Growing up, I always expected to have two children. I even had it in my head that I would maybe want more than that, but biologically I knew I would be done at two so that I wouldn’t do more than replacing myself and my future partner on this earth. Before I had any clear idea of becoming a parent myself, my environmental beliefs were getting shaped in a real way.

Once I had my son though, things changed. We had a really rough first year, and both of us working more than full time hours was just part of it. Cutting back to 80% time made a huge difference, but we’ve continued to stay firm that one child is right for us. I plan to write a separate post about all the reasons why that is true, but as to not detail today’s post from A Purple Life, the focus here is on the environmental reasons to have no – or one fewer – child.

Of all the reasons we have to stop at one, the environmental piece is the easiest black and white part of the puzzle. If the decision was based 100% on the planet, we wouldn’t have had any children, let alone one. We did very much want and plan for our son though, and it was absolutely the right decision for us. When making choices about if or how many children to have, having all the facts is important. And the environmental impact is too important to ignore.

With that, I’ll hand off the rest of this post to my good friend, A Purple Life. She is childfree by choice, and I love that she wrote this post out for me. In a world where women in particular are pressured to become mothers – and then pressured to have more children – it’s important to amplify the very real choice to remain child free. Clearly there are many reasons why she has chosen this path, but today the focus is on the environmental reasons. I hope you enjoy her words as much as I do whenever she writes what’s on her mind.

My (Angela’s) one kiddo (matching his daddy)

The Environmental Impact of Having Fewer Kids

Let me be blunt: I’ve never wanted kids. Interestingly the decision not to have children is one of the few things in life that you have to defend NOT doing. Now that my age group has moved past a barrage of weddings we’ve entered the “baby making” phase and I now get more questions about why I don’t want kids than any other decision in my life (including my plan to retire next year at 30…).

My answer to this constant question is unfortunately quite unsatisfying: I just don’t. I never have. I personally have no interest in being pregnant, passing along my genes or raising the next generation. I don’t have a ‘real’ reason – I just don’t want that for myself. I understand that having these thoughts goes against our very purpose as organisms to perpetuate our species so I do get why it can be surprising to people, but that’s how I feel and have always felt.

Our society is a strange place. Many people in it seem to mindlessly encourage and expect you to follow a standard life script straight out of a 1950s sitcom: get married, buy a house, have kids (yes – multiple) and work until you die – despite the fact it’s 2019 and there are so many examples of other life choices. This sitcom script is not your only option.

Purple living her best childfree life

I’ve already mentioned on my blog the rude assumptions people have made when I respond to “WHEN are you getting married?” With “We’re not.” The responses I’ve received after I answer “WHEN are you having kids”  with “We’re not.” are at times even more extreme and have included:

“You’ll change your mind – just wait until that biological clock starts ticking.”

“You might want to reconsider soon – you’re not getting any younger!”

“But your mixed race babies would be so cute!” (Ummm…😒)

“You owe it to the world to spread your beauty and smarts!” (Do I though???)

“But then your genes will die with you!” (Yeah…so?)

I’ve mentioned before on my blog that I personally don’t want to have children and I do not judge anyone who does want kids, but I do believe children should be had by people who want them wholeheartedly – and that’s not me or my partner.

So if you’re waffling on having another kid or on having kids at all: Welcome! Let’s explore another reason you might want to err on the side of fewer kids if you’re on the fence: the environmental impact of doing so.

‘Low & Moderate Impact’ Environmental Actions

Just to preface “Low Impact” and “Moderate Impact” is in industry term. I’m not passing judgement on any of these actions and do them myself despite the label. ‘Low & Moderate Impact’ environment actions include driving less (hello carfree living!), driving a hybrid, recycling and using energy-efficient appliances, windows and light bulbs (they should add toilets and shower heads to that, right Angela?).

Oregon State University researchers calculated the metric tons of carbon dioxide saved from these kinds of conservation measures and concluded that for an American, the total metric tons of carbon dioxide saved by all of those measures over an entire lifetime of 80 years was 488. By contrast, the metric tons saved when a person chooses to have one fewer child is 9441.

To put this into context a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters explained “A US family who chooses to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives.”

I was personally surprised to learn that the impact of these actions we take everyday are not as big as I thought to decrease carbon emissions, but I didn’t say all this to imply that we should not do them. I think of this similar to how we tackle our budgets after starting down the path to financial independence: you start with the big stuff (housing, food and transit) and then start working on the smaller budget items.

