In August, 2003, I was living in London when a weeks-long heat wave seized much of Europe, killing tens of thousands of people. Tarmac melted on the London Orbital Motorway. Portugal lost half a million acres to forest fires. Water levels in the Danube River fell low enough to expose Nazi military ruins—a jeep, a tank. In Paris, mortuaries were so overwhelmed that workers began storing corpses in refrigerated tents. Not long before the heat finally broke, I read an apocalyptic fifty-year climate forecast in a U.K. newspaper while sitting on a beach in Essex. When I was finished with the article, I handed the paper to my then boyfriend and declared, “I am never having children.” I really meant it. My kids are now nine and six.
This is often how it goes. There is the crystalline uncertainty of the structure and dynamics of the climate system, as limpid as an aquamarine sea: a wave is coming, even if we can’t yet say how high or how fast it will be. But then the plates shift beneath the ocean floor—this can take years, a decade or more—and something murky and unanswerable rears up, just under the surface of your consciousness, unknown and yet profoundly certain, humming at a low and dizzying frequency. It’s not a decision anymore. No one even asked you.
Four years ago, the journalist Elizabeth Rush joined scientists aboard the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer, headed for Thwaites Glacier, in Antarctica. Thwaites is better known as the Doomsday Glacier, a coinage of another journalist on the Palmer, Jeff Goodell, who has called Thwaites “the cork in the wine bottle for the rest of the West Antarctica ice sheet.” Thwaites sits mostly under sea level, where warming waters eat away at it from below; it is sloughing off billions of tons of ice each year, and scientists now estimate that an ice shelf holding the glacier back could collapse entirely within five years, accelerating Thwaites’s slide into the sea. The glacier contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by several feet or more. Even so, researchers on the Palmer were shocked when, on their watch, in the span of roughly forty-eight hours, a piece of ice shelf about twenty-five miles wide, extending almost six times deeper than the wreck of the Titanic, simply crumbled into the ocean. In a report from the Palmer, for Rolling Stone, Goodell asked, “Did we just witness what amounts to a climate catastrophe playing out in real time?”
Antarctica is nature’s egg timer, poised to tell us when we’re fully cooked. But, for Rush, the continent presented a different kind of threshold—a prologue to a personal transformation. “The year I go to Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is also the year I decide to try to grow a human being inside of my body,” she writes in “The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth” (Milkweed Editions). The title carries a double meaning: “quickening” refers both to the moment when a pregnant woman first feels her baby stirring inside her and to the terrifying acceleration of climate change that is especially palpable in Antarctica. The central paradox of “The Quickening” is the private urge toward the creation of human life coexisting with intimations of its imminent destruction. “Should I have a child, their greenhouse gas emissions will cause roughly fifty square meters of sea ice to melt every year that they are alive,” Rush writes. “Just by existing, they will make the world a little less livable for everyone, themselves included.”
Rush was a Pulitzer finalist for her previous book, “Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore,” which focussed on the kinds of low-lying coastal communities that would be decimated by the collapse of Thwaites. Her expertise means that she can have no illusions about the threats posed by climate change, and yet her urge toward parenthood reveals the usefulness of such illusions. She encourages herself, and by extension her reader, to view Antarctica “not as an inhospitable island at the bottom of the earth but as a mother, a being powerful enough to bring new life into the world.” She draws an implicit parallel between putting off having children and humankind’s delayed reckoning with climate change. “All at once,” she writes, “I seemed to have discovered myself sitting almost at the limit of the thing, wondering how much longer I had to act.” She juxtaposes the “shattering” of Thwaites and the bodily wreckage of childbirth.
In forging, Shackleton-like, toward new frontiers of the pathetic fallacy, Rush is seeking signs of hope and optimism in our climate future—or, at the very least, grasping for ambiguity, equivocation, room to negotiate on the question of how utterly fucked we all are. She finds what she is looking for not in climate science but in language itself. Scanning the crazy paving of thinning ice below her feet, she reads the deepening cracks as runes bearing humanist koans and maternal metaphors. It is easy to sympathize with this kind of magical thinking—etymology as destiny—if you, too, have summoned a child into the maw of the Anthropocene. But a note taped above a map table on the Palmer may serve as a warning against poeticizing Antarctica: “Never forget: the ice is telling you what to do and not you are telling the ice what to do.” The ice is an authoritarian parent, unmoved by what we think or want of her. If Antarctica is your mother, you will not be raised well.
