Choosing to be child-free for the planet

The threat of climate change versus the tick of the biological clock: a modern dilemma


Lori McMillan

Perth student Steph Murphy, 28, has chosen not to have children in direct response to the current climate breakdown.

Selfish. A word attributed to, amongst others, women throughout history who have made the conscious decision to remain childless.

However, with TripleJ Hack’s What’s Up In Your World survey of more than 15,000 young Australians revealing 73 per cent of young women felt negatively about the Earth’s future, the decision not to reproduce may be anything but selfish.

For Perth-based student Steph Murphy, choosing to be child-free is the answer to the world’s climate woes.

Although the 28-year-old’s motives for not having children varied, like so many other women, she said the current state of the environment was at the forefront of her decision.

“The present climate situation has prompted an unwavering sense of dread within me regarding the future,” she said.

“Why would I want to bring life into the world with the rate at which it is degrading so rapidly?”

The environmental consequences of children

The environmental toll of having even one child alone is huge, at 58.6 tonnes of carbon each year. A 2017 study, published in the journal of Environmental Research Letters, identified having fewer children as the best action people could take against climate change.

A family who chose to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who chose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives, according to the study.

With the world’s population quadrupling in less than a century from two billion in 1928 to more than seven billion in 2019, according an Our World in Data study, over-population and its environmental repercussions is a focal point for young women considering whether or not to have children.

“From a waste perspective, I believe the world is vastly overpopulated, with the current environmental concerns we are now facing being potentially curbed with immediate effect by reducing the population,” Ms Murphy said.

“This is the best step, I believe, towards securing the Earth’s future.”

International activist efforts on the rise  

Ms Murphy’s concerns were echoed in a recent survey by The Australian Conservation Foundation, which found one in three women under 30 were so worried about climate change and the future of the planet they reconsidered having children.

Founded in the United Kingdom, Birth Strike’s members declare their decision not to have kids because of the severity of the ecological crisis.

In the United States, Conceivable Future is a collective of women declaring to bring awareness to the threat climate change poses to reproductive justice.

The groups are the frontrunners of the movement, gaining visibility through the prolific use of social media to further their message to the public, successfully reaching young audiences through an array of platforms.

“Up until the age of 25, having children was on the cards, however, it was around this time my awareness of climate change really began to develop, with studies becoming increasingly present throughout my social and online media feeds,” Ms Murphy said.

“Reading those undeniable facts and figures prompted me towards my choice.”

Feminism and its link with climate change

Climate change has already begun to swell into the spheres of economic and social issues.

University of Western Australia gender studies lecturer Dr Jessica Taylor said the environmental crisis was a feminist issue at its core.

Climate change disproportionately threatened women’s health, safety and economic security and Australian women were more likely than men to recognise climate change, according to The Australian Conservation Foundation’s 2019 survey.

“Climate change is absolutely a feminist issue, with the impacts of climate change tending to fall along gendered lines,” Dr Taylor said.

“There are gendered impacts of climate change we need to attend to sooner rather than later, with global warming having the potential to exacerbate issues faced by men and women in modern society.

“Climate change impacts women more significantly than men, as they are more likely to experience poverty and have less socioeconomic power than men, proving difficult when it comes to dealing with climate induced disasters.”

The What’s Up In Your World survey found women were doing more than men to help the environment, with women were more likely to feel negative about the earth’s future. As many as 73 per cent of women were slightly or extremely negative about it, compared to 56 per cent of men.

“A lot of us are pretty protected from the impacts of climate change in Western Society,” Dr Taylor said.

“It’s the poorest people in the world who are facing climate change as an issue right now, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t happening in Australia, especially when it comes to the inequality that compounds the impact of climate change for women.”

The impacts for Western Australia and the future

Falling birth rates are considered threatening to the long term economic growth of the state, having a large impact on the future population profile.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a total of 309,142 births were registered in Australia in 2017, resulting in a total fertility rate of 1.74 babies per woman, the lowest since 2001.

In 2018, the UN International Panel on Climate Change warned the planet only has 11 years to prevent catastrophic climate change.

With the global devastation we are on the brink of being potentially irreversible, perhaps those reconsidering their parenting choices as the ultimate act of consideration for future generations should be commended, with only time revealing the true success of their sacrifice.