It’s still important to analyze if those smaller pieces of the budget pie (like a daily latte😉) bring you happiness and adjust accordingly, but tackling the expenses that take up the majority of your spending deserves extra focus. Let’s dive into what those big items are in an environmental sense.

‘High Impact’ Environmental Actions

So let’s cut to the chase. What actions have the most impact on reducing our contribution to climate change? You guessed it: Having children. Check out this awesome infographic and notice how the y axis jumps from 4 to 60 – just like the graphs we see of the stock market’s performance in the last 100 or so years – this would be a lot more dramatic if it was to scale.

Source: The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions, Environmental Research Letters, 2017 

According to a new study that sought to identify the most effective ways people can cut their carbon emissions, “the greatest impact individuals can have in fighting climate change is to have one fewer child.”

As you can see in the diagram above, the next best actions are living carfree, decreasing your number of long flights, and eating a vegetarian diet. Right now I’m 2/3 here, which isn’t horrible (guess which one I’m not currently doing…#keto). Also in this graph you can see the relative influence of some of the ‘low impact’ actions I mentioned, such as recycling and hanging clothes out to dry.

But overall if you’re waffling on the decision to have children and are concerned about your environmental impact (which I assume you are since you’re on this blog 😉), deciding you want to pass on an additional child is the most environmentally impactful decision you can make as one person.

“You’re Selfish For Not Having Children”

Yes – I have unfortunately been told this multiple times. I’ve been called selfish because I don’t want to pass on my genes, (apparent) beauty or (supposed) intelligence to offspring. I don’t understand this argument. In fact, I have the opposite point of view.

I don’t think me choosing to not have children is selfish, but I do think it’s silly to make any life choices based on what random people say to me or the judgement they pass on my life choices.

(Angela: I would argue that having children is actually one of the most selfish things you CAN do, especially when you look at the environmental impact of introducing an additional person on this planet)

Adoption Is An Option

So far I’ve been discussing having biological children of your own, but there are of course other options such as adoption. I’ve been fortunate that my partner’s family has adopted several family members and I’ve been able to see how fostering and adopting children can change lives. If you know you want children they do not have to be biologically yours. In 2018 there were 153 million orphan children that are already on our planet and are looking for a home.

Above All Else – It’s Your Choice

Deciding to have a child (or more than one) is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life and it’s completely valid to make your own choice. No other voice matters in this instance – it’s your life and your future.

We as a society need to stop being judgmental about other people’s choices and lives. Someone else’s choice isn’t incorrect or less valid just because it doesn’t align with our own (and I mean this on both sides: deciding to have or not have kids).

Every decision in life is a choice and I believe you should make choices that make you happiest. I personally have never been tempted to have children – even with the weird social pressure that exists in our culture around having them, but in case I ever am tempted personally, knowing the negative environmental impact of my choice will help me carefully consider the decision and all possible options in addition to biological children. In case you’re waffling on the decision I hope knowing some new facts will help you make your choice – no matter what that choice may be.

A Purple Life

42 thoughts on “The Environmental Impact of Having No (Or Fewer) Children: Guest Post By A Purple Life

  1. I’m so happy to have read this, and that it’s so well written and informative. I’ve made the same decision in my life, because I refuse to risk passing on my illnesses and I don’t believe in subjecting a new person to life if I’m not truly prepared to raise them.
    But on the flip side, I do want to be part of children’s lives, maybe to illustrate children’s books with positive messages, or to volunteer in a library. I feel it’s really important to normalize being part of the village they say it takes to raise a child- there are people who want to take part but aren’t prepared for parenthood, and they have kids so that they can have those experiences. I wish more people felt it was okay to just be the fun aunt or uncle, or a volunteer sports coach, or other roles that are necessary in a community.

    1. Having childfree adults in my kiddo’s life is the absolute best. That role is way underemphasized for how important it is!

  2. I have never understood that common judgment that it’s selfish to not have children. I’m sorry you have to deal with that kind of mentality on such a regular basis. Even without the environmental aspect, what’s really more selfish – choosing to live child-free or choosing to have a child that you don’t even want? Having a kid due to societal pressure is a horrible idea and a horrible thing to do to that child! (I do have two kids that I very much wanted and do not regret, but would never suggest someone become a parent without serious consideration.)

    Thanks for sharing these environmental impact stats as well as making mention of adoption as another wonderful option.

    1. It is such a weird thing to pressure people about. Having kids is SUCH a huge life altering thing that shouldn’t be pushed on people who aren’t all in.

      1. Cats are easier. Not necessarily cheaper. You still have us beat in the vet department, but $460 in a single visit is still something. Worth it, but ouch on budget.

