Childfree Greenies vs. Green Parents?

Is there anything more wonderful than being outside in a wide open space, without another human in sight?

After my post on trees, David Milarch of the Champion Tree Project stopped by and we had a nice chat by email. He’s actually going to be speaking in my hometown this Saturday at TedX, although I was disappointed to find that you have to be a member to attend. He reminded me that we should all get off our butts and start planting trees in our own neighborhoods (agreed). Then he said,

 I have a saying I use in everyone of my talks for a closing. ‘We are all working for our grandchildren and I invite you to do the same.’

I was struck by how much this idea failed to resonate with me. It actually turned me off a little. As a childfree person, I don’t have kids. I won’t have grandkids. In fact, I have no biological investment of any kind in the future of humanity. Although as a writer, reader, potter, and general creative mess, I have a deep appreciation for human creativity, I’m also less emotionally invested in whether humans make it as a species or not.  The roots of my environmentalism lie elsewhere.

All of which made me wonder: are childfree greenies motivated by fundamentally different reasons than green parents?

I think the answer, at least for me, is an emphatic yes. Plenty of people begin to care about the planet once they have kids and realize just what kind of world we’re likely to leave them, and that’s fine, but it’s not my story. Here’s the truth: I’m just not that into humans. Never have been. Age 5: examined and sampled just about every plant in my mother’s yard. Age 9: wore only shirts with animals on them. Age 13: rescued a cat who became my closest and favorite companion for the next 12 years. Age 14: joined the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Age 22: adopted a strict policy to donate only to animal or ecological non-profits. Age 24: stopped eating animals. And so on.

My environmentalism has everything to do with the wonder of the non-human world: the head-clearing loam of an old growth redwood forest, spongy with fallen needles and coastal fog. The poison a catalpa tree exudes that only affects cheater insects, not true pollinators. The weird and improbable life cycle of parasitic fungi that produces zombie insects. The breathtaking variety of life on this planet, our intricately linked and balanced ecosystems, Earth’s close shave from sharing the fate of its sister planet Venus — these things are what make me draw a deep breath in wonder and appreciation. I feel lucky to be alive on a planet so interesting, unexpected, and vibrant. The urge to protect everything I love most about it is intensely visceral.

I do want to save the Earth. Not for humans — though I’d be delighted to see us develop a less parasitical, more healthy role on this planet — but for its own ineffable beauty, wonder, and complexity. I want to save it from humans.

Humans are a fascinating species, and I have no doubt that our culture, music, literature, and philosophy are unique in the universe. It would be a tremendous shame if our civilization went down. But I also believe in taking responsibility for our actions, and if that means that humanity has to take it in the teeth for burying our heads in the sand when we knew better, my sense of fairness is fundamentally okay with that. I just don’t want to take everything down with us, leaving behind a barren rock with cockroaches and plastic debris. Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way; I came across this Grist article just today. Paul Kingsnorth, thank you for taking a stand for a less anthropocentric, more ecocentric view of the planet. I’m with you.

I want life to flourish on a stable, healthy planet. Not just humans, not necessarily humans.

If you’re a childfree greenie, what motivates you? And if you’re a parent, are your kids and grandkids your primary motivator, or do you identify with more ‘ecocentric’ reasons to protect the planet?


65 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for such a thought-provoking essay, Jennifer.

    At age 13, I read an American Lung Association’s primer about air pollution, which was really bad here in Los Angeles, and was finally being recognized as a health issue. About the same time, images and accounts of the horrific effects of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill found myself feeling as if both smog and dying sea life would not be a problem if we could just eliminate the automobile’s internal combustion engine.

    Meanwhile, growing up with a single television and no Internet, my parents “subjected” me to TV shows like “The Wonderful World of Disney” and “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” which depicted the miraculous world of nature and the fragility of the environment and our effects upon wildlife and ecosystems.

    Thus I concluded, while still in high school, that my biggest contribution to the environment and our planet’s health would be to not add another human to its population. One of the first environmental groups I felt a kinship to was Zero Population Growth, hence my moniker to this day of “Donnzpg.”

    So I guess I would share your wish, Jennifer, that life on earth might evolve unencumbered by the industrialized processes that Homo sapiens have introduced to our fragile world. I don’t envision this happening, unfortunately.

    As to your question, I do feel compassion for “future generations,” and wish that humans could live in harmony with nature. But like you, I am ambivalent as to whether in the long run our species survives.

    • Hi Donn,

      Thank you for your thoughts. I never made the connection between your screenname and Zero Population Growth before! I also hope that my choice not to have children is in some small way lessening the squeeze on wilderness and biodiversity, although I am painfully aware that my life in developed country has plenty of impact and probably always will.

      I’m a little more optimistic than I sounded in the post; I think life will persist and even recover once our demands on it have slowed or stopped. Even if we razed everything off the planet, something new would probably evolve. But the splendor of axolotls, rainforests, amur leopards…I would grieve to know that we had singlehandedly destroyed them.

  2. Posted by EcoCatLady on 04/12/2012 at 23:40

    This is a fabulous post. I, like you, am not a real big fan of people… or maybe I’m just not a big fan of human greed and self-righteousness, which seem to be sort of inseparable from people. I think for me, it just strikes me as cosmically unfair that humans should be able to ruin everything for so many other species.

    That being said, I really don’t think that people are all that different from other animals in this respect. We’re just the only animal at present who has the power to mess things up so inexorably for everybody else. I mean really… if it were cats rather than humans who had all of the money, power and opposable thumbs, would things really be that much different?

