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‘Environmental Childlessness?’

Mathilde Krähenbühl

7. Conclusion

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1My interlocutors’ pathways towards ‘environmental childlessness’ are multiple and it would be inappropriate to homogenise their experiences. Some of them never really wanted children, others only thought they would have a biological family until they seriously considered it, and a few of them wished they could have children. Women particularly emphasised that motherhood assigns them to a normative gendered identity and represents a heavy practical workload. Overall, following the greater attraction of childfree lifestyles, my interlocutors called the dominant pathway to adulthood into question and found childlessness profitable in the pursuit of greater autonomy and freedom. Nonetheless, although they were politicised to varying degrees, their interrogations are inscribed within a desire not to succumb to capitalist and consumerist ways of living that are quickly reproduced within the nuclear family cell. In other words, they do not look for self-fulfilment and optimisation, even though the language of ‘control over one’s life’ erupted from time to time. The environmental dimension, the focus of this dissertation, also played a different role in my interlocutors’ pathways towards childlessness. Some of them found in it a theoretical anchoring for not readily tangible sensations, the need for justification being explained both by the pronatalist “burden of proof” and the necessity to secure plans amidst uncertainty. Others were seriously unsettled when they realised that the future was not as bright as they imagined.

2Despite this diversity of experiences and the impossibility of separating ‘the environment’ from other concerns, I have dissected the pathways towards ‘environmental childlessness’ into three main spheres: environmental concerns, ethical considerations, and persistent pronatalism. First, my interlocutors’ concerns over parenthood and (im)possible futures are informed by their concerns for the environment. They became aware of and sensitive to the critical environmental situation through various means and, for the most part, aspired to social transformation and justice. Subscribing to the idea that westerners should generally limit their ecological footprint, they incorporated reproduction, to varying degrees, in the CO2 matrix. More substantially, they anticipated dark futures when they observed that political institutions are not heading in the right direction but continue to foster economic growth, intrinsically linked to environmental degradation. Their concerns exemplify that environmental uncertainty seriously threatens people’s ability to project themselves into the future and highlight the necessity to overcome the ‘psychologisation’ of environmental concerns. Furthermore, the use of the word ‘collapse’ should be made possible without risking being relegated to reductive representations. Believing that life on Earth is threatened is not more irrational than believing that humanity will necessarily survive. Instead, these two positions belong to different meaning systems and cannot be approached following a right-wrong dichotomy.

3Second, my interlocutors’ concerns about both parenthood and environmental futures are embedded in ethical processes. Overall, they felt irresponsible to give birth while not knowing what their children’s lives will look like. Furthermore, following the individualisation at stake in environmental movements, their concerns translated into feelings of responsibility towards distant and nearby others, human and non-human entities. In a way, their discourses articulate emerging ethical horizons, limits, and dilemmas intrinsic to the ‘Anthropocene’. Nevertheless, it is reductive to imagine that my interlocutors understand their childlessness as a solution to climate change. While they have difficulty overcoming various feelings of responsibility and dilemmas, they do not think that their choice would make a practical difference. Capitalist production and systematic destruction are held responsible. Embedded in care, a quest for meaning also informs the pathway towards environmental childlessness. To alleviate guilt and create a life that one values, opting out of parenthood is a ‘source of peace’ as it opens up possibilities to create alternative ways of living that do not subscribe to the dominant trajectory.

4Third, their pathways towards childlessness are fraught with social representations that underscore the centrality of family and the general dislike for ‘écolos’. As delineated in chapters 3 and 6, my interlocutors’ pathways are inseparable from pronatalist injunctions. In other words, even though the environmental situation is understood as highly problematic, they also rejected the gendered norms mobilised by the nuclear family. Part of the ethical work described in previous chapters is probably linked to a general context where two components of their identities are not unanimously socially accepted: childlessness and ecology. Indeed, they recounted the tensions that structure some of their social interactions and push them to sometimes adopt strategies to avoid discomfort. Nonetheless, the environmental dimension is more than an excuse for multiple reasons. Among the reasons developed, the need to secure life projects or open up all possible paths appears to mitigate uncertainty and ‘stay in the present’.

