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One email I’ve consistently received since starting TNF is on the subject of having children in a world where the effects of climate change are increasingly present, from parents dealing with the anxiety of the world we are bringing them into. I reached out to a fellow father—and old friend—Andrew Wanliss Orlebar, currently working as Chief Sustainability Strategy Officer at Futerra, who has been thinking about these topics for longer than I’ve been a dad. Over to you, Andrew.
No one asks me for parenting advice. Hopefully, that’s just down to my starting a family later than most. But thanks to my line of work, I have run an ad-hoc help desk for almost three decades. I work in sustainability, and this has come with being regularly tapped for guidance on any number of environmental and social choices. At the time of writing, my last “So, which EV should we buy?” request was four minutes ago.
Where parenting overlaps with the environment, I do get questions. Namely: what does it mean to have kids at this stage of climate change? Should we have kids at all? How many is OK? And what does it mean to bring them into this world? A world where even with everything we know AND everything we’re doing, greenhouse gas emissions are still rising year on year, and climate chaos with it. (To be clear, these questions are now common: 1 in 4 adults with no kids cite climate change as a critical factor in their choice, some choosing to share their answers loud and clear.)
I’m close to these quandaries myself. As a father immersed all day long in hellscape predictions for our near-term future, it certainly took some mix of courage and delusion to have two kids.
In terms of—specifically—how much adding a person to the world contributes to climate change, and can the world “afford” it, there are real answers. Although, like many things, it’s complicated. If you’re reading this from Burundi, the poorest country in the world, the added carbon “burden” on humanity of a child is essentially nonexistent—not even a pixel on the Jumbotron of climate disruption. Across much of Europe a child might add, on average, 80 times that (around 5 tons of CO2 per year), a significant overshoot of what the planet could handle if everyone lived that way. Hop over to the US, and you’re looking at more than three times that again.
Does having a kid contribute to climate change? In most major economies, no question. Could you offset the impact of having a child with a different, lighter lifestyle? Well, the maths suggest even making the most ambitious switches would miss the mark by about 10 to 1. “But what if my child is the Einstein of sustainability and solves this all?” Nice try, but odds are lower again on that one.
For “Doomsday” environmentalists, this means the answer to having kids is a flat no. “We’ve done enough damage to the world,” they say, ushering in the Anthropocene era, where humans are now the most significant force shaping the future of the planet in the wrong direction.
That’s not where I net out. However flawed and overused the term ‘sustainability’ might be, at its core is the notion that we are looking to sustain life. The very reason we want to act on climate is because we want to protect the possibility of more human life. No other species has our impact, but no other species gets to decide where to focus its intent. I get to expend a lot of energy explaining how flawed and dangerous it is to think it’s too late to address climate change. But I see a similar fatalism in the idea of giving up on creating life. I understand the nobility of it, but it also feels like a capitulation to climate change, which I want to resist.
If my career has taught me anything, it’s that having kids may well be exactly what we need to save ourselves. I have faced countless CEOs who confessed to their own precious child looking them dead in the eye, inquiring, “Daddy, why are you killing our planet with your business?” This was the catalyst to convert them from distracted denial to dedicated action.
Having chosen to have children, I can still at least influence their impact: by modelling more sustainable living; trying to raise more climate-compatible kids; and showing that a more sustainable life is a better—not a scarcer—one. I realise this plays right into the greatest myth of parenting: thinking that anything you do will have a predictable impact on your kids. Ha. If only. But in every moment, game, book, even with the youngest of kids, you begin to see the opportunity. The chance to teach them about the fragility of ecosystems. What things are made of, and where they end up. In a way that might shape their values and behaviours. All with a light-handed touch—we only watch Don’t Look Up once a day. It’s questionable what any of that will do. Though a generation of Gretas actually dedicated to acting on climate change is already proving to help us move to greater impact.
That still leaves the question of whether it’s fair to bring a child into climate chaos. And on this, too, a growing group of childfree adults say that’s unconscionable. Not to protect the Earth from humans this time, but to protect humans from the Earth. And that’s a personal choice. But the way I see it, having a child is always an act of hope and has never come with a guarantee of offering a good life. As journalist Ezra Klein said in one of the many articles on this subject, “The past was its own parade of horrors“ for humanity.
We had our first child in NYC the same week the city became the epicentre of a global epidemic, one that killed 7 million people and counting. It wasn’t exactly a home run in ushering a kid into a safe environment. I wish we could offer our kids a world where stability, safety, and well-being will not be coming under constant threat from climate change. I know more than many how grim the coming decades will likely get. But life is unpredictable, and progress is full of surprises: some bad, some good. We were willing to make that bet.
So here we are, with our two kids. Do I find it testing to parse out the frivolous from the necessary as we come to the Paw Patrol toilet seat section of the superstore? Absolutely. Do I think even harder about the impact of everything I do in securing a better world? Not really, but mostly because that’s already been guiding me for a long time. Do I spend more time getting a teeny bit frustrated at those who consider whether or not to have children, but don’t go on to consider the rest of their lifestyle for opportunities to have less carbon-intensive living? No doubt. (Climate change may be unequivocally human-made, but it’s incredibly unfair and inaccurate to say that it’s a human problem. It’s the lives of a subset of humans that are driving it.)
But have I ever thought having a family was anything else but the best thing ever? No. So I would sum up our approach by borrowing from Michael Pollen’s great food adage and say something like “live (more) sustainably, have kids, not too many.”
