacts are yet to come – and those impacts are likely to be felt most acutely by children born in the coming decades.
For Simon Tapp, a 25-year-old public servant, the decision to not have children for environmental reasons was borne out of his personal experience with climate activism. ‘I made the decision about four or five years ago. At that time I was working for Greenpeace on their Sign On campaign on climate change, tying in with UN negotiations in Copenhagen. We were looking at scenarios and modelling possible outcomes for 2100 and beyond. And nothing looked good; nothing looked like it would be a stable and secure future.’
Simon is part of what is called the childfree movement: people who choose not to have children, usually for lifestyle, career or financial reasons. There’s another box people are increasingly ticking in their choice to remain childfree: the environment. Simon explains:
When you have kids, every parent wants to leave their child a world as good as or better than the one they were born into. Irrespective of my material possessions, I know that the way the world is trending, it would be really unlikely I’d be able to offer my kids that assurance – that I was bringing them into a world that was better than the one I had, where they would be able to have the same kind of fundamental experiences that I had and that I think every child should be able to have.
Simon was left with the realisation that the only reasons he could possibly have for bringing children into the world were fundamentally selfish. He understood the environmental impact of population growth and he knew what kind of world into which he would be bringing children. In Simon’s eyes, to have children would be to allay fears of loneliness in later life, or to have a vessel for expectations, hopes and ambition.
It’s no secret that the world’s population is growing at an exponential rate. It took 150,000 years for the human population to reach its first one billion, but the most recent billion only took 12 years. The most recent global demographic estimates and projections from the UN Population Division released in June 2013 predicted a global population of 9.6 billion by 2050. The report found that most of the population growth will occur in developing regions, which are expected to increase from 5.9 billion in 2013 to 8.2 billion in 2050.
Professor Hugo has no doubts that, globally, we need to curtail population growth; however, he balks at the suggestion that it is a problem for the developing world alone. ‘I wouldn’t put any population issue as “other countries’ issues rather than Australia.
‘The challenge of population growth globally is one that has to be taken on by everyone. There is certainly a danger in an attitude that some countries have to act and others do not.’
The most recent figures from the Bureau of Statistics put Australia’s population growth rate at about 1.7 per cent, of which natural increases (namely, more births than deaths) make up 40 per cent. Professor Hugo is quick to point out that while that may sound low, it’s high when looked at in the context of comparable countries. ‘I think we often exaggerate the lowness of our fertility rate. It’s low compared to what it used to be in the 1950s or 1960s, but it’s relatively high compared to European countries.’
In Germany, for example, population growth hovers around the 0 per cent mark, in 2013 just tipping over to 0.2 per cent. A large number of other countries, many of which are European, now boast sub-zero population growth figures.
What is often missed when comparing statistics on population growth is how dramatically different resource usage is between countries. Take the relatively small nation of Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, where the population growth rate is 3.2 per cent. On average, each Eritrean citizen produces just 0.1 metric tonne of CO2 per year. Compare this with Australia, where each person produces 16.9 metric tonnes of CO2 per year, and you can see that when we’re talking about population growth and the impact it has on the environment, we’re not always comparing apples with apples.
For Sarah Wood, a 27-year-old accountant, the prospect of bringing another life into this world weighs heavily on her mind. Unlike Simon, Sarah is not adamant she will remain childfree – instead she positions her odds as about ‘fifty–fifty’.
Sarah’s reasons are not purely environmental; they include ethical considerations about whether she can be the parent that a child – and society – deserves.
‘Having children is such a huge commitment. You have a responsibility to the child, obviously, but as a parent, you also have a responsibility to make sure you raise a good person who will leave the world a better place. Unless you are 100 per cent on board with that, any other reason to have kids seems to me not good enough. If you’re going to have kids and those kids are going to have an impact on the world then you’d have to ensure that impact would be a positive one.’
Like Simon, Sarah’s views come from a place of reflection, seemingly devoid of desire and emotion. While she’s the first to admit she has never been particularly maternal, Sarah says she does yearn for the joy and close bonds we associate with having children – albeit not necessarily by having them herself. ‘Having a family unit is probably something most people would say they want, but you can create your own version of this; you can surround yourself with people at different ages and stages. The impact you have on other people isn’t limited to those in your family.’