    Still, I saw a documentary today called “Homo Toxicus” which was about chemical pollutants, especially synthetic estrogens, and how they are decreasing sperm counts and even have the potential to destroy human reproduction altogether. I’ve gotta say that I just kept thinking that it would be poetic justice if our refusal to regulate ourselves ended up costing us the ability to reproduce. Problem solved!

    But in the end I am a believer in the law of Karma, so whatever we put into motion will inevitably play itself out… no morality needed. And I’m confident that even if we do end up wiping out the majority of life on the planet, life, in some form will survive, and will blossom into all sorts of creatures as of yet unimaginable. The planet will take care of itself. It might not turn out in a way that satisfies our human desire for either survival or fairness, but Gaia will persevere, and I guess I’m OK with that.

    Perhaps I’m just a tad bit cynical and fatalistic on this whole topic… ya think? 🙂

    BTW – your link to the Grist article is broken.

    • Hi Cat,

      I think i fixed the link. Sorry about that. If you didn’t get to read it, I recommend it — I was surprised at how closely my views aligned with Paul Kingsnorth’s.

      Actually (and this is a topic for another blog post), I think a HUGE part of how we ended up in this situation is our failure to recognize that humans are animals and behave in fundamentally animal ways. We compete for resources and mates; we expand to the utmost of our resources; on a species wide level, we seem to be incapable of acting for long term security rather than short term gain. Recognizing that we’re really not that much different or smarter than other animals might be a good first step in looking for a realistic next move. I think it might be time to concede that, although we’re smart enough to figure out solutions, we’re not going to actually put them into motion until things have hit a point of true crisis. I don’t think it’s cynicism at this point; I think it’s realism based on past precedent.

      I do think life will persist, and new and possibly even cooler things will come if we manage to wipe everything out. But I look at the beauty and complexity of what is already here and would really prefer not to wipe it out.

  3. Posted by Andrea on 04/13/2012 at 07:12

    Another fascinating, thought-provoking post, Jennifer. Thank you.

    I, too, am not having children, and I, too, am not stirred by pleas to consider my grandchildren when deciding how to treat the planet. My guess is that for many or most people, the only way to care about what happens on earth after they pass is related to how their children and grandchildren will fare (though that doesn’t seem to matter for the upper management of polluting corporations). And for other people, the motivation to be green comes from an appreciation for the ecology of the planet itself, as in your case.

    I don’t know how I feel about our species. Sometimes I am proud of humanity, like when I hear about someone who is able to overcome great adversity to become an incredible human being, likely to spend the rest of their life righting wrongs and pushing for environmental and/or social justice. Other times I am ashamed of what we’re capable of: as I type this I’m listening to news on the trial of a man accused of kidnapping, assaulting, and killing a young girl. Do we deserve to live on this earth that we’re killing while we’re also killing each other?

    Sometimes I think we’d do things differently if we didn’t treat the planet like a rental apartment. If only we kept in mind that this is our permanent home, and we can’t just start over somewhere else when we’re finished trashing it. 😦

    • Hi Andrea,

      Sometimes it’s a little lonely being a childfreen green blogger surrounded by green parents. I have significantly different environmental concerns and priorities (Chemical linked to human infertility? Green birthday parties for toddlers? Um…), and that gave rise to this entry. Green means different things to different people.

      I’m not a true misanthrope, either. I’ve always been drawn to the arts — the fluidity of the human form in dance, the strength of a well-written sentence, the feel of a beautiful object. Yet I look at the flip side of humanity, its greed and demand for resources and wars, and I wonder if the beauty is worth the trade off.

  4. Very thought-provoking. I am a parent and much of the decisions I make are likely affected by that. I think it is a lot easier to reach people who are parents and grandparents through young children. Many people won’t make changes for their own health or for the greater well-being of the world.

    I think there are plenty of people who decide to “go green” once having children, but there are also those of us who have been fighting for the environment since a young age. I related to the plight of the great marine mammals because of pollution, hunting, and capture. I related to the destruction of forest habitat sending ecosystems and economics into a tailspin. I related to the issues of nuclear power and waste. All of this began for me when I was in primary school.

    I wrestle with the ideology of zero population, but perhaps I am seeking to justify the reasons I do have children. I have always intended to raise them to think for themselves, to consider the consequences of their actions (or inaction), and how to lessen their inevitable impact on the world. I hope they will grow to do some amazing things for the benefit of all living things. My fear is too many are being raised to do the complete opposite. We need balance.

    • Hi Brenna,

      I agree that it is easier to motivate most people through their kids and grandkids. I am definitely not advocating my position as the next great green marketing message! The green movement has to work with the fact that most people will not make changes simply because they are the right thing to do.

      When I was posting this, I actually thought you might respond to say that you were environmentally aware before you had kids. I’m sure many other parents fall into this category, and I’m sure many other childfree people have a more humanistic outlook than I do and care very much about the fate of the human species. It’s a spectrum, and I’m on the misanthropic, poorly socialized end. 🙂

      You lose me a little with the zero population growth thing. I can totally respect having issues with the voluntary human extinction movement. (My parents were appalled when I gleefully announced I had made the pledge.) But by virtually every standard we can measure — carbon, fresh water, natural resources — there are already too many humans on this planet consuming resources at far too great a rate. I think zero population growth is just the beginning; at 7 billion strong, I think we should be striving for gradual population reduction if we want to keep anything like our current standard of living.

