Version classiqueVersion mobile

‘Environmental Childlessness?’

Mathilde Krähenbühl

4. Reconsidering Parenthood for Environmental Reasons

Texte intégral

1Having exposed the complex assemblage of reasons that have shaped my interlocutors’ pathways towards childlessness so far, an inevitable question arises: how to isolate the environmental dimension in their narratives. First and foremost, it is essential to distinguish between two groups within my interlocutors. On the one hand, some explained that they called parenthood into question when they became aware of the critical environmental situation. On the other hand, there are those for whom this situation is an element that confirms or strengthens a pre-existing desire not to parent.

2Marie, who had become a reference in my exploration of ‘environmental childlessness’, belongs to the first group, alongside Antoine and Noé. She started the interview by saying: “the larger ecological question emerged first and maybe led to me questioning myself as to whether or not I wanted children earlier than [...] if I hadn't asked myself about contemporary climate [debates].” In this regard, Marie is one of those who most explicitly linked her questioning of parenthood to environmental degradation and climate change. She told me that she feels deeply affected by the current environmental degradation and cried during the interview. She recounted how she feels torn between desire and rationale: “I feel like my own conflict is going to be there […] actually what are you doing with this visceral need [to have children] if it’s all of a sudden getting bigger?” Later, she added: “It’s really going to be head against heart.”

  • 1 Alongside Marie and Antoine, Marion and Odile also used to imagine a future for themselves with chi (...)

3Her experience highly resembles that of Antoine. When we met, he told me that having children had been the number one goal in his life until two years ago. When he became aware of the environmental situation, a period during which he could hardly sleep at night, his life suddenly felt highly uncertain: “I went from ‘I couldn’t be more certain […] that I want kids’ to ‘I don’t think I really want kids.’” What distinguishes Marie’s and Antoine’s characters and particularity is that they were some of the few who wanted to have children.1 As discussed earlier, the others were more ambivalent about their desire to have children.

  • 2 I discuss the views of the interlocutors on the consequences of procreation in chapter 4 and 5.

4Compared to Marie and Antoine, it was more difficult to grasp whether the environmental situation redefined Noé’s reproductive intentions. On the one hand he expressed that he imagined himself with children because ‘that is the way it should be.’ On the other hand, he said several times that he understood that some people desire children. Overall, Noé would have enjoyed starting a family, but he could not do so after becoming aware of the consequences of such a decision.2 For that reason, he stands next to Marie and Antoine, and I consider that the environmental situation seriously challenged each of their previous conceptions of procreation, the family, and the lives they would have.

5While Marie, Antoine and Noé somehow felt prevented from pursuing a desire (or at least one life plan among others), different interlocutors expressed that the environmental motive adds another layer to a pre-existing hesitation about parenthood. “I think that ecology has come to add a layer,” explained Marion. Interestingly, several of my interlocutors presented the environmental dimension as a tool to ground sensations in more tangible things. Thomas reflected: “[Ecology] comes indeed, I think, to confirm and, at least, to give a more concrete form to something which was vague, which I had difficulty expressing.” Emile offered a more detailed account during the collective discussion:

  • 3 I return to the need to find a justification in chapter 6.

“Developing environmental thinking and adding a… in fact for me it was really ‘adding a theoretical edge to a decision’ […] it was a way like any other – because I have several arguments that justify for me and for others this decision […] It was something that allowed me to justify and to have … not just a visceral thing, but to have a little more global vision of that… and also to cement [my decision].”3

6Having distinguished these two main groups, it is evident that environmental degradation does not play the same role in my interlocutors’ pathways towards environmental childlessness. It even calls into question the possibility of using the term ‘environmental childlessness’ to describe the second group. Nonetheless, even for those who always felt that children would not necessarily be for them, environmental concerns were in the background of their narratives and experiences. The general statement is that the current context is inappropriate and even less attractive. Among several others, Gaspard expressed: “I don’t particularly want to have children, but even less under these conditions!” But how had they become concerned by the environmental situation to a level that reshapes their life desires and aspirations? What types of environmental concerns appear in their reproductive interrogations? I will address these questions in the coming sections.

4.1 From the Protection of Landscapes to Apocalypse

7‘New environmentalism’ – marked as ‘new’ to differentiate it from earlier nature protection movements that go back to the end of the nineteenth century (Cotgrove 1982) – emerged in the 1960s. Alongside other ‘new social movements’, it was profoundly anti-industrial, rejected the work ethic, condemned consumerism and material values, and questioned the unshakeable rationality of western societies (Ibid, 12). During that period, several key reports were published – among others, The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972) set the tone, marking the reinforcement of an ongoing call to economic degrowth to avoid systemic crises. Back then, the rise of environmentalism appeared as a historical shift in the ethos of industrial societies. This trajectory similarly holds for Switzerland. While the pioneers of the movement advocated for the protection of landscapes, the conservation of natural monuments, and the creation of national reserves, the protest culture of May ‘68 gave a different tone to the movement (Giugni and Passy, 1997). Following the development of political ecology, the environment was no longer perceived as a mere object to be defended but became the subject of a greater will of social transformation (Ibid, 114). Less influential that in the well-known example of Germany, the Swiss ecological movement nonetheless reshaped the political landscape and established, in the long run, a struggle that has gained momentum since 2018, alongside youth-led movements across Europe. Nowadays, Switzerland is characterised by a significantly high level of environmental concerns: 40% of the population considers that the environmental situation is the most concerning current problem (MIS Trend, 2019).

