7- Alternative families – parenting on the verge of extinction

By Jesse D. Palmer

Becoming a dad has been one of life’s great adventures — something I hope other people can share. Yet I’m not surprised that so many people are going on birth strike — deciding not to have kids in response to the climate crisis. There is so much being lost so quickly and so much to grieve. Sometimes my partner and I lie in bed after my daughter has gone to sleep and wonder if we did the right thing bringing a child into the world.

I love my daughter more than anything I can think of. My feelings about her are powerful and magical. Being a dad is complex, intense and meaningful — it can be hard to explain or describe to people who don’t have kids.

Parenting in the middle of our world’s current ecological and social collapse is also a complex and intense feeling, but less pleasant. My main job as a parent is to protect my daughter from harm and it is painfully obvious that I am failing. We know that anything like continuing the status quo — billions of people relying on massive fossil fuel combustion and an array of other unsustainable practices to meet our basic needs — is causing ecological collapse that threatens to cause a near-term, massive human die-off, if not our extinction.

Yet as the floods, storms, fires and crop failures increase, the current political / economic / cultural system is failing to take any meaningful action to change course. To have a chance, the scale of response has to be equal to the scale of the problem, which means global and huge — unprecedented in human history — the way rapid climate change is global, huge and unprecedented.

This article isn’t focused on doom and gloom. We’re all numb. Fear isn’t spurring change, it’s just making people withdraw, give up, go into denial, or chase illusory fake solutions rather than do the obvious: massively reduce and change consumption right now on both a systemic and personal level.

I want to offer alternatives that aren’t just about survival and hardship but offer options for more joy, more community with others and a more meaningful existence. This isn’t because I am denying the crisis or trying to change the subject. Rather, my hunch is that the types of changes we so desperately need will require more meaningful, connected and joyful lives — we can’t survive without them.

The climate / ecological crisis is a crisis of concentration of power in too few hands. Those in power use consumerism, mass-media, social isolation and instant techno gratification to maintain control and domination. When we smash short-term disposable fossil fuel dependence, we’ll also end up smashing boredom, loneliness, powerlessness, separation of the mind from the heart and separation of human beings from the rest of nature.

When I heard that my Slingshot comrade Isabel was going to get her tubes tied, I understood and respected what she was going to do, but I also felt a sense of grief about it. I really like Isabel and I want the best for her — a life full of all the experiences she might want to have. I wondered if deciding to get sterilized at 23 years old was closing a door she would regret but I grasp not wanting to bring more kids into this mess. Not only is this a reasonable, ethical and caring thing to do, but if enough people did it, it could possibly help avert the worst forms of ecological breakdown.

It’s politically correct to say that population is unrelated to human ecological overreach, but I’m unconvinced that human population can keep growing infinitely on a finite planet. In any case, people in developed countries use dramatically more resources per capita than most of the world’s people — the richest 10% of the world’s population emits 1/2 of the CO2 according to an Oxfam report. So if people in the US and other developed countries have less children, it makes a difference. While its obvious that individuals can’t address a global crisis with individual consumer choices, it is also a mistake to dismiss individual action as irrelevant to the type of all-hands on deck societal effort necessary to address the scale of the climate crisis.

There are plenty of cultural norms about what constitutes a “good life” that structure individual decisions on a mass scale that can’t be changed by the government or corporations. If billions of people shift cultural expectations, those changes can add up to huge changes in resource consumption.

So I want to promote a cultural shift around children and parenting away from nuclear families raising multiple children and towards larger groups of people raising fewer children. Raising kids is one of life’s key experiences — it connects you with the circle of life, your parents and ancestors, and other people across time and around the world. I have grown and learned a lot from being a dad and from my daughter.

But one shouldn’t have to have their own child to share in these intense experiences. For biological parents, having more people participate in childrearing reduces the overwhelming workload parents face. Parents end up too busy to even ask for or organize help… Non-parents who take on a significant role in childrearing get something meaningful. And raising kids as a group builds community, distributes joy and reduces isolation and loneliness.

This isn’t just theory — this is happening. For the last six years my partner and I have been raising our daughter in a big collective house. Right now there’s one other kid and his single mom, plus three other adults — 6 adults and 2 kids in a house. Sometimes we call the kids “ziblings” which means they aren’t siblings, but at particular moments they relate like siblings, mitigating the concern some parents have about having an only-child. The kids — without us even suggesting this — started calling each other “my sister” and “my brother” and they play together a lot. Living with another kid has been important for socialization — learning how to share and relate to others. I think the kids also have a more complex relationship with adults since they live with 6 adults rather than the more-typical 1 or 2. The kids have more varied role models and can relate to adults on a more equal basis.

Raising kids like this is an on-going experiment for us and like anything, it’s not always perfect. It can be complex to figure out how to resolve different opinions about how things work, and feelings about raising kids can be particularly intense. At our house meetings we have an agenda item where the parents talk about issues they are having with the other parents, the non-parents talk about the parents and the kids, and the parents talk about the non-parents. But most house issues get talked out over dinner since we eat together 5-6 times a week. With 8 or more people at most dinners — we have a lot of guests — the kids invented the idea of saying “dinner announce” so they can have a turn in the conversation. It’s one of my favorite moments of the day.

