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Don’t Blame the Babies

“Don’t start a family — it’s bad for the planet.” The latest bad take on climate change forgets one little thing: whether or not you have a kid, the fossil fuel industry will still be there.

A woman sits in a nursery, feeding her newborn baby from a bottle as a nurse assists, circa 1955. Hulton Archive / Getty

Narrated by a pale, conflicted, millennial woman, a recent video on Fast Company’s website makes several reckless claims, including its title, “Why Having Kids is the Worst thing You Can Do For the Planet,” and its summary, “the best way to keep the planet from burning is not to start a family.”

The video details the carbon impact of each new arrival, noting that each child might also have children. Adding another human to our poor old planet is a big deal, our anguished narrator frets, even worse than driving a car or failing to eat a plant-based diet. I don’t doubt her data. But why does each human have such a huge carbon footprint? It’s not inherent to your (possibly quite charming) baby.

It’s the fossil fuel industry’s hold on the way we organize our society, and the capitalist incentives to put profits over the planet. A Zambian has nowhere near the environmental impact of an American; even though her nation has a much higher birth rate, her society isn’t nearly as carbon-intensive. The problem, then, isn’t kids. It’s the carbon dependence of our society, which is set up to ensure that we drive, fly, heat, cool, shop, and eat in all the most polluting ways possible.

Blaming female breeders and our rugrats for societal ills is not new: in the late eighteenth century, Pastor Thomas Robert Malthus famously blamed poverty on an excess of children. “Population bomb” hysterics revived this line of bourgeois fretting in the 1960s, similarly, blaming women who had too many kids for poverty (and this time, crime as well). This was completely wrong, observes Jenny Brown, author of Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work; after all, although the US birth rate is now much lower, poverty persists. The problem has been capitalism all along.

The same is true of the climate crisis. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC has found many different ways of saying that our economic system needs to change. It’s nice of Fast Company to lay responsibility for this problem on the uteri of the 99 percent while the whole magazine is one big, gushing ad for capitalism — including, for example, celebrations of Amazon’s “explosive growth.” In reality, one of the “worst things you can do” for the planet is continue to cheerlead for the this planet-ravaging system.

ExxonMobil doesn’t care whether you have another kid. The actual “best thing you can do” for the planet is anything that will reduce the political power of the fossil fuel industry, while “the worst thing you can do” is try to convince people otherwise. As Bill McKibben told me in an interview last year, “the most important lifestyle change you can make is to become a climate change activist.” This could include direct action to stop pipelines, organizing people to advocate for renewable energy, working for the election of more pro-Green New Deal politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, joining a socialist organization, or doing everything you can to get reactionaries like Donald Trump out of office.

It’s hard to think of a more neoliberal bit of gaslighting than telling a young woman to take responsibility for the crimes of capital by making a huge personal sacrifice — one that for some people would feel as unnatural and inhuman as giving up on love or sex — while letting those with all the money and power off the hook.

Some people aren’t having kids because they worry that climate change will make life much harder for future generations. AOC discussed this in a widely misrepresented Instagram video, rightly using the issue to show how urgent the climate crisis is and how essential it is that our government act quickly. I have written about that dilemma briefly here and while there’s more to say about it, caution about the future your kids might face in future climate crises is wholly different from arguing that children themselves, and women’s choices, are causing the climate problem.

Fast Company’s earnest little video at least offers careful caveats and hedges, acknowledging that refraining from reproduction won’t help unless other significant (unnamed) changes are made. So they’re hardly the worst neo-Malthusian offenders. A group of philosophers argue that not only should we as individuals refrain from having kids, governments should adopt “population engineering” measures to encourage this choice. (As if people needed “incentives” not to breed: as Brown points out in Birth Strike, birth rates are already low, and in the US, declining, in part because people’s economic conditions are so difficult and neoliberal governments offer so little support for child-rearing.)

The logical extension of all this is the terrifyingly named Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, a group of humans calling upon their fellow humans to abstain from reproduction, for the good of the planet. Their website explains: “Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow the Earth’s biosphere to return to good health.” What are they saving the planet for if not for humans?

One wonders why such people don’t go full Jim Jones; it would seem like the most ideologically consistent move. If you’re selfishly enjoying, or at least tolerating, your own existence enough to have decided against a voluntary departure (you carbon-huffing pig), you should hardly begrudge the same to future humans.

Misanthropy should at most be a fleeting cranky mood, not a political stance. Our ruling class and its political lackeys may be in full-on death-drive mode right now, doing all they can to destroy the human species — but there’s no reason we should be helping them out.