On the Future: A Harsh Climate for Motherhood

 

In March 2018 an essay Meghan and I wrote was published by  Demeter Press in a collection called Motherhood In Precarious Times. In it we distilled the experiences and lessons learned from four years organizing as Conceivable Future. It tells the story in our alternating voices. One of the things I’m most proud of about our ongoing collaboration is our ability to write and speak together, not as a unified perspective but as ourselves, generating surplus meaning beyond 1 + 1. The essay is copied in full below, in Canadian English.

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On the Future: A Harsh Climate for Motherhood

Meghan Elizabeth Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli

 

If I choose not to have children, and I’m open to having conversations about why, then … who knows what that will spark in the minds and hearts of others, in terms of how they do raise the children that they choose to have? 

—Jessica Zimmerle, Seattle, Washington

 

I would rather have a child and fight like hell for that child’s future than give up.”

—Katherine Fisher, age thirty-four, Newton, Massachusetts

 

I really love children, and I love babies in particular…. But, I at this point feel that it’s very unlikely that I will have children…. It’s a feeling: like my body just observes when I go to the forest where my family lives … that things are changing and there’s a problem, and it wouldn’t be fair or a good idea to bring someone else into this change, this uncertainty.

—Hannah Harpole (doula), age thirty-four, New York, New York

 

I’ve engaged my kids in activism, but I’ve also shielded them from the worst of the climate news, from the worst of the science that I actively seek to know.

—Andrée Zaleska, age forty-eight, Boston, Massachusetts

 

 

Conceivable Future asks, “How is climate change affecting your reproductive life?” We use this question to begin the conversation and help people stake their own claims to climate justice. We—sociologist Meghan Kallman and writer Josephine Ferorelli—founded Conceivable Future in 2014 and have been working at the intersection of climate and reproductive justice since. We organize house parties, facilitate conversations, and gather testimonies from participants. Our goal is to change the national conversation on the climate crisis from one trapped in remote, chilly legalese to a widespread, vital, moral one.

But rarely in our everyday work on this project do we get to reflect on what this conversation means to each of us. In interwoven personal essays, interspersed with quotes from participants, we’ve tried to address what brought us together to write on this difficult subject, what we’ve learned through doing this work, and what conclusions we’ve drawn, personally and strategically, through conversation, contemplation and activism.

 

Meghan

In 2013, I watched my dearest friend block a coal ship. He and his partner anchored their lobster boat in front of the Brayton Point Coal Plant, straight in the path of the oncoming coal ship Energy Enterprise, and announced they wouldn’t move. The ensuing trial played up the smallness of their vessel, and the quiet conviction of the two men. One photo of the tiny lobster boat, pictured against the backdrop of the impossibly large Enterprise, became the action’s emblem and was reprinted in magazines and newspapers nationwide. Over the course of a few months, the narrative built—the tiny climate heroes fought Goliath—and in a final, shocking, twist, the prosecutor dropped the charges. Somerset mayor Sam Sutton joined the People’s Climate March in New York City alongside throngs of other activists. The climate movement rejoiced. David had won—that round anyway.

The lobster boat trial was close to my heart. My mother is a biology teacher, and I’d grown up in the woods, close to nature, and with a conscious understanding of what, at the time, we quaintly called “global warming”. My attention to specific threats (acid rain, the rainforest) ebbed and flowed alongside popular narrative, but I knew there was a problem. I’d been a climate activist for my whole adult life simply because it seemed like critical work that needed doing.

During Jay’s trial I had begun thinking about what made the action successful—certainly the David-and-Goliath narrative was important. But I wondered as well how much gender had to do with it. Even the language in the press was telling; it described the boat as “manned,” which conjured visions of hardy and principled John Waynes at sea. Specifically, I wondered if the outcome would have been the same, or if the press would have been so sympathetic, had the two blockaders been women.

