Parents are not failing their children by bringing them into the world

As people start to consider the morality of bringing children into our climate change-wreaked world, visiting research scholar and teaching fellow Dr Snita Ahir-Knight explores why this is flawed.

dark skinned baby running ahead in forest, with dark skinned dad and white mum
Freak weather events. Higher temperatures. Melting glaciers.

The future of our planet is looking more and more bleak and uncertain, as climate change takes its toll. People are starting to consider the morality of bringing children into the world.

In an exchange published in Vogue, Prince Harry was told not to have “too many” children by the ethologist Jane Goodall, and he promised to only have two because of environmental concerns. And New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has questioned having children in the face of climate change.

The ethical issue surrounding having biological children—for a variety of different reasons, not only climate change—is not a new one. This moral conundrum reads from the philosophical song sheet of anti-natalism – the idea that having biological children sits somewhere on a spectrum from problematic to outright wrong.

This view is on the rise. And in the face of climate change, I can understand why. More babies equal more energy-consuming people. Having fewer or no children is an individual way we can reduce our emissions.

Plus, giving birth to a child means we are imposing this world on to them. If the dark climate-change forecast turns out to be accurate, then the terrifying world that we impose on future generations will involve a heap of pain rather than pleasure.

Contemporary philosopher Professor David Benatar suggests we should not have children for this reason. In a nutshell, he thinks it’s morally wrong to create a life that will experience more pain than pleasure.

So, should someone feel guilty when they choose to have children? I think not.

Climate change is not going to be solved by individuals making different choices about child-bearing. Wealthy citizens are responsible for the highest emissions, though they tend to have fewer children.

Instead, there is a need for broad structural changes on a global scale. Placing the focus on the decision to have children is a misdirection that risks the systems that most need to change getting off the hook.

The idea that having children is wrong “because of climate change” should be reframed.

The relationship between child and parent is extremely special, and valuable to our wellbeing. It is a unique relationship that differs from all the other relationships we have, for example, with our spouse, friends, and colleagues.

But climate change is affecting our decision to have this relationship. A recent multi-country study indicated that 39 per cent of the 10,000 people aged 16–25 surveyed expressed hesitancy about having children due to climate change.

Rather than saying having children is wrong, we should say another reason that climate change is bad is that it is affecting our decision to have children.

I may not be the first person to think this, and I sure hope I'm not the last: Children are not little carbon-emitting beings, but they bring us unique joy and hope. Hope that will motivate us to change.

We need a stake in the future to tackle climate change and what better way to have that stake than to have children? Being a parent means caring about your children and the world they are going to live in. Being a parent gives you a reason to care about the world beyond your lifetime.

Of course, we should all care about the future of the planet regardless of having a personal stake in the matter. But when it comes to motivating people, parents have a strong reason to care about the world they leave behind. Parents are strong allies in the battle against climate change.

And it’s not just parents who are motivated to act against climate change by the idea of future generations. Children give us all reason to hope, and they demand accountability from all of us, to make the changes the planet desperately needs.

And for those concerned about bringing new life into a bleak and uncertain world that is faced with an ecological disaster, I (with respect) suggest spending your energy on the fight for systemic change, so the planet faces no more inevitable damage.

Parents have not failed their children by bringing them into this world. But they risk failing them if they do not use their concern about the state of the planet for louder action.

Snita Ahir-Knight is a visiting research scholar in philosophy and a teaching fellow in ethics at Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington.

Read the original piece on Stuff.