8At the societal level, different theories explain why environmental values erupted in the second half of the twentieth century. The “reflection hypothesis” was first put forward to explain the rise in environmental consciousness and interprets it as a direct reaction to the worsening situation (Hannigan 1995). This perspective has been rapidly challenged because, despite the accelerated deterioration of the environment since the beginning of the century, the public has ignored it for most of this period (Ibid). Rather than a direct reaction to environmental change, the political scientist Ronald Inglehart (1977; 1990) argued that environmental values emerged in relation to increased financial security in the post-Second World War generations. Unprecedented levels of economic development have led to gradual cultural changes, encapsulated in what he calls a shift from materialist to post-materialist values. From giving top priority to physical sustenance and safety, a significant segment of the privileged population in Western countries progressively emphasised belonging, self-expression, and quality of life (Inglehart 1981, 880).

9Nonetheless, the link between post-materialist values and the ecological movement was not central to Inglehart’s hypothesis. Stephen Cotgrove (1982) is the scholar who more explicitly argued that environmentalists were those who were most likely to adopt these new values compared to other target groups he studied – e.g. industrialists (Hannigan 1995, 25). Examining the polarisation of views between those who believe us to be rushing headlong into catastrophe and others who look forward with confidence to a cornucopian future, he went beyond Inglehart’s needs/satisfaction explanation of post-materialist values. Cotgrove argued that the ideological significance of rejecting the hegemony of economic values could not be reduced to the idea that “one places the greatest subjective value on those things that are in relatively short supply” (Inglehart 1981, 881).

10Simply put, the rejection of materialist values is part of a more general utopia that aspires to a different social ideal where harmony with nature, justice, and the search for deeper human meaning and significance are guaranteed (Cotgrove 1982, 52, 100). Indeed, he observed that various social and political beliefs were more significantly correlated to environmental concerns than demographic variables. Hence, his work belongs to the larger efforts deployed to refute the idea that environmental concerns are restricted to wealthy social classes (e.g. Mohai 1985; Morrison and Dunlap 1986; Brechin and Kempton 1994). At the same time, this observation does not prevent us from noting that the environmental movement contains a class dimension. Jasmine Lorenzini, a political science researcher at the University of Geneva, observed that the movement created an alliance between generations but not between social classes (Schläfli, 2020). My sample – predominantly composed of white, privileged individuals – also underscores that ‘environmental childlessness’ is a highly situated phenomenon, organised alongside social class and racial divides.

11Although the post-materialist argument leads to the classist view according to which people in ‘developing’ countries lack environmental values (Brechin and Kempton 1994; Dunlap and York, 2009), it interestingly recalls the post-modern individual described by scholars who explored voluntary childlessness. Post-modern individuals embody post-materialist values because they care for higher quality of life and aspire to greater fulfilment. However, Cotgrove implemented post-materialist values in a broader utopia that goes far beyond the search for personal fulfilment and self-actualisation. Certainly, such ecological and political aspirations better explain my interlocutors’ relationship to post-materialist values than the quest for personal pleasure. Indeed, my interlocutors’ awareness of environmental problems is inseparable from anti-capitalist and feminist claims. With the exception of those who were less politicised – i.e. Alix mentioned minimalist ways of living as something that she simply found pleasant – my interlocutors’ aspirations to non-materialist values were informed by collective goals. For instance, Marion explained that ‘European comfort’ is not necessarily what makes her the happiest:

“Yes, it’s cool to have heating, and of course I’m not going to question that, and to have a computer and to talk to you through the screen, it’s really nice… and at the same time… yeah… to understand the cost that this comfort has on others, in fact it makes me a little bit sick! It’s… to me, limiting my footprint… it is a way to allow the others to live well”.

12 Rejecting material values, reducing consumption, and limiting their ecological footprint characterise my interlocutors’ embodiment of environmental values. Some explained their commitment to these values by emphasising early socialisation to ecology and childhood memories of ‘loving nature’. Others, who grew up in families where ecology was not predominant, emphasised the role of media, scientific information, social mobilisations that have shaken up Switzerland since 2018, and discussions with partners and friends.

13Finally, to describe the context in which my interlocutors developed environmental concerns, it is essential to underline the greater sense of urgency that characterises the environmental movement nowadays, compared to fifty years ago. Indeed, scientific publications predicting catastrophic developments and collapse multiply and become more and more substantiated (Servigne and Stevens, 2015, 16). As noted by the essayist David Wallace-Wells (2017), “the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months […] have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.” For a long time, nuclear imaginaries and climate competed to mirror ideas of planetary crisis and continue to impede the recognition of ‘collapse’ as a plausible and progressive chain of crises that will continue to increase human societies’ vulnerabilities and inequalities. According to Joseph Masco (2010; 2015), it is precisely this confusion between the slow disasters of the Anthropocene and nuclear apocalypse that has prevented political mobilisation against the former in the United States.

14From the protection of natural landscapes and resources to fighting against environmental injustices, ‘collapse’ has now entered public and academic discussions on global environmental changes. The reliance of ecologists on scientific knowledge to legitimise the plausibility of collapse, and the recognition that apocalyptic imaginaries are not restricted to environmental discourses – nor should we date them back to the recent emergence of ‘collapsology’ – are important dimensions that we should problematise. However, regarding the scope and purpose of this research, it is sufficient to underline that the boundary between ‘scientific’ and ‘cataclysmic’ views has become much thinner. Taking into account the diversity and heterogeneity that characterise ‘the environmental movement’, the metaphor that ‘we’re going straight into the wall’ is now widely shared. Therefore, being an ‘ecologist’ nowadays means, to some extent, being in contact with information and discourses that forecast large-scale crises.