3 things to read this week 🌎
“How I Talk to My Daughter About Climate Change” by Michelle Nijhuis in The Atlantic. A science journalist, previously raising her child off-the-grid, explores talking to her children about these tough topics, with advice for other parents attempting to do the same. “As a parent, I approach the subject of climate change much like I approach the subject of sex: While I answer all questions, without hesitation and in full, I make sure not to answer more questions than I’m asked.”
“What Are You Doing to Protect Your Child From Climate Collapse” by Elizabeth Cripps in The Guardian. Ignore the inflammatory headline and you’ll be rewarded with actionable insights from Cripps, a philosopher and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh—on raising your kids with more awareness of the problems, and a renewed vigour at how much power we, as parents, can have in this fight. “Our own kids risk a broken future because, between us, we’re destroying the world they will be adults in. Ignore that and we make a mockery of everything else we do to set them up for health, happiness and success; we’re reading bedtime stories in a house that’s burning down.”
“What if Climate Change Meant Not Doom—but Abundance?” by Rebecca Solnit in The Washington Post. A new perspective on an old conversation, reframing the argument from one of a world where we need to “trade all our stuff and conveniences for less stuff, less convenience” to one where we’re able to live happier, more fulfilled lives, free from the pursuit of amassing more things. "To respond to the climate crisis — a disaster on a more immense scale than anything our species has faced — we can and must summon what people facing disasters have: a sense of meaning, of deep connection and generosity, of being truly alive in the face of uncertainty. Of joy.”
One thing to watch with the kids this week
Nature documentaries remain, in my mind, the best on-ramp to getting your kids to fall in love with the planet we live on, and realise how important it is to protect it. Blue Planet II was released in 2017; Radiohead and Hans Zimmer to collaborated on an orchestral version of “Bloom” for the soundtrack to this extended trailer.
Blue Planet II can be streamed on iPlayer in the UK and Discovery+ in the US and elsewhere (pro tip: JustWatch is the 🐐 for finding what is streaming wherever you are). According to Common Sense Media it’s suitable for kids age 7; I usually subtract two years from their age recommendations as they tend to lean a little conservative. It’s also available to stream in 4K, so if you’ve upgraded your TV in the six years since it first came out, you could be in for a real treat.
Previously on The New Fatherhood
Last weekend we did one of our regular “How are you, really” check-ins. I’m not going to quote a bunch of different folks, but you might like to read the thread in its entirety. Instead, I wanted to share a few observations. First up, 279 of you shared how you were feeling.
We’re at a 2.5, on average. There’s a lot of worry and unresolved anxiety in the comments—ongoing work redundancies, cost of living increases, having to do more with less. Kids getting sick came up a few times—we’ve just been there, and I can attest to it pushing you to the edge, especially when you’re not feeling 100% yourself.
But one thing I noticed is—broad brush strokes here—that scores and feelings tend to be lower the younger your kids are. It makes sense: parenting newborns and toddlers can be relentless, you’re in the eye of the storm, with no idea when the waves will stop crashing into the side of your boat.
Thankfully, we have more than are a few dads who have weathered it, and are out the other side. It was nice to hear from fathers of older children last weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how many we have lurking here. JD, now a grandad, shared that “the hardest thing about being a father is that it takes 20 years for good feedback.” Glenn, with children aged 25-30, who recently became a grandad too (congratulations!), talked about when your kids get into their twenties and begin “The Apology Tour […] when they realise you are not the stupid buffoon they swore you were when they were in their teens.” Looking forward to that.
Finally, signing off this week with Mike, another Father of Older Kids. (Is FOOK an acronym? If it wasn’t before, it is now.)
“Kevin, what a great service you’re doing here. God bless you for it. I’m somewhere between a nine and a 10 today. But at 48 with well-adjusted kids on the upper end of the teenage scale, I am blessed. As I read through all of these comments from all of you fathers, it warmed my heart. To all you dads with young kids out there, hang in there. We’ve been through every experience you’ve described. It gets better… I promise. Much better. But even with that, don’t fail to enjoy the real suffering that comes with this and every phase of life with children. Know that it’s OK to be tired, and to be hurting, and to be cranky, and irritable. It is part of the experience. Know that there is true joy on the other end of a colicky baby who needs and loves you; there’s true joy and a little girl who doesn’t want to sleep, but who needs and loves you. There’s true joy and a little girl who won’t listen and is dangerously curious, but who needs and loves you. If I can offer one little piece of learning, lean into the suffering you are experiencing now and form your children while they’re very young. They won’t understand you till much later, but then they will thank you for how you loved them.”
Reminds me of The Last Time meditation—a short essay from the early days of TNF, something I imagine only a fraction of you have read before, and a trick I return to regularly.
How did you like this week’s issue? Your feedback helps me make this great.
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Thanks Andrew, who has just this second been appointed Senior Environmental Correspondent for The New Fatherhood. Apologies to The Daily Show for stealing their bit. Branding by Selman Design. Survey by Sprig.
Because, yes, they were all men.
There has never been a time in human history when one could bring children into a world that was guaranteed to be free from horror and suffering. A few hundred years ago kids had a 50-50 chance of seeing age 20. Many of us were born to parents who lived their entire young adulthoods under the specter of nuclear annihilation, and decided to bring a new generation along anyway. Have kids or don’t but base your decision on what you want for your life, not because the current level of doom is particularly remarkable.
Thank you for sharing this important topic. The intersection between early childhood education and climate is finally getting more press. I recently read this article about the work that Capita is doing. https://earlylearningnation.com/2022/11/elliot-haspel-is-building-bridges-between-early-childhood-and-climate-change/. Elliot often writes on the Early Learning Nation substack newsletter.