Staying with the Trouble: Reproductive Choices in an Age of Environmental Uncertainty 

6 mins read

By Stefano Cisternino

IN A WORLD WHERE environmental and societal challenges are increasingly interwoven, the decision to have children is no longer a simple personal choice but a complex ethical quandary. Societal norms around reproduction are diverse and often contradictory. While some cultural pressures push couples towards parenthood, perhaps before they feel ready , other voices, informed by growing environmental concerns, advocate for limiting family size as a moral duty. These conflicting perspectives are further complicated by cultural differences, with individualistic societies tending to emphasize personal autonomy, while collectivist cultures stress the importance of community and collective well-being. Within this intricate tapestry of choices and responsibilities, Donna Haraway’s concept of ‘staying with the trouble’ becomes particularly resonant. It invites us to confront and inhabit the troubling ethical landscapes of our times, acknowledging that our reproductive decisions carry weight far beyond the individual, echoing through the environmental and social fabrics of our global community. 

The Global Context: From Local Choices to Global Impact 

Our choices about reproduction are not made in a vacuum; they have global implications that cannot be ignored. In an increasingly interconnected world, the ripple effects of our individual choices extend far beyond our immediate surroundings. Globalization has not only facilitated the movement of goods, services, and information but has also amplified the consequences of environmental degradation. The wildfires that ravage Australia, the floods inundating European cities, and the melting ice caps in the Arctic are no longer isolated events. They are glaring symptoms of a planet in distress, and they demand a global response. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has sounded the alarm, stating unequivocally that we are running out of time to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. This looming deadline adds an additional layer of complexity to the already fraught decision to have children. Can we justify bringing new life into a world where the future of humanity itself is uncertain? And if we do, what responsibilities do we bear, not just to our offspring but to society at large and the planet we all share?

Our choices about reproduction are not made in a vacuum; they have global implications that cannot be ignored.

The concept of “carbon footprint” has evolved from an environmental catchphrase to a moral indicator. According to a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, having one fewer child is the most effective way an individual can reduce their carbon footprint, far exceeding actions like recycling or reducing air travel. Yet, this data point raises ethical questions. Is it fair to place the burden of climate action on potential parents, particularly when systemic issues like fossil fuel consumption and deforestation are the primary drivers of climate change? 

Moreover, the impact of individual choices varies dramatically depending on geographic location. A child born in the United States will have a carbon footprint many times larger than a child born in Bangladesh, due to differences in consumption patterns and energy use. This disparity becomes even more pronounced when comparing large polluters like the United States and China. Despite China’s significant total emissions, its per capita emissions are almost half those of the United States, illustrating the complex interplay between national policies, economic development, and individual carbon footprints. Furthermore, there are countries like Denmark, which, despite being small emitters on a global scale, have relatively high emissions per capita. 

Globalization also brings into focus the ethical dimension of reproductive choices. In a world where resources are finite, each new life contributes to the global demand for food, water, and energy, all of which have environmental costs. Yet, population control as a form of climate action is a contentious issue, fraught with ethical and social implications. It risks veering into the territory of eco-colonialism, where wealthy nations prescribe solutions for poorer countries without addressing their own outsized impact on the planet. 

As we grapple with these complex issues, it’s crucial to remember that our reproductive choices are not just personal decisions but ethical ones that resonate on a global scale. They reflect our engagement with a host of pressing issues, from climate change and resource scarcity to social justice and intergenerational equity. In this intricate web of global challenges, “staying with the trouble” means acknowledging the far-reaching implications of our choices and striving to make decisions that are not just responsible but also equitable and just. 

Challenging Societal Norms: The Ethics of Childlessness 

The decision to remain childless due to environmental concerns is often met with misunderstanding or even disdain. Society, influenced by cultural, religious, and historical norms, still largely views childbearing as a moral good, labeling those who opt for childlessness as “selfish” or “short-sighted.” However, this perspective is increasingly being challenged as outdated and ethically questionable. In opting for childlessness due to environmental concerns, individuals are embodying Donna Haraway’s principle of ‘staying with the trouble.’ They are actively engaging with the ethical complexities of reproduction, rather than adhering to potentially outdated societal expectations. 

