PARIS — Reducing the amount of meat we consume, avoiding air travel… These are just some of the individual measures people can take to help reduce their carbon footprint and fight climate change. But of all the behavior changes people can make, one of the most effective, according to researchers at Lund University in Sweden and the University of British Columbia in Canada, is to have fewer children.
To put it into perspective, a baby produces roughly 58 tons of CO2 per year. In contrast, the combination of a vegetarian only diet (-0.8 tons), stopping air travel (-1.6 tons) and cutting car use (-2.4 tons) saves approximately 4.8 tons per year. And while not having children — or only having one — to save the planet may seem a bit of a drastic recourse, it's an idea that seems to resonate with a growing portion of environmentally conscious young people.
Whether they'd actually put the idea into practice is another question. It's also difficult to quantify the impact of the discourse. But it's clearly an idea that is out there and that young people are taking seriously. In the United States, these young people even have a catchy name: GINKS, short for "green inclination, no kids."
"If we want to save this planet, we have no choice to tackle the problem of human overpopulation," says Lailani Münterm, a former racecar driver and environmental activist with a large following on social networks. Another active voice on social media is the British NGO Population Matter, which promotes a life "without children," or with "fewer children."
But are people actually putting their money where their mouth is, so to speak? "We need to make the distinction between people who have a temporary ambivalence towards parenthood and those who are definitive in their choice," says Magali Mazuy, a researcher at the National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED).
"There is a margin or vagueness that is difficult to quantify," she adds. "But it's possible that the period of austerity and the precariousness of youth that we are currently experiencing has an impact on the way they will project themselves, even if pressure to have children remains strong."
The fertility rate in France remains the highest in Europe, with an average of 1.88 children per woman, thanks in large part to government policies that encourage larger families.
The most recent figures on people wanting children date back to the 2010 Fecond survey carried out by INED and the National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM). At the time, approximately 5% of people surveyed said they did not want to experience parenthood. Since then, though, the birth rate in France has seen a steady decline.
INED's 2019 Population review suggests that the decline in fertility mainly concerns 20-29 year olds. What's not clear is if that means people are just waiting longer to have children, of if they don't intend to at all.
Whatever the motivation, the choice remains controversial.
In reality, the motivations of people choosing not to conceive at these ages are complex and varied, and few young women claim to renounce motherhood out of pure pro-environmental activism.
Lisa Noyal, a 21-year-old journalism student in Cannes and a vegetarian-turned-vegan, is boycotting air travel and babies. "Global warming, animal extinctions, pandemics… For me, ecology is the main reason for not having children," she says. "But beyond that, I just never felt the desire."
Whatever the motivation, the choice remains controversial. Many of the young women interviewed for this story say they received similar reactions when talking about these issues with friends, family members or even health professionals. People tell them: "Just wait and see — you'll feel differently in 10 years." One young woman recalls a gynecologist telling her: "I swear you'll change your mind. What if your future partner wants it?"
A young girl is carried while holding a balloon — Photo: Mika Baumeister
At 25, Marie feels a bit alienated because of her commitment to not having children. "It isn't really the norm. We don't fit in the box. People think we have a problem, that we've got a screw missing," she says. "It should really just be a personal decision. I mean, no one asks a pregnant woman why she made that choice."
Sociologist Charlotte Debest, author of the book The Choice of a Life Without Children, thinks that young people today are more inclined to imagine lives without children as still being successful. Anne-Laure, a student at the National Maritime School of Le Havre who plans to be a naval officer, is a case in point.
"I care about my freedom! I don't want to have something that would keep me tied down," she says. "The environmental side of it is just one of my reasons. A child would represent a financial burden and, above all, a break from my career."
The choice intersects with feminist views that are blossoming among young women because, although long idealized, motherhood also leads in many cases to an unequal distribution of tasks. "Young women don't see themselves taking on all the household tasks," says Magali Mazuy. "They don't want to do all the childcare, plus the cleaning, etc... and they imagine that if they do have children, they will be primarily responsible for all that."
Not surprisingly, female university graduates are the most likely to consider not having children. With longer schooling, a later entry into maternity (in France in 2019, the average age of childbirth was 30.5 years), they invest in other spheres and see not having kids as a real possibility.
Economic realities also play a role. The material conditions of entering into adult life, such as access to stable employment and home ownership, are not the same as 20 years ago. So, faced with an uncertain future and an economic crisis, starting a family is no longer the most obvious choice.
"Under the current conditions we are living through, it seems unimaginable for me to bring a person into the world who will have to inherit all our problems, without having asked for it," says Laura Schwab, a young woman who recently changed cities for the sake of a new job and made the decision to go the sterilization route.
As required by law, Schwab had to wait four months — to reflect — before undergoing the procedure. Now that it's done, she says she has no regrets. Quite the opposite, in fact. "I feel liberated," she says.
Tristan, 33, also made it recently to the end of the sterilization process. He says he chose sterilization not for environmental reasons, but because he "loves his job" and doesn't have time for children. "It would ruin my life," the actor, who frequently travels for work, explains.
"Everything is fine," he adds, talking about the results of his last spermogram. "There are no more swimmers in the pool."
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