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‘Environmental Childlessness?’

Mathilde Krähenbühl

5. Having Children: An Ethical Dilemma?

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1In approaching ‘environmental childlessness’, I realised that both environmental issues and reproduction encountered ethical dimensions. On the one hand, environmental issues are based on humanity’s place in the world and question fundamental ideas about what it means to be human (Haenn, Harnish, and Wilk, 2016, 1). While most animal species depend on intra-species relationships and the alteration of their environment to survive, how industrial and capitalist societies have rooted their development on systematic dispossession of non-human entities and minorities raises important ethical questions. ‘Deep ecology’, a philosophy that originates in the work of Arne Naess, has played a significant role in revitalising the idea that the environment has more than a material value. While science has depersonalised and ‘disenchanted’ nature to remove the sense of moral responsibility that humans used to nurture towards it, deep ecologists have argued that we should look for a “restoration of respect and the establishment of harmony in human-nature relations” (Milton, 2002, 10). Furthermore, research has demonstrated the importance of morality in understanding people’s attitudes towards the environment. Kempton (1997, 18) observed that to understand why people adopt certain cultural models of climate change – i.e. models that emphasise different causes and solutions to the problem – we have to understand their values, understood as “moral guidelines they use in making decisions”. Research in social psychology has also emphasised that rational choice-theories offer limited explanations when it comes to behaviours that are at least partially moral, such as ecological behaviour (e.g. Kaiser et al. 1999; see also Norgaard, 2011 about the refutation of rational-choice theory).

2On the other hand, having children can be framed as an ethical question in and of itself. Christine Overall (2012) stresses that childbearing has to be approached as a real choice that has ethical import. Otherwise, she argues, we fail to treat childbearing as an experience that does not merely result from biological destiny and unavoidable fate (Ibid, 5). According to her, as it is commonly understood as a life choice that does not require reasons, childbearing requires more careful justification than the choice not to have children. The reason is simple: having a child means that “a new and vulnerable being is brought into existence whose future may be at risk” (Ibid, 3) and “that person cannot […] give consent to being brought into existence” (Ibid, 6). The most radical ‘reproductive ethics’ can be found in antinatalist perspectives. While the word ‘antinatalism’ has long been used to refer to population reduction policies, such as China’s One Child Policy, its current use is mostly linked to an ethical approach to reproduction (Morioka, 2021). Central to this development is David Benatar’s book Better Never to Have Been (2006). Justifying the universal negation of procreation, Benatar demonstrated that not being born is better than being born, based on the idea that coming into existence is always a harm.

3My interlocutors mentioned some of these ethical concerns vis-à-vis procreation, outside any environmental consideration. For instance, Marie referred to the notion of consent. Furthermore, Noé is the only one who referred to antinatalism and challenged the value of life itself. He had read Benatar’s book, and regardless of the circumstances, he considers that life is harmful. However, beyond these few examples, my interlocutors raised ethical questions that interweave environmental and reproductive issues. Indeed, when considered together, reproductive and environmental issues raise specific ethical questions. It is revealing that most research on reproductive choices in the age of climate change has been conducted in the field of applied ethics (e.g. Rieder, 2016; Conly, 2015) (Schneider-Mayerson and Leong, 2020, 2). Therefore, the purpose of the following sections is to discuss these ethical demands, the role of responsibility, and the necessity to recreate meaning amidst uncertainty. Indeed, from an anthropological perspective, the value of ethical dilemmas is found in the ways they take shape in people’s lives. When applied ethics describe what is good or bad, “[t]he claim on which the anthropology of ethics rests is not an evaluative claim that people are good: it is a descriptive claim that they are evaluative” (Laidlaw, 2014, 3).

5.1 Procreation: A Site of Individualistic Responsibility?

  • 1 Original title in French: “Lettre ouverte à celles qui ne veulent pas (encore) d’enfant”
  • 2 Original quote in French: “L’écologie, pour moi, c’est le renoncement. Et le renoncement le plus ma (...)