  3. I never understand pressuring people to have kids when they don’t want to. It seriously makes no sense!

    Not that pets and children are the same thing, but…I have NEVER EVER EVER wanted a dog. In fact, I’ve been adamantly opposed to the idea since I was a teenager. Like, to the point that it would have been a dealbreaker if my then-boyfriend-now-husband had wanted a dog. I just do not want to own a dog, and they are a lot of responsibility, which would make me resentful, since I don’t want one in the first place.

    So, if someone were to force me to have a dog, that would make me miserable, and it would also probably make the dog miserable because a resentful pet owner is just not fun for a dog.

    If that’s true for a dog, then how much more so is it true for children?

    (I do have four kids, and that is for sure more responsibility than owning a dog. Ha. But I really wanted to have kids, and so I am happy to take on the responsibility for them.)

    Anyway; you keep doing you! No one should be having children because other people think they should. 🙂

    1. I love the dog analogy! For some reason, I think that one might be easier for people to understand 🤷‍♀️

  4. Gahh, I LOVE THIS! I’m in the firm “no pregnancy for me” camp, the whole idea of it creeps me out (although I don’t begrudge mothers who choose that route, more power to you!). And my health genes aren’t that great, so I don’t want to pass those on. And, if I’m honest, I don’t particularly like babies all that much either. But I’m more on the fence about alternative mothering situations (we’re hugely considering fostering older kids – but not until we’re in our 30s and 40s, because we want to be mostly FI first so one of us can work part time – and by one of us, I mean my husband – I will be busy changing the world then). I love that I can back up our choice environmentally, as well. The keeping and caring of children is a HUGE responsibility, and even more so when you consider that the world is on fire and feels a little pre-apocalyptic (especially here in California, where our power is getting shut off to try and prevent the state from burning down).

  5. Great post! Also funny timing for me. I just had a vasectomy last week, and I’m quickly becoming very good friends with a bag of pees from our freezer. Apparently it’s the most eco-friendly thing I could possibly do. 😂

    My wife and I were talking last night about when we first felt societal pressure to have kids. She mentioned it was first brought up in middle or high school. She wasn’t seriously pressured by family, but more general norms for women – especially from her background (Puerto Rican).

    I thought about when I first felt pressured to have kids and the answer was never – except when I stated I didn’t want them. That was the only time anyone ever pressured me. I think there’s a sense that stating what you want out of life is somehow a judgement of what someone else wants, and there’s a tendency to feel defensive.

    That can work both ways. Someone can say they want kids and a child-free person could reply with how they don’t want them. It does seem more rare to lecture a potential parent about why they wrong and they shouldn’t have kids though. 😅

    1. So happy you liked it! Congratulations on your vasectomy 😉 . I hope the peas are doing the trick! That’s awesome your wife wasn’t pressured by family – my Mom has never pressured me, but my partner is part of a large family and they don’t seem to understand why we wouldn’t want kids – it’s all they know 🙂 . They’ve almost stopped pressuring us about it though.

      It does seem like stating your own life choices are seen as a judgement by others, which makes little sense to me. Just because I don’t want someone else’s life doesn’t make it less valid. And yeah I’ve never heard of a childfree person lecturing a potential parent lol – I don’t see that going well…

    2. Amazing that her family didn’t pressure her too much, but not surprised that she got it more than you did.

    3. “I think there’s a sense that stating what you want out of life is somehow a judgement of what someone else wants, and there’s a tendency to feel defensive.” Wow Adam, you nailed it.

      1. Seriously! Super insightful. I need to keep that in mind when folks get defensive about my choices thinking I’m trying to impose them. I never thought of it that way.

  6. My AP Bio teacher loved to talk about this! It’s really fascinating and important to ask ourselves what kind of impact our decisions have on the world. Of course, looking at the unplanned pregnancy stats kind of throws some of that out the window 😉

    I’m always really happy as a teacher and a mom when I hear people say they’re not having kids because they don’t want them. I cannot think of a bigger decision that I’ve ever made, and to make it out of obligation to some kind of pressure!? OOF.

    I was fairly convinced I didn’t want kids for years. And then we decided we did want to try for one (hi, HP!). But now we’re back at square one, I suppose, in terms of deciding if we want to try for another. Financial, environmental, so many considerations!

    1. Hi, HP! I’d say that there would absolutely be fewer children in the world if everyone really spent time intentionally making the choice separate from external pressures. And hey, better birth control / sex ed options are great, too!

