Bella Burgess does more than her fair share for the environment. She was born a vegetarian, has never lived in a household without a compost and has just gone back to university to refocus her career on ecology. But there’s one thing she’s doing that will have more impact than all of it — she’s decided not to have children.
Bella, 32, reckons she’s always felt having children was not for her. She was brought up in an environmentally-conscious family, and has long known that one of the world’s biggest issues was overpopulation.
So she’s opted not to add to it.
“Every extra person on this planet uses resources and has an impact and people are vastly overpopulating the world, and the only ethical way to reduce the world population is to not have children.”
Bella is one of a growing number of young women who are deciding not to have children, in large part because of climate change and other environmental issues.
The world’s population has doubled from 3.6 billion to 7.5 billion in the last 50 years, and while the population growth rate is slowing, it’s predicted to reach 9.8 billion by 2050.
As David Attenborough put it in a 2017 talk, every one of those people need space — for their homes, to grow food, to build schools and roads and airfields.
“Even if you raise a child in the best, most environmentally responsible way, it’s still a person putting a burden on the resources of the world and it’s not needed.”
It’s a fairly straightforward decision for Bella and, to her, a humane action.
“The future of the planet is pretty uncertain. You’re talking about [having a child] who might live until 80, bringing them into a potentially disastrous world, which has been created through the actions of our generations and earlier. It seems like a really unfair thing to do to someone — it’s like choosing to have a baby into a war.”
Despite her matter-of-fact approach to the issue of children, Bella says it still feels taboo to talk about it, and family and friends squirm a little when she says she doesn’t want children.
“A lot of people try to change the subject, or look like I’ve said something that is almost frightening. People feel quite scared.
“I’m not someone who goes around telling off pregnant women, that would be an awful thing to do.
“But now I’m in my thirties, people take me a little more seriously and it confronts them a little bit more.”
That includes her parents, who nurtured her “deep environmentalism” and brought her up to understand that her actions have an impact.
“My parents always thought I would change my mind. They thought it was a phase. It’s only now, when I guess they think biology should be kicking in, that they finally have started taking me seriously and now know it was something I had been intending the entire time.
“For them there’s been a little bit of grief, they want to be grandparents — though my brother and sister are there — they find it quite sad.”
Bella says people’s reactions may be due to the conflation of the intense emotions around people who are unable to have children despite wanting to, and those who have chosen to not have children.
“Which is surprising to me, because it’s not a sad thing — my life is enriched and I have lots of friends with children and I love them, but I feel very fulfilled in my life and I don’t think it’s a loss at all.”
Bella’s partner is on the same page about not having children, so it hasn’t been an issue her relationship either.
Talking to her peers about it, Bella says she’s been surprised by how little some of them have thought about the fact that they have an option to not have kids.
“They find it quite an astonishing concept to deliberately not have children rather than accidentally.”
A study published in 2017 found that the four actions most substantially decrease an individual’s carbon footprint were: eating a plant-based diet, avoiding air travel, living car-free, and having smaller families. Yet the study also found government and schools weren’t promoting these actions as an effective way to reduce impact on the environment.
For Bella is just makes sense to do the thing that has the most impact, and as from a person in a developed nation she feels we perhaps have more of a responsibility to reduce the size of our families than those in developing – often more populous – countries.
“It’s more important for people in developed nations to not have children, because our lifestyles are the ones that have the heaviest impact. One child in a developed country creates a vast amount more waste than a child in a developing country.
“The average impact of a person living in India, as an example, is a blip compared to someone living in New Zealand or Australia. It’s not necessarily a choice, it’s that our society has greater environmental cost to it than a developing country.”
New Zealand’s carbon footprint is a small fraction of that of bigger nations like the United States and China, but that’s not the whole story.
Per capita, New Zealand is in the top 25 greenhouse polluters in the world, ranking above Russia, Japan and the UK to name a few. Boiled down to just the OECD countries, we’re in the top five.
Bella’s right — a person born in New Zealand is responsible for about 17 metric tonnes of CO2 a year, but a person born in India is responsible for about 2.5. The footprint is in the society we’ve built for ourselves — the way we live, work, vote, travel, eat, and buy.
Asked if individual actions really make a difference, given the scale of the issues, Bella says it doesn’t really matter.
“You should always take the opportunity to do a good thing. And if you have the opportunity to do a small good thing, you may as well fucking do it. Even if it doesn’t have a massive impact, it’s still a good thing you’ve done.”