By April Dunlop
To not have children and act thoughtfully towards the Earth are perfectly valid life decisions on their own, but claiming that not having kids is the best thing we can do for the health of the planet threatens reproductive rights and climate justice. This misled moralistic approach to denouncing procreation is exactly the platform of an emerging group of women who self-identify as GINKs- Green Inclinations, No Kids. Their main stated motivation in being “child-free by choice” is to reduce their “carbon footprint.” An article shared and widely “liked” on the GINK Facebook page states that, “To insure that the reduction of emissions in the developed countries is not cancelled by increases from the developing world, we must slow the growth rate of our human family.”
Drawing this connection between population control and environmental health encourages reproductive rights policies aimed at low birth rates instead of bodily autonomy. Blaming climate change on large families and “overpopulation” distracts us from the people responsible for massive environmental destruction – such as oil companies, polluting factories, and militaries to name a few. To lessen one’s harmful impact on the environment is an admirable goal, but the individualist frame of GINKs hugely limits their potential for change.
Often, the financial burden of raising kids ($234,000 for each child’s lifetime according to the GINK article) is posed as the most urgent reason not to have any. The cost of feeding, clothing, and housing children undeniably takes a chunk of parents’ paychecks. A GINK WordPress blogger says household clutter is an eyesore of families with kids – “stuff” increases 30% when you have a toddler. But how much of that financial drain and “stuff” is necessary and how much of it is the result of rampant consumerism? Families who make more money spend more money on their children. A 2008 USDA study found that “total family expenses on a child through age 17 would be $210,340 for households in the lowest income group, $291,570 for those in the middle, and $483,750 for those in the highest income group.” Not spending money and resources on children leaves you with more for yourself, sure, but how many of the child-free by choice are living lavish lives and how many get by with the bare minimum?
In addition to the environmental motivations, paradoxically, many material benefits are cited as reasons to be childless. The dream life depicted as an alternative to child-rearing includes luxurious vacations, all the sleep you could want, and a fancy house free of fingerprints on the glass. This presumes, of course, that everyone’s life could be like this if they didn’t reproduce. It is telling that the photo on the GINK manifesto on greenprophets.com is a flat, white stomach with a bit of long blond hair hanging at the side. Beyond the obvious fat-shaming implications of this, it makes me wonder how many women “choosing to be child-free” are white, upper-middle class, and/or college-educated. All types of people decide not to have kids, but it’s hard to imagine GINKs are representative of diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic status when “traveling the world, running my business, getting massages, getting pedicures and manicures, working out with my trainer, enjoying great dining experiences and enjoying life to the fullest” is depicted as the non-parenting life.
Perhaps childrearing wouldn’t be “too expensive” if our economic structures and public spaces accommodated raising children in families that didn’t fit the mold of a couple with one high-income-earing parent and a full-time caregiver. To encourage people to forgo having children due to the cost reinforces it as a privilege for middle to upper class people – and an irresponsible choice for lower class folks. Instead of examining our buying practices, inadequate wages, price inflation, and the need for publicly supported childcare, the GINK approach relies on individual choices as the solution to systemic problems.
Many people choosing not to have children for the benefit of the planet do not identify (openly, on the internet) as GINKs, but the rhetoric is similar and equally precarious. A Seattle Times columnist, Sharon Pian Chan, voiced her support for not having kids as “the most important thing [she] could do to reduce [her] carbon footprint.” She cites a 2009 study by Oregon State University that calculated the emissions impact of each new child in the United States to be 9441 metric tons of carbon dioxide – which is five times the emissions of a child born in China. It is important to acknowledge the national differences in pollution, but fearing non-U.S. countries’ rapidly increasing emission rates should signal us to take a critical look at our own country’s policies and practices. Instead of interpreting high individual emissions rates in the context of a larger pattern of production and consumption, the GINK framework shifts the focus to a micro level. From that vantage point, it is easy to overlook the magnitude of change needed on corporate and institutional levels to halt environmental damage soon enough to be meaningful.
No matter how many light switches we turn off when we leave the room, pounds of food scraps we dutifully compost, and hours spent on public transit instead of driving an SUV, the Earth will still be under violent attack. The GINK ideology may be well intentioned, but evades the root causes of climate change and unintentionally humiliates mothers who are less than totally enthusiastic and prepared to have kids. Reproductive freedom must necessarily include the freedom to have – or not have – children. Encouraging women to sacrifice their right to do what they want with their body for the “greater good” stirs up guilt in individuals that is widely disproportionate to their personal impact. We need collective action- not individual shaming- to effectively address the global environmental crisis.