15Several of my interlocutors explicitly referred to collapse theories developed by Pablo Servigne and other ‘collapsologists’. A conference, reading, or documentary are the kinds of transformative moments they mentioned. However, accessing collapsologist discourses was not their only entry point. Antoine recounted the critical role of his internship at International Environment House (IEH), which gathers a range of United Nations and non-governmental organisations active in the field of environment and sustainable development in Geneva. Over some months, he had been in contact with scientific reports that forecast worsening environmental and climatic conditions. That these scientists produce alarming reports even under certain economic biases was the most revealing for Antoine. Given the biases, it is more likely that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports present their best-case scenario. Having broadly contextualised the emergence of environmental values, emphasised that my interlocutors embrace social transformation more than mere protection of biodiversity, and exposed that they are familiar with the notion of ‘collapse’, I now turn more specifically to the entanglement between reproduction and environmental issues.

4.2 Against Malthus

  • 4 The original title in French is: “Quand les femmes ne font pas d’enfant pour l’écologie.”
  • 5 See the following articles that offer similar views: Coulaud, 2018; Nicolet, 2015; Pluyaud, 2015; S (...)

16“When women don’t have children for ecology”,4 read the title of an article in the Swiss Newspaper Le Temps (Rambal, 2016). Trying to warm up the crowds, the journalist continues: these “écolos-féministes” are turning their backs on motherhood to lighten their carbon footprint in the name of global warming and rampant overpopulation. In French, the term “écolo” is often used in negative ways, and the tone of the article was overall mocking and disapproving of people who renounce parenthood for environmental reasons. Here, the problem is that the article portrays only one aspect of the environmental motive: having children increases one’s environmental footprint and consumption of natural resources in a world already overpopulated.5 According to a study published in Environmental Research Letters, having one fewer child is one of the four recommended individual actions that have the highest potential to contribute to reducing CO2 emissions (Wynes and Nicholas, 2017). A baby would consume 58 tons of CO2 per year, while the combination of a vegetarian diet (an average of 0.8 tons per year), stopping air travel (1.6 tons), and using a car (2.4 tons) would save a total of 4.8 tons per year. Simply put, refusing parenthood becomes an ecological behaviour, similar to buying organic food. This translation of babies into tons of CO2 echoes neo-Malthusian views, and a growing body of literature focuses on the effects of changes in population numbers on global CO2 emissions (see O’Neill et al., 2010; 2012). The point is simple: “[S]lowing population growth could provide 16-29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change” (O’Neill et al., 2010, 17521).

17According to Schneider-Mayerson and Leong (2020), although the application of the individualised “carbon footprint” to reproductive choice is a form of a decades-old Malthusian concern about overpopulation, it also marks the emergence of a new concept. The notion of “carbon footprint” has become popular during the past ten years (see Turner, 2014; Whitington, 2016), and was first applied to reproductive practices by Paul A. Murtaugh and Michael G. Schlax under the concept of “carbon legacy” (2009). Through the notion of “legacy”, attention is turned not only to the immediate effects caused by each offspring over their lifetime, but to the future reproductive decisions of children (Ibid). Therefore, reproductive decisions have long-term impacts that affect both consumption practices and future population numbers.

18This perspective is that of a few GINKS (Green Inclination, No Kids) that the media constantly refer to. The movement originated in the United States in 2011 under the impulse of Lisa Hymas, a journalist who is also part of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT). She explicitly reactivates discourses that were held by environmental activists who advocated for population degrowth as she quotes Stephanie Mills’ famous “the most humane thing to do is to have no children” (Hymas, 2010). In her view, environmental and reproductive issues are intrinsically connected since the latter necessarily harms the former. That she understands antinatalism as a solution to environmental degradation is what conveys her neo-Malthusian inspiration.

19Before continuing, I would like to briefly develop the reasons why neo-Malthusian views generate polarised reactions. Indeed, discomfort is sometimes palpable when one evokes exponentially increasing human numbers as having a negative impact on the planet. Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population was first published in 1798, marking the birth of the concept of natural limits to the earth’s capacity (Ojeda, Sasser, and Lunstrum, 2020). His arguments consisted of a complex brew of ideas about technology, poverty and poor people, trade and international borders, birth control, and the environment (Robertson, 2012, 4). For our purpose, it is probably sufficient to highlight that basic needs underwrote his thinking: “First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly that the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state” (Malthus in Bashford, 2014, 31). However, the power of the earth to produce food is lower than the power of humans to reproduce. Therefore, the balance between the two must be kept equal by various natural and human interventions, otherwise humanity would be on its way out (Ibid).

20More than a century and a half later, environmental scholars and activists updated Malthus’ ideas. According to historian Thomas Robertson (2012), an unusual alignment of historical forces made Malthusianism very attractive from the 1940s to the early 1970s. While physical factors and changes in the global ecosystem played a significant role (never before had the number of humans on the planet been as high or grown as fast as during the second half of the twentieth century), “dramatic international events directed a powerful spotlight on these material changes” (Ibid, 222). The ghost of Malthus was fully revived in the late 1960s when economic growth, suburbanisation, the civil rights movement, the food crisis in India, and the Vietnam War came to a boil. Abroad, population growth was linked more to social instability and vulnerability to communism than environmental degradation (Coole, 2013). In the United States and, to a greater extent overseas, neo-Malthusian ideas lead governments and physicians to commit unethical abuses such as forced sterilisation campaigns (Robertson, 2012, 9–10). In this regard, the ‘population question’ is an excellent example of “stratified reproduction”, a term first coined by Shellee Colen (e.g. 1990) to describe “the power relations by which some categories of people are empowered to nurture and reproduce, while others are disempowered” (Ginsburg and Rapp 1995, 3).