4“Although no one of us can solve the population crisis, we all make decisions relevant to making the problem better or worse – that is, we all make procreative decisions”, wrote Travis N. Rieder (2016, 9). Author of Toward a Small Family Ethic, the philosopher argues that we have to consider population as a variable that negatively impacts climate change. According to him, we are in this situation because we are unwilling to take action regarding the other key variable that we could work on – namely, per capita greenhouse gas emissions. Overall (2012) also dedicates one chapter of her book to overpopulation and extinction, asking what our procreative responsibilities might be in these two scenarios. Because choosing to have children is a profoundly social question that has consequences on others, and because of the dangers of planetary overload, people living in the developed world (her use) face the responsibility to limit the number of their offspring. Nonetheless, she adds, given the centrality of childbearing to human existence, an obligation to renounce it would be a sacrifice that we cannot expect of individuals who want to have children (Ibid, 181). In contrast, Laure Noualhat, a French essayist who wrote Open letter to those who do not (yet) have children,1 conveyed an almost sacrificial logic when she confided: “For me, ecology is about renunciation. And the most important renunciation is not to have children” (Desprez, 2019).2

5These authors provide that reproduction poses ethical dilemmas because it has consequences on others’ lives. They defend the perspective exposed in chapter 4 according to which human numbers have a causal relationship with global environmental changes. Key here is the idea that the individual level of action is all that we have left to avoid the end of humanity, since we are failing to level off CO2 emissions at a larger scale. Hence, they offer a particular understanding of ‘responsibility’ that falls within the broader ‘individualisation’ that characterises some branches of the environmental movement. Since the 1980’s – a decade during which conservative forces in the US returned power and responsibility to the individual and curtailed the role of governments in a self-regulating economy (Maniates, 2001, 39) – environmental depletion has suffered from depoliticisation as both its causes and solutions are increasingly limited to the domain of personal consumption. Apparently, procreation is no exception to this logic. As highlighted by Schneider-Mayerson and Leong (2020, 13): “[The] application of the normative ethics of the carbon footprint to individual reproductive intentions and choices occurs within the context of a vigorous and sometimes polarizing debate, among both scholars and environmentalists, about the value of emphasizing individual actions in response to climate change.”

6During the interviews, my interlocutors described feelings of responsibility as shaping their ecological commitment. Indeed, they paid attention to the consequences of their actions on plural others - human and non-human, distant or nearby. Noé’s example is striking:

“[F]rom the moment you consume and exist... you can minimise and get closer to the best, but you can never get to zero... but everything you consume necessarily has very important ecological and social impacts behind it [...] I don't know, it's a kind of responsibility as an adult that everyone should have. [...] If I were a worker in a factory in Bangladesh, or a farmer in the South, or an animal in a farm, you know, I wouldn't want to go through that”.

7 Similarly, Marie emphasised that her incoherence – the gap between her values and her practices – necessarily had impacts on others:

“I think that in this environmental issue, there is really a question of responsibility towards others too. Maybe if it only affected me, if I knew that my actions would only have an effect on me, it would also be very different, my attitude would be different. But to know that my inconsistencies are going to have an impact on other people and other living beings, that's hard for me to live with.”

8 The corollary of feelings of responsibility seems to be ‘limiting ecological impact’, a demand highly informed by the idea that we should live in harmony with these multiple others. Harmony is only attainable if each component of the ecosystem does not impinge on the living space of neighbours. For instance, Marion explained:

“[T]o make sure that there is a real living together, we must necessarily manage to have limits and I have the impression that our society does not really have any [...] I think it's a form of respect for living human and non-human beings, to have limits and to say ‘well my comfort can't be at the expense of the rest.’”

