Children of

the Anthropocene

Words by Tallulah Brennan

Illustrations by Zhigang Zhang

Cover of Issue #13

This article is part of Issue #13

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Instead of questioning the ethics of having children in a climate crisis, is it time we focused on creating a loving society and shifting our attitudes on care?

When I speak about having children, I don’t want to talk about tipping points, but I can’t help it. When people ask me, “Do you want kids?”, I try to speak the words from my own head and heart. But whether I say it aloud or not, my mind swirls with the pursuits of oil bosses, the inaction of spineless politicians and the fear that maybe humans can’t find it within themselves to make the changes we need in order to all survive.

As it becomes clearer that there is “no credible path” to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming - the point when climate change becomes unmanageable - this anxiety over children is becoming more common. This rise in temperature means the death of coral reefs, flooded cities, extreme heat waves and droughts, to name just a few calamities heading our way.

Since children are the essence of our future, the mirror that we hold up to ourselves and what we want to create and put out into the world, then of course they should be at the forefront of all our thoughts and actions. Yet, instead of embodying our incentive for transformative change, the conversation around raising new life in the Anthropocene - the current period during which humanity has begun to dominate the biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth - has been responsible for dangerous, racist scapegoating.

Eco-fascism is the belief that ecological collapse is the result of modernity’s multiculturalism, overpopulation and migration, in what the academic Bernhard Forchtner calls “a radical blend of ethnonationalism and authoritarianism”. The real and escalating threat of eco-fascist violence shows that linking ‘the great replacement’ theory - the racist assumption that Europeans and white Americans and their culture are becoming extinct thanks to non-white immigration - with environmental degradation is becoming increasingly widespread.

Take the 2019 El Paso shooting in Texas, US, for example, in which 20 people were left dead in a targeted attack on the local Hispanic community. Afterwards, it was found that the shooter’s white nationalist manifesto told of “the inconvenient truth” that he believed they must “get rid of enough people’’ to protect dwindling resources and live sustainable lives. When such extreme acts are being enacted over fears that immigration is environmental warfare, we should be doing our best to unsettle these arguments wherever they are found, including on the social media accounts of popular elected officials, or within everyone’s favourite nature documentaries. This matters especially due to the long history of Malthusianism (the theory that the human population will increase at a rate greater than our ability to keep producing enough food and resources, leading to degradation and disaster - as the overpopulation argument too predicts) and racism within the environmental movement. It was the environmentalist Garrett Hardin, after all, who claimed that “freedom to breed will bring ruin to all’’.

Eco-fascism is the belief that ecological collapse is the result of modernity’s multiculturalism, overpopulation and migration, in what the academic Bernhard Forchtner calls “a radical blend of ethnonationalism and authoritarianism”.
Children should not have to spend their time organising demonstrations thanks to their overwhelming worry that a habitable planet slips from underneath their feet. We could learn a great deal from their dissatisfaction and from their determination to win the battle of imagination over which future it is that humanity deserves.

As it stands, the possibility of extinction in the global south is flouted as a potential fix for climate change, while the white, capitalist epicentres of the world must be constantly reproduced. Overwhelmingly, it is the nations with low emission rates per person that have had the highest population growth. As birth rates in the west dwindle, women’s control over their reproductive capacity is a luxury that the state is not willing to sustain. It is no coincidence that as economic and environmental crises collide, reproductive rights are being threatened in the US and the UK, or, for example, in France, citizens are urged to have children as a “national pact”.

And in the global south, though the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) maintains that it has taken steps to make sure that aid money does not support forced sterilisation, the UK agreed to give India £166 million for a family planning programme in 2014 which resulted in the death of 15 Indian women after being subjected to sterilisation, targeted at poor rural communities. A working paper published by the DfID justifies this funding as a way to help “fight climate change”. All the while, in the years since, the UK government has provided what is estimated to be £12.5 billion in annual subsidies to North Sea oil and gas projects.

Some liberal voices are also responsible for bringing the idea that having children places a demand on limited resources and threatens borders and social security into mainstream discourse. There is an often-referenced 2017 study that found that bringing a child into the world in the global north emits 58.6 metric tons of carbon. But such startling statistics masquerade the hugely unequal reality that the global north has been responsible for 92% of emissions over the last 150 years, or that the average person in the UK emits more carbon in two weeks than a resident of Malawi or Madagascar does in a whole year. Not to mention that these conclusions assume that there will be no downfall of fossil fuels; they are also all too willing to buy into the industry’s propaganda that we as individuals hold responsibility for the disastrous results of our fossil fuel economy.

What is this but lazy (and colonial) environmentalism? It lowers the stakes, with what academics Max Ajl and Lisa Tilley call “a racially structured distraction” from the colonial capitalist roots of the ecological crises we are faced with. As Dr Annabel Sowemimo argues in Novara Media, “The resources have rarely been the issue; it’s about who consumes them and how.” Nobody’s family should be seen as expendable to enable the rich capitalist epicentres of the world to continue business as usual.

And what of the current children who are already trying their best to navigate such a precarious time for the planet? The simplest counterargument to any kind of birth strike is that, as philosopher and writer Tom Whyman writes in his book Infinitely Full of Hope, “it makes absolutely no sense to attempt to improve the future by limiting the number of people with a direct interest in carrying on”. We only need to look at how powerful youth climate action has been to see that our children are taking their role as the stewards of our future in their stride. For instance, at their peak in 2020, school strikes were scheduled across 3,500 locations around the world, becoming a part of what has become known as “the golden age” of climate activism.