21Since the 1980s, feminist scholars, alongside organisations such as the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment (CWPE), denounced the limits and dangers of the ‘population argument’ (see Hartmann 1987; Bandarage 1997; Silliman and King 1999). Following the criticism of neo-Malthusianism that emerged in the field of political ecology, their central argument is that emphasising ‘population’ misdiagnoses the causes of climate change by blaming marginalised populations in the so-called ‘Global South’. Simply put, they do not believe that environmental degradation is linked to human numbers and denounce demographic alarmism as it generates coercive birth control policies. More recently, Ojeda and her colleagues (2020) argued that the ‘Anthropocene’ dangerously updates notions of the ‘limits to growth’, reinstating the centrality of population growth. Agreeing with earlier oppositions to ‘population’, they call us to reactivate anti-Malthusian arguments in a context where we are increasingly thinking of the ‘human’ as a geological force. Undoubtedly, the ‘population question’ has never disappeared, and essential drivers of neo-Malthusian discourses are international organisations such as the United Nations Population Fund or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (e.g. UNFPA, 2012; IPCC, 2014). Indeed, Bathia et al. (2020) argued that population control is not history. Instead, since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo prompted a discursive shift from population control to reproductive health, “powerful forces have erased the language ‘control’ within population discourses” (Ibid, 334).

  • 6 The original title in French is: “Ces jeunes qui refusent d’avoir des enfants, entre acte écologiqu (...)

22Having exposed the dangers of reviving neo-Malthusian frameworks, I would like to underline the over-simplification and homogenisation of people who are calling parenthood into question for environmental reasons. Many of the people interviewed by the media probably do not self-identify as “GINKS”, nor is it likely that they believe that everyone should stop having children and be sterilised. Indeed, a few articles offer a more nuanced account and highlight the fears that underlie the decision of whether or not to have children. In a different tone, the following title proclaims: “These young people who refuse to have children, between ecological action and anxiety about the future” (Iribarnegaray, 2020).6 Here, not having children is portrayed as a response to environmental crises not only because procreation has consequences on the environment but because future children will live in dire climate circumstances. Jessica Wei, a freelance writer based in Toronto, wrote an article for the Guardian series on childfree people. She confided:

“As I sit here, confined to my living room during a devastating pandemic and under the looming threat of a rapidly heating planet, I feel as if my own future is slowly disappearing from this world. How would any child of mine fare?” (Wei, 2020).

  • 7 See:

23Next to overpopulation, it appears that deep anxieties about uncertain futures affect the decision to have children. A few recent initiatives raise awareness of the impacts of environmental degradation on procreation rather than the impacts of procreation on the environment. The BirthStrike campaign in the United Kingdom and the Conceivable Future Project7 manifest the increasing awareness that climate changes endanger reproductive justice. Worried that the planet would not support their children, members of these communities explain that they cannot ignore the environmental situation and call for political action from governments. Birthstrikers, who belong to the larger category of ‘childless people’, mainly express that they cannot bring themselves to have children (although they might wish to) as they cannot predict to what degree they will be forced to live in a ‘survival mode’. Both these movements mobilise the symbolic power of reproduction to denounce political apathy towards fighting climate change; calling parenthood into question becomes a political tool. Finally, as stated by the launcher of BirthStrike, Blythe Pepino, the campaign should not be confused with ‘overpopulation’ discourses (Extinction Rebellion UK, 2020). Openly anti-Malthusian, it is clear to her that population is not the problem, as opposed to capitalism and overconsumption.

24These examples primarily recall the results of the first empirical research focused on people who factor climate change into their reproductive choices (Schneider-Mayerson and Leong, 2020). The authors report that “concern about the carbon footprint of procreation was dwarfed by respondents’ concern for the well-being of their existing, expected, or hypothetical children in a climate-changed future” (Ibid, 7). 59.8% of participants reported being “very” or “extremely” concerned about the carbon footprint of procreation. Meanwhile, 96.5% of respondents were “very” or “extremely” concerned about the well-being of existing, expected, or hypothetical children in a climate-changed world. As I will discuss in the coming section, my discussions with people who call parenthood into question for environmental reasons sustain that people are highly concerned by the environmental conditions that their potential children would experience.

4.3 Overpopulation, Uncertainty, and Anti-capitalism

25Vis-à-vis the above discussion and my interlocutors’ experiences it is useful to distinguish three types of environmental concerns that (re)shape reproductive decisions. Firstly, people are concerned about the direct environmental impacts of children – i.e., offspring consume and reproduce in a limited world. I broadly refer to that idea through the notion of ‘overpopulation.’ Secondly, people express concerns about the future. I use the term ‘environmental uncertainty’ when my interlocutors express thoughts about a potentially uninhabitable world. The last concern somehow breaks up the ‘overpopulation-uncertainty’ continuum depicted in the last section. People are concerned about the indirect environmental impacts of children – i.e. the necessity to buy a car. Indeed, several of my interlocutors mentioned that starting a family indirectly pushes people to adopt a lifestyle that greatly rests on the consumption of industrial products. These types of concern appear to belong to a broader desire to participate as little as possible in consumer society. Although ‘anti-consumerism’ does not translate into ‘anti-capitalism’, my interlocutors mentioned that they considered capitalism to be the origin of a vast majority of environmental and social problems. Therefore, I use ‘anti-capitalism’ when describing this third stance.

