Amid climate crisis, should we be having fewer children?

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A hand with black nail polish supports a baby's feet. Image: Alex Pasarelu/Unsplash

In September 2020, Statistics Canada reported that Canada's birth rate had reached the lowest level ever recorded in 2019.

The birth rate (that is, the number of children born in a given year, per person who can become pregnant) that year fell well below what's known as "replacement value" -- i.e., the number of births required to maintain the population. Statistics Canada researchers also noted surveys conducted in other countries which found that the COVID-19 pandemic made a significant number of women who had been considering having children to reconsider: 38 per cent in the U.S., and 79 per cent in Spain. This furthers a trend of declining birth rates across the G20, an intergovernmental forum of 19 nations and the EU which hosts most of the world's largest economies.

When sufficiently contorted from reality, declining birth rates in wealthy, white-majority countries have long been a favoured phantasm of white nationalists. The issue does, however, present something legitimate to consider. Recent research into individuals' thoughts regarding whether or not to procreate revealed that anxieties about climate change and the future of global organized human society were frequently given as reasons not to have children, with respondents expressing concern regarding overconsumption, overpopulation, and the impacts of climate change.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in early August underscores the point, demonstrating the grave reality of the accelerating climate crisis. However, investigating the concerns expressed by the participants shows that they are not the threats they first appear to be; at least, not in the same way.

When overpopulation is raised as a global threat, those arguing the position typically point to Africa as the primary case. This recalls a long history of white-supremacist narratives accusing Africans and other racialized people of "breeding like animals," and tracking through both the forced reproduction of enslaved Africans throughout the Americas and the centuries of genocide Europeans carried out against Indigenous populations. Considered in full, the argument obscures that the majority of frivolous consumption and emissions occurs in Canada, the U.S., and Western Europe, or is produced by industry headquartered on those regions. It also omits the profiteering interests and firms which have, one could argue, befouled the entire world with the runoff of their avarice.

As noted by writer and columnist Andray Domise, these issues are "for the most part a racialized canard, foisted by people and nations most responsible for our impending disaster on those who are not only least to blame but also the most vulnerable."      

This "racialized canard" can be contrasted with the perspective of Aaron Bastani's Fully Automated Luxury Communism, in which Bastani presents an assemblage of threats he describes as "the great disorder"; (1) the terminal breakdown of the global economic model, beginning with the 2008 economic crisis; (2) climate system breakdown, including climate warming, and resource scarcity, including decreased crop yields and reduced access to clean water; (3) demographic aging, and the attendant health care costs and shifting labour demand and supply; and (4) automation and the potential for its advances to engender under- and un     employment across the world, as regions to which profiteers would have outsourced production for cheap labour to satisfy the desires of growing populations of people with expendable income -- in China, for example -- may be replaced in supply chains by automated factories.

However, the question itself raises a more fundamental issue. For most insects and animals, procreation is a biological imperative, not a prospect that's engaged critically. That statement is not intended as anthrosupremacy; I make no value judgements about the size and structure of respective species' brains. As well, I cannot myself say whether or not large mammals and other animals which exhibit both clear social structures and patterned social dynamics with variation -- after all, the drones of an ant colony obeying the queen does not itself suggest vigorous internal lives on their part -- consider or struggle with questions of whether or not to have children, what either choice may mean, what the choice's impact has on the meaning of one's life. Nonetheless, it is a question that each of us are granted the capacity to consider.

That capacity, however, is not always realized. Across the world, in countless circumstances, people are robbed of the inherent right to make independent, happiness-seeking choices about procreation, free from pressures motivating the decision in either direction. One may feel, as those in the research mentioned above, that having children may contribute to the multitudinous calamities we face, or may unfairly subject those children to those calamities. In other circumstances, people -- especially women and other people who can become pregnant -- will feel or be obligated to have children, at times due to explicit or implicit coercion. A person may also anticipate having to rely upon their children as they age, whether through the broad lack of a social safety net, a more-individual social isolation, or both.

Further, in places or circumstances where it is customary or deemed necessary for children to labour alongside their parents -- in some cases on or in family-owned property -- people may again be pressured to have children, regardless of their feelings. Conversely, people may feel that whatever conditions they're in or experiences they're regularly subjected to are too arduous or traumatizing to bring a child into. As well, a person may have been so harmed and traumatized by past experiences that they feel they are incapable, unsuitable, or even unworthy of having or raising children.

And then, regardless of what one chooses, a person may become pregnant and lack access to sufficient sexual health care resources to practice bodily autonomy, and consequently have that choice taken from them. Or, they may lack access to the information which would enable them to practice safe sex and care for their sexual health, despite that we as a species possess that knowledge.

Even more, the ideological weight and cultural hegemony of the nuclear family is such that it has become the primary if not exclusive way we can conceive of having relationships with children, generational connectivity and continuity, and communal living. Thus, desires for such experiences and inevitably pressured toward procreation.

To be clear, I make absolutely no value judgements about having children, one way or the other. Indeed, I believe rejecting such value judgements is essential to human liberation. My point is to argue that, by virtue of our existence, each of us has the fundamental right to make independent, happiness-seeking decisions about procreation.

For the sake of clarity, "happiness-seeking" does not entail that a decision motivated by such profane forms of self-interest as greed, vanity, and the like. Happiness is a preference that surely ranks highly, but that does not necessitate one be willing to discard any other value for the sake of their own pleasure. As well, recent retrospective and experimental research suggests that seeking to promote happiness in others "leads to greater subjective well-being than trying to make oneself happy."

(It could, of course, be argued that seeking to promote happiness in others while bearing the knowledge that this is more likely to make oneself happy renders the initial helping of other people to be a primarily self-interested and potentially selfish act, but I'd humbly suggest that, by that point, the argument has become recreational.)

In Women's Oppression Today: the Marxist/Feminist Encounter, published in 1980, Michèle Barrett examines Marxist and feminist approaches to contemporary social and economic conditions, seeking to both explore and resolve tensions which arose from incorporating analysis of gendered power dynamics socially constructed roles into Marxist critique, and incorporating analysis of material relationships to modes of production and reproduction as a socially structuring force into feminist critique. (Reflecting on the work years later, and following critiques from Black feminists, Barrett wrote in 2014 that the book "was substantively deficient in terms of its lack of consideration of race and ethnicity.")

Barrett cites "the family" (emphasis hers) as the institution supporting much of women's oppression, both historically and contemporarily.

Barrett argues that it's errant to view the individualized, nuclear family and its inherent inequities as merely an effect of capitalist industrial production just as it is errant to view the nuclear family as a naturally occurring "reproductive unit." Critically -- and to paraphrase somewhat -- Barrett rejects that differential material circumstances relating to or implicating procreation cannot be used to justify inequity or inequality. Applying that principle to the issues raised in this piece makes clear that, in each circumstance, people have been robbed of the right to think and choose freely about having a child.

Barrett presents the contrasting views mentioned above as in opposition to one another. Despite this, when public agencies make statements such as "Canada's total fertility rate has been below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman since 1971," we seem to be making both mistakes.

Chuka Ejeckam is a political researcher and writer, and works in the labour movement in British Columbia. He focuses on political and economic inequity and inequality, both within Canada and as produced by Canadian policy.

Image credit: Alex Pasarelu/Unsplash

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