The Guardian

Would you give up having children to save the planet? Meet the couples who have

The environmental toll of having even one child is enormous - 58.6 tonnes of carbon each year. So is going child-free the answer to our climate crisis?
‘We can talk about emissions and climate change, but talking about population gets such an emotional reaction from people.’ Illustration: Petra Stefankova

Gwynn Mackellen was 26 when she decided to get sterilised. It took the recycling consultant, who is based in California five years to find an appropriate doctor under the public health plan she was on, but she was determined. In 2012, she succeeded. “I always knew I didn’t want kids, for environmental reasons,” she says.

“I work in the waste industry, and our waste is the downstream of people. It’s not people being bad; it’s just the effects of people.” Just as it’s not only bad people deforesting, she says: “The trees are being cut down on our behalf. Plastic waste is being dumped and minerals are being mined not because of bad people, but because of people. Having fewer of us, there will be less of those effects.”

Mackellen identifies as an antinatalist, a philosophical movement based around the tenet that it’s cruel to bring sentient lives, doomed to suffering and to causing suffering, into the world. “Or at least I think our culture is very pro-natalist and it’s to our detriment. I would like to see us voluntarily reduce our population.” But cultural pressures, she says, drive people to have children by celebrating childbearing without acknowledging the consequences for themselves and the planet.

Gwynn Mackellen, who was sterilised at the age of 26.
Gwynn Mackellen, who was sterilised at the age of 26. Photograph: Ingrid Beesley

“My mum grew up thinking that getting married and having kids was what you did, but she raised my sister and me to not feel like those were our only options.” Her stance has posed no problems to her partner of 10 years, and many of (pronounced vehement) for short. Despite the drastic-sounding title, the organisation welcomes those whose end goal isn’t necessarily human extinction, along with parents who have come around to the VHEMT perspective to some degree. The organisation’s literature is rational and often humorous in tone and, says Mackellen: “It’s nice to talk openly with people who have similar feelings and frustrations, like when I read the environmental news and think: wow, how could anybody produce a new human when the effects of humans are very obvious, I feel, and the situation is getting worse.”

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