‘Transition’, among many things, is the phase during childbirth where a woman’s cervix dilates fully to prepare for the baby’s descent into the birth canal and then the world. It is often said to be the most gruelling part of labour and is typically characterised as the time when the woman will say that she can’t do it anymore. She changes, becomes animalistic, her body gripped by tortuous pain. She faces the biggest physical and mental challenges she has perhaps ever encountered.
I clearly remember my own transition phase during the birth of my daughter last year. It was dark in the birth room, around four in the morning, the contractions were severe, and I was clawing the bed and biting the mattress to cope with the back-breaking pain. But it wasn’t the physical pain that concerned me most.
It was the pessimistic thoughts I was having that made it hard for me to keep going.
I remember saying, ‘I don’t want to bring a baby into this world.’
‘What?’ my partner asked.
‘You know–climate change, Donald Trump, inequality, racism, the instability of the Australian Government…’ I listed a few broad topics between contractions.
You might say it was a bit late for those kinds of philosophical debates, in the throes of labour. I had thought briefly about these things before and during pregnancy, but something about the painful reality of labour and the immediately impending baby made my worries much more acute. Though there are already women choosing not to have children because of Donald Trump and climate change, this time around, my own concern about these things manifested slightly too late to base a decision on it.
Bone-deep fear about bringing new lives into this troubled world is not new, nor is it unique to our generation. Back in the eighties, my parents were also at times frightened. It was the final years of the Cold War and they felt the threat of volatile governments and nuclear weapons. This was one of the reasons they bought an isolated block of land in Tasmania. My dad started digging an underground bunker where he planned to store food. So, while I had a happy childhood, I grew up with a background sense that our safety was a blessing and that the world was a delicate place.
Of course, that kind of fear would be much stronger to anyone who has ever raised a child in a dangerous place, anyone who has become pregnant as a refugee, or anyone whose family has been decimated by war.
But our generation, more than others, has to face a massive environmental shift that will change the world drastically in our lifetimes and especially in our children’s. Current climate change predictions indicate that by the year 2100, if emissions continue to rise, temperatures will rise to 2.6-4.8 degrees Celsius higher than 1986-2005 and sea levels will have risen between 0.3-1.2 metres. The climate crisis will continue to cause extreme weather events and mass extinction. It will threaten homes and eco-systems. And one of the biggest threats to the climate is overpopulation, both in terms of resources available to us the carbon we emit in our daily lives.
When I started writing this, I thought it would be just a casual speculative piece. But after a bit of research, it turns out that having children is the worst thing we can do for the environment as individuals. Or to frame it in more optimistic terms: having one fewer child is the best thing we can do for the environment. Eating a plant-based diet, living car-free, recycling and avoiding long-haul flights are all worthy, but put together they are estimated to save only 5 tonnes of carbon emissions per person annually, compared to the 58.6 tonnes saved by choosing to have one fewer child.
Also, if statistically everybody had half a child less on average, the population would actually decrease by 2100 to 7.3 billion, which is far more sustainable than current chilling projections of 11.2 billion people by 2100. Contraception may be the best eco-friendly technology humans ever invent.
I didn’t know any of this when I got pregnant. Or I chose not to know. It is hard for me to write; I’ve always wanted to have more than one child (maybe three?) and I’m known by many friends as the clucky one. If I’m honest, I still don’t know how this revelation will weigh up against our instincts when my partner and I are in a position to have another baby.
And I hear you: it’s all very well for me to theorise and moralise. I have access to healthcare and contraception. I have a choice. But in this era, because relatively richer people have bigger carbon footprints, it’s actually richer people–people with choice–that should be considering having smaller families as a priority.
But I do want to be able to justify having more children, so let’s try.
Firstly, perhaps targeting people who would otherwise get a lot of meaning and joy from having children is moot in that, while it is the moral high ground, it’s not a big problem compared to the massive corporations and blinkered industries whose environmentally destructive practices continue to go unchecked. We need to be boycotting these companies and tearing down science-denying governments instead of curbing the fertility of caring people.
Yes. But we know that individual actions do have consequences, and in failing to recognise this we are facing the biggest ‘tragedy of the commons’ in history.
Secondly, isn’t having children what we are biologically programmed to do? What’s the point of living without the pursuit of reproduction? Isn’t it the highest possible meaning we can achieve in our lives?
For some people, yes, and that’s perfectly fine. But plenty of people find all the meaning they need without having children. As population activist Emma Olif says, ‘the things I want to pass on are intellectual… We can be pregnant with ideas and dreams and revolution.’
Thirdly, if we freeze the world and zoom out for a moment we can see that, while current climate change is human-driven, it is just another episode for our ancient Earth. Like other climate changes in this planet’s history, it is leading to mass extinction and environmental devastation. Either humans will adapt, or we won’t – and what of it?
Well, it’s hard to maintain that perspective for long when we are already feeling the devastating effects of the climate crisis. As I write this, unprecedented bushfires are burning endangered forests and threatening rural townships in my beautiful home state of Tasmania, while floods devastate Queensland. It is real, it is now: our homes, our families, our livelihood. We should be afraid. We should act.
Fourthly, there is the argument that our children will be the activists, the climate scientists, engineers and leaders of the future.
This may be true. But having children in the hope that they will fix the problems caused by preceding generations is a very passive way of attempting to solve the issue.
Writer Caroline Crawford Siegrist says: ‘Humanity has always been in the path of the hurricane. All we can do is what we’ve always done: fight, wonder, clutch life to our chests like the miracle it is.’ It’s a lovely sentiment and I want to agree wholeheartedly, but I can’t. It’s not enough. We need to do more than that.
So, what do we do? We support the use of contraception and universal access to safe and legal abortions. We consider having fewer children, fostering or adopting. We challenge the narrative that having children is the only way a woman can have value, or that having children is the ultimate font of meaning for all people. And for those of us who have children, we plant trees, cycle, recycle and eat plant-based foods with them. We do this so we can secure a viable future for them: a future we hope they’ll have, but one that is desperately threatened at the moment.
What do we do? We clutch life and the fragile planet to our chests as we undergo the biggest environmental and social transition we have ever encountered.
So, what happened, at four in the morning during the birth of our daughter, when I listed my anxieties about the world in the pauses between contractions? My partner said the truest thing, the only thing he could say in the circumstances:
‘Don’t worry. Our baby will be loved.’
And he was right. With every beat of our hearts, she is.
Anna Elliston is a mother, doctor and writer. Her debut novel (Of Our Own Making) was published in 2018 as part of The People’s Library, Hobart. She calls Tasmania home.