By Victoria Zambello
A few months ago, before the pandemic changed our living circumstances, I was chatting with my roommates. With legs sprawled along our miniature common room couch and procrastination at its liveliest, one of my closests friends tossed out a comment from left field, forcing me into an unthinkable realm.
“I don’t see the purpose of bringing a child into the world that would only enhance climate change when there are so many children in the system that need to be loved today,” she said.
With widened eyes, this woman explained why she was potentially not having kids. With the recent birth of my baby niece (Olivia Marie Zambello!) I could not wrap my head around this concept. I guess I missed the incredibly disturbing and terminating statistics written across every environmental studies headline.
So, I sat down at my desk and I did what any classic American college student would do – I googled ‘BirthStrike’ on my computer. With articles from CNN, The NewYork Times and The Guardian, #BirthStrike is trending across the web.
My friend is far from alone in her thinking.
What is Birthstrike?
At the end of 2018, Blythe Pepino, a 33-year-old millenial from Southwold, England, took a serious notice of the environmental tragedies that have happened and will happen in the future. Pepino formed the BirthStrike movement to refuse to have kids
#BIRTHSTRIKE trends across the movement’s tumbler page in large and bold text.
Under the hashtag the movement’s mission statement reads: “BirthStrike demands for a system change.” With over 330 members, those who have taken the BirthStrike pledge say they are creating awareness and emphasizing the importance of the ecological crisis. They do so, by humanizing the crisis with the human species’ desire and right to give birth.
By 2050, it is predicted there will be 9.2 billion people on Earth, generating a global gross domestic product (GDP) four times that of today. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), which has 37 country members, including the United States and the UK, predicts the GDP will require 80 percent more energy calling upon immense amounts of gas, coal, and oil.
By 2050, there will also be potentially 3.6 million deaths per year as a result of air pollution and contaminated water, while 40 percent of the global population will live in “water-stressed areas” (Holloway, 2012).
“Life, as we know it in the Holocene [global ecological system], is in great, immediate danger,” notes the BirthStrike website. “We stand in solidarity with the environmental justice movement, the academic and scientific community who demand fast acting and transformative system change towards an equality based, sustainable, caring and non-violent future for humans and all life on earth,” the website reads.
“I am a healthy, privileged, young Osage (American Indian) woman,” wrote 32-year-old Birthstriker, Alex Ponca Stock on the BirthStrike blog. “Unfortunately, those dreams of having children no longer have any magic in them for me. All the love I feel in those visions is quickly swept up in an indescribable fear. That fear is that I might bear a child whose life will be to witness the burning of the world and all its animals, including us,” Stock wrote.
I was curious about Birthstrike and just how serious they are, so I reached out to founder Blythe Pepino in London who agreed to be interviewed through video. She told me she formed this movement with the help of “very intelligent friends,” and worked intentionally to make sure all people were included regardless of race, infertility, sex, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc. With a stern and thoughtful tone in her voice, she made it clear that BirthStrike is not a judgment group.
Seated beside her black and white hand key piano with her hair tied back, Pepino spoke about the foundations of BirthStrike. “I think the general public has a skewed idea of what we’re trying to do. People don’t really want to take it on board because it’s like oh f*** has humanity really come to the point where our species is stopping having children the same way that squirrels would stop having offspring?”
Some people have chosen to follow this strike as a way of representing their concern for the planet and others are following the strike out of concern for their future children.
Still, the message is misperceived, Pepino said. “People think we are trying to solve the climate crisis by having less children. We’re just having less children and saying this is a message that we need to solve the climate crisis,” Pepino said.
“Why would I want to have a kid when all this is happening?” said Brett Matzke, ‘22, an environmental studies major at St. Michael’s College. “That would kind of be selfish. Women have to start thinking about that with the state of the environment.”
“What are the ethics of me having a kid?” she continued. “One, with the population it is not okay for me to go ahead and have eight kids for the sake of the human population. Two, for the sake of my future kid why would I want to put my kid in the position of a destroying environment?” Matzke said.
With an Engineering degree from Cornell University, 37-year-old, Jesse Devinney said he made the decision to not have kids because of the lack of action and policy change from the government and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“We need to take extraordinary and drastic steps to combat this. And certainly, in my perspective, it feels slightly irresponsible or at least from a risk management standpoint, there is some hesitation on my personal part on bringing a child into this world,” Devinney said from his New York City apartment.
According to maps from a New York Times report “What Could Disappear,” within 100-300 years Boston, Mass. will be 35 percent completely submerged under water. Based on elevation data from the U.S geological survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration, the sea level map for Boston is captioned: “Logan Airport starts to disappear. Boston Harbor begins to encroach on downtown; the Charles River floods southern Cambridge.”