      I’ve heard the argument about raising kids to be environmental champions, but honestly, the amount of control we have over kids is completely unpredictable. My parents tried their hardest to raise a culturally sensitive Asian American child. I turned my nose up at every cultural thing they tried to push at me and instead sought out western culture. Many of the most liberal people I know are the children of conservatives. I don’t think it’s realistic to have children expecting that they will save the world and make up for their own impact and that of future generations. That said, I’m all for education and attempting to show kids how not to make the same mistakes we did.

      • You are totally right that we have little control over what our children will do as they grow up. I hope mine will be thoughtful thinkers, but who knows? That is why I wrestle with the idea of zero population growth, I can see the reasons behind the movement and yet here I sit with children.

        It is really interesting that I was just discussing the merits of the movement with my 8 year old earlier today. We were talking about California Condors and how there are a lot more now than there were 20 years ago, but in comparison to humans, they are still vulnerable to extinction. My son said we ought to reduce the human population then, but wondered how to do that.

        Anyway, all this to say that I don’t have issues with those who choose to never have children for this reason, but it makes me squeamish when there are so many who truly care for the plight of the planet that do have kids. I guess it all comes down, again, to whether we are all just hypocrites. Does that make sense?

        • Hi Brenna,

          I think knowing the full environmental impact of having children, caring about the environment, and having more than one or two kids anyway is about two essentially conflicting forces: 1) the biological urge to reproduce, and 2) the intellectual urge to protect the planet. (I don’t think the latter is an instinct, and I don’t think it comes naturally to us to consider long term, big picture environmental effects in our actions.) The first one is probably stronger in many cases. This is conjecture on my part; I have never felt the desire to have children.

          However, I do want to say that I can empathize with how hard it is to make the environmental decision when it comes to something that matters so much personally. I look at my cat, my happy little high-impact carnivore and one of the best parts of my life, and I know I would never give her up or not have a cat for the sake of reducing my footstep.

  5. Jennifer, you’re not alone! I tend to write more about animals rights than about the environment directly, but to me the two are related: meat-eating is probably the worst thing we do to the environment (visit on April 18th for my post on this), and destroying the environment is one of the worst things we do to animals.

    And I’m childfree. Instead of ZPG I think we need negative growth — or in better English, a shrinking population.

    It is frustrating when people fail or refuse to see the connections among these ideas, but they have made a lot of headway in the last few decades and I’m confident they will continue to spread.

    • Hi Piper,

      I agree that the environmental movement and animal rights have a fair amount of shared ground, and am pleasantly surprised that many of the same people who identify as childfree as also vegetarians or vegans and environmentally concerned. I guess the ideas really are closely related!

      I’m with you on reducing our population. Different experts have come up with different numbers about Earth’s ideal carrying capacity, but they all agree that it is finite and we’ve surpassed it. I am a big supporter of increased social acceptance for being childfree, free and accessible contraception for all women of childbearing age, and greater protection for abortion laws.

  6. Interesting question. I’m childfree, and I don’t know if I’d call myself a greenie. I do what I can. And I guess I do it because it seems like the right thing to do. Though I do have a niece and dear friends with kids, and I do care about the world they’ll inherit, my motivation to keep my carbon footprint small, to recycle, shop conscientiously, etc., has more to do with a sense of my own legacy. I would hope that those who remember me after I’m gone look back fondly on a man who tried to live a life that was about making the space and people around him better off, in some small way, because of his short -lived presence on the planet.

    • Hi David,

      That sounds like a lovely way to be remembered. 🙂 It’s great to hear that doing the right thing is a motivating factor for you. It is for me as well. Even if you don’t really consider yourself a greenie (and sorry if the term doesn’t seem quite right for you — I think I like it because my cat eats treats by the same name), it certainly sounds like you live conscientiously and thoughtfully.

  7. Here here!! I sometimes think that the world is only under so much strain because of the relentless breeding going on, and my contribution to “green-ness” is not to breed! Among other reasons, I agree with you that one should be ecological for the earth’s sake, there’s only one chance and it lies with our decisions.

    • Hi Ellen,

      David Attenborough has this quote that I go back to all the time about how every environmental problem we face is harder to solve with more people — whether we’re talking about carbon footprints, water shortages, ecosystem disruption, habitat loss. Although population is only one part of the equation, it’s an important one, and I think Attenborough absolutely has it right.

      I don’t want to suggest that an appreciation for wilderness is the only valid reason to care about the planet, but it’s certainly what drives me.

  8. Posted by cindy on 04/13/2012 at 14:11

    Jennifer… Your post strongly resonates w/me.. I too have preferred other species to ours since I was young… I too would not mind riding the earth of our species if we fail to see fit to accomodate others. & If we do not my consolation is that we will self-exterminate

    I can’t imagine telling people not to have children but we should by now have overcome our need to breed heedlessly. I also think that the call to save the earth for our grandchildren is another way to hook into our selfishness..something like “ecosystem services”.. as if earth-life has no value except to us..

    Your essay is refreshing & unique. I have never seen this point of view considered so thoughtfully..It is about time..Thank You!

    PS..Started perusing the sure have provoked discussion..yes, the planet willsurvive..but we are causing the 6th mass extinction.. It took an average of 10million years for life to rebound after the five earlier mass extinctions..

