By Isabel Fava Bean
As they wheel my hospital bed into the operating room, I have to contain my smile. This is a moment I’ve been looking forward to for some time, but until just now, surrounded by scrub-clad surgeons and assistants preparing their tools, I couldn’t believe it was real. I didn’t think that I would actually be allowed to go through with the procedure I wanted — permanent sterilization, commonly referred to as “having your tubes tied.” I’d read so many women’s stories of being given the run-around by their doctors who thought they were too young to make this permanent decision. I must have gotten lucky, because I was granted my wish at the ripe old age of 23, after just a year and a half of discussing with my doctors.
I began fantasizing about being sterilized after reading Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species in 2015, which discusses climate change denial. The predictions made by climate scientists offer too grim a future for me to want to bring a child into it; and not having children grants me the flexibility to dedicate my time to attempting to mitigate climate disaster. I also envision sterilization to be a statement to communicate to those around me that climate chaos must be taken seriously and that we cannot continue on with our lives as if things are as they’ve always been.
For me, centering climate chaos in my life means prioritizing volunteer activist work while also engaging in lifestyle shifts like cycling, eating low on the food chain, and gardening.
For those of us who are settlers, a.k.a. immigrants, in the U.S. (which is most of us), choosing not to birth children could be one part we play the process of decolonization. We need to recognize that continuing to reproduce here on this stolen land is a literal endorsement and continuation of the settler-colonial project, and is especially heinous for those who are descendants of colonizers. Where indigenous people are still connected to their land, it is of the utmost importance that we return the ancestral lands, water rights and other resources that were stolen, back to them to steward. To create a new baby settler who will vie for these limited resources is to align your womb with manifest destiny — don’t do it!
As I worked my way through the logistics with doctors ahead of my sterilization, I was contending with some push-back from my family. My friends in their twenties have all been incredibly positive and supportive and it has warmed my heart to hear others my age who are interested in sterilization or who just know they don’t want kids. My extended family, however, has expressed a range of reactions, from support to disapproval. My grandmother was especially upset about my decision, and she and I spent many hours talking, trying to hear each other through our disagreements. Here are a few of the concerns she and others raised, and my attempts to debunk them:
“If all the conscientious, aware people don’t have kids, the world will be overrun by ignorant conservatives with large families!”
I keep company with a motley crew of anti-authoritarian and ecologically minded young people. A brief survey of them reveals that many of them arrived at the values they now hold deeply after a rejection of their parents’ ideas and lifestyles. In fact, sending your kid to Catholic school might be the fastest way to radicalize them! I like to ask my comrades and friends to recall the moment they started becoming aware of environmental issues. One of my favorite stories was told by a comrade I lived with on a permaculture farm. He was raised in a typical southern California suburb. In high school, he started smoking weed, and he had to smoke in a wilderness area near his home to hide his habit from his disapproving mother. He told me that it was during the many hours he spent wandering the forest there, stoned out of his mind, that he developed the love for and connection to wild places that inspired him to develop the sustainable living skills that are now central in his life.
I also know kids who grew up in intentional communities and were totally turned off by their childhood experiences and now live mainstream, highly consumptive middle class lives. The idea that parents can control what their kids grow up to be like is silly.
If we want the next generation to be a global task force addressing climate chaos, it’s less important that the current generation of environmentalists bear children. Instead, we can make sustainable living options available to the kids who are born, and allow them to join us in our struggle if they’d like. If we are presenting appealing radical solutions that young people can plug into, they will engage with us! For a year and a half, I lived on a land project where traveling young people would stay for weeks or months. We experimented with and exchanged sustainable living skills. There are many such projects all over the world — accessible through the directory WWOOF and other networks. I believe projects in this vein have a lot of power to expose youth to anti-capitalist, anti-industrial lifestyles and ideologies in a voluntary and organic way.
“The US birth rate is already in decline — it’s people in the global South who are having lots of babies!”
This is true. What’s important here, though, is not just how many babies are born, but the resources that they will consume. A single middle class American, over their lifetime, has many times the destructive impact as an average person in the global South. Blaming overpopulation on those who live in the tropics, who already are and will continue to be the most affected by climate chaos, reeks of racism and classism.
“Birthing a child is the most amazing experience you can have! It’s an important part of being a woman and it’s what makes women wiser/more grounded than men!”
Undoubtedly, raising children is a biological imperative and a connection to the web of life that we are all dependent on. We are, however, increasingly divorced from nearly every other aspect of that connection. It feels odd to hear that women should make babies because it’s natural when we are totally reliant on extractive industries to survive and lack any connection to the land that supports us. If food labeling is any cue, I think the word “natural” has been misused to the point of irrelevance. Adopting an already-existing child is grounding enough, a person doesn’t need to give birth to their own.