5I remember when people asked me at the beginning of this project about where and how to find the people I was interested in. Whereas I was obviously concerned by the potential difficulties I would encounter, ‘recruitment’ has been a surprisingly straightforward process. Nevertheless, it is essential to highlight why and the resulting limits. First and foremost, I could find my interlocutors because the criteria were significantly vague, thus making it harder to isolate the environmental dimension within the complex assemblage of reasons they expressed. While it is relevant to approach this diversity by stating that the environmental dimension is necessarily embedded in larger political considerations and utopias, future research could focus on people who renounced parenthood based primarily on environmental concerns.

6Additionally, I could find my interlocutors because I had decided not to reach a particular population. If I had intended to represent a diversity of socio-economic status, the ‘recruitment’ would have merely been a failure. Here again, it is possible to offer an analytical answer. Undoubtedly, my interlocutors’ social positions confirm that the ways in which environmental concerns penetrate the reproductive sphere are highly socially situated – i.e. concern mostly white and educated people. My interlocutors’ interrogations appear almost as a ‘niche’, as much as they convey a specific type of political beliefs. However, should I conclude that ‘environmental childlessness’ is a concern belonging just to a particular group of people? At first sight, it is widely accepted that reproduction does not mean the same across the social spectrum. Nevertheless, the scope of this research is too limited to address the question of extrapolation appropriately. Hence, further research is necessary to analyse the relevance of this topic in relation to various socio-economic statuses, cultural and racial belongings. Meanwhile, it is essential to highlight that my interlocutors were not as ‘marginal’ as it may sometimes appear throughout this dissertation. Some of them were engaged in long-term heterosexual relationships, had stable and socially rewarding jobs, or were active in mainstream politics.

7In other words, even though ‘environmental childlessness’ is ‘niche’ to some extent, there are good reasons to believe that uncertainty will continue to increase and take a particular resonance in the coming years. I have demonstrated that the connection between reproduction and environmental depletion should retain scholars’ attention despite its imbrication with neo-Malthusian thinking. As such, it is necessary to expand anthropological understanding of how environmental uncertainty affects the way people envision their lives, the future, and potential offspring in western societies. Undoubtedly, long-term research is needed to protect fundamental reproductive rights that some communities still fight for. As noted by Andrew S. Mathews (2020, 74): “A key feature of Anthropocene scholarship […] is a reconsideration of our ethical and political relation to the future.” I support this claim, and this dissertation offers a rich example of the interest and necessity of pursuing such investigation.

8To conclude, I return to Donna Haraway, whose argument about non-biological, alternative, and plural kin has been a great source of inspiration and guidance. Without entering the complexity of her argument, I only want to reflect on the fact that my interlocutors teach us one way of “staying with the trouble”. Returning to the opening quote of this dissertation, as their sense of ‘meaningless’ life and lost hope expressed, they are somehow trapped in conventional representations of hideous pasts and apocalyptic futures. On the other hand, since their relationship to the future is too painful and ambiguous, they give themselves the means to focus on the present, existing kin, and opportunities. They are not blindly hanging on to an illusionary continuity to imagine their lives, but recreate different ways of living despite the sometimes-bitter taste of living on a damaged planet. They push us to take distance from the idea that reproduction and future generations is what fosters the necessity to secure ‘stable futures’. They invest in other spheres than the biological family and refer to care in a broader sense, attracted by co-parenting, adoption, relation to other species, and life-long activism. As is beautifully put by Weeks (2021, 6), they remind us that “[t]he point of the exercise is not to celebrate or condemn, but to imagine a future in which no one relational or household model is expected, privileged or over-invested with hope.” Furthermore, as ‘living with the trouble’ and the re-emergence of life are possible only through symbiotic relationships, my interlocutors’ utopias similarly embraced ‘community’ – as opposed to the nuclear family – as the most resilient path in times of climate change. Realigning their actions and values is a way to accept the necessity to live otherwise without succumbing to excessive pessimism or optimism – namely, to do with the means at hand. It is not an individual journey through the pitfalls of personal development but a collective immersion of ‘extraordinary’ ethics into the ‘ordinary’, to escape guilt and find strength.


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