    • Hi Cindy,

      I don’t tell people not to have kids, either. It’s not my business to make that kind of decision for anyone else, although I confess I wish more people would take planetary health into consideration when deciding family size. And I agree that seeing the planet only with the view of how it can personally benefit us is a bit short sighted. But it seems to be one of the more successful ways to spur environmental consciousness, so I’m unwilling to condemn it.

      Learning about the human caused mass extinction was one of the earliest things that got me into the environmental movement. Evolution is a slow process.

  9. Posted by Liz on 04/14/2012 at 06:01

    I have read your blog for a while and enjoy it. Occasionally I have felt like commenting but never have quite managed to find the right words. On this occasion I do feel I need to put in my 2 cents worth. I think many of the problems we have today is because we view people separate from the ecosystem, as somehow removed from it. And from my reading of your post you seem happy to do much the same thing but in reverse, valuing other life over human life. I understand saving the world from human’s – that I get, but I have to say I struggle with the concept of not viewing humans as an intrinsic part of that world to be fought for at all costs. I have to say I also struggle with the need to distinguish between those who do and don’t have children. Whether or not you have children doesn’t remove you from a world in which children exist, or where the aged exist for that matter. I believe children form integral part of both our communities (whether they are our own or others – I do have 2 children but their existence doesn’t particularly inform my environmentalism I don’t think) and by extension the world in which we live. And that world is a part of this earth, and the ecosystems that we are all seeking to protect. I don’t want to see the end of environmental degradation for my kids sake, I want to see it for my sake, my kids sake, your sake, the rest of the people in the worlds sake, as well as for the sake of both the living and natural environment of which they are an intrinsic part.

    • Hi Liz,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I appreciate your balanced perspective. I’m an unapologetic misanthrope — for sure I value the natural world over human life. I don’t feel too bad because I am massively outnumbered by people who value human life more, and that prevailing attitude has probably pushed me further into misanthropy. I just don’t feel the innate drive to save humans from ourselves. But of course you’re right: we are also a part of the natural world. I think I’m actually slightly comforted by the fact that as part of the natural world, we are subject to its laws, and they will rein us in if we don’t manage to do so voluntarily.

      It’s a fair point about drawing a line between people with kids and without. I’ve been frustrated lately because my environmental circle has become increasingly female and increasingly mothers, and what they care about is very different from what I care about. It seems to me that their intense focus on human health, especially that of their kids, is missing the bigger picture of planetary well-being and health. That’s certainly a generalization, but this anthropocentric form of environmentalism is at odds with what I believe, feel, and work for.

      • Posted by Liz on 04/14/2012 at 17:05

        I think its interesting that you see their issues as separate. I understand it can get pretty tedious listening to people go on about, say the effect of plastics on babies health to list just one issue that I imagine comes up from time to time. The way I see these things though is that they are emblematic of a wider system which places profit motive above other considerations. In that way I do think the issues are all part of the same problem – that organisations are happy to disregard the effect of their actions on both the physical environment and the living things (both flora and fauna) that inhabit it. But this I guess is quite a specific way to approach the issue and I imagine your concern would be that if the focus becomes too much on health issues then wider environment issues would be ignored, and perhaps they will but my hope is that increased awareness will lead to a greater questioning of corporate and government actions more generally and with that improvement in their environmental track records.
        As for the over-population issue, I absolutely agree that the world is (or will be very soon) over-populated but to me the way to solution is about seeking out the causes of that over-population (poverty, infant mortality, lack of education, attitudes towards women, societal attitudes towards contraception) and addressing those issues rather concerning oneself with whether any particular individual chooses to reproduce or not. Of course being a mother almost certainly drives that attitude in much the same way that not having children seems to inform the views of other commenters on this forum. I do believe that being animals (as you rightly point out) many of us are driven to reproduce and then protect those offspring. Which does seem to occasionally mean becoming hypersensitive about BPA in plastics and so on on occasions. Great topic really thought proking thanks for raising it by the way.

        • Hi Liz,

          You’re right of course that the issues are linked and that they come down to many of the same root problems. There are many roads to the realization that change needs to happen. But hyperfocusing on human issues seems to me like it has sort of a trickle down effect at best on environmental problems in which much more, especially in the long term, is at stake. This is a bit of a personal beef of mine that far too much press is given to potential human hazards that might result in 1/10,000 cases of cancer when we are facing big, proven threats to our planet’s life support systems.

          I didn’t mean to condemn anyone for having kids and apologize if I came off that way. I am with you that population needs to be addressed on a larger scale than individual finger wagging, and strongly support education, contraception, reproductive rights (and women’s rights in general), as well as a society that is more approving of the choice not to have children. I also think the connection between environmental impact and having children needs to be made very clear so that environmentally concerned people take it into consideration when deciding on family size.

  10. Posted by seitei on 04/14/2012 at 08:54

    a great post (like usual)! i’m starting to wonder whom you’re talking about whenever you use the word ‘we.’ you said something about figuring out what our “next realistic move” would be. it’s as if you think there’s someone (or some governmental body) in control of all this.

    my schtick has always been about the importance of education and raising evnironmental consciousness (not that I do much about it like blog or anything, but i reserve my right to complain w/ the rest of you!). the more folks you can get into yr “we” -and i think that might be about 1.5 million more- maybe something can begin to tip in the right direction.

    • Hi Seitei,

      Oops…thanks for calling me out on using the royal ‘we.’ A bad habit I fall into sometimes in presuming (or hoping) that I’m not the only one who feels this way. I guess one of the problems of being a loner is that I don’t really have a strong ‘we’ that can take effective, unified action. Still thinking about how to get around that one!