My hunch, of course, is that the whole thing would have unrolled very differently had it been two women rather than two men aboard the Henry David T. The cultural narrative of David and Goliath breaks down if David is a woman. This kind of heroic action excludes us; rugged individualism is reserved for men. And the experience of watching that trial and supporting my friend though it made me wonder: what makes civil and political disobedience? If two women on a lobster boat are greeted not as heroes but are simply belittled, ignored, or treated as crazy, what emotional and social currency do we have to spend on activism? Where is our power?

Josephine

The future has always been hard for me to imagine. Growing up, I felt pressure to generate dreams. What do you want to be when you grow up? Do you want to get married and have kids? My answers to those questions were guesses from which I felt disconnected. Before me was a grey fog in which visibility approached zero as I would approach the end of a given year or course of study. I now consider my inability to imagine the future a climate impact: learning about climate change had violently altered my experience of reality.

I was an indoor kid: shy, chubby, bookish. In an Archie comic in 1992 I read a story in which the world got so hot that the kids took math class in the pool; cafeteria lunch was mashed potato and pea popsicles. I must have heard about global warming already in science class or on the radio because I understood that this was not purely a joke. I knew that this was bad for everyone in big ways, but for nine-year-old me the nightmare was principally about wearing bathing suits in public.

The fog descended on my future around this time. I think it was a product of the dissonance between this horrifying scenario of a hot, sweaty world and the total lack of action all around me. Is this real? Do they not know about it? No one I spoke with mirrored my concern, and voicing it felt more and more fringy. I became literate in two languages of the future: the one in which everything stays the same and the one in which everything changes. But I only had conversational practice in one—the one people wanted to use and the one I increasingly suspected to be untrue. I was learning that people avoid hard conversations.

 

Some awareness of ecological threats was always with me as I passed through school to adulthood, but it was semiconscious, peripheral. I became more and more diligent about the consumer solutions we were offered during the 1990s and 2000s by Big Green and Al Gore: shorter showers, bike commuting, the California flush, traveling from New York to Chicago by train. In my creative work, I wrestled with dystopian future scenarios. Fertility, pregnancy, motherhood, and family structures were the site of the climate impacts I depicted, but I studiously avoided questions of my own fate: do I want to be a mother? Is it safe to have a child? If we’ve ruined the world that birthed us, will it hurt more or less if I’m a mother while we struggle and die?

Meghan

I spent a few months thinking through gender in activism. The climate movement in general is very numbers focused, with a lot of carbo-babble and a lot of appeal to rationalistic, masculine thinking. Totally absent is the human dimension of the crisis. Though the movement is carried by women, men are overwhelmingly visible in leadership. I was angry a lot, at the absurd double standard of the world in which we live and about the restrictions women still face, in activism and elsewhere. Somehow in that time, I circled in on the place where I felt that women’s most powerful social currency lies: our ability to procreate.

The insight came unexpectedly. Several years prior, I had an abortion. I was in my late twenties, halfway through a PhD, enamoured of but not in love with my partner at the time—standard-fare, not-the-right-moment worries. But I’m a resourceful person from a divorced family; I wasn’t scared of single parenting, and I could have had a child and finished my degree if I’d wanted to. But there was something different and darker there, adjacent to the other worries, more elusive and much more frightening. I felt that I could not have a child when its chances of living a whole, healthy life in a just world seemed to be diminishing daily. I could not take responsibility for subjecting another human—whom I would presumably love without measure—to a hotter, meaner world. I wondered how many other people throughout history, if given the choice, would have chosen to terminate pregnancies in times of suffering. How many enslaved women would have aborted if they could have, rather than bearing children into slavery? How many people during the Holocaust would have chosen the same? The question stopped me briefly in my tracks, but, ultimately, it was neither here nor there. I made my decision.

 

My thinking about the political consequences of reproduction was profoundly shaped by the experience of the abortion itself—far more, in retrospect, than the reasons I had for having it. I remember the guard coming to our car to escort us into the clinic; I remember that it was February and New England was shrouded in discoloured snowbanks; I remember the protesters, especially one particularly self-righteous, middle-aged, white man bellowing in my face. What stays with me about that experience is not why I chose it, but how I was treated. Climate was yet another man-made effort that has restricted and shaped my reproductive choices, but the rage that remains has to do with the utter lack of respect that this world has for my body, my sovereignty, and my values.

