Adam Leylange and Jessica Johannesson had decided that 2018 was going to be the year they would try for a baby.
The couple, who live in the English city of Bath, had gone back-and-forth over that decision for all the usual reasons, including timing and money, but had finally decided, “Ok, this is when it’s going to happen,” Johannesson says. Then, in October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report showing that the world has to start cutting emissions drastically and do it soon if we are to keep global warming under 1.5°C, after which “even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.”
The report prompted Johannesson and Leylange, who were already involved in climate activism, to join BirthStrike, a mostly online community of about 300 people that was founded in England by 33-year-old singer/songwriter Blythe Pepino. The group members “declare our decision not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face [of] this existential threat.”
BirthStrike is one iteration of a small but growing movement of people around the world (paywall) who are hesitating over whether or not to have children due to worries about climate change. It’s a concern that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman to serve in the US Congress, recently voiced when she told her 3 million Instagram followers that “there’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult” as a result of climate change. “It does lead young people to have a legitimate question: Is it OK to still have children?”
This question is fundamental and controversial. Some argue that giving up on parenthood won’t make a meaningful difference in resolving climate change. Others fear it might distract people from the more systemic issues contributing to the problem, and absolve lawmakers of the responsibility of coming up with solutions. But the members of BirthStrike don’t believe that everyone should stop having children, or that their movement will solve this crisis. Some of them took the pledge because they felt hopeless; others say nothing gives them more hope for the future of the planet. Their individual stories of grief and loss bring a different human facet to the universal story of climate change.
Pepino says she became anxious about climate change in her mid-20s. She was hitting her stride in the music business in London, performing as lead singer in the band formerly known as Vaults—an experience she describes as “giving capitalism a go.” But she soon realized that this kind of lifestyle wasn’t for her. So she packed up her bags and moved to Calais, France, where she began volunteering with Help Refugees, an activist group fighting for immigrant rights, and joined a new band, Mesadorm.
When Pepino read the IPCC report last year, she says something clicked. Around the same time, she attended a lecture organized by Extinction Rebellion, a group best known for throwing buckets of fake blood in front of the British parliament and blocking bridges to draw attention to climate change. The lecture, entitled “Heading For Extinction: What To Do About It,” inspired her to action.
Pepino had already decided she wouldn’t have children because of climate change. Her next step was to turn that decision into a movement. “BirthStrike came about because I realized I didn’t feel like we had a chance of surviving,” she says. “I felt very faithless that humans could turn this around. So, I’ve given myself five years to try my best to be part of the movement.”
BirthStrike’s members publicize their views via a Facebook group, an Instagram account, and YouTube videos. Pepino says about 300 people have taken the pledge. (She takes care to point out that although members come from around the world, the group is not as diverse as she’d like. “As a white, middle-class Englishwoman, I put it out to my mostly white, English middle-class and female surroundings,” she explains.)
Many BirthStrike members want children. “In some ways, it almost feels like the choice is being taken away from me, which makes me quite angry,” Nikki Saville, a 24-year-old masters student, says in a video for the group’s website.
And yet, despite the emotional weight of their decision, BirthStrike members aren’t under the illusion that it will make a huge difference. “We are not hoping that everyone is going to stop having babies and that will solve the crisis, that would be completely stupid,” says Pepino. “We are hoping to galvanize political will by making our current decisions … public in this way.”
“This is not a solution,” Johannesson says. Rather, “it’s a massive alarm saying to people in power, this is how … dysfunctional our society has become.” Her partner, Leylange, believes that BirthStrike can serve as a gateway to environmental activism: “Thinking about not having kids isn’t going to be what motivates everyone to get involved, but it’ll motivate some people, and the grief that you feel as a result of that makes you want to do something,” he said.
BirthStrikers don’t want their activism to be prescriptive. Pepino especially doesn’t want her movement conflated with the highly-controversial anti-natalist position that “life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion.” The BirthStrike declaration states that the group “stands in compassionate solidarity with all parents, celebrates their choice, and doesn’t seek to judge anyone intending to bear children.” “It’s a very personal choice, and there’s no judgement for people who decide that that’s not a choice they want to make,” says Leylange.
What BirthStrike members say the movement does for them, however, is to let them know they’re not alone. “In everyday life, trying to speak to people about climate change is really difficult,” says Leylange. “Most people don’t want to hear it, because it’s terrifying. So, I think it’s the fact that you know you’re not alone and you’re not crazy to think this.”
Members of BirthStrike are not the only ones asking themselves whether parenthood in the era of climate change is morally defensible. In a recent Business Insider online poll of more than a thousand Americans between 18 and 29 years old, 38% of respondents said that climate change “should be a factor in a couple’s decision about whether to have children.” And in a 2018 New York Times/Morning Consult poll (paywall) of almost 2,000 men and women between 20 and 45, 33% of people who said they had or expected to have fewer children than they considered ideal said their decision was tied to worries about climate change.
This has prompted environmental scientists, ethicists, and philosophers to weigh in on the debate. “Given that life is already quite risky, unpredictable, and often utterly miserable, the environmental factor might be a tipping point for the question, ‘Is life a worthwhile risk?’” writes Rivka Weinberg, a philosophy professor at Scripps College and author of The Risk of a Lifetime, a book about deciding whether to parent.
Others argue the decision to have children shouldn’t be made based on environmental factors, because scientists don’t yet agree whether having fewer kids will have enough of an immediate impact on climate change. One recent study by Lund University in Sweden posited that having one less child is the most effective thing people can do to reduce carbon emissions. But Lyman Stone, an agricultural economist, writes in Vox that “no amount of population control achieves” the goal of reducing global emissions enough to reach less than 2°C increase in global temperatures. In fact, some argue people should be having more children, not fewer: As Tyler Cowen writes in Bloomberg, “those kids of yours are more likely to be part of the solution than the problem.”
In the face of this contradiction, Guardian environmental correspondent Matthew Taylor writes that some people believe “we should focus instead on overconsumption, and that putting the onus on individuals to address climate change obscures the systematic nature of the crisis,” letting “the real culprits—fossil fuel corporations and successive global governments’ inaction—off the hook.”
Others believe that, because we don’t know exactly what a 2°C warmer planet will look like, committing to not having children, especially when many countries’ birth rates are already below replacement level, is foolish. Weinberg echoes this concern:
“Predicting the future isn’t easy. In 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted that the human population would inevitably outstrip the food supply. It didn’t, mostly due to technological advances that Malthus could not foresee. Imagine if everyone had decided to stop having children back then, to avoid the ‘inevitable’ famine!”
BirthStrike members say they might yet change their minds, and are within their rights to do so. But it’s clear that their decision not to have kids right now because of climate change has had a profound impact on them regardless. As Johannssen says, “There are big losses to be reckoned with, as with everything in this mess that we’re in.”