This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
My son Bruno recently turned four. He’s one of the most important parts of my life, but his mother and I were hesitant about having kids. Besides the more practical concerns about money and childcare options, we wondered if it made sense to start a family now that we know the climate crisis might cause the collapse of society as we know it in the next 30 years.
I’ve written a children’s book about the environment and spoken about climate activism in schools. But I also anxiously imagine a Mad Max-esque dystopian future. People say our children will change the world (even though our generation couldn’t), but if the grimmest predictions are right, by the time Bruno is Greta Thunberg’s age, it will be too late to save the Earth.
I decided to reach out to other environmentally conscious couples with kids to ask them how they manage to sleep at night.
Leonardo Caffo is a philosophy professor at the NABA Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, a TV pundit and author. In his work, he argues only a radical transformation away from capitalism can save our species. “Sometimes, real life disrupts our convictions and fucks them up,” he said. “This usually happens with bad things, at least this time it was my daughter.” Morgana was born in 2020, just as Italy’s COVID-19 mortality rate peaked. “She came suddenly,” Caffo said. “She found us, and we're happy about that.”
In his book, Fragile Humanity, Caffo writes that when a species’ survival is threatened by changes in its environment, it changes its behaviour. It might look identical, but it is actually slowly turning into a biologically different species altogether.
Caffo believes this is already happening to Homo sapiens. People moving to plant-based diets and embracing the rural lifestyle are not only expressing new cultural values, but a shift towards a new species he calls “the contemporary post-human”.
“We’re witnessing the coexistence of Homo sapiens with this new species’,” Caffo said. “In the future, we will see the two gradually separate.” Of course, while science supports the idea that a species changes its behaviour under environmental pressure, there’s no evidence humans are evolving into a new species. Nevertheless, Caffo is currently on the lookout for a nursery school where his daughter can learn how to cultivate and recognise edible plants.
Francesca Mapleston and Giovanni Montagnani are environmental activists and have a daughter named Nora. Giovanni is also an engineer and a member of CrowdForest, an organisation which circulates information about climate change. Francesca, a midwife by trade, said she’s always wanted kids, but when she turned 25, suddenly felt a strong pull to be a mother. Her daughter was born one year after she graduated from university. “I know I have brought life into a world that doesn’t look very promising, but I believe the desire to have children is inherently selfish,” Francesca said. “She was conceived to complete me, but since giving birth to her I’ve spent every day working for her happiness.”
Giovanni and Francesca are optimistic about the future. They’ve already opted for a lifestyle they believe can withstand climate collapse. Unlike many young Italians, they’ve decided not to move abroad in search of good fortune, but to the countryside in northwest Italy. Their solar-powered home is surrounded by a vegetable patch, a hen house and beehives, and they say they have reduced their emissions by 70 percent in two years. Giovanni is hopeful that normalising remote work could help with the world’s transition away from carbon.
Lorenzo, a musician, and Lucia, a translator and zero waste blogger, are from Liguria, the region surrounding Genoa. In 2018, the pair, who preferred to keep their surnames private, adopted a boy who’s now two, and they plan to adopt a second child. Lucia tries to resist giving into nihilism. “The scenarios described by scientists are not inevitable,” she said. “Whether or not they’ll come true depends on the decisions we take in the next ten years.”
I tend to agree. As Australian psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose argues, both overly negative and overly positive views on our climate’s future are attempts at self-preservation in their own way – both with their own advantages and drawbacks.
According a 2017 study, deciding to have one fewer child than previously planned is the most impactful individual lifestyle choice you can make to cut your carbon emissions. But this idea has been twisted by right-wing extremists, who blame developing countries with high birth rates for contributing to overpopulation and to the climate crisis.
In reality, European countries emitted 5.64 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2018, five times the emissions of South America and four times that of Africa. Although the EU has promised it will be climate-neutral by 2050, there is no question that the bulk of the responsibility for climate change falls on rich Western countries.
Ultimately, deciding not to have kids because of the climate crisis or to have them in spite of it are both radical and equally valid choices. But this debate exposes a much larger issue: climate action can’t be successful if it’s just based on individual choices. As governments and international institutions fail to come up with solutions, more and more people are taking the fate of the planet into their own hands, feeling it is their duty to do something about it – and now, even family planning poses an existential crisis.
* Interviewees preferred to keep their surnames private