My abortion confirmed for me that reproduction is a politically powerful place to intervene in the system. Women’s reproduction has been managed, invaded, and regulated throughout history, and no election cycle goes by without us being reminded of this one way or another. It is a powerful point of domination and the origin of a tremendous amount of violence. I internalized this lesson afresh that day at Planned Parenthood. This was what I had to politicize in order to talk about climate and injustice. This was where the power was. The realization was like a cold stone gradually settling somewhere in my middle, the weight of which has been present since.

But, alongside it came an unexpected well of curiosity and motivation.

Abortion aside, I’ve been conflicted about motherhood my whole life. I love children, and part of my mind has always held a quiet assumption that I would be a parent. In another part of my mind, though, I strongly resisted the idea of motherhood because I knew—even as a child I knew—that our world is not set up to support both motherhood, and the full expression of personhood for women. We don’t have paid parental leave, or reasonable childcare, or even health insurance pro- grams in this country encouraging women’s full participation in the labour market. Flex-time and family-friendly workplaces are not the norm, and women academics (the field that I’m in) experience all sorts of career penalties for becoming parents. Women politicians (the other field that I’m in) are scarce enough unto themselves, and for many of the same reasons, as well as the punishing sexism that dogs life in the public sphere. My own professional impulse has always been powerful, and my calling in the world clear to me. I couldn’t imagine being forced to sideline it to parent. I have always held this knowledge uneasily, privately.

 

Josephine

My biological pull to motherhood hadn’t developed yet, and I dodged these questions in my twenties with practical concerns: I’m too young to think about it, I don’t have a partner; I don’t have a good job; I need to establish my creative work first; who knows if I even want kids? I whittled my carbon footprint down and did work I deemed to be ethical, but I avoided the political, scientific, and technological realms in which the climate discourse seemed to occur. I see now that it’s no accident that we without advanced degrees or power have long felt unwelcome in the climate conversation. The fossil fuel industry has spent decades sponsoring efforts to shape citizens’ behaviour, discredit dissenting voices, and control our government.

In 2011, after watching the Owens Valley burn while visiting my great uncle, reading Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone, and spending time in Zuccotti Park during the autumn of Occupy, I edged toward climate activism. Finally, I was meeting ordinary people who were doing the urgent work, speaking the urgent language. Making climate action my priority gave me an emotional clarity that had been missing for as long as I’d repressed my fear. By character, I can be shy and standoffish, but in that first flush of inspiration I could knock on doors all afternoon, call strangers on the phone for hours, testify in front of legislators, cameras, and crowds.

The Pacific Northwest, where I was living in 2012 and 2013, experienced some resounding victories against coal infrastructure at the same time as President Obama seemed to have his own moderate come-to-climate moment. Time had never been shorter, but anything seemed possible. I covered climate news for Occupy.com and worked hard for local environmental groups. I turned thirty.

 

Meghan

Seeing my reproductive capacity as a point of political intervention and a point of resistance was another matter entirely. Suddenly, I found a language to describe the things I was feeling. I scoured the Internet for histories of sexual and reproductive movements. Sex strikes, as it turns out, have been relatively common throughout history. Lysistrata, a 2,500-year-old Greek play, tells of a heroine who convinces the women of warring Athens and Sparta to withhold sex from their husbands, which forces them to a truce. Leymah Gbowee, the leader of a sex strike in Liberia, has argued that more modern sex strikes can politicize and summon attention. Women across time and space have understood that their sexual and reproductive capacities hold political power beyond their own desire or that of their partners. The discovery pained me; I would have hoped for a better-developed sense of women’s identity, and the vastness and dimensions of it by now. But still, I began to see reproductive action as a different kind of resistance.

