The ethics of having children during a climate emergency

From Afternoons, 1:10 pm on 27 June 2022

When science researcher Britt Wray and her husband started talking about having children, one overwhelming question kept them up at night; is it ethical to bring a child into the world so dramatically impacted by climate change?

Along with global temperatures and sea levels, climate anxiety is rising.

Dr Wray now focuses on how to turn negative emotions associated with the fear of the future into a tool and catalyst for real change.

Her new book is called Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis.

She recently conducted a study of young people around the world which found extreme levels of emotional despair, she told Jesse Mulligan.

Britt Wray

Photo: Penguin Random House

“I mean, one study of 10,000 16 to 24-year-olds in 10 countries around the world that my colleagues and I did found that 39 percent of young people globally are feeling that the climate crisis makes them hesitant to have their own children.

“A different poll found that 78 percent of Gen Z in the United States say that climate change makes them not want to have kids. So, we're talking about an existential fear about harm that the climate crisis will do to young people, as opposed to the kind of older conversation that people might be familiar with around overpopulation and equating human footprints into carbon footprints.”

When we are focused on disasters such as floods and wildfires, our “ontological security” is disrupted, she says.

“When we contend with life threatening scenarios; wildfires, hurricanes and floods and the idea that all this is getting worse and that these impacts are becoming more frequent, and that we could be surpassing climate tipping points that will unleash a cascade of irreversible change across life support systems that we depend on.

“And basically when the order of continuance in our life is impaired, or interrupted, even just on a theoretical level, we can develop these responses that are much like the fight, flight, freeze response to danger that is actually at our doorstep, even if we are not experiencing that hot hazard up close, the stress of all this can live in people's bodies and distress them in a very significant way that impairs functioning, sometimes their ability to just eat, sleep, concentrate, feel good about themselves, play or have fun or be in relationships.”

However, this distress can be harnessed, she says.

“This form of distress can actually wake us up to a bigger sense of meaning and purpose and how we can each tap into the urgency, rather than only be overwhelmed by it, and have our mental health and well-being dampened down by it.”

Studies show that people experiencing climate crisis mental health problems do not have pre-existing mental health conditions, she says.

“You don't need a pre-existing mental health disorder or generalisable anxiety disorder, for example, in order to feel eco anxiety, many people who have no such baseline condition do feel this form of distress.

“And it can be very great, even severe and significant in their life, because as many mental health professionals argue, this is not a disorder, it is not a pathology it's actually a very normal and natural and even healthy response to a real unfolding threat.

“It shows that you're paying attention and you're connected to what's going on.”

A study in which she was involved for the Lancet found that 45 percent of young people around the world said that their feelings about the climate crisis are negatively impacting their daily functioning and 56 percent said that humanity was doomed, she says.

“We found that these manifestations in young people's lives were not just because, for example, the environment isn't doing well. But they were really tightly associated with feelings of being betrayed by leaders and lied to by governments, which introduces the concept of institutional betrayal and moral injury of being caught up in a system that is not protecting young people's mental health.

“This can play out when people with lower levels of power rely on those with higher levels of power to uphold a certain responsibility and that responsibility isn't being taken, it can be very psychologically injurious.”

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Photo: Penguin Random House

Young people are made aware of a looming civilisational catastrophe before they have even had a chance to grow into adults, she says.

“Before they've had the opportunity to explore important aspects of their identity, let alone leave the house and go out into the world, they are made aware of the fact that they've inherited this mess, along with the duty to clean it up.

“And this is incredibly difficult to contend with, given that, while there are many power holders older than them who are alive right now and have so much power over how bad it's going to get, these young people witness that the power holders in society are not taking up that opportunity to do all that can be done to safeguard the future.”

She advocates for a “matrix of feelings” over the climate crisis, she says.

“Not to make any of them off limits, because they show the dark underbelly of what we're fearful of, which is, of course, uncomfortable.

“We need some of that so to remain on focus and in touch with the trouble, the mess, we're in and alerted to the rightful alarm, all that can be hugely motivating, as long as we're also stretching ourselves large enough to let in the joy, and the humour and the hope, and the sense of connection and solidarity and justice that are also true, and massively important to this movement.”

Wray decided to go ahead and have a child, she told Jesse Mulligan.

“While I completely understand and validate why young people today are saying they don't want to have kids and they may commit to that in their lives, and many already have, for me it really was a commitment to joy that was the articulation of why I came to have a child despite also feeling the fears, it's again, going beyond the kind of black and white thinking we've been discussing

“To shift away from this heavy loaded question of, is it okay to have a child? to What's required to have children in the climate crisis? How can we best support their own resilience in ways that we didn't have to get taught by our parents?”

Britt Wray is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, where she investigates the mental health consequences of ecological disruption.

She holds a PhD in science communication from the University of Copenhagen. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian and Globe and Mail, among other publications. She has hosted several podcasts, radio and TV programs with the BBC and CBC, is a TED Resident, and writes Gen Dread, a newsletter about staying sane in the climate crisis.