  11. Posted by smallftprints on 04/14/2012 at 17:50

    I don’t have children. Truthfully, I’m not motivated by whether or not humans will survive … I’m not sure that I even think about that, much, because I think that we (humanity) are making our own decisions and will have to suffer the consequences. But the environment and all the other life forms on the earth … well that’s another matter. They haven’t done anything wrong … they haven’t decided to destroy anything or exhaust everything available. They simply have been put in the unfortunate situation to live at our mercy … to be subject to our sense of responsibility … or lack therof. That’s what motivates … a need to protect life which can’t defend itself against us. Someone commented above about the unfairness … and that’s something which resonates with me. It is unfair that “life” has no safe place … nowhere to avoid us. So maybe, if I do my best to live green … just maybe I give some small piece of “life” a safe harbor from all the destructive forces.

    • Hi Smallftprints,

      I hear you. I feel a lot of guilt whenever I hear about all the species going extinct due to deforestation, ocean acidification, changing climates, and (worst of all?) human poaching. There is indeed nowhere to avoid us. I hope that my choice not to have children and the other choices I make to reduce my impact lessen the squeeze on other species, if only by a very little.

      From the other people without kids who have responded, it sounds like we are generally less motivated by human survival and feel more guilt about how human activity is affecting the rest of the planet. Interesting to know. Thanks for commenting!

  12. Posted by Rosa on 04/14/2012 at 23:05

    There are a lot of green parents out there who are/were environmentalists long before they had kids – I don’t know anyone who became aware because of having kids, except online. Sometimes I think the Green Mom blogosphere is so big because it’s a great marketing venue – all of the parts of the internet where people buy a lot of stuff are bigger than the parts where people do stuff and share information.

    • Hi Rosa,

      Yep — I have environmentalist friends who want kids (eventually), and I recognize that concern for the environment and having kids are not mutually exclusive. It just seems like a lot of the green parents I come in contact with are way on the other side of things with their green blogger conventions on the other side of the country, product promotions, and constant pregnancies. I try not to judge, but have to admit: it makes me a little crazy. Also, I think your point about how product / marketing on the internet takes up more space than idea sharing is well taken. I’d love to see that change.

      • Posted by Rosa on 04/15/2012 at 20:39

        I’d love to see it change, but that’s as fundamental a change as going to negative carbon emissions or NPG, isn’t it? Even in real life – when we did have a kid, I really wanted to stick with all “green” toys. But we (and, I suspect, people like us) only buy one or two new toys a year, so the local sustainably-produced-nontoxic-creative-play-toy store didn’t survive long.

        • Yeah, sorry, that was a moment of complete wishful thinking on my part. It seems to be remarkably tricky to promote sustainable practices and have a successful, retail-oriented business at the same time. I think the future economy is going have to be both 1) slower (less work, less stuff) and 2) service rather than stuff oriented. I’d prefer to voluntarily make the change now than do it after a major economic collapse, but that’s probably not going to happen.

          • Posted by Rosa on 04/19/2012 at 16:45

            Hey, if it wasn’t for wishful thinking, all we’d have is despair.

  13. What an interesting post! I’ve never really looked hard at these ideas before but I think I feel somewhat the same way about the we-must-do-this-for-our-grandchildren argument as the we-must-do-this-to-get-into-heaven argument. That is, if people would otherwise be cruel or wasteful or irresponsible, I’m glad they hold these beliefs.
    But to me, this kind of thinking seems to do away with the value of practising compassion, respect and mindfulness in the present, as a meaningful part of our own experience of this life. If I knew that our entire planet was going to implode tomorrow without a trace, I’d still go without eggs today if I couldn’t find them free-range.

    • Hi Olivia,

      I agree — doing good things for reasons that are different from my reasons is still a win for everyone. 🙂 At the same time, you bring up something that I’ve been mulling over for a while. I recently saw Paul Gilding’s TED talk (‘The Earth is Full’) about how we’re very unlikely to act effectively and unitedly to mitigate climate change until we hit full out catastrophe — i.e., we’re not going to save the planet. And earlier this month I came across Thich Nhat Hanh’s thought experiment (what if people are not around in 100 years?). Would I still keep up my green habits? Ultimately, I think I would because my primary concern is the natural world, not human survival, and anything I can do now to increase the odds of our ecosystems remaining intact is my moral imperative to do. Environmentalism has a strong ethical component for me.

  14. Great post and great blog. I consider myself childless not by choice, however I always only wanted one biological child – largely due to the fact that our planet is already overburdened with too many people. However I do have concerns that it is often the thinkers and those that care about more than their nuclear family that tend to procreate less, Certainly you can’t decide what your future children will do, but I think they are more likely to have a wider perspective if the parents do. I may have to look at joining zpg.

    • Hi Living My Life,

      I think having one child is a good compromise between environmental concerns and fulfilling your desire to be a parent. Environmentalist Bill McKibben has a book about smaller families with single children called Maybe One. I’m sorry this option wasn’t available to you.

      Apparently there’s a film called Idiocracy about what happens when the educated stop having kids. I don’t buy it, though. Parents are not the only influence to shape children, and there are so many ways that other adults can be positive forces in their lives.