Jay’s lobster boat trial was in September, and, in November of 2014 I went to a house concert at which a friend of mine was performing. Someone casually introduced me to Josephine before the show began, but barely ten minutes into our acquaintance we were sitting side-by- side, talking in whispers about climate and reproduction, about babies and feminism. In our conversation I noticed that I was feeling something- -something more real, more alive. Our first brainstorm session—a week later, and in the aftermath of a cold November sleet storm—yielded ideas ranging from a baby blockade to a sex strike. Both seemed suboptimal, for different reasons. But we were onto something.

Josephine

There was a handful of factors—personal, meteorological, and political— that made me confront my lack of future vision. In 2014 My father was ill, and, in what turned out to be the last several months of his life, I abruptly found it too painful to confront the realities of the climate crisis in the head-first way I had developed. I’d returned to New York to be with my parents, and I didn’t have the vitality to find a new community of activists. I couldn’t write and I could barely edit. I found some solace in the Great Climate March and Flood Wall Street, but every warm day, every anomaly reported from around the world, pressed on the bruise of my grief and derailed my commitment to work.

In the wake of my father’s death, spending months in close quarters with my mother and partner in my childhood home, it became impossible to ignore the role that fear of climate consequences had played in my total incuriosity about my own future. Losing him allowed me to see that wisp of a desire that had persisted covertly: when I sorted and saved his things, it was for a child. When I struggled to remember details of stories he’d told me, it was with a painful hope that I would share it with a child. I imagined growing old with my partner, one of us losing the other. I could feel how grotesque grief might become without beloved children and a hope for their long lives.

As desires I’d never spoken aloud, or allowed myself to imagine, finally showed themselves, it became clear why I’d repressed them. When we can stand to look, to have the difficult conversation, we see that climate change is a reproductive threat. Everything we know about the climate crisis and our entrenched inability to address it is weighted against beloved children and their long lives. The desire to have a child is punished by scientific consensus and the denial apparatus. The children born today will be punished by their parents’ and grandparents’ inaction.

My father died at home on 6 October. A different kind of fog permeates my memory of this time. In mid-November, my partner and I went to Providence to visit friends who were putting on a show: music they composed on instruments they made by hand to accompany a scientist’s lecture on dark matter. It was magical. Before the show I was introduced to Meghan Kallman: “You are both climate people, you should talk.” Within five minutes, I was telling Meghan about my disconnection from activism and the ever-present reproductive question at the heart of my climate work. She was describing ideas for organizing women around our reproductive power. We whispered back and forth throughout the show, as new connections and inspirations bubbled up. Dark matter, indeed.

On the bus ride home, and all that week, I felt charged up, balancing on the edge of something new, truer, and riskier. I enjoyed an interruption to my familial grief; urgent work needed doing that no one had done yet, and I was willing myself to be up to the task. But my manic mood was shot through with sadness; suddenly, I thought, I’d decided not to have a baby. In our quick back and forth, Meghan and I had sketched an action plan; it sounded to me like we were declaring a baby blockade. “We refuse to bear the next generation of Americans until the United States government takes major climate action.” I remember trying to explain our idea to my therapist that Wednesday. I could feel my zeal tinge with fatalism as I started describing the implications for my own life.

The next weekend I got on the bus to Providence again, and Meghan, climate organizer Marla Marcum, and I had a sleepover party. We talked shop on fossil fuel subsidies and the divestment movement, shared our stories, cooked dinner together, and put words to the knots tied between climate and each of our reproductive lives. Even between the three of us—white, college-educated, cis women in long-term partnerships with men—it was striking how distinct our accounts of our experiences were.

I came to Rhode Island expecting everyone to share my same inconclusions, but Marla spoke frankly and sadly of deciding with her husband not to have children because, if she was to do the climate work she felt called to do, there would be no time left to parent responsibly. As a couple, they were committed to the wellbeing of future generations, but those children would not be their own. Meghan describes her evolving position elsewhere in this essay. Testimony as our organizing tool emerged directly from this: there is no substitute for hearing another person’s story, and it is powerfully healing to share fraught feelings in a supportive, nonjudgmental group. Until that evening, I had experienced activism as separate from my ordinary life. I’ve come to understand that activism is fruitless if it’s not located at the heart of your own life.

