Opinion //

Clearing the air: childfree by choice

Charlotte Lim reflects on her own climate anxiety and her decision to remain childfree by choice because of it.

Photo: Chuyi Wang

My boots crunch through what’s left of the snow as I make my way to class when I smell it: smoke. It’s almost as if I’m being pre-haunted about my return to Sydney following a year-long exchange in Sweden. 

Normally, the lingering residue of burnt wood would be a comforting, pleasant scent that I’d inhale happily – but now, it conjures up this guttural fear, twinned with the unpleasant anticipation of having to fly back home to a place which has become a literal hell.

Although I’m fine, physically, at least for now, every day I wake with a dreaded curiosity and tune into the news about Australia’s bushfires. 16 people have died. Over 250 million tonnes of CO2 have been emitted into the atmosphere, more than half of Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Sydney is experiencing some of the worst air quality ever seen. And the smoke is here to stay

The rampaging assault from the bushfires was what tipped the scale of moral conscience beyond any sense of balance: sealing my decision to remain childfree by choice. It’s a decision mostly fueled by my own climate anxiety, backed by the enormous ecological impact of each human on the earth; but also because, quite simply, I believe that any child would suffer in a world wracked by climate change. The science is already out there – we just need to break our collective cognitive dissonance, and act. 

I’m all too aware of the privilege that comes with the ability to make the choice to be childfree, but I also believe that those who have privilege should use it in a way that minimises harm wherever possible. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I could never, in good conscience, bring a child into the world who will have to suffer through existence of human-induced climate change. 

Let’s be real here, the world isn’t just fraught with dangers of the impending climate disaster: it’s fucked.

Even now, after the Paris Agreement, global greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 4%. And in a completely non-suicidal way, I wish I’d never been born, because without existing, I wouldn’t have contributed to screwing up the planet. This feeling that I thought only I felt is far more common than I realised, and is actually referred to by psychologists as “eco-despair”, a sane and rather normal reaction to the climate crisis.

My first brush with a mass existential depression occurred after being taught about human-induced climate change in high school science. It still brings me anxiety to reflect just briefly on teenage me’s climate panic now, and it’s even more unfathomable to imagine what it would be like being a child at school in 10 or 15 years, feeling the same shame and guilt simply because of their existence, and having to just keep on living, despite the total collapse of the world as we know it. 

I wouldn’t want to be born today – and eventually realise that previous generations could have done something; but didn’t. Or they did, but it wasn’t enough.

I do admit to being somewhat isolated from the mass rallies calling for climate action in Sydney, but I still head out every Friday in Sweden and strike, joined by a handful of youths and some 30 woke retired people. It’s a pitifully small, but nonetheless loyal group of strikers. However, despite the global collective effort, the pessimism I have for my future – let alone the future of the generations who come after me – persists. 

Some days, I find myself mourning for a very specific version of parenthood that I’ll miss out on. But then I remember: I have friends, the capacity to have pets, relatives who have children, and there’s always the option to adopt an already existing child. There is so much more to living a rich and fulfilling life without biological kids. Plus, I firmly believe that people need to start making sacrifices now. 

“We already have all the facts,” says Greta Thunberg. “All we have to do is to wake up and change.”