- A recent trend of environmental bad news – warming oceans, melting ice sheets, and more intense tornadoes – prompted New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to pose the question of whether it’s right to still have children in a world threatened by climate change.
- A growing group of women concerned about climate change agree with AOC. And they’re wielding a new weapon in the war against “business as usual.” They’re choosing not to reproduce.
- These women, called BirthStrikers, all agree to not bear children “due to the severity of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face of this existential threat.”
Blythe Pepino grew up walking with her parents on blustery, cold English beaches and in the Welsh mountains.
She remembers fondly sitting in the freezing cold with hot chocolate, aware of her environment and its fragility. As she grew older, the singer-songwriter watched a lot of news, and read books like Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate,” with growing dismay.
While she wanted to hold politicians and governments accountable for their inaction on climate change, she found herself “anxious to the point where I had to switch off,” she told Business Insider.
Then she went to an Extinction Rebellion lecture last year – which was “very blunt about how nightmarish this could get and how quickly” – and realised she had to do something.
Extinction Rebellion is a group of activists that seek to stop climate breakdown, halt biodiversity loss, and minimise the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse by means of education and nonviolent protest. Their lecture changed Pepino’s outlook on the climate change crisis.
“I knew I couldn’t go back,” she said. “I knew stuff I couldn’t un-know.”
That was the genesis for Pepino’s controversial and growing BirthStrike movement, created for people who have decided not to have children in response to the threat of a warming planet. While the movement is small, it’s part of a growing group of activists, politicians, and scientists attempting to communicate that our warming planet has passed multiple irreversible tipping points.
BirthStrike began with a modest membership of 60 men and women. Now, global membership is around 200, according to the Guardian.
‘We’re too afraid to bring children into world with the future that’s forecast’
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made headlines in February when she brought up the idea that having children was no longer a given in today’s environment. “It is basically a scientific consensus that the lives of our children are going to be very difficult, and it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: is it OK to still have children?” she said on Instagram Live.
This vocalisation of a core BirthStriker message may have helped pave the way for the media attention that Pepino’s new movement is getting. She publicly announced the BirthStrike movement two weeks ago.
“We’re too afraid to bring children into the world with future that’s forecast,” Pepino, age 33, said. “This is a really powerful way of communicating the severity of what’s going on.”
The UK-based Birthstriker movement started with Pepino – freshly grieving from her decision to not have children – reaching out on Facebook to friends and others who she thought might feel the same way.
Pepino’s movement quickly attracted notice, and the founder recently appeared on Fox News to talk about her project and the growing threat of a warming planet.
“I know that sounds calculated, but I made this decision [to not have children] personally first and then realised it was a great way to get more people, especially the right wing media, on board with the climate change crisis,” she said.
While BirthStrike is new, the idea of not having children because of climate change has been percolating for years.
‘Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them’
“I think it’s seen as such a massive decision to make, especially for the younger women like myself,” Lydia Dibben, a BirthStriker from West Sussex, told Business Insider. “Children are seen to be the ultimate goal in life, something that everyone wants, and so promising never to have them seems extreme to a lot of people.”
Travis Rieder, a bioethics professor at Johns Hopkins University, lectured about the morality of continuing to have children some three years ago.
“Here’s a provocative thought: Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them,” Rieder told NPR.
Another organisation, a non-profit called Conceivable Future, was started on the notion that “the climate crisis is a reproductive crisis.” The US-based group, founded in 2015, demands an end to US fossil fuel subsidies by “telling the stories of climate change’s impact on our reproductive lives.”
In 2018, the New York Times reported on more than a dozen people ages 18 to 43 – most of them American women – voicing concerns over bringing a child into a world saddled with increasing climate-change driven natural disasters.
Some said they faced ethical questions that previous generations did not need to confront, including the fact that having a child is perhaps one of the most environmentally costly decisions an individual can make.
Conduit doesn’t own a car, walks to work, and eats vegetarian. Pepino said she doesn’t fly anymore. But a 2017 study found that having even one less child is a more effective way of cutting down a person’s carbon footprint than recycling, driving an electric car, being vegetarian, or using renewable energy.
That said, the BirthStrikers – and many scientists – argue the scale of the climate change problem has become so severe that collective action is more important than individual actions.
The movement is not about population control
One of those suggested collective actions is controlling how fast the number of humans living on Earth grows. Though the world population currently hovers around 7.7 billion, the United Nations expects that number to grow to 9.8 billion in just 30 years, and reach 11.2 billion by 2100.
Each additional person uses up more of already-scant resources, and contributes to even more greenhouse gas emissions that serve to further warm the planet.
But the BirthStrike movement isn’t founded on notions of a “child ban” or population control. In fact, Pepino’s biggest concern is that the BirthStrike movement “will continue to be re-edited as a population argument.”
Hannah Conduit, a 27-year-old Birthstriker from Bristol, UK, pointed out that “nothing in the movement demonizes having children.”
“The idea of a sort of mass movement against having children is damaging to society,” Conduit told Business Insider. “But BirthStrike highlights that some women see [having children] as a choice that they might not be able to make in good conscience.”
Conduit said she decided before college that having children wasn’t something she could do. Now, her entire life is focused on making the world better for her future nieces and nephews. One of three sisters, Conduit supports her siblings in their desire to have children.
She doesn’t have a significant other in her life right now. Pepino does.
“We still talk about how we want kids, and it’s hard to come to terms that this is the end,” Pepino said of her and her partner’s conversations about starting a family.
Alice Brown, a 24-year-old from Bristol who works on the BirthStrike movement with Pepino, said on the BirthStrike website that “instead of dreaming about my career and family, I’m burdened with the disease we’ve created.”
“My decision not to have a child I truly feel is a necessity not a choice,” Brown said. “I cannot imagine how scared our kids are going to be.”
For Dibben, who worked with the Extinction Rebellion movement before joining BirthStrike, there’s no price too high in the fight for system change and climate justice.
“People doing extreme things for what they believe in always gets attention. It’s worked in past social movements, like the suffragettes chaining themselves to railings, and it really needs to work if we have any hope of surviving the years that are coming,” 22-year-old Dibben said.
‘It would break my heart to bring children into the world and have it collapse around them’
The BirthStrike movement has dealt with plenty of conservative backlash and social media vitriol in the two weeks since the organisation’s formal announcement. But that doesn’t deter BirthStrike followers.
To these women, their power of reproduction is the hammer with which they strike at a world that seems indifferent to its impending demise. “We’re going to have to take a hit on our arrogance as a species,” Pepino said. “We are becoming less than we are as our babies, our future, and our natural world are disappearing.”
And while the loss of the opportunity to give birth may seem like too much pain for some, for women like Conduit, the tragedy of conceiving a child and raising it on a planet with an uncertain future is perhaps worse.
“It would break my heart to bring children into the world and have it collapse around them,” Conduit said.
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