  15. Posted by dinkschildfree on 04/16/2012 at 12:40

    You are certainly not alone and for awhile there I thought I was alone! I have watched a show on TV called, “Life after humans” and it talks a lot about how animals and plants will flourish once humans are gone. I have a greater appreciation and sense of responsibility for animals and nature than I do for humans. We are smart enough to make decisions, and so many people make decisions that are terrible for nature. I do not recycle for my grandkids because I will never have them. However, I also don’t recycle for my friends kids or grandkids. I recycle for the future of the nature on this planet. Awesome post!

    • Hi Dinkschildfree,

      One of the books that pushed me on to this green journey was Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. It was a bit of a downer, but it also highlighted the tenacity of life and the likelihood of balance returning after taking humans out of the equation. I’d be happy if humans could remain in the equation, but it’s not a critical point for me.

      I recycle, reduce, and reuse because the planet matters to me, but I also do it because it’s simply the right thing for a resident of this planet to do.

  16. I don’t have kids, nor do I plan to, but that’s because I never felt the desire to do so rather than for environmental purposes. And while I agree that humans do suck, I don’t think all of us do. I do have young cousins, a nephew and other relatives and I hope we continue to have a planet for their sake as well as others. So the save the planet for future humans messages isn’t really a turnoff for me or a major motivator. I’ve had green leanings since high school (at the latest) and think that taking care of the planet is important because it’s the right thing to do, for us, for future humans and especially for other species who we’re hurting and can’t stand up to us themselves.

    • Hi Candi,

      Here I thought I was doing a good job of masking the underlying sentiment, and you picked it out anyway. Some days I do find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that humans do, indeed, suck. (As a species; I like many humans as individuals.) I work with teens and hope they won’t be stuck dealing with a planet in catastrophic instability, but ultimately, I don’t have high stakes in human survival. I went to the redwoods this weekend in hopes it would cure me of the blahs, but I learned while there that even these giants are threatened by climate change and came away saddened and upset to be human.

      I’m with you that we should take care of the planet because it’s the right thing to do. I wonder if considering the environment in our actions will eventually become a part of our moral code. I hope so.

  17. I am a lifelong environmentalist… and I don’t have kids. And the two things are almost entirely separate for me. The whole conundrum of having kids or not having kids for me was an emotional/social thing I had to work out, it operated at quite a different level to the more rational understanding of the implications of exponential population growth. And I think that is the battle with the whole zero population growth movement

    In fact, where I live, the people most active in the Sustainable Population Australia group would have an average of about 3.5 kids each between them. Their excuse is “If only I knew then what I knew now I would make a different decision” – even if they were having kids around the time Paul Erhlich wrote The Population Bomb.

    To me it just shows that there are a WHOLE bunch of other reasons why people have kids, and environmental beliefs just aren’t high up there in the decision-making for most.

    • Hi Honeymyrtle,

      Great observations. I’m also not childfree because of the environment, though environmental reasons have confirmed my decision. I’m childfree because I’ve never wanted them. If I did, I would probably find some way to rationalize having one. The choice to have kids is so closely tied up with biological and social factors that I doubt the more rational aspect of exponential population growth and the direct correlation between greater population and greater impact figures in for most people. I feel like this conversation most often takes place between people who have already made decisions, when it should really start younger, maybe with sex ed.

      Something I daydream about is a global morality shift to consider responsible behavior toward the planet a moral imperative. I think our whole species might have to be rewired to do that, though.

  18. Posted by diane on 04/19/2012 at 09:22

    people can be motivated by many different things. While I started my ‘green’ movement as a way to keep my kids safe and healthy I keep going because I know it is the right thing to do for the future of this planet. Not just MY descendants but all of humanity.

    • Hi Diane,

      That’s great to hear. I’m glad it’s become something so philanthropic for you. I am not particularly concerned about the future of humanity, but I think any step in looking beyond and caring for your immediate family and interests makes this planet a little bit better.

  19. Posted by Sarah on 04/20/2012 at 16:05

    David Milarch has it right.
    We live in a crazy world where people care less about their fellow human beings than ever before. Zero populationists are disillusioned and disconnected. Humans are innately social beings, we need each other, we need to educate each other and teach each other compassion, not turn our backs on each other in disgust and judgement and simply say there should be less humans.

    What about raising your own offspring as a team of environmental champions? What about economies of scale of a large family versus single or even dual-child families (i.e. all the baby and child gear people buy and accumulate, clothes, toys, books, driving a family of 4 children to the swimming pool at once or 4 separate families driving their 1 child to the swimming pool)? And what about the proliferation of domestic pets? Even your screen avatar is a domestic cat–responsible for the loss of native birds in specific habitats, mostly islands, often shorelines and sometimes inland areas. The World Conservation Union now lists the domestic cat as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species. And if your cat is kept purely indoors, how “natural” is that?

    • Hi Sarah,

      I didn’t say David Milarch was wrong. In fact, I think his appeal will, well, appeal to a great many people, and that’s a good thing. I’m simply offering a different perspective: mine, and that of a number of other childfree people who feel alienated by this constant reminder that we should care and act primarily for the sake of future human generations.

      I disagree with your assertion that zero population growth supporters are disillusioned. There is overwhelming proof that human population, in combination with human consumption patterns, is driving ecological deterioration. A growing human population, in turn, will lead to a world in which human quality of life suffers, and I would be very surprised if that did not eventually lead to a population crash. By working to stabilize the population now, zero population growth supporters are being both realistic and forward thinking. And many are not anti family or anti child, but rather pro contraception and pro education.