Commentators observe that the golden age of environmental protest has since passed, and the culture war against young people involved in climate activism only worsens. If it was not enough that their future should dissipate every second that another carbon molecule enters the air, young activists are labelled as puppets, “deeply disturbed” or spoiled brats for speaking out. On Greta Thunberg’s social media accounts, for example, one can find remarks such as “fuck off to school” among accusations that she was indoctrinated by her parents or acts based on naivety and misinformation.

In a conversation hosted by Hajar Press, feminist writer Lola Olufemi describes the revolutionary potential of children as being rooted in the way they are “not only undisciplined but dissatisfied”. They are expected to conform and learn the ways of the world. So when they are instead throwing cans of tomato soup at paintings, storming politicians’ offices, participating in school strikes, and confronting officials on the street, it shows that the tide may be turning against a status quo that would have children merely become the newest cogs in the capitalist machine that locks us into climate collapse.

Children should not have to spend their time organising demonstrations thanks to their overwhelming worry that a habitable planet slips from underneath their feet. We could learn a great deal from their dissatisfaction and from their determination to win the battle of imagination over which future it is that humanity deserves.

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
Kahlil Gibran

The rebirth of the world as we know it will require us all to adopt a new attitude towards care, mothering and the family. Queer Marxist feminists such as Sophie Lewis encourage us to imagine something better than the norm, which makes the commitment to the children they love a prison for women. There was a time when free, universal child care run by the community was a standard feminist and gay liberationist demand. Focusing on one’s private nuclear family was regarded as “a capitalism-induced mindset” of scarcity and a force that sapped the strength of social collectivism and bonds of solidarity.

Scholar and social activist Bernice Johnson Reagon gave us an alternative when she described mothering as “the entire way a community organises to nurture itself and future generations”. What if we thought of care and mothering as capacious enough to make this world wonderful, not just liveable, for all the children that will inevitably inherit it?

An expanded notion of family recently came alive again in Cuba, where 70% of citizens voted in favour of a law that recognises multiple, non-traditional family structures and replaces “parental authority” with “parental responsibility”. These codes are intended to make raising children a cooperative and social undertaking while relieving the gendered alienation that comes with motherhood. Familial and social duties become the expectation across Cuban society, according to the principles of solidarity, partnership, sharing and cooperation.

I think that we can talk of care work as mothering (and vice versa) too, and as Naomi Klein argued in a talk for A Series on the Green New Deal, “care work is climate work”. This is not only because care is fundamental to our relationship with the environment, but because care workers are already on the front lines when climate crises hit, and simply because we do not have to burn a great deal of carbon to care for the sick, children, elderly people and disabled people. As Emily Kenway argues in The Guardian, “the carbon intensity of care, as a species activity, is contingent on the general structures and patterns of our lives”. So, if we were to transition the NHS to net zero, give full employment rights to healthcare workers, compensate women’s domestic labour with wages, supply everyone with a universal basic income, fund shared, localised community spaces for both elderly care and child rearing, and invest in sustainable public transport, we could reduce the carbon footprint of care work even further.

Care work is often unwaged and uncounted within GDP and disproportionately performed by poor, racialised women both in the global north and south, so it is paramount that future policies, such as a Green New Deal, are feminist. This means questioning why we do not value housework and child rearing, breaking with “the same old division of labour” and diverting jobs from destructive sectors to invest in the care industries that make sustainable human life possible. Our lives would be transformed if we saw care workers as operating in the same “green jobs” space as renewable energy workers. The ecological crises we face are the result of endless exploitation and extraction of the planet’s finite resources, and therefore it is entirely fitting that the birth of a new world should be rooted in the infinite resource humans have access to - love and care.

Independence from one another is a myth. I know that we have the capacity as humans to care deeply about our own families without becoming insular and indifferent to the plight of the children in Tasmania who are forced into the water to hide from wildfires or the children in Pakistan who seek refuge on a satellite dish from unprecedented floods. We are each other’s lineages and futures, regardless of biology. As the Gay Liberation Front manifesto states, “Society cannot put us down so easily if we fuse together. We have to get together, understand one another, live together…”

I love the word survival, it always sounds to me like a promise. It makes me wonder sometimes though, how do I define the shape of my impact upon this earth?
Audre Lorde

We can guarantee that despite everything, people everywhere will carry on having children. As our lives are made more complicated by climate crises, it is our obligation to carry out the generous act of mothering as the best commitment we can make to our collective future. But what does this look like? What if a highly inconvenient blockade on the road is actually an act of generosity for future generations? What if the people chained to Barclays Bank are simply showing care? Soup on Van Gogh’s sunflowers, MI5 buildings covered in paint, lawsuits against Big Oil, MPs confronted and shamed, London’s bridges shut down, and petrol stations decommissioned - all gifts to the generations that follow us because we owe them everything that we have left to give.

Perhaps the more helpful question, then, is not for an individual to ask whether they too will choose to bring life into the world when the odds are stacked against us. Instead, it should be what presence we will be for the lives that come after us. Of all the things that will outlast us - rising temperatures, species extinction, depleted soils, an ocean flowing with toxic run-off - it is our children and the way that their imagination is respected and celebrated, and the environment of care in which they are raised, which could be our most positive legacy. It is our time to decide what and how we choose to create in the Anthropocene; it is our children who can finally set us apart from the planetary lovelessness and devastation in our history.

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Words by

Tallulah Brennan

Tallulah Brennan is a writer based in Sussex, interested in exploring environmental justice, abolition feminism and the politics of care in ecologi… Learn more

Illustrations by

Zhigang Zhang

Zayaan Khan is an artist whose work finds a resting place through food as a means of understanding the world, particularly seed, land and our colle… Learn more

This article is part of Issue #13

Cover of  Issue #13
Rebirth Roots Rights

Themes in this issue include a call for love and care; radical kinship through reconnection with nature, community, and cultural practices, humanit…

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