But when I shared these statistics with my family members who live in Boston, they responded,. “The engineers will figure it out.”.
“That would have been true 20 years ago,” Devinney said. “Not to say that they can’t and I hope that they do and I hope that it’s magic. I’m just a little hesitant to take that risk to have kids under that assumption.”
Carbon footprint (how much carbon an entity produces), is mostly based on how a given footprint decides to consume energy, what food it consumes, soil management, and the way it disposes wastes, explained Riley Allen, at the Vermont State Energy Station.“The size of the population will be an important factor, but the footprint can be managed with sensible changes in the way that we live and manage our ecological footprint at a personal and societal level,” Allen said.
In other words, population ‘control’ may not be the answer to our dying planet, but there may be other solutions related to kids and birth.
“But if I’m an environmental activist and I have all these strong values, should I be the one to have kids so that I can educate them because we need more people in the world, like me who care about it and are making real life changes in a way that affects the environment?” Matzke said.
“If we are right [about the ecological crisis], we’re still going to need very very smart people to adjust and work and try to fix this thing. Convincing too many people to do this [BirthStrike] is also a little bit risky because we’re going to need extraordinary people doing extraordinary work,” Devinney said.
The Pope speaks up
Even the Vatican is addressing the ecological crisis, urging humans to be transformative and a part of the answer. “We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it,” Pope Francis wrote in the 2015 Encyclical Letter, Laudato SI’, “recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality,” Pope Francis wrote.
The Pope would disagree with the concept of BirthStrike, said Saint Michael’s College Religious Studies Professor Ray Patterson. We are beings within nature and procreation is a part of human nature, therefore BirthStrike would not be the proper response to the ecological crisis, he noted. Rather people should be a part of the solution or what the pope labels a ‘call for change.’
“The Pope speaks a lot about the Utilitarian mindset – the final product, so if BirthStrike is just a sort of symbol, then you are assuming that your child is going to negatively impact the Earth. Anything with the right mindset can be positive and transformative,” Patterson said.
Improving Women’s Education & Rights
Rather than following the BirthStrike trend, The Population Media Center, located in South Burlington, VT offers a way to build a sustainable planet by using humans as the solution.
Strategy for climate change should be centered around enhancing the lives and education of women and girls, said Missie Thurston, director of marketing & communications. This begins with providing both women and men the education to understand that women have a right to participate in decisions about how many children to have. By educating women about reproductive rights, this could reduce the number of children they are having and help the environment with overpopulation.
“Obviously, if you have two kids it usually takes women out of the work force and out of these rewards and prosperous careers which is fine if they want to do that but so many people are doing it because so many options have been taken away from them,” Thurston said.
With a lack of opportunity, Thurston suggests that women are more likely to have more children as a result of overarching issues within education and health, particularly with girls and women.
The trend of Birthstrike is one that is shared across the globe on a variety of levels, even though Pepino thought it was going to be a mostly Western Trend. “I thought it’s a fairly privileged stance to take because I am looking at it like, my child deserves a very certain standard of living that I’ve had. And I think a lot of global south countries [developing countries] like people dealing with disasters and all kinds of violent bull s*** and that’s just kind of part of their life. So I was surprised that the environmental factor is having an effect even in global south countries where people are already oppressed and distressed. I thought it would maybe only appeal to snowflakes like me.”
However, some people have decided to follow this trend more quietly:
“It’s difficult or sad that people are making choices because of their fears around the health of the planet and the health of our society too, but I certainly respect that decision,” Thurston said. “It is very very wise and I am also one of those people. I have one child, I think if the world were different, I may choose to have two.”
The First Year Anniversary
In order to commemorate the first year anniversary of the BirthStrikers decision to not give birth, there will be a graphic design art piece planned to be released in 2020 for every single person who signed up for this strike. Pepino hopes that this will “hammer home” their message and the emotions of the ecological crisis.
My close friend whose comments inspired my research voiced her concerns about having kids, worries for her future children and the type of life they may have. Maybe the men and women who decided to go on BirthStrike will allow my friend’s children a healthier life or maybe this strike won’t even make a dent in the demand for systemic ecological change.
How Do We Move Forward?
Empowered by the BirthStrikers decision to take matters into their own control, I am also saddened and frustrated with my own lack of personal knowledge about the current and potential state of our environment.
Being knowledgeable about the world is what I believe is my personal and social responsibility. Every single person has a responsibility to understand the world’s social, political, economic, and environmental state, moving forward as a society will continue to be an incomprehensible struggle.
So, I wish for all to find the motivation and the heart to listen. I hope for our professors, coaches, parents to be the leaders that my generation needs by preparing us with the concrete facts of the state of not only our environment, but also our government systems.