We did a remarkable amount of work in one night, but it took several months of skype, phone calls, and voyages up and down the east coast to hammer out the mission and strategies that would form Conceivable Future. Marla bowed out after a few rounds. She was at a peak of what climate activists feel in waves—the treacherous combination of multiplying commitments, moral obligation, and the grief that both drives and depletes us. The intersection of climate and reproductive issues is a painful place to linger, especially if you’ve already become a parent or nonparent decisively. Some days I can barely stand it myself.

 

Meghan and I began presenting our ideas to activists we knew, and got surprising reactions and remarkable feedback. We discovered it was difficult to predict who would be receptive to the topic and who would strongly avoid engaging it. A friend of mine was good enough to point out a white fallacy in our original formulation: it might come as a surprise to some white people that the government is willing to harm our children, but very few people of colour would be so surprised. We also quickly realized that we couldn’t limit the conversation to people without children, or people deciding not to have children. These difficult conversations are important for everyone to have. The decisions we come to personally are not the political part of this subject; the policies and subsidies that cause climate change are harming us all now, and they are in place to harm all future generations. What we need to make is not further scrutiny of individual decisions, but a movement of radicalized people who can claim their own stake in the fight and use personal pain to build moral power.

We began holding house parties—small, public events to facilitate climate and reproductive justice conversations. Originally operating through our own social and activist networks, we expanded by word of mouth and outreach into fifteen states. People who reached out or turned up at our events were overwhelmingly ready to talk. Occasionally participants say they’ve never thought about the climate impacts on reproduction before, but the most common thing we hear is “Thank God. I thought I was the only one thinking about this!” Despite the heavy subject, the prevailing mood at house parties is often relief and enthusiasm.

In these conversations, we’ve seen broad categories develop, which in turn shapes the way we discuss this subject: people grappling with the decision of whether to have a child typically fall somewhere on a spectrum that has the following poles: what harm could my child do to the world and what harm could the world do to my child? Some people are very concerned with their carbon footprint; some people are very fearful for the wellbeing of any offspring, and many share both feelings.

Common reflections include: Our children will not be able to enjoy what we’ve enjoyed. Our children will be angry and disappointed in us for not working harder to fix the climate crisis.

 

I’m afraid that [my babies]’ll have to live in [a] world that is increasingly full of war fuelled by climate change. I’m afraid that they’ll eventually have to live in a world where there is no fresh water … But I’m also deeply afraid of not giving my parents the beautiful, little, red-headed grandbabies that they’ve always wanted.

—Meghan Hoskins, age twenty-three, Keene, New Hampshire

Parents’ desire for grandchildren is a very strong pressure for many. Members of our parents’ generation who worried about nuclear holocaust are often dismissive of our generation’s climate concerns: “We had kids, and it was fine.”

An older man told me, “Well, throughout the nuclear era we were all hiding under our desks and women were wondering whether it was the right thing to have kids then.” And I was so pissed at him! Because … this is completely different! That’s one person’s choice, whether to press one red button. But, what we deal with now is so many small, red buttons, and the accumulation of those buttons … and more than that, in the lifetime that I’ve had, with decision makers and scientists and my own parents knowing that this was coming down the line. And still! We are making the kinds of collective decisions we are making. That’s different!

—Camila Thorndike, age twenty-nine, Washington, D.C.

People, particularly women, who have decided not to have children are starved for nonjudgmental support and community. When people who choose not to have children explain their choice, environmental reasons are commonly met with disdain, incredulity, and ridicule. Simultaneously, some people who become parents have reported feeling judged within the environmental movement.

Other trends have emerged that we didn’t anticipate: teachers often participate at house parties in much the way parents do, whether they have their own children or not. Many adults fear that, if they don’t bear children themselves, there will be no children in their lives, because of increased cultural segregation by age, nuclear family, and a climate of stranger-danger. Another common fear is that, if an activist has a child, activism will become impossible through lack of childcare (at work and in activist spaces), money, or support. People with chronic illnesses or disabilities regularly share that in the current public health regime, it’s hard enough to care for themselves; parents fear for their children’s vulnerability, and nonparents worry that a child would tip them into a much riskier position.