26As I explained earlier, environmental dimension, understood as any of these three types of concern, does not play the same role in all my interlocutors’ pathways towards childlessness. Without considering the complex assemblage discussed in chapter 3, I will now focus on what types of environmental argument my interlocutors mobilised and in what order. I consider that the order is relevant because it gives a sense of priority to some motives. Moreover, I sometimes prompted their narratives by asking “are there other environmental reasons behind your interrogations?” or “how do you theoretically make the connection between reproduction and environmental problems?”

27Alix is the type of person with whom it was a little harder to create a fluid discussion. She was highly committed to childlessness and sure of her decision. She explained that we are too populous on Earth and that having children while maintaining a ‘green’ lifestyle has a cost. When I explained that I tend to prioritise uncertainty rather than overpopulation, she recalled that future circumstances initially played a role:

“At this time I said to myself ‘yeah, no, I can’t impose that on a child’…well, I am finding it very... well, I am finding it very hard... I don’t like the situation we’re in at all, so how can I force a child [...] and it’s true that, at that time, I said to myself, ‘just for that reason, I don’t want to do it.’”

28However, because she is now sure that she does not want children, the future well-being of her child plays a minor role. Her key arguments are overpopulation and overconsumption. Similarly to Alix, Noé significantly insisted on the importance of overpopulation. In his view, the nodal problem of our ecological troubles is human numbers: 

“[T]here was a moment when the question of ‘why are we in this situation’ came up, and in fact there was one thing that was obvious: the number of people on Earth. Afterwards, there are stories of consumption and distribution of wealth, but generally speaking, it's ‘the more people there are, the more these people are going to consume’ [...] especially with the... with the evolution of the standard of living that is spreading everywhere”. 

29Later during the interview, he referred to hardly inhabitable futures. Before going to a lecture given by Pablo Servigne, Noé thought that things would eventually work out. He described the role of this conference:

“It put me in doubt in fact, even if it is not a certainty, it is a bit of a rigorous process that shows that... ‘at the moment we are at this point, if it goes on like this there is a strong chance that we will reach this point’ and I just said to myself... given the little time left, if I have a child, by the time it gets to that point, [the child] will be small... and... it's going to be complicated.” 

30In the end, he completed his initial reflection about limited natural resources with a broader reflection on the ethics of life, exacerbated by a potentially dire future. Marion’s trajectory is very close to that of Noé. Marion first came up with the overpopulation argument and, more recently, she became interested in collapsology. However, both seem to play a more equivalent role in her reproductive interrogations than was the case for Noé. Indeed, her perspective was less inspired by anti-natalism and overpopulation:

“I think that Mexico made me realise how much we, Europeans, Westerners, have the biggest ecological footprint and therefore we should think more about our way of life and especially about giving life and continuing to do so... and so it only reinforced this idea that I saw myself less and less with children and then I think that the... the summum was when I started to be interested, I would say two years ago, in the theories of collapse, of collapses... where I said to myself ‘wow what a shitty world! and... the future is going to be very dark’... well, we could make it less dark, but it's not very happy.” 

31Val, on her side, directly mentioned both overpopulation and uncertainty. While her reflection resembles Noé and Marion’s, I could not grasp any sense of priority in her discourse.

32Closely to the views revealed above, Gaspard and Thaïs took both uncertainty and overpopulation into account. Nonetheless, they started with uncertainty before emphasising the environmental impacts of procreation without being prompted. Gaspard explained: “I have absolutely no certainty that I will be able to live serenely as part of this capitalist society [...] [and] for someone who is born now, it will be even worse”. Here, Gaspard compared his own feelings with someone born in the coming years and argued that they will necessarily feel worse because there are no signs of improvement. He complemented his concerns about the future of his potential children by explaining that it was not desirable from a global perspective to continue bringing additional people onto Earth. However, he did not use the term ‘overpopulation’ and quickly moved on. Similarly, Thaïs depicted uncertainty by expressing that, given scientific predictions, she was not sure she could provide water, food, and security to her children. Later, she sadly noted that the connection between demography and the environmental crisis was surprisingly absent during her studies in sustainability. Following this observation, she explained:

“well, I'm also weighing up the issue... like what do I really have to gain from this? uh, to put [my child] in danger anyway, and to put all the other people who already exist on Earth in danger even more? Because... I'm going to say something really not politically correct but it's true... one more child on Earth is a potential polluter.”

33Differently, Odile, Adrien, and Thomas mentioned the environmental impacts of procreation only when I asked them how they theoretically understand the link between reproduction and environmental changes. If I had not specifically asked that question, I would probably still believe that uncertainty is what underscores their decision. Like Thaïs, Adrien and Thomas mentioned that children are polluters when prompted about other links they see between reproduction and environmental degradation. Differently, Odile referred to ‘overpopulation’ in sensorial terms. She went through what she calls her “climatic depression” and, since then, her life in Switzerland constantly reminds her that we are not going in the right direction. Simply put, having children does not feel right. Only when I prompted her, she recounted:

“I just don't want to add a kid in there, I think it's still related to that, demographic stuff actually. We all like to have a little space, a little room, etc. and to tell myself that we'll have to start cramming in [...] but even the M1 [subway], when you see it cramped with people, I just don't want to. I don't know... it's... it's instinctive more than theoretical.”

