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‘Environmental Childlessness?’

Mathilde Krähenbühl

2. Methodology

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2.1 Data Collection

1Considering my research object – ‘environmental childlessness’ – the empirical material I was interested in was individual narratives and experiences around questions ranging from parenthood to environmental consciousness. Therefore, semi-structured in-depth interviews were the most appropriate method. I also organised a collective discussion at the end of the interviewing process, at the end of March 2021. Indeed, some people expressed a desire to meet with people with whom they share concerns. Five of my interlocutors participated and exchanged their views in an informal setting. I wanted to observe whether their narratives would change from what they had previously shared with me because of the group setting. I also knew that they did not necessarily share the same views on specific issues, such as overpopulation.

2For two main reasons, I decided not to focus on a particular community or group of activists. First, no Swiss campaign specifically addresses and advocates for ‘environmental childlessness’ – similar to the GINKS or BirthStrike. Second, while ‘environmental childlessness’ might be niched in activist circles where ecology is a primary concern, and while these environments represent good entry points, I considered them limiting. Identifying people in a situation of ‘environmental childlessness’ outside of these networks would provide a more robust anchoring to the research. In other words, it would break with the supposed marginality of the topic. The decision not to focus on a particular group or community explains why I did not conduct participant observation. Indeed, ‘environmental childlessness’ was not identified in a particular space or group.

3I conducted 14 interviews between November 2020 and March 2021. I met my interlocutors in person, except for Marion, who lives in France. We met in parks or at Saint-Martin, a collective and self-managed space that I can access in Lausanne. All my interviewees agreed to being recorded, and the recordings lasted between 50 minutes and two hours. With a few participants, our exchanges expanded beyond the recordings. To be able to better analyse them, I transcribed the fourteen interviews. Some of my interlocutors asked to read the transcriptions and made minor modifications. Interestingly, a few women were glad to receive these transcriptions, telling me that it represents the possibility of archiving their thoughts and remembering their position at that specific moment. After transcription, I coded the interviews using Taguette, an open-access software for qualitative analysis. The purpose of the coding was mainly to organise my interlocutors’ narratives by themes.

4Our discussions always started with the same question, “How did the question of having children or not emerge?” Then, the order of my questions varied depending on my interlocutor’s response. Overall, the following questions were systematically covered: Have they ever wanted kids? What are the different reasons surrounding their childlessness? Since when have they been concerned by the environmental situation? How do they feel about it and what are the practices available to them to limit their feelings of responsibility or helplessness? What is the connection they make between reproduction and environmental change? Do they speak about it with family and friends? What kinds of reactions do they receive? When do they mobilise the environmental argument throughout these exchanges? And, finally, what are the perceived advantages and difficulties associated with this decision?

5Finding people who embrace ‘environmental childlessness’ had been preoccupying at the beginning of this research. I mobilised different strategies, but I mostly reached people by word of mouth. My first entry point was an ecofeminist gathering held in Lausanne in July 2020. I organised a discussion about ‘having children in an environmentally uncertain world’. Second, friends of mine referred me to people who felt concerned by these questions. From there, the snowball effect worked well, and most of my interlocutors introduced me to friends of theirs. In February 2021, a few people who had previously expressed interest decided not to participate and the process was blocked. I was also willing to expand my sample to larger circles. Therefore, I contacted two gynaecologists in Lausanne and asked them to spread the word about this research. Because of the public health situation, they were not allowed to distribute flyers, but they told me they would ask some of the patients they thought would be interested. However, that attempt failed and nobody contacted me. I also tried to reach BirthStrike, Swiss Climate Strike, and the Feminist Strike as these groups would be good entry points. While I got no official answers, I knew the word had spread in ecologist and feminist circles in Lausanne. For instance, Thomas spontaneously contacted me after hearing about the research from there.

2.2 Presentation of the Research Interlocutors

6The question that interests us now is: who is concerned by ‘environmental childlessness?’ Overall, my selection criteria were broad in order to encompass a variety of experiences. All I asked of the participants was that they identify the fact that they are unsure about becoming biological parents as stemming mainly from environmental reasons. In other words, my interlocutors needed not to have taken a firm decision, nor to have called parenthood into question only based on environmental motives. Nonetheless, two of my decisions require explanations. First, I decided to discuss with people of different genders because both childlessness and environmental issues are gendered experiences (see OFS, 2020 about the gendered perception of the environment). Moreover, there is a tremendous amount more research focused only on women than studies interested in all genders.