The non-parents didn’t sign up to be parents, so they aren’t responsible for childcare duties in our house, but that doesn’t mean they don’t relate to or spend time with the kids, pick up a lot of chore slack or deal with plenty of kid chaos. Because we have more people living in the house, there’s more opportunities for fun and flexibility. If a particular person doesn’t want to do something, probably someone else will. If some people go on vacation there’s always someone staying behind who can water the plants. Living like this saves some resources since more people share tools, utensils, etc. And whereas cooking dinner almost every night might not make sense with a nuclear family, cooking-time per meal served is lower the more people sitting around the table.

Our house has been going for over 20 years and very close connections have grown up between us. I cannot imagine living with just a partner and children. It is easy to see how group childrearing could be the normal way things are done, rather than something unusual the way it is now, because this is a lower-resource adaption that adds to our lives rather than something we have to give up.

I’m aware of several other groups helping to raise kids up and down the West Coast. There are other group houses like mine that host one or two kids. My friend’s son who was raised at a notorious punk house is now 17 years old and a teenaged friend has moved in. I recently ran across a compound with 2 houses, 4 living units, 9 adults raising a whole lot of kids who share expenses equally even though different members occupy different amounts of space. It’s a form of income-sharing.

A few friends are raising kids in cohousing communities in which the parents and kids have their own apartment, but there is a lot of sharing and interaction with neighbors like a village. Adults pick up kids who aren’t theirs from school. My friends’ kid plays with the neighbor’s dog and gardens with an older childless couple. Common spaces are inhabited by unrelated kids.

Another community I’m close to involved 4 couples living in 4 cottages on a big old farm raising 6 kids. They have a main house where they share some meals and when the kids were little, they all ran around in a pack. Sean, who is an adult now, reflected “It certainly worked for me, and for the kids I grew up with. We benefited from a healthy example of co-operative living that we can now model in a productive way having moved on from that community. Having grown up in a dynamic community, we have a stronger intuition for how to nurture healthy community. I’ve come across many young adults who had less positive experiences in similar circumstances and this emphasizes that no matter what the situation, the health of the relationships matters most.”

In addition to shifting norms about how kids are raised, norms can shift about how many kids parents have — moving towards a voluntary “one child” expectation. When I was growing up in the 1970s, the middle-American “ideal” / “normal” family size was 2 or more kids. These cultural norms structure the way the world looks and can all be changed, just as coal-fire power plants can be replaced with solar panels and windmills. Often I speak with parents who have one kid who feel they should have another so their first kid doesn’t get lonely — isn’t an only child. This is tied into the suburban ideal for raising children — a nuclear family made up of a mom and dad (or two moms or two dads) and kids living in a house. How quaint. And how potentially lonely and limiting and isolating!

In calling for new values around kids as a way of discussing human population, we need to acknowledge the ugly history of racist and colonial population policies imposed on non-whites — particularly involuntary sterilization and immigration restrictions. Increasingly white supremacists are pushing “replacement theory” and urging whites to have more children.

Changing social norms is a voluntary process and the best population control measure is education, equal rights for women and widespread access to contraception and abortion. My hope is that changing norms about raising kids go along with a decline in the patriarchy, hetero-normativity, monogamy and other oppressive standards — because the dominance of the nuclear family ideal carries with it a lot of outdated baggage. As the idea of the family is re-defined and made more collective, my hope is that each of us can be free to take on the roles that suit us so each of us can reach our full potential, rather than being forced into a limited number of socially pre-defined boxes.

Some people are going to keep having kids and the reason I started this article by saying how much I enjoy being a parent is to clarify that I want a world that supports kids and parents better than the world we’re in now. Some people are also not going to want kids for a variety of reasons and the world should support and honor that decision, too. Concluding that you can’t have kids because the world is doomed and your kids would face a hopeless future isn’t the way it should work.

Spread over millions of people, cultural changes can meaningfully reduce ecological impact — bending trend-lines from increasing population using more resources, to lower populations using less resources.

The status quo, on the other hand, isn’t an option. Once natural feedback loops are triggered — perhaps in the next few years — ecological collapse will be self-sustaining and out of our hands. By then, it will be too late to reduce emissions — it won’t matter anymore.

I take my daughter to elementary school a few days a week and I can’t help standing in the playground looking at all the energetic, beautiful children and wondering if they are already the doomed walking dead. Will they reach adulthood, or will they be cut down by famine and wars over migration and water? Are oil company profits really worth it? Do we really need to continue living just like we’ve been living up until now — with so many clothes, so much plastic, such powerful corporations, so many flights, so many cars — so much?

But really, the way we live now is not normal for human beings — we’ve only been burning fossil fuels for a few generations and before that, humans lived just fine for thousands of years without all the stuff we currently see as necessary. The nuclear family is also a very recent development tied to the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism. For most of human history and still to this day in many world cultures, children are raised by larger groups — extended family or villages. Let’s not maintain oppressive family structures but rather build new norms around collective childrearing.

Parents spend loads of time trying to keep kids safe. It’s time we face up to the overwhelming dangers we’re facing and come together to try to survive and even thrive in community on this lovely world.