34It is now relevant to discuss the views of those who ignored overpopulation. While Antoine, Emile, and Louis expressed arguments against overpopulation, Marie and Julie simply did not mention this argument. To the former, racism and classism infuse overpopulation discourses. Emile recounted that they had been confronted with a highly problematic argument which, according to them, was a variation of population discourses. During a discussion, some friends told them that the adoption of children from countries where living conditions are precarious was an anti-ecologist decision. The reason is that adopted children necessarily consume more once they are raised in western countries. Emile had been shocked by this argument and, since then, preferred to ask ‘how can we live with so many people on Earth?’ Realistically asking this question would allow us to distance ourselves from understanding population reduction as a solution to environmental problems. Even if we ‘fix’ the ‘population problem’, capitalism and progressionist ideology will not disappear. Louis and Antoine, similarly to the arguments generally articulated against overpopulation discourses, explained that emphasising demography was ‘toxic’ because it leads to the idea that human numbers should decrease in high fertility countries – countries which have generally contributed the least to climate change and will suffer the most from it.

35While the continuum between overpopulation and uncertainty structured most of our exchanges, the underlying dimension of ‘anti-capitalism’ also structured some of my interlocutors’ positions towards parenthood. First, some of them understood the nuclear family as a nodal point of participation in a system based on work and overconsumption. To illustrate that view, I refer to Gaspard, who said:

“I think [the decision not to have children is intertwined with not] wanting to continue myself, to be in a situation where... well, I have a job that... to be able to afford rent, health insurance and food, and being stuck in this continuous cycle, so with that comes the idea of trying to minimise as much as possible the expenses that we have, the cost of our life uhh and our impact on the environment.”

36Evidently, Gaspard’s view cannot be separated from his larger understanding of capitalism as an exploitative system. Not having children is one means among others to opt out of society – alongside being engaged in civil disobedience and anti-speciesist movements. Following the same idea, Louis expressed that starting a family leads to a particular lifestyle that is less sustainable. Odile, for her part, offered a slightly different account. While she always imagined she would have children, she has gradually questioned this conviction since she became a feminist. Furthermore, she lost faith in our current capitalist ways of living. Nevertheless, she explained that it is somehow tricky not to succumb to the system. In an intriguing way, she recounted: “I think I couldn't come to that decision about the kids' stuff without having let go of everything else... it's like, I was like, ‘I've got to let go of everything else so I have no way of going back.’” While we commonly assume that not having children is a distinctive trait of being “in the margins” (her words), Odile almost reversed this logic. She had to go step by step towards “marginality” – abandoning the idea of having a career, forming a stable and monogamous couple, and having an apartment – to secure her childlessness. Therefore, she portrays childlessness as the ultimate and final layer of her desire to embody an anti-capitalist posture.

37As a corollary of the idea that the nuclear family is a nodal point of social anchoring, some interlocutors highlighted that raising a child outside social conventions was not easy. Louis said that it was discouraging to raise children differently. Society plays a significant role in educating children, and parents do not have the monopoly on what type of values their children will be exposed to – keeping in mind that my interlocutors also rejected the idea that parents should have such a monopoly. In other words, alternative education is not socially rewarded. Similarly observing that the ways we educate children are normative, Noé expressed that children are those who pay the price when parents decide to adopt alternative education. Because our society is deeply materialist, raising a child without providing him/her with material goods similarly to other kids may be a source of harassment: “Social relationships are very important and if you're... it's sad, but if you're ‘out of the box’, it's going to be difficult.” In the same line of thought, Louis ironically stated an imagined discussion he would have with people who would condemn his lifestyle: “Don't you take your kids on vacation? Don't you do fun things with them?” Meanwhile, raising a child within the system is not an option. It would merely mean that future children would participate in our capitalist world.

38To summarise this section, all my interlocutors, with the exception of Alix, mentioned uncertainty without being prompted. However, it does not mean that they attribute the same importance to uncertain futures. Some of them were particularly concerned about uncertainty (Emile, Antoine, Marie, Louis, Julie), others about overpopulation (Alix, Noé), and, finally, others similarly emphasised both (Marion, Gaspard, Thaïs, Val, Adrien, Thomas, Odile). Overall, it is important to note that none of my interlocutors offered a uni-dimensional account of the environmental dimension behind childlessness. In other words, we are far from the over-simplifying picture of ‘not having children is an ecological behaviour’. My interlocutors approached the interconnection between procreation and environmental problems from a variety of perspectives. Furthermore, their narratives highlight the larger meaning of reproduction. Having children means reproducing certain social norms and practices beyond people’s own existence – simply put, procreation is also social reproduction.

4.4 ‘Save the children, don’t make them’: Anticipating Dark Futures

39As I described in the previous section, the perspective according to which childlessness is the most effective strategy to limit one’s environmental impact cannot be taken for granted. The well-known slogan “save the children, don’t make them” – now popular in Switzerland as two of my interlocutors send me pictures of the words written on a train or a window – conveys a different orientation towards the future well-being of children. While ‘uncertainty’ should not be understood in opposition to ‘overpopulation’ – as most of my interlocutors combined the two to explain their childlessness – it nonetheless offers an alternative narrative to the dominant discourse. This section aims to further develop what kind of uncertainty drives my interlocutors’ anticipation of dark futures.