      I’ve heard the argument that larger families have lower per capita impacts because of shared things, but there’s one reason I’m not buying it: this is only true for one generation. If each child goes on to have more children, and then grandchildren, and so on, the collective impact coming from a decision to have more than one or two children is massive and long reaching. I don’t think you can really raise children to be what you want. My parents wanted me to be a cultural warrior, proud of my heritage and spreading the wealth of Chinese culture wherever I went. That didn’t work out so well for them. We can’t control what kids we get, or what they choose to care about.

      Also, I’ve posted about the impact of my cat before. You might enjoy (or perhaps not) this post: . Brie is blind and indoor only (read: incapable of harming wildlife), and spayed. If you look at the definition of invasive species (non-indigenous species that adversely affect the habitats they inhabit), humans are by far the most successful invasive species in the history of this planet. We are on every continent except Antarctica, and on each, have had a major impact on the native ecosystems — not least by bringing other invasive species.

  20. Posted by Sarah on 04/20/2012 at 23:11

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply Jennifer, and congrats on having such a green cat, even if she is named after a dairy product (!).
    I still feel that zero populationists are disillusioned and disconnected from their fellow human beings–your use of the word “alienated” in the first paragraphs outlines this.
    I think if you ever have children, biological or adopted, you would feel differently. As someone who has had multiple pets as well as multiple children, I am speaking from experience that you don’t know what you are missing (and I mean the frustrating challenges AND the exhilarating joys) until you’re there. A pet is not even close to being on the same level (and yes, my dog was my fur-baby and I used to dress him up in little old t-shirts). It’s like trying to explain what a really juicy ripe homegrown strawberry tastes like to someone who has never had one–you can try to compare and describe, but until you really taste it for yourself, you’ll just never really know how different it is from anything else. I just can’t convey to you what you are missing, and to suggest that people should not pro-create and miss out on the experience, to deny that we are beings who are a part of the cycle of nature, of life and death, to me smacks of immaturity and ideological simplicity.
    Furthermore, I think that the apple never falls too far from the tree, and while I am different from my family and all of my children are different from one-another, I see common threads woven throughout. While you may not be a Chinese cultural warrior as your parents had hoped, you have chosen a different path of your own interest–I still think your parents won in the end, they raised a passionate and driven individual who is seeking answers and wants to do the best on this journey we call life.
    Thanks for creating a forum for this dialogue.

    • Hi Sarah,

      I didn’t actually name Brie — that was the shelter’s name for her, and as she turned out to be fuzzy and mild and gray, it seemed like a good name. Also, I do enjoy a bit of brie every now and then!

      I’m not necessarily a good example of a zero population growth person for several reasons: 1) I don’t think zero population growth goes far enough and support population reduction based on education, women’s rights, and access to contraception; and 2) I have been a self-professed misanthrope for most of my adult life and have a mild degree of social dysfunction — hence the alienation. However, I think you’ll find many people who support zero population growth who are neither of the above. David Attenborough, one of Britain’s most popular public figures and the narrator of many wonderful natural videos, is one of the most outspoken proponents of ‘stopping at two,’ I think he has kids. Zero population growth does not mean telling people not to have children, by the way, which I have never done — just because it’s not the right choice for me doesn’t mean that it isn’t for anyone else. It simply means ensuring that the birth rate is equal to the death rate. I certainly do think that people who care about the planet should figure environmental interests in when deciding how many children to have.

      It’s great that your experience of having children has been superior to having pets, but I have absolutely no reason to believe that would be true for me. As I said, I’m a misanthrope — I don’t really like people! Co-habiting with my spouse has been a challenge in many ways, and he’s an independent and responsible individual. I also have zero tolerance for being sleep deprived, get extremely cranky without my daily allotment of quiet time and privacy, have no maternal instincts to speak of, and would be a negligent and unhappy mother. (I’ve been told I should read We Need to Talk About Kevin.) I have had experiences that I find fulfilling and exhilarating, including socializing a a blind, unfriendly cat to the point where she rolls over for tummy rubs and follows me around like a puppy. You’re right that I don’t know what I’m missing, but I enjoy my life in its current form so much that I would never trade it for something so unlikely to bring me happiness.

  21. Great post. I also feel this way. Nature as a whole can move me to tears. The innocence of animals, the abundance of fruit trees just giving giving giving all the time, the joyful sounds of birds in the morning!! all this needs to be saved from humans’ destructive tendencies.

    • Thanks, Atmaprana! I think we live on an amazing planet. The more natural history I read, the more I appreciate its intricacies and unexpected, sometimes savage, beauty. One of the last books I read (by Bernd Heinrich, title is escaping me at the moment) was all about death and how other animals recycle nutrients into new life. I expected to find it macabre, but it turned out to be unexpectedly beautiful and moving. Humans are not nearly as good at undertaking and keeping nutrients cycling as other predators and scavengers…

  22. […] 4 – It’s Not Easy to be Green: Explain this statement of yours; I want to save it [the world] from […]

  23. Posted by Sarah on 04/25/2012 at 10:35

    I’m not saying having children is superior to having pets, certainly both have their pros and cons, but its like comparing apples and rocks, I’m saying the profoundness of experience is vastly different. You hear many people say “I didn’t really know what love was until having children,” and that I have found to be so true.
    And I can say as someone who never much liked children, other people’s runny-nosed children, when I had my own, all misanthropic leanings went out the window. It’s something that happens on a hormonal, subconscious, involuntary level. Natural instincts I suppose. And yes, it would very likely happen to you too.
    That said, motherhood isn’t all birds chirping, angels singing, and love at first sight, as some have difficult post-partum issues and the first months of sleep deprivation in my opinion are extremely trying, but we make it through and really earn our joys. And I do get a little “me time” now and then (writing here), it’s called nap time and without it most of us wouldn’t survive.
    Don’t be so hard on yourself and don’t fear the worst, it might just be the best thing that ever happens to you, or not, you have a lot to offer.