I’d like to also shoot down this gender essentialism — the dubious theory that men and women have intrinsic, unchangeable differences. Let’s celebrate diverse family structures! Jesse’s article in this issue explores some creative alternatives to the nuclear family model. Looking around us, we notice plenty of hetero couples raising their own biological children in dysfunctional ways. And we see plenty of single parents, queer couples, adoptive parents, and non-”normative” families raising kids in healthy ways.
Parenting is so complex and personal that it’s hard to identify “good” and “bad” parents. And with our species potential extinction looming in the near future, the question of how to be a “good parent” is even more problematic.
“You’re too young to make this decision! You’ll regret it! Your biological clock will go off!”
Access to reproductive rights is on the chopping block in this country right now. I know I’m not the only one scrambling to address my own birth control needs in a vague fear that I might not always have the options I do now. Personally, I am insured through my mother’s work until I am 25, so it was timely for me to undergo this several-thousand-dollar procedure while still covered by insurance. I suspect that the ease with which I was able to receive my surgery was in part due to the admirable work trans* folks have put in fighting for their right to elective surgeries, and for that I am grateful beyond words.
Honestly, I hope I do come to regret this decision. I hope humanity makes a massive change now, and that ten years from today, we are looking at real solutions in action and raising children might make sense again — but that feels like a long shot right now. Even if we do totally change course and start living sustainably, having less people on Spaceship Earth is an essential part of that transition.
I find a certain idealism in making this decision for my future self. I see a pattern of some younger people being more in touch with the catastrophe we are facing, while more older folks seem to want to ignore what’s happening. It’s generally thought that older people are wise, but sometimes they’re actually out of touch and they need to listen to young people. Sterilization is a way to compel my older self to to be accountable to my younger self and to other young people. Young people will have to deal with this crisis; older folks who have failed to address shit need to acknowledge what they’ve done.
As I celebrate my own sterilization, I am compelled to acknowledge the ugly history of forced sterilization imposed on indigenous, incarcerated and otherwise marginalized women in this country. Incarcerated women in California were being pressured into sterilization procedures as recently as 2010. My heart goes out to these women, and even though I hope most women choose childlessness, I am pro-choice and fundamentally believe in every person’s right to make decisions about their own bodies.
There are a multitude of tactics people are exploring as we attempt to mitigate climate disaster, and I have no interest in pitting one tactic against another. No approach will allow us to wash our hands of the blood of industrial capitalism, but giving up because we can’t be pure is a huge mistake. Whether we choose to address climate chaos by sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure, praying, developing off-grid community, going to demonstrations, writing letters to our representatives, choosing “sustainable” consumer products, riding bicycles, doing habitat restoration work, and/or engaging in critical dialogue with those around us (to name just a few approaches), it is crucial that we focus on that engagement and develop it into the central priority in our lives. Climate chaos is threatening to completely destabilize the world as we know it and ignoring that is a massive act of denial. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez nailed it in a recent Instagram post: “A lack of urgency is going to kill us… at this point it doesn’t matter if you believe climate change is a problem, that’s not even an issue. The issue is how urgently you feel we need to fix it.” Working to address climate chaos is not a “cause” or a sacrifice – it is a fundamental act of self-care! It’s also incredibly important that we have fun while doing it, because otherwise, no one will join us.
Dying at a young age is another great way to reduce your personal carbon footprint and the global population. Population growth stems not just from a heightened human birth rate, but also from our life expectancy lengthening with the development of modern medicine. I am excited to live for as long as I feel I can contribute meaningfully to resisting ecocide, which could be quite a while – I know environmental activists in their seventies! But as soon as I can’t be engaged in meaningful work, I hope that I’ll have the courage to pass on.
Birthing a child in this day and age is an act of self-centeredness, exceptionalism, and narcissism. In a world full of children needing to be adopted, conceiving of new human life is nothing less than a statement that you believe that your genetic material and personal connection with your potential biological offspring is so incredibly valuable that it is more important than prioritizing the needs of baby humans who are already in the world, babies whose needs persist until met. You are also prioritizing yourself, your child, and our species over other species on Earth who are literally going extinct because of our rampant overgrowth.
It brings me great joy knowing that my family lineage ends with me; that once I die there will be no living trace of me; that if I live my life with some care, I will leave little trash and destruction in my wake; that I will, by choosing childlessness, leave the world a little more spacious than I found it.
If I could realize one wish, it would be to wake up tomorrow to find my entire generation working to mitigate climate chaos. A world where my friends invite me to garden with them, instead of inviting me to hang out a bar. A world where we chat about new decarbonization strategies instead of new TV shows. We are facing something unprecedented. We don’t know exactly how to deal with it, but that’s the beautiful thing. Anything we do is better than inactivity and complacency. Rather than waiting for someone else to bring solutions, claiming climate chaos as ours to tackle is, to me, a joyous, empowering feeling.
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Birth Strike is a movement of people choosing childlessness in the face of human extinction. Read their thoughtful and compelling statements at birthstrike.tumblr.com