“In a world where resources are finite, each new life contributes to the global demand for food, water, and energy, all of which have environmental costs.”

Britt Wray’s work again provides a valuable lens here. She argues that the ethical landscape surrounding reproduction has fundamentally changed. It’s no longer just about personal fulfillment or continuing a family line; it’s about the ethical implications of bringing a child into a world facing environmental collapse. This shift is supported by ethical frameworks like “procreative ethics,” which argue that the decision to have children now involves broader responsibilities, including those to the community and the environment. 

The Power of Community: Shifting the Discourse 

The discourse surrounding reproductive choices in the face of environmental uncertainty is slowly changing, thanks in part to community movements and advocacy groups that span the globe. One such movement is GINK (Green Inclinations, No Kids), which originated in the United States and is gaining traction internationally as a space for people to discuss and validate their choice to remain childless for environmental reasons. This movement is part of a larger shift in discourse, away from stigmatization and towards a more nuanced understanding of reproductive choices, resonating with individuals across various continents. 

Another example is the organization ‘Conceivable Future,’ founded in the United States, which frames the climate crisis as a reproductive crisis. They hold testimonial events across the country, where people share personal stories about how the climate crisis is affecting their reproductive choices. The influence of ‘Conceivable Future’ has also reached audiences in other countries, highlighting the universal relevance of these issues. This kind of community support is crucial for challenging prevailing norms and for providing a support network for those grappling with these complex ethical decisions, regardless of their location 

An Ethical Imperative in the Age of Climate Crisis 

The decision to bring a new life into a world grappling with climate change, biodiversity loss, and social inequality is no longer just a personal choice; it’s an ethical imperative that demands a broader lens. This lens must encompass not only our individual desires but also the societal, ecological, and even existential questions that loom larger each day. In an era where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns of “code red for humanity,” can we in good conscience make a choice that has such far-reaching implications? 

The concept of “staying with the trouble,” as coined by Donna Haraway, invites us to dwell in the discomfort and complexity of these ethical dilemmas. It challenges us to confront the tension between potentiality and impossibility, between the hope of bringing a life into the world that could make it better and the despair of subjecting that life to a planet in peril. Can we justify the act of creation when it is fraught with the potential for destruction? Can we reconcile the instinct to nurture with the knowledge that we are bequeathing our children a world less stable, less predictable, and less hospitable than the one we inherited? 

This is not merely a philosophical exercise but a call to action. If we decide to have children, how do we raise them to be stewards of a planet that is undergoing rapid degradation? How do we equip them with the tools not just for survival but for meaningful resistance and change? And if we opt for childlessness, how do we contribute to a legacy that extends beyond our biological lineage, one that nurtures the planet and its inhabitants? 

The discourse needs to shift from a focus on individual anxieties and societal judgments to a more nuanced dialogue that considers the ethical weight of our reproductive choices. Movements like GINK (Green Inclination, No Kids) and organizations like Conceivable Future are pioneering this shift, but they can’t do it alone. It’s time for policymakers, educators, and each one of us to engage in this critical conversation. 

As we navigate this intricate ethical landscape, let’s remember that our choices are not made in a vacuum. They are deeply interconnected with the global systems that have brought us to this precarious moment. Whether we choose to have children or not, that choice will be a testament to our engagement with the world’s complexities, a reflection of our ethical considerations, and ultimately, a measure of our humanity.

So, as we stand at this ethical crossroads, let’s ask ourselves: What does it mean to make responsible choices in irresponsible times? How do we balance personal desires with collective responsibilities? And most importantly, how do we make choices today that honor both the present and the uncertain future? 

The answers to these questions will not be easy, but they are necessary. For in seeking them, we not only confront the ethical dilemmas of our age but also open up new pathways for action, resistance, and hope.

By: Stefano Cisternino

Photography: Tatiana Syrikova

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