“Having a child is at once the most intimate, irrational thing a person can do, prompted by desires so deep we hardly know where to look for their wellsprings, and an unavoidably political act,” Meehan Crist wrote in the London Review of Books, in 2020. That essay, “Is It OK to Have a Child?”—the title paraphrases a question posed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the congresswoman from New York, in an Instagram live stream—is the lodestar of a growing body of commentary that debates the morality and ethics of procreation in this burning, drowning world. “It seems increasingly clear,” Crist continues, “that we are living in a time of radical destabilisation of life on Earth which complicates the act of bearing children in ways that society has yet to grapple with.” Activists have attempted equally radical responses to the moment. The women of the short-lived BirthStrike movement, which garnered attention at the end of the twenty-tens, renounced having children on account of the ecological emergency, although their message was often misconstrued as a Malthusian appeal for population control.
It’s unclear, all in all, precisely how much correlation exists between rising awareness of the environmental crisis and steady declines in the U.S. birth rate, which dropped for six consecutive years through 2020, reaching a historic low. It had a post-COVID bump in 2021, but stayed flat in 2022. Some of the slide can be attributed to fewer unintended and teen-age pregnancies—although the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning the constitutional right to abortion, may reverse those trends. (The freedom to hem and haw over having kids is a recent development in human history, and not a dilemma faced by those who currently lack reproductive rights.)
In a 2021 Pew survey of childless adults who say they likely will not have children, only five per cent specifically named climate change as the crucial factor, with an additional nine per cent citing “the state of the world.” Nineteen per cent cited medical reasons, seventeen per cent cited financial reasons, and fifteen per cent cited not having a partner. That being said, among people who already have kids, more than half say that climate anxiety does influence how many children they plan to have, according to a Morning Consult poll of thousands of parents in five countries, including the U.S., conducted earlier this year.
In “The Parenthood Dilemma: Procreation in the Age of Uncertainty,” (Astra), Gina Rushton portrays her own ambivalence toward becoming a mother—and the ambivalence among millennial and Gen Z women more generally—as the result of a complex and extremely familiar interplay of factors. These include not only climate anxiety but also financial constraints, the demands of work and career, health risks (and the gross racial disparities that go with them), sexism (and the racism that compounds it), and a persistent imbalance in the division of domestic and emotional labor in heterosexual partnerships. Rushton, a writer on reproductive health who is based in Australia, had resolved to remain child-free. Then, one day, she found herself in an emergency room, in the throes of excruciating abdominal pain, signing a consent form to allow a doctor to remove one of her ovaries. “I don’t want kids, you know I don’t want kids,” Rushton kept telling her boyfriend and her mother, and yet she was saddened and panicked by the prospect of her fertility being compromised. (In the end, the ovary was saved.) She felt free in her choice until, all at once, it no longer seemed hers to make.
It’s probably inevitable that much of the commentary on parental ambivalence is written in the first person, but both “The Quickening” and “The Parenthood Dilemma” illustrate the perils of this approach. The former book never stops insisting that its pinhole aperture is a wide-screen lens. Rush opens “The Quickening,” confusingly, with her own mother’s account of her birth, and goes on to relate birth stories solicited from many of her colleagues on the Palmer. The purpose of the birth-story conceit is unclear, unless it is to shore up Rush’s dodgy Antarctica-as-mother metaphor by the force of suggestive juxtaposition. Or maybe these testimonies are appetizers for the main course: a seven-page description, toward the book’s end, of the birth of Rush’s first child.
Rushton, meanwhile, is constantly, if inadvertently, reducing structural, world-historical problems to matters of personal choice. Not having a child, she writes, was part of “my mission to reject the most rudimentary of patriarchal mythology . . . I would not volunteer for a position so chronically devalued.” After her health scare, though, she wonders if she was let down by “the kind of feminism I was raised on,” from which she took the lesson that any choice she made would “be purely and unequivocally empowering simply because it was mine.” Self-examination begets only more self-examination, much of it castigating. One suspects that, whichever decision Rushton comes to, she will believe that she is letting someone down, that she has picked the wrong side, that the choice to have or not to have children is bound up with moral blame and guilt that fall on her own shoulders and not on the corporate and governmental actors whom she writes about, and who choose profit and power over social and environmental responsibility.