If Sarah does have children, she’s determined it will be after a period of long and deep thought. ‘People should think about whether they are going to have kids; make it a conscious decision. A lot of people go down this road that is well-worn and travelled without really analysing their feelings. If I do end up having kids, it will be something that is very conscious; I’ll be active about it.’
The most common refrain levelled against the young and the childfree – especially when paired with an ethical explanation – is ‘you’ll change your mind’. It’s a response that demonstrates just how deeply embedded the expectation that people will reproduce is in our collective psyche; people can’t comprehend that someone would willingly and happily opt to remain childfree.
Simon is used to getting shrugged off when it comes to his views on parenthood. ‘It seems quite presumptuous for a 24-year-old male to just say, “I’m never going to want kids in my life, never”, because we’re expected at this age to be spooked by that idea. I don’t know how firmly friends and family think I will adhere to that but for a lot of people it’s just been acceptance and, “cool, your choice”.’
When it comes to partners, Simon is up front and unrelenting in his choice to remain childfree. ‘I’ve dated people who absolutely do want kids and it’s become apparent that this would be a bigger barrier if we’d lasted. I don’t see it as negotiable, though.
‘I don’t think that’s callous, either, because even if my partner does want children I would still have to be those kids’ dad. If I’m a parent to kids I didn’t really want to have in the world, whose future I knew was irrevocably worse than mine had been, that would be a really difficult situation for me to be in.’
Where Simon stops, however, is advocating for a childfree life. ‘I think convincing others to remain childfree as an approach or campaign feels quite invasive. I would very happily talk to people of child-bearing age about climate change and biodiversity collapse and about how the next oil war will be over water or how it’s not a guarantee the things they enjoyed as a kid and would like to pass on to their kid will be an option. I think making people aware of that is quite important before they choose kids.’
No doubt many in Simon’s shoes are similarly reticent about preaching a childfree lifestyle. ‘I find it difficult to be critical and interfere in the decisions people make about how many children they will have,’ admits Professor Hugo. ‘I think it’s a very personal thing and reflects a number of very personal institutional and structural factors so that it’s very hard to make an “ideal” or preferred number that people should have.’
While Professor Hugo agrees that population growth must be addressed, and not just by the developing world, he’s sceptical of whether remaining childfree is the best way to go about addressing the problem.
‘I think it would be wrong to make climate change the only thing influencing whether or not you have children,’ he says. ‘Clearly, what the world needs is not people having no children. What the world needs is people having 2.1 children, or around about that level. We want people having just enough children to replace them. To me, that’s the responsible way to go if you’re looking at it from an environmental perspective.’
The reality is that, while more and more Australians are opting to go childfree, in interviews about their decisions very few cite the environment as their primary reason. ‘In Australia, if you look at the literature on childlessness, there has been an increase in childlessness that has been evident,’ Hugo explains. However, somewhat predictably, the two major themes that emerge for childlessness are women opting to remain in the workforce and financial pressures, or wanting to maintain a certain lifestyle.
‘Where global environmental factors come in, they’re barely mentioned in the interviews – be it the survey type interview or the more in-depth interview. It rarely comes up first as the main factor. It may be tacked on at the end as one of the elements they’re considering, but it’s usually subservient to factors around their own lifestyle.
‘Undoubtedly, [the environment] is an increasing factor of concern to many people. But it’s a little strange to me that it’s about having no children versus having two children, which to me is a globally responsible consideration.’
For many, irrespective of evidence about the impact of population growth, the desire to have children simply overrides logic or evidence. You can believe in climate change, demand climate action and still have children. You can see injustice and human suffering, and you can still want to bring a child into a world full of both. For many, logic and reason can be trumped by instinct and deeply felt desire.
We draw boundaries around our activism: what is in and what is out is a complex balancing act between what we know to be right and what we feel regardless. The decision to have children, for many, falls out of scope.
Similarly, for Kiran Desai, turning the Booker Prize down fell out of scope. ‘You can drag that ethical dilemma into every single aspect of your life – and that is very much what my book is about,’ she said, when asked about it. ‘You are unable to make any kind of rule, really, without it being messy and mixed up with the rest of the world, and mixed up with sad and difficult things.’
Yet for some of those concerned about the environment and the impact of a burgeoning global population, vowing to remain childfree is a sad and difficult sacrifice they are willing to make.
* Sadly, in the time of writing this story, Professor Hugo passed away in Adelaide.
Image credit: James Cridland