9 Now, I will discuss why the question of procreation falls into the same logic only to some extent. On the one hand, my interlocutors understood reproduction as something that increases people’s environmental impacts. For instance, Thaïs asked: “[W]hat right do I have [...] for my personal happiness, and maybe for the potential happiness of a child, to put it out there when it's going to impact the lives of others?” Recalling the notion of ‘carbon legacy’, my interlocutors also imagined that they would be held accountable for their children’s actions. Not only would their children in turn reproduce, but they would also participate in consumer society and would most probably adopt practices that my interlocutors consider ‘wrong’ – i.e. eating non-human animals. As weird as it might sound, this is not so surprising. We often “both feel and be held responsible to varying degrees for actions by people under our care, dependents or children” (Laidlaw, 2010, 151). Indeed, the responsibility of an individual expands well beyond someone’s intentionality (Ibid). Meanwhile, Odile mentioned: “I would not want to raise children in the hope that they would be absolutely like me and carry the same values”. Simply put, she prefers not to have children than have some and force them to adopt a lifestyle that they have not chosen in order to reduce Odile’s feelings of responsibility.

10On the other hand, none of my interlocutors hold parents responsible for climate change. Thaïs exclaimed during the interview: “I don't think you have to not have kids to be green, I really don't!” Furthermore, Emile explicitly rejected overpopulation discourses based on the observation that they articulate an individualistic logic, far from opposing the systematic and capitalist origins of environmental destruction. Similar to consumption practices, we cannot ask people with different social, economic, and cultural capital to adopt the same reproductive choices. Perception of reproduction is filled with subjectivities, and specific social groups – such as Black communities – assign very different meanings to it. More broadly, Emile, Antoine and Adrien rejected the idea that individual practices will make a difference. Not only should we hold companies responsible, but the context highly impedes the scope of individual action. For instance, Antoine recognised: [I]t's tricky because just by living in Switzerland you're responsible for a lot of things without necessarily wanting to [...] but I mean, beyond certain things I can't really go any further.

11If none of them hold parents responsible, some of my interlocutors nonetheless expressed a tension between the rational knowledge that individual actions would not solve climate change and the emotional attribution of responsibility to people who do not care. For instance, Thomas mentioned:

“Sometimes there's stuff like that... a little bit of anger towards other people who don't watch out... while I'm anxious about it and I'm trying to be careful... Even though I know very well on an intellectual level that it’s not what's going to change the thing, it's... it's more about the method of production and delivery and generalised consumption that we have to change.”

12Gaspard offered a position close to that of Thomas. Of course, the problem has to be attributed to the rich and powerful people of this world. Nonetheless, people have a responsibility to refuse to some extent the existing system. At least, it is essential not to legitimise it through consumption or discourses based on relative comparisons such as ‘the situation is worse elsewhere’. Julie defended a similar perspective, though her understanding of individual responsibility was stricter. Because governments are not taking measures, individuals should make changes in their lives: “So we don't have the choice anymore. As long as we're living in a capitalist world, to do what we can ourselves to uh [...] yeah, live a lifestyle that is more [...] respectful of the living.”

13When we analyse reproductive ethics in relation to global environmental changes, the notion of responsibility is also directed towards children yet to come, or the ‘future’ broadly understood. Indeed, climate ethicists argue that the relationship between the environment and procreation encompasses an ethical dimension because it holds a strong stance towards posterity. Simply put, questions about what kind of future we want to create and what our responsibility is in creating good conditions for coming generations are particularly inescapable when we think of having children. Distancing herself from the idea that planetary overload is what makes the individual responsible for their reproductive choices, Overall (2012, 202) completes her argument by saying that “we ought not to go on reproducing if we might somehow know that the future for members of our species will be unalterably bleak and unremittingly miserable.” Following my interlocutors’ greater emphasis on uncertainty, described in the previous chapter, this ethical demand is the one that most structured their discomfort towards having children amidst environmental crises.

14“[W]hat is my responsibility to want to give life to someone who is going to struggle and who is potentially not going to have really nice opportunities?” asked Marion. The words ‘unreasonable’, ‘irresponsible’, and ‘unjust’ were often used to describe the decision to have children amidst uncertainty. As highlighted by Val, knowledge about potential inhabitable futures is what makes her feel responsible:

“[T]o have a child and to deliver that world to him or her, I wouldn't be comfortable with that, because I would find it selfish to say to myself actually I knew that these weren't conditions that allow [...] an education and fulfilment that are sufficient”.