 

I have a choice to have kids or not, and I know that a lot of women don’t…. I think it’s selfish at this point of me to want to continue bringing children into this world. But it’s a conflict … because that should be everyone’s right, and I feel like, in a way, it’s being taken from me.”

—Amelia, age twenty-three, New Hampshire

Meghan

We had rediscovered that telling stories has power. Amid a proliferation of numbers, graphs, chilly analyses, and committee opinions, the lived, spoken truth has an unparalleled ability to move others. When we began organizing, I was looking for a politically strategic way to enact my outrage (climate outrage and gender outrage, painfully coupled in my life). In Conceivable Future, these issues have found their perfect shared home. But it became clear to me that just the fact of discussing them—of bringing these secret fears out into the world—helped make my pain clearer and my position more directed. It helped networks of young people articulate a political grievance against the power structures that make the world less safe for all of us and our children. These questions and feelings are larger than climate and reproductive justice; they emerge in a society that offers up the future as a “sacrifice zone.”

And discussing them feels like its own, very precious piece of reproductive freedom. To stop and draw political attention to childbearing—a thing we take so much for granted—and to ask hard questions about it helps break up the idea that we should absorb the sins and fallacies of a corrupt political and economic system as our own.

We internalize those fallacies to a heartbreaking degree. A painful example of this is the “selfishness” charge that frequently emerges when we broach this question of whether to have children (in the context of climate worries or not). In unintentional spaces (by which I mean Facebook, and even more distressingly, in casual conversation), the mere mention of the subject rapidly deteriorates into an orgy of finger pointing—women are “selfish” if they don’t have children, as though, somehow, women are thumbing their noses at their sacred duty by seeing themselves as something other than mothers. Occasionally, too, the charge is slung back in the opposite direction—women are “selfish” if they choose to exercise their human right to bear a child, love it, and nurture it in the face of grave dangers.

 

Selfishness, to me, is not the point. The knee-jerk charge of “selfishness” suppresses and ignores the inevitably personal nature of this issue of how we live our lives and our truths. We use ideas like selfishness to hurt each other, instead of pointing back at the broken system that threatens us all, and poses everyone with these unanswerable questions.

Making our private struggles political in this way has felt authentic, and grappling with the stories and expectations we have of ourselves builds power. Our conversations seem to invoke relief in the people who attend them: “I’m so glad I’m not the only one feeling this way!” My organizer- self rejoices. My internal sociologist feels vindicated. We are powerful.

I can make a difference and I can raise someone that can develop critical thinking and be very intentional in the relationships they have in the planet with other biodiversity, and other humans as well.

—Jahdiel Torres Cabá, age thirty, Keene, New Hampshire

But amid these conversations, I have also discovered a willingness to feel some things that I had once kept filed away. I live a public life. I’m an elected official, and while I am open about my choices and experiences (my abortion, for instance), allowing myself uncurated feelings about womanhood and motherhood pushes the boundaries of my humanity. And these conversations give me the responsibility of asking me to hold other people’s vulnerability.

One day I realized the colouring of my world was a bit different, and this difference came from knowing I likely wouldn’t bring new life into it…. I have no confidence I’d leave my daydream children or grandchildren with a hospitable home on this planet. And I can’t abide that. And, if my not bearing children tips the sustainability scales in favour of other children already here—even a teensy bit—then may it be so.

—Rachel Ries, Minneapolis, Minnesota

I’m particularly moved when Conceivable Future conversations discuss what it means to be a woman if one is not also a mother. Our books, our culture, our heroines—most have motherhood baked into them, if not outright exalted. I come from a long line of mothers, of course. I worship my niece, and I mourn what I may not ever share with other women in my family. Like many young girls, I spent years considering the names I would give to my own children, and Daisy, my rag doll, still sits in my drawer because I can’t quite let go of the expectation that someday she will belong to my daughter. How can I be part of a lineage if I do not continue that lineage? What other ways of parenting, of teaching, and of passing on life exist?