7Second, I decided not to restrict my sample to people in their thirties, even though it is generally argued that childless experiences become worth studying only after this age (Debest, 2014, 46). For instance, Schneider-Mayerson and Leong (2020, 4) selected 27 as the minimum age to ensure that participants were not just registering fleeting anxieties and were thinking concretely about having children. This view draws from the problematic assumption that, although it is widespread not to desire children before that age, it is subject to change as soon as women celebrate their thirtieth birthday. It is commonly known as the ‘biological clock’. On the contrary, Rosemary Gillespie (2003, 125) argues that it is important to hear the stories of both younger and older women. Not doing so would re-enact the attitudes of health professionals who refuse to sterilise young women because ‘they will change their minds’ (Ibid). I support that view as I believe that ‘fleeting anxieties’ are worth capturing. Indeed, it was illusionary to expect from my interviewees that they would indeed remain childless. Having children or not is a question that is highly speculative and, therefore, whether my interlocutors’ decision was fixed or materialised by means of sterilisation did not matter. I further argue that it was essential to be attentive to people in their twenties since they are significant vectors of environmental concerns. Again, as Schneider-Mayerson and Leong’s (2020, 8) research reveals: younger respondents were more concerned about the climate impact their potential children would experience than older respondents.

8Despite the open-ended criteria, my interlocutors were all white and middle-class or upper-middle-class people (except Adrien, who grew up in a low-income family), and eleven of my interlocutors had benefited from tertiary education. As I explained above, my attempts to expand my sample beyond the social circles I could access initially were unsuccessful. Consequently, my group of ‘environmentally childless people’ was homogeneous in terms of class and race. While I expected women’s greater propensity to participate in this research, I ended up interviewing six cis men, seven cis women, and one trans non-binary person. Six were in a long-term heterosexual relationship, cohabitant or not. One person was polyamorous, and the others were not in a relationship at the time. Some of them used the word ‘single’, others merely said they were not in a relationship. I make this distinction because my interlocutors did not necessarily embrace the words ‘couple’ or ‘single’. One can be in a relationship without subscribing to the heteronormative way of being a couple. So far, except regarding financial security, my interlocutors correspond to the larger picture of childfree people, characterised by less traditional and conventional gender roles, lower levels of religious observance, urban residency, greater financial stability and professional employment, and higher levels of education (see Basten, 2009).

  • 1 See Annexes for a complete table presenting the participants.

9Most of my interlocutors were politically engaged, notwithstanding that they were so to different degrees and that the public health situation had a general numbing effect on their activities. Nine of them were active members of an association, a collective, or a political party. Two of them seemed uncomfortable to identify themselves as ‘activists’ and said they “gravitated around militant circles”, and two others said they were not active at all. Their different political engagements exemplify that ‘environmental childlessness’ resonates across a broad spectrum of affinities and is not limited to radical groups. Finally, my interlocutors maintained with different levels of certainty their conviction not to have children, and these evaluations remain highly dependent on my personal interpretation since I have not asked them to fill in any kind of survey that would intend to quantify these levels. Five of them were sure (underwent or considered sterilisation, were older than the rest of the group or simply expressed strong commitment to voluntary childlessness). Four seemed confident, but less sure than the first five - they typically stated “I don't know what would make me change my mind”. The last five experienced profound hesitation and were open to the ‘possibilities of life’.1

102.3 Positionality and Reflexivity

11As I hinted in the introduction, I feel close to the topic. I am personally affected by environmental presents and futures. I also consider myself a feminist, and I have been involved in the feminist strike and other collectives since the beginning of my Master’s. I have never felt particularly moved by the idea of becoming a mother, but it remains a possibility, if the time should come. However, both environmental uncertainty and gender inequality transformed a non-question into a question. Therefore, my subjectivities shaped my willingness to study ‘environmental childlessness’ and how I approached it.

12Beyond the way I engage with these questions, it is also essential to reflect on my position throughout the data collection process. As data emerge from an interactive process, the way people expressed themselves during the interviews cannot be detached from their perception of my position. During these discussions, I have been transparent, when necessary or meaningful, about my own interrogations and political engagements. Furthermore, I conducted most of the interviews in Saint-Martin, an alternative space known for its political and social activities. Without necessarily making my position explicit, my interlocutors had thus gained information about me. That space and the fact that most people had been introduced through friends probably eased the exchanges. For all these reasons, the “researcher-informant asymmetry” at play in the interviews had been minimised.

13On the other hand, my interlocutors’ perception of my pro-environmental and feminist position has probably impacted the image they wanted to project. Others often judge our reaction to environmental destruction and ecological practices and we, therefore, try to perform a positive image when discussing them. It is also a way to feel less guilty. The same is true in all social struggles, and I am tempted to call this phenomenon the ‘syndrome of the good activist’. Within militant circles, there are norms about what can be said, what cannot, and the package of the ‘aware and deconstructed’ individual. Schneider-Mayerson and Leong (2020, 4) call it “social desirability”, particularly at stake in emotionally and politically sensitive subjects. While they consider it a bias that they could only minimise using an open-ended survey, I believe that it is more productive to embrace it as it reveals significant ethical processes. Indeed, “social desirability” is close to the trade-off examined by Edward F. Fischer (2014) between stated preferences and revealed preferences, namely, the difference between what people say and what they do. Although deeds are often taken to be more authentic, less performative, Fischer (Ibid, 44) argues that “we should also take seriously what people say they want”. Words reveal valid desires and long-term prosocial values. Therefore, I interpret the ‘syndrome of the good activist’ as an illustration of my interlocutors’ values, and these should be attentively considered.


1 See Annexes for a complete table presenting the participants.


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