15In a way, my interlocutors’ views challenge Stephen M. Gardiner’s (2011, 45–48) description of what he calls a state of “moral corruption”. According to him, we are in such a state because we are unable to properly imagine and care for not-yet individuals. In other words, we fail to adopt strong measures against climate change because of the absence of the object of our moral concern – namely, future generations. To him, the pathway through this “tyranny of the contemporary” (Ibid, 154) should be informed by the “precautionary principle” according to which no action should be taken when it implies any kind of harm. Simply put, even in a situation of scientific uncertainty, there is no ethical justification for the threatening of any future forms of life. This principle generally informs my interlocutors’ ethical demands and Marie explicitly mentioned it when she described her feelings of responsibility:

“You don't know, you don't do it. [...] And I think that in the fact of not having children there is a bit of that... in fact yes maybe it will be ok... but maybe it will not be ok and, in doubt, I don't put a life in danger”.

16Overall, the fact that my interlocutors feel responsible for having children in the anticipation of dark futures significantly challenges the idea that they are individualistic people who, driven by abstract moral reasoning, believe they can save the world by opting out of parenthood. Instead, feelings of responsibility are entangled with care and love for future generations – either biologically linked to my interlocutors or not. As noted by Dow (2016, 19–20), “in people’s everyday lives, ethics is not so much about abstract moral reasoning but about taking other perspectives into account and considering how any decision affects all those involved.” Nevertheless, if her research participants found in nature protection projects the strength to secure a future ‘stable environment’ to have children, my interlocutors underscore that care for future children now merely prevents them from having babies.

  • 3 In French, the phrase is “prise de conscience écologique”.

17Emphasising that care and the everyday are involved in feelings of responsibility leads to discussion of the ethical location of ‘environmental childlessness’. Undoubtedly, sudden awareness about the environmental situation largely corresponds to an ‘ethical moment’ that is resolved by adjusting behaviours to reduce feelings of responsibility – a process informed by somewhat distant moral rules. For instance, Odile explained that, at first, she adopted pro-environmental habits based on prescriptive rules that felt constraining. Several others expressed guilt when it came to the inability to adopt profoundly sustainable lifestyles. Nonetheless, constraints progressively become part of a broader desire to live differently, and pro-environmental behaviours are no longer experienced as sacrifices. This process translates the weaving of rather distant and prescriptive moral rules into the everyday care for others. Therefore, if what my interlocutors often referred to as “ecological awareness”3 is well captured by Zigon’s notion of “moral breakdowns”, the decision not to have children sometimes subscribes to such a previous change in the ethos. Hence, highly informed by the necessity to maintain ecological practices generated by the prior ‘ethical moment’, childlessness is entangled into the everyday. Indeed, for some of my interlocutors, not having children is fully part of their worldview and does not generate dilemmas any more.

18As a consequence, their attribution of responsibility to parents is somehow more robust. For instance, Emile reflected on why they navigated these parenthood questions amidst uncertainty in Manichean terms and explained that they could do so because they are sure that they would not have children. Differently, those who expressed that they currently experience a dilemma nuanced the distribution of responsibility. As they have not yet taken a decision, they constantly experience tensions and redefine how they can make sense of their personal decisions. For instance, Thaïs explained that she still retains the choice to have children and only has to weigh up what she could offer them. Simply put, there remains a possibility that she could redefine her responsibility if she ends up deciding to have children. Louis, recounting how he publicly portrays his reproductive hesitations, explained how he tries to convey the idea that no choice is better than the alternative: “[J]ust to say that it's a bit of a personal choice that... that doesn't put any more value on another choice and besides I won't allow myself to do it because deep down I know that maybe one day I'll radically change my desire.” His flexibility in distributing the burden of responsibility is linked to his indecision. One day, he could be in the position of having taken a decision that he would need to justify.