  7. The number of people in my life who just presumed that having kids is the thing you do without ever considering the impact on one’s health, life, or the environment was staggering. I developed a really strong bug-off face early on and family quit bothering me about it during the decade I was vehemently opposed to having kids (at that time, I wasn’t opposed to having them at all).

    When things changed significantly in our lives and made it possible and desirable, we had one and honest to goodness if the next question wasn’t “well maybe you’ll have one of the other gender next!” I haven’t even finished baking THIS ONE!!

    People are so weird about this.

    1. Yeeeeeep. The next kid questions happen almost immediately and last for YEARS. They’ve definitely slowed down as the kiddo has gotten older though.

  8. “the decision not to have children is one of the few things in life that you have to defend NOT doing.”

    Omg, yes. Fortunately I now have a few childfree friends, but everyone else around here (I live in Japan, which still follows 1950s mores pretty closely) literally follows the same pattern: marry, have a kid exactly 1 year later, and stop hanging out or talking ever again…. it can be really depressing.

    I know it isn’t nice, but I do judge people that decide to have more than one child. They probably have never thought once about how their decision impacts the environment (and hence, who is the supposedly selfish one here?)

    1. Thankfully we’ve been able to hang on to childfree friends, but it definitely does get harder as life situations diverge.

  9. We have 4 kids so this message is too late for us! But the kids’ uncle and aunts are childless and own multiple houses and fly internationally on a very regular basis. So they may not be the best example of childless equals environmental! 🙂

    1. Clearly, there are other things that make you more or less environmental, but the data is pretty straightforward on “biggest” impact. But of course, the decision to have a child (or more) is made based on a ton of different factors.

  10. I’m childless by choice and, at age 47, people have finally stopped asking about it. And I have not been above pointing out the environmental effects of this to sanctimonious enviro-enforcers (yes, I’m using a straw – don’t you have 3 kids?). But – I don’t believe our environmental hellscape is Malthusian in nature. We have the ability to support a much larger population if we could just control (by actually putting a price on externalities through regulation) our dependence on cars, packaging materials, single family homes, animal based diets… I would much rather live differently with all of your many children than In the inefficient way that we live today.

    1. I agree with you, to an extent, but I have a hard time seeing how we support even the population we have. Though, I suppose, a significant enough change and maybe that would be true.

  11. So many people always assume that you should have kids after you married especially if you didn’t have kids before being married. Their was a five year gap between the time we got married and when we had our first kid and we we’re always bothered by the question of if we we’re having kids. I’ve always respected people’s decision on having kids or not because simply their choice and their life. Their should be no pressure in life-altering decisions like that. My younger sister is married and decided not to have kids and I’ve never pressured/questioned that because that’s what they want to do.

    1. Yep, we had a five year gap before I got pregnant as well. Even with getting married at 21 with absolutely no stability for raising a kid right away we got the questions before we even returned from our honeymoon! Bonkers.

  12. So happy to read this post. We want to have children, but Project Baby is not going as smoothly as we anticipated. I always said if nature doesn’t allow it to happen, then perhaps I’d simply not have kids. This adds to the pro list of a child-free life!

  13. I’m with Purple! The decision to NOT have children was an easy one. I just never did. Ever! But I never thought of the environmental impact associated with it. Interesting! I just wish people would stay out of each other’s business more. lol! If no one is getting hurt or hurting anyone else, let them do their thing!

  14. Wow I feel a bit better about my infertility haha. But seriously, the more time passes the more I think it’s a good thing that my ex-husband and I didn’t end up having any. I now like having only myself to worry about. I’m not sure I’m cut out for parenthood, so the fact that I’m helping the planet is just a bonus.

    At least I get to avoid the judgment that Purple gets though because when people ask if I have kids I say no and that it didn’t work out for us. People know that’s code for infertility and shut the hell up about my childlessness. Thank god.

    1. I hear you – I have a hard enough time taking care of myself 🙂 and know I would be a less than great Mom personally. I’m glad people know when to shut up with you, but I’m sorry they ask at all. We really need a new script in this country for normal conversation 🙂 .

    2. You’d think that would be a learning experience not to ask others the same thing, but no.

  15. Having fewer children or going childfree in America is pointless virtue signalling when the population of Africa doubles every few decades. If you are serious about reducing the impacts of excessive children on this over strained Earth than you need to be in Africa educating African women on birth control.

    1. I would definitely not call it pointless virtue signaling, just like I wouldn’t call working toward attempting to go zero waste while large companies do a huge amount of the polluting virtue signaling either 🙂

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