40Studying Inughuit responses to changing ice conditions in North-West Greenland, Hastrup (2018) looked at how these communities were not only reacting to altering circumstances:

“Action is never simply a reaction to what has already happened; it is also a mode of acting upon anticipation […] When the environment changes rapidly, the imagination is strained, and we must revisit the ways in which people seek to anticipate their world in view of the comprehensive uncertainties” (Ibid, 73).

41The notion of “comprehensive uncertainties” interestingly recalls that of ‘risk’. As argued by Ulrich Beck (2000; 2007) and Anthony Giddens (1999; 2009), ‘risk’ has become a cultural theme of growing importance since post-industrial societies have been trying to control uncertainty and minimise risk. Assuming that “[uncertainty is] the absence of sufficient knowledge with which to calculate risk” (Murphy, 2013, 221), risk and uncertainty are inseparable. Calculating risk became salient because “modern societies” evolved in a context where “politics [are] concerned with the interpretation and distribution of ‘bads’ rather than ‘goods’” (Barry 1999, 152). In a way, conscious immersion in uncertainty and rising risk has replaced imaginaries of a “one-way trip to doom” (Buell, 2010, 30). Undoubtedly, environmental hazards and climate change greatly participate in this paradigmatic shift. To me, the notion of “risk society” is a good illustration of how environmental crises (re)shape the ways western societies relate to the world: collective attention is increasingly turned to the ‘future’, predominantly understood as something we can forecast and manage.

42Meanwhile, it has been argued that uncertainty is highly malleable and instrumentalised. For instance, Raymond Murphy (2013) discussed the rhetorical advantage of uncertainty and how it impedes risk management. On the one hand, uncertainty is the ultimate excuse for incompetence and allows political leaders to evade responsibility after environmental disasters. On the other hand, it is mobilised to continue “business as usual”, make risks acceptable, and avoid the social change needed to mitigate global warming (Ibid). Therefore, it is important to underline the socio-political dimension of uncertainty. Simply put, we are in a situation where we are aware of environmental risks but incapable of predicting whether sufficient political action will be taken to mitigate them. As Wallace-Wells (2017) sarcastically puts it, predictions of what will happen largely depend upon the much less certain science of human response – and I would preferably speak of ‘capitalist response’ to avoid the kind of universalist confusion that is also implied in the ‘Anthropocene’ debate.

43Wallace-Well’s statement illustrates a central element of “risk society”: science and technology are no longer associated with social progress, and dominant political institutions are not trusted anymore. Indeed, wide exposure to competing information marks contemporary times and this weakens the legitimacy of both science and the State. This erosion of trust is visible in Switzerland. On the one hand, 47% of the Swiss SOPHIA study participants responded negatively to whether they trust humanity, intelligence, and adaptive capacity to solve environmental problems in, 2007 (MIS Trend, 2019). This number increased by almost 15% in 2019 (Ibid). On the other hand, only about 22% of the participants considered that solutions to climate change would emerge from government measures (Ibid).

44These trends jeopardise the representation of the ‘future’ as something that science necessarily controls and political institutions care for. The same observation holds for my interlocutors’ relationship to science, politics, and uncertainty. Thus, for example, Thaïs criticised the view according to which solutions will emerge from science. Her words speak for themselves:

“[T]he common denominator is climate change, which creates environmental disturbances that we will soon no longer be able to control, and in fact it is also a little bit stupid to believe that we will be able to control them... the people who are like ‘yes, but technology will save humanity’, I am like... to a certain extent, I think that it can improve our quality of life for a while, but we shouldn't bet everything on it because the development of new technologies has a huge environmental impact”.

  • 8 They are members of political parties or explicitly mentioned that they hope to convince elected re (...)

45Later, as she said that taxing cars will not save humanity, Thaïs directly pointed at inappropriate political measures. Marie also stated that “[m]ore than living in a world that's going straight into the wall, it's living in a world that's going straight into the wall and turning a blind eye... that drives me crazy.” Meanwhile, with the exception of Marion, Val, and Odile,8 my interlocutors have lost faith in large-scale political action and institutions. This observation became apparent when some of them told me about the recent changes in their activist practices. Gaspard, Noé, and Julie used to take part in civil disobedience movements for animal rights. These activities being very demanding and risky, they have decided to put their energy into local initiatives with a limited number of individuals to care for. Julie confided: “I'm kind of tired of sacrificing my life for uh for a change I don't see coming.” Antoine similarly explained:

“there's a part of me that said ‘anyway it's a complete failure, everything we do is a failure’, I mean there's been these mobilisations for three years [and] there's absolutely nothing that changes, at least I think there's absolutely nothing that changes.”

46While I could grasp the utopias that they awaited with less and less hope – namely, a systematic and profound societal transformation of power relations across species, genders, races and human-non-human worlds – what exactly my interlocutors anticipated was essentially very blurry. Contrary to hunter societies in Greenland who adapt to melting ice conditions, perception of ecological risks (and their solutions) in Switzerland perhaps depends more on various worldviews. Whereas it recalls the various cultural models of climate change delineated by Willett Kempton (1997), it is also possible to refer to larger myths such as catastrophe and cornucopia, in Cotgrove’s (1982) terms.

47Indeed, Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens (2015) have more recently distinguished between two dominant discourses that have structured the relationship of western societies to imagined futures so far: progress and collapse. I suggest that the general context of distrust described earlier reinforces the polarisation between these two myths. In a context where progress as a vision of a promising future disappears, what is left is much darker. Undoubtedly, a couple of my interlocutors clearly stated that collapse would happen. Julie confidently stated: “We're inevitably, to me, heading towards a collapse.” Odile argued that collapse has already started: “I feel like it's already survival issues everywhere else, so this collapse already started a long time ago.”