19Even though the attribution of one’s responsibility is a process of constant negotiation, my interlocutors tend to reinforce the “procreative norm” described in chapter 3. Following this norm, having children is a conscious choice that future parents should make when their situation is the most favourable. Amidst environmental crises, the notion of “procreative norm” goes beyond expectations about the family environment to refer to global environment changes (see Dow, 2016). Indeed, it is untangled in anticipation of environmental futures. Since research has demonstrated that anticipation occurs within a particular moral horizon (see Hastrup, 2018), reproduction is informed by new ethical demands coalesced by such changes. Reflecting on her research participants’ concerns about the future, Dow (2016) demonstrated that ‘nature’ is what provided guidance in discerning what were the ethical limits not to be crossed – i.e. procreation should remain ‘natural’. Similarly looking for ethical limits, my interlocutors’ relationships to the future of reproduction nonetheless differ from those of Dow’s research participants. According to my interlocutors, favourable conditions will probably never be met in the current context. As exposed in the previous chapter, their political views underscore a profound disbelief in large-scale change. Thus, environmental and political circumstances provide ethical limits to their reproductive choices in a more radical way than for the inhabitants of Spey Bay. As we will discuss in the coming section, respecting such limits is a way to reach the ‘good’ life as it minimises feelings of responsibility.

5.2 Going beyond Responsibility: Recreating Meaning Amidst Crises

20The feelings of responsibility discussed in the previous section fall within the larger scope of ‘virtue ethics’ – i.e. the work of cultivating virtues to be a ‘good’ person and reach individual and collective aspirations toward a ‘meaningful’ existence. The kinds of moral judgements my interlocutors addressed to themselves and others could be interpreted as being at play in a courtroom – following Judith Butler’s conception of morality in Giving an Account of Oneself (2005). According to Butler: “We start to give an account [of ourselves] only because we are interpellated as beings who are rendered accountable by a system of justice and punishment” (Ibid, 10). That we become subjects because we must defend ourselves sometimes translates into how we constantly judge others – and feel judged – when it comes to ecological practices. Several of my interlocutors concisely discussed these dynamics and how they can negatively impact the attractiveness of the ecological movement. Indeed, the prescription of coherence – i.e. if you call yourself ‘green’ you must be vegetarian otherwise you may be charged with hypocrisy – often undermines people’s propensity to adopt ecological behaviours since they cannot adopt the ‘full package’.

21However, if feelings of responsibility are somehow entangled with how we present ourselves to others – particularly when we fear reprobation – I suggest that they also express deeply anchored self-ideals. This section discusses how these self-ideals emerge in relation to the necessity to live a ‘meaningful’ life. Living the Aristotelian fulfilled life, eudaimonia, means having the power to construct a life that one values (Fischer, 2014, 2). It echoes the ideas of ‘life satisfaction’ and ‘well-being’, which are irrevocably morally laden as they articulate ideas about value, worth, virtue, what is good or bad (Ibid, 4-5). Part of ‘living a life that one values’ is grounded in the alignment between actions and values. My interlocutors’ accounts of responsibility towards distant and nearby others, and the necessity of limiting their environmental impact as much as possible indicate that they are engaged in such a realignment. Although they were aware that individual behaviours would not solve environmental problems, their everyday commitment to change habits and life projections reveal that ecological practices and values entered their ethos. To illustrate this, Thaïs reflected:

“It's [silly] but a water bottle you can either buy it at IKEA which is the world giant of deforestation ... pfouaah... of the precariousness of a large part of the population through poorly paid work [...] or you can buy it from [an artisan] who hand-blows them in glass in Lausanne, you know? In every product I find that it takes a lot of energy to have an ecological conscience because you think about everything you buy.”

22This is not specific to my interlocutors. As noted by Cross (2019, 16), “[j]ust as life with climate change is creating new anxieties and compulsions, so too it is creating new ethical elisions, horizons and commitments.” For instance, these new ethical commitments have entered the mundane supermarket, as Fischer’s (2014) ethnographic case of German eggs reveals. He observed that a majority of the shoppers of the Südstadt neighbourhood in Hanover said that “they buy organic and free range eggs because they support ideas of environmental stewardship, social solidarity, and the common good” (Ibid, 43). Nonetheless, when my interlocutors express that having children raises a dilemma, they push further this quest for coherence and integrity.