 

I am thirty-four years old, healthy, and blessedly proximate to good healthcare, at least for the time being. I do not hear my reproductive clock ticking, but the question still sits in my heart: what is my responsibility in the world? This, to me, is the crux of my indecision about children. What is my responsibility to the world, to future generations, and to me? Several months ago, I cried as I recorded a young woman asking herself this question:

Do we think that life is worth living or not? And if we think that life is worth living— part of the thing about having a child is that it’s an act of faith. As my decision to keep on living, to step into tomorrow, is an act of faith. And, so is giving birth an act of faith, towards multiple tomorrows, in someone else’s tomorrow. Do I think life is worth living or not? And if I don’t think so, it’s a really sad position…. I experience in my emotional state this question of ‘Is life worth living?’ And my answer to that is, frequently, “I’m not sure.”

—Kathy Lin, age thirty-one, Somerville, Massachusetts

Fortunately, I guess, I feel that my life is worth living—at any rate, I, as well, choose to continue living it, every day. But as to what my responsibility is to others or to me, and how to live into it, I have no answer.

Josephine

Years of practice have made conversations at this intersection of issues easier to navigate, but they are, by nature, difficult and easy to derail. At the beginning, Meghan and I spent a lot of time clarifying our aims and correcting misconceptions. This was as true with our own friends and family as it was with the journalists who found our project sensational. Because the only way climate and reproduction have traditionally been placed side by side is in conversations about population, many people assumed that we were organizing to control the global population. As we were thrust into the population conversation, it became clear we’d have to tackle it head on.

 

The mainstream environmental movement has a long history of coercive, racist, and colonialist efforts to control the fertility of poor women and women of colour in the United States and around the world through forced or reward-based birth control and sterilization programs. Many white liberals have taken the claims of Big Green about overpopulation as gospel, and have supported these efforts, knowingly or not, while internalizing guilt about the desire to have a child or a second child. Viewed through this lens—and bearing in mind the realities of healthcare attacks as well as limited childcare and community support—this era of unsurpassed reproductive “choice” has little to do with freely made choices. Conceivable Future draws attention to the ways climate change impacts reproductive sovereignty because that sovereignty is foundational to the future we fight for.

Now we have Zika virus coming … into Texas, and in the meanwhile you have the government cutting down on abortion, birth control, and access to reproductive health-care in Texas, leaving people in a real bind.

—Leah Quimby, age thirty-eight, Keene, New Hampshire

When we began Conceivable Future, I thought it might help me make my own decision, but I remain unresolved. What developing this project did clarify for me is that, if I didn’t want to have a child, I wouldn’t have started this project in the first place. The part of me that saved my favourite picture books and that saved my father’s coins from all over the world is still clinging to hope for a better world. I write this two months before my thirty-fifth birthday, and my current position is one of détente: the new administration has upended what positive vision I had, but my IUD doesn’t have to come out until 2019, and my mother didn’t have me until she was thirty-eight, so the work is my priority for the next two years. No hard decisions for the moment.

One of the reasons I got involved in the climate movement is I feel like there’s a really, really small window that we’re working within … so it’s our calling to be part of it. The same way I see what happens beyond this window as an abstract thing (that I don’t deal with, because I’m in the here and now), I think of … that decision to have kids as beyond that window.

—McKenzie, age 23, Manchester, New Hampshire

By discussing it again and again, our project has also clarified for me what kind of world I want: a world in which people are sovereign over our own bodies, and supported in our wholesome needs by a just, transparent system that considers equality to be an intergenerational value as well as an interpersonal one. On some days, the door to that world seems to be closing for good. The only positive thing I can say about our vanishing possibility is this: we are no longer constrained by the unreality of political reality. Well-intentioned people can no longer coast on soft denial and passive acceptance. If you fear for your children, or you’re willing not to have a child because of the climate crisis, isn’t it time to take other, radical actions to stop it?

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