    • Hi Sarah,

      I’m not sure what else I could say to get you to take me seriously that I am not having children, that there is no possibility I will change my mind, and that I have the self-knowledge to make both of these statements. I don’t fear having children: if I ever got pregnant, I would have an abortion, and then a tubal ligation. That is all.

  24. Posted by Sarah on 04/25/2012 at 12:27

    But then I guess that would be a case of human interference with nature wouldn’t it? Harsh. Power to you.

    • I have never argued for zero interference; humans and all other organisms interact with our environment in so many different ways simply by being alive. An abortion has much less environmental impact than bringing another human into the world. I’d rather not be that rare case of statistical failure of perfect use contraception, but if I were, I would have every environmental and personal reason to remain childfree.

  25. Posted by Sarah on 04/25/2012 at 14:55

    Good for you, but using the environment as a reason to not have children is still a faux cover for alienation, disillusionment, and misanthropy. It’s a natural process, part of the life cycle, and we should all attempt to be mindful of our environmental impact on our journey, otherwise we should all just commit suicide to save the planet right?!
    With a post titled “My Cat is Greener than your Baby,” you are the one who is inviting the comparison, not me, but as far as I’m concerned, you’re comparing strawberries and rocks. Interesting perhaps, but irrelevant.

    • Bill McKibben, environmental activist and author of Maybe One, a book about his compromise between wanting a child and concerns about exponential population growth, is hardly alienated, disillusioned, or misanthropic. Realizing that runaway human population growth is completely unsustainable, and that all environmental problems are exacerbated by more people, is common sense backed up by science in virtually every field. I’m glad it’s being discussed by more people and gaining ground among leading environmentalists, because population is going to make a much bigger difference than changing our lightbulbs or driving hybrids.

      Being mindful of our impact should certainly influence our decision to have children, and how many. No one is saying you can’t have children, or that children can’t be an important life experience for you to have. That said, attempting to convince me of the joys of motherhood is 1) a waste of your time, and 2) unlikely to benefit the environment in any way whatsoever.

  26. You might find this article and comments interesting. I don’t agree with the title for the piece, but I don’t think Clive Hamilton named it himself.

  27. Posted by Sarah on 04/25/2012 at 16:37

    Thanks for article–makes a lot of sense. Conspicuous consumption is what we’re really up against, and while an increase in population can make it much worse, it also might not be as much of a factor depending on the type of population we are creating. I am teaching my children to do more than their part.

  28. I actually think overpopulation is a huge problem and I think it’s hard to argue against that these days. I don’t buy the argument that it’s overconsumption not overpopulation that is the problem – they are both problems and overpopulation is even more of a problem in the developed world where our carbon footprint is greater – even if we do try to minimise it. I made some comments along these lines after the article. It’s great if people can teach their children to minimise impact – I wish more people would do it – but we do also need to look at the forbidden topic of population as well.

  29. Posted by Sarah on 04/25/2012 at 23:55

    Is it a forbidden topic, or is it just extremist? It’s an interesting idea, but it feels like Philosophy 101 to me; simplistic, utopian, idealist, immature.
    Why don’t we not take showers, not heat/cool our dwellings, eat our purposeless consuming pets–less extreme than believing humankind should end as a species, but no one in the developed world has hopped on those bandwagons… Less glam than pointing fingers I suppose.

    • Stabilizing the human population is not an extremist idea. Mainstream organizations like the UN and the London School of Economics have found a link — an obvious one, in my opinion — between rising population and rising emissions. There’s just no getting around the pesky fact that exponential population growth on a finite planet is going to be bad in the long run. While behavioral changes such as consuming less help, a recent Oregon State University study found that ‘having a child has an impact that far outweighs other energy saving behavior.’ This NYT piece sums up the results of the study nicely: . It’s not finger pointing to suggest that people who want kids and care about the environment should consider their full impact before deciding on family size. That’s not to say that people who don’t have kids are off the hook as far as making environmentally conscious decisions about the other areas of their lives; it’s just that some decisions have a far greater impact than others. And having children is undeniably one of them.

    • Posted by Rosa on 04/27/2012 at 16:31

      She’s not saying nobody should have kids, she’s saying deciding not to is a positive environmental impact.

      Mainstream environmentalists also suggest taking shorter, fewer, less-hot showers; using less AC; eating lower on the food chain; spaying and neutering pets and keeping their waste out of rivers and lakes, etc. None of those are extremist or simplistic, they’re just steps toward consuming less.

  30. It’s not about pointing fingers, it’s about people and ultimately governments putting in place sustainable policies, otherwise it is my opinion that either these policies will become mandatory as environmental crisis hits or possibly if things don’t change in time the human race will end anyway. So I certainly don’t think the idea of talking about the need to look at population is utopian or idealistic, yes it probably is pretty simplistic – but simple is good in my opinion and I think the inability to discuss without getting upset the issue of population and sustainability is more tending towards the immature end of the spectrum. I honestly wish the issue of population could be discussed without it becoming so emotive, but that is probably a utopian wish on my part. I think maybe you are equating discussion about population with the view that nobody should have any children and I don’t think anyone is advocating that here.

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