23To understand why, it is crucial to underline that environmental crises and uncertainty threaten the ‘good’ life. Kari Marie Norgaard’s (2011; 2014) research on denial exemplifies how environmental crises might endanger the possibility of living a ‘meaningful’ life and the avoidance strategies that people mobilise to maintain their ways of living. Inspired by comparison with indigenous experiences of radical loss during the colonisation of the Americas, the climate ethicist Byron Williston (2012) discusses how collapse and our inability to secure many of the thick cultural materials we cherish threaten human flourishing. In a state of crisis, our attention is riveted on the present and we are stuck in “panic-mode”. This mode prevents us from properly appreciating moral reasons, namely “to properly weigh them against competing reasons and, where appropriate, to know how to translate them into action” (Ibid, 175). Therefore, in the absence of reflexive space, we will become more and more guided by the perception of threat and emergency.

24Beyond that sense of emergency and based on my interlocutors’ stories, I would add that all available paths offer little consolation. Climate change generates anxiety, but the larger system prevents most of my interlocutors from finding concrete solutions in order to create meaning. As Gaspard described, there is absolutely nothing that leads us to believe that it will become brighter. Systemic destruction is everywhere. More precisely, I would like to recount the story of Marie, who voiced the impasse she has reached when it comes to making life choices amidst a system of which she profoundly disapproves:

“Typically, I have a job, well I hate it [...] in fact I don't agree with a lot of things I do, but when I want to go towards another option, it doesn't exist yet, the one that would suit me. And so that's the question of what you do with this information: do you fight to create the environment in which you would be ok to live and [you fight] for your work environment to change, and for your home environment to change and... well you know?”

25This example illustrates that once people engage in a radical critique of our capitalist, patriarchal, and ecocidal system, the possibility of finding a job and a lifestyle that allows them to align actions and political aspirations becomes compromised. Meanwhile, everything pushes them to adopt a certain type of life, and it is very demanding to find radical alternatives. It requires a kind of revolutionary character, but Marie, for instance, has not been endowed with such a temperament. She is introverted and it costs her a lot to go against the established order. Buying a water bottle led Thaïs to question all the practices that make her uncomfortable to finally question, similarly to Marie, what role she wants to occupy in society. Reluctant to fully opt out of society, she explained: “I find it very difficult to solve because there's this thing where... well what do you really put in place to make your lifestyle green but still be a part of society[?]”

26According to Williston (2012, 175), the only alternative we have to overcome our state of numbness in times of crisis is to “strive hopefully to retain the ability to flourish as moral agents”. According to the Greeks, properly weighing moral reasons is precisely what secures the possibility of living a ‘meaningful’ life. Therefore, if “[i]ndividual apathy is a rational response if there is nowhere to turn” (Norgaard, 2011, 225), the realignment between actions and values is the hopeful solution. This largely recalls the idea that spaces of uncertainty are particular moments of changeover during which people take the time to reflect on their life and reconstruct a new moral identity from their multiple past identities (see Kleinman, 2006; Humphrey, 2008). Therefore, the ability to find meaning is entangled in my interlocutors’ self-ideals and this is where the realignment between actions and values appears as a ‘strategy’ to attain the ‘meaningful’ life.

27For instance, Marie described coherence as “a way to find peace”. Indeed, as discussed in the previous section, my interlocutors progressively embodied constraining rules dictated by ecological utopias in the everyday, and these are not seen as sacrifices any more. This is precisely because these values and practices have entered their imaginings of what a ‘good’ person is. For my interlocutors, it appears that a significant part of being a ‘good’ person has to do with being a ‘good’ activist. Indeed, it cannot be detached from larger considerations about how to translate social change into one’s private life. Therefore, it is not surprising that they regularly explained that it feels natural to align individual behaviours with collective aspirations. To say that it is natural does not mean that it is easy. Quite the opposite, my interlocutors mentioned how they sometimes wished to escape these moral obligations and find quiet. What counts, it appears, is the feeling of having at least tried to realign, to the limits of one’s capacity. Thaïs nicely described:

“I find that after a while it's insoluble [...] so I also have this thing where I'd like to find a way to... to manage my ecological awareness with a little more gentleness towards myself, a little less perfectionism, but also especially something where I can find myself, you know, where I say to myself, ‘well, I made the best choice in this situation, and there you have it, I'm going in the best direction for me’... and it's also maybe in this way that it's interesting for me to say to myself ‘well no, I'm not going to start a family.’”

28In this regard, the decision not to have children takes on a different signification. It is a relief to take this decision as it leads her to build her life within the limits of what she is able to do without feeling responsible for potential harm to the environment and her future children. It becomes precisely what allows Thaïs to alleviate guilt and to remain a moral agent. Similarly, when Louis mentioned that he saw parenthood as a resignation, a way of turning his back on the values he believes in, he emphasised childlessness as a way to realign his values and actions. Furthermore, Odile expressed a similar sense of alleviation to Thaïs. Reflecting on the fact that her brother also went through a sort of ‘meaning crisis’, she was surprised when he told her that having a baby would give him a sense of purpose. For her, the situation is the exact opposite:

“me on the other hand... it would accentuate the fact that this world doesn't make that much sense... I'll see my kids every morning and I'll be like ‘oh my god, this doesn't make any sense’... Whereas right now, [not] having any makes a lot of sense to me.”

29Later, she added: “I think I'm freeing myself from a lot of things by not having children because I have too many questions!” This perspective largely recalls the words of Val exposed in the previous chapter when she explained how childlessness is a way to mitigate uncertainty and to find quietude. Therefore, my interlocutors’ negotiations of ethical demands are inseparable from their larger perception of crises and uncertainty. If the inability to live in permanent “moral breakdown” is the fundamental motive for responding to the ethical demand (Zigon, 2007), not having children is the way some of my interlocutors found to respond to such a demand.

30Finally, different accounts demonstrate how not having children opens up possibilities, beyond the mere fact that it is a source of peace. For instance, Julie, Marie, and Noé described how childlessness would allow them to be present for those already alive. A lot of people already suffer on Earth, and it is meaningless to generate new needs. Their energy is more usefully invested in caring for various forms of life than focusing on the restricted family cell. Following the same logic, Julie referred to this reorientation of her energy explaining how she adopts practices that allow her to ‘stay in the present’: “I really try to stay in the moment because I think there will be plenty of time to worry [when the time comes].” In this regard, practical activities directed at the present make much more sense to her. Emile also explained that not having children opens up the possibility of imagining radically different futures and not succumbing to the illusion that their parents’ life is still a realistic pathway. Firmly asserting that they would not subscribe to the nuclear family mandate pushes them to find the people with whom they would start a community and re-engage with a ‘meaningful’ future. In this regard, childlessness recalls Mattingly’s (2014, 15) trope of “moral laboratories” as it opens up spaces of possibility, “ones that create experiences that are also experiments in how life might or should be lived.”

31To conclude this section, opting out of parenthood is not necessarily a pessimistic renouncement in the face of catastrophe, nor the answer to a moral judgment. Instead, this is a way for people to re-engage with the future, find ways of living that do not constantly recall the lack of meaning, and find the strength to live their utopias. While it is tempting to assume that such a strategy is an individualistic way to find peace, we should recall that “[t]he good life is presumed to be lived in and with community and directed to ideals that encompass collective goods” (Mattingly, 2014, 10). Undoubtedly, most of my interlocutors’ political utopias were essentially collective.


1 Original title in French: “Lettre ouverte à celles qui ne veulent pas (encore) d’enfant”

2 Original quote in French: “L’écologie, pour moi, c’est le renoncement. Et le renoncement le plus marquant, c’est de ne pas avoir d’enfant.”

3 In French, the phrase is “prise de conscience écologique”.


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