48Differently, others emphasised the uncertainty that surrounds collapse even though they mentioned its potentiality. Gaspard, despite offering the most detailed account of the event chain that threatens food security in the coming decades, and who described inhabitable regions and anticipated large migration flows, stated: “I have absolutely no idea what the rest of my life will look like.” Similarly, Adrien told me “[t]here is a great chance that humanity will disappear” and later added “[i]t's hard to predict the future.” Additionally, Noé recounted that the Pablo Servigne conference he attended made him doubt that the world would continue to function as he knows it, even though collapse is not a certitude.

49Rejecting the Manichean dichotomy between progress and collapse, Servigne and Stevens (2015) denounce the fact that we are not allowed to mention the word ‘collapse’ without being relegated to the ranks of the ‘catastrophist’, ‘believer’, or ‘irrational’, who have populated human societies at all times. These figures, to which we can add the ‘survivalist’, are too often mobilised to discredit environmental discourses. Interestingly, I experienced these reductive stereotypes several times throughout this research. Besides this discriminatory register, I often heard that anxieties about the future are not specific to our times. War, human misery and uncertainty have always existed, I was told. This is absolutely true and I am not proposing the contrary. I cannot know whether dark futures prevented people from having children in the past, but I can bring attention to the fact that current times may particularly affect reproductive choices. Hopefully, at least one piece of research shares this observation with me: “[D]eliberating whether or not to have children is now perhaps more complex than ever and arguably requires considerations above and beyond individuals’ abilities to meet basic parenting responsibilities” (Gaziulusoy, 2020, 2).

50Indeed, whereas we can discuss the foundations and truth of collapse, what is less negotiable is that my interlocutors find it difficult to project themselves forward. For instance, Antoine explained that his life has been affected by his ecological awareness. Accustomed to the bright future that his parents had presented him, his life was suddenly much less confident than it used to be. Similarly, Emile recounted:

“I can't get my head around the impact it's going to have on my life either [...] the times I think about it a lot I think it's like total anxiety (laughs a little nervously) ... but not knowing when it's going to happen exactly, not knowing exactly how because there are still a lot of unknowns.”

51Outlining that the problem is actually that we cannot predict the future, Thaïs explained in a tone that suggested that she had already had to convince people of the severity of the situation:

“[W]e are now saying to ourselves that in 30 years, the system will be unstable and we won't even be able to predict where we're going... the problem is that it's not even like I say to myself, ‘well, it doesn't matter, we'll have a lesser quality of life’, it's that I don't even know if we'll be able to eat in fact.”

52As I will further develop in the coming chapter around the notion of the ‘good’ life, Val presented her decision not to have children as something that helps her to cope with uncertainty:

“I don't want the world to go to hell, but basically, I also tell myself [...] I won't have to manage a world that goes to hell and [have to] raise a kid in it [...] So I'm going to fight for the world, to change things on our scale, etc. but [...] in fact it calms me down to say that [...] at this level, I have to take care of myself, and of the people around me, but that I won't have to manage children.”

53Regarding these accounts, I argue that my interlocutors are engaged in a form of anticipation when it comes to their decision to not have children. Furthermore, their concerns over uncertain futures have already altered their life projects. Many of them have decided to work as little as possible or to find occupations related to climate change. For instance, Julie stopped her studies because it became meaningless to pursue her education in a context where she feels that the world is ‘falling apart’. She now lives in the countryside as it will become more and more complicated to live in cities. Emile also recounted how they are currently creating alternatives that will hopefully serve to sustain them in the long term. For example, meeting people who also subscribe to life in community, or breaking up with the nuclear family cell, understood as something that does not create resilience amidst climate change. Their greatest fear is denial, and anticipation through imagination is seen as a tool to engage with dark futures properly:

“[...] I'm more afraid of denial, of this thing of... of continuing to think that we'll be able to have the same life as our parents [...] and that things that make it fundamentally impossible won't happen, so I have the impression that the best way to prepare for it is to try to reinvent ourselves with a new paradigm.”

54Undoubtedly, my interlocutors’ perceptions of the future are not bright and correspond, to some degree, to discourses articulated by ‘collapsology’. However, rather than being irrational beings who believe in ‘the end of the world’, my interlocutors incorporate into their lifestyles their political beliefs regarding the inability of capitalism to sustain life in the long-run. Compared to Dow’s (2016) research participant, whose anxieties were mostly directed at the natural world, it appears that my interlocutors’ insecurity results from ‘socio-political uncertainty’ – i.e. political apathy regarding environmental depletion and economic growth.


1 Alongside Marie and Antoine, Marion and Odile also used to imagine a future for themselves with children. However, the environmental situation played a less important role in their recent desire not to have children.

2 I discuss the views of the interlocutors on the consequences of procreation in chapter 4 and 5.

3 I return to the need to find a justification in chapter 6.

4 The original title in French is: “Quand les femmes ne font pas d’enfant pour l’écologie.”

5 See the following articles that offer similar views: Coulaud, 2018; Nicolet, 2015; Pluyaud, 2015; Sillaro, 2017.

6 The original title in French is: “Ces jeunes qui refusent d’avoir des enfants, entre acte écologique et angoisse de l’avenir.”

7 See:

8 They are members of political parties or explicitly mentioned that they hope to convince elected representatives to act.


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search