Shona Jennings and her husband were “early adopters” of the “Gen Less” movement. Their only child is now 21.
But the placard I liked best quoted Greta Thunberg: “Start Acting as if Your House is on Fire”. If one message could lodge itself in the psyche of the masses, I thought, that visual metaphor was it – a planet slowly smouldering beneath our homes, where only fast action could stop it erupting into flames to the point where it could no longer be saved. It was that kind of message that did it for me 21 years ago, when my partner Stephen and I decided to have only one child.
Back in 1998, actual fires were raging through the Amazon. A massive 34,000 square kilometres of rainforest burned in Brazil that year. The World Meteorological Organisation was reporting that the Earth’s global temperature was the highest since 1860. Discussions around global warming, ecological footprints and the Earth’s carrying capacity – how the planet couldn’t cope with people’s excessive economic and material needs – started igniting our dinner party conversations. And so we decided to do something drastic. After our first baby was born, we called it quits.
Stephen is an environmental scientist, and I had just started studying international development. We both knew the data on what was one of the single biggest things you could do to reduce negative effects on the planet: have only one child. That sounds straightforward, but of course it wasn’t. It was a complex decision. We could, after all, have no children. Were we being selfish having an only child? Probably, yes. Did we sound sanctimonious? Again, more than likely. And did we feel sad having to make such a decision? Most definitely.
Living by a principle isn’t always easy, especially when you make a public statement professing your stance. I wrote a couple of magazine articles stating my case. Feedback was mostly, “Your loss.” Other people were a little affronted – especially those with more than one child. Was I judging them? After all, fires can be doused in many ways. My family was disappointed – families who revel in family just want it to grow bigger. And then there was the blinkered and perhaps most common response: “It’s not ‘your type’ who should stop procreating… it’s the bloody #!@%.”
I try to explain about ecological footprints, but people’s eyes glaze over. The thing is, while a Kiwi needs 4.8 global hectares (gha) per person to sustain their way of life, a human being in India needs only 1.2 gha. If everyone consumed what we consume in New Zealand, we’d need three Earths to cope. If everyone consumed what they need in India, we’d only need .75. Do the sums.
Over the years, as we stuck by our stance, some labelled us whacko greenies, tree-planting do-gooders, loony lefties. Others have challenged us for being too-dull-a-shade-of-green – we have milk on our muesli, occasionally eat meat, have a pet, travel with our jobs, live in Auckland. I like to think we are simply pragmatic. It’s not unusual for people today to balance ecological, social and economic costs versus benefits. Sometimes it tips in one direction. Other times, it tips in another. Our personal goal was to balance our world so people would benefit socially and economically, while supporting efforts for a healthy planet – and arguably making it better. Having only one child allowed us to shift the fulcrum. But it also committed us, throughout our lives, to making mindful, ethical decisions. If we stopped taking our environmental stance seriously, it would diminish the decision we made in 1998. When we sacrificed the dream of a larger family, we knew we had to follow through.
That’s not to say we didn’t question our decision at times. While most people who didn’t know us put our one-child situation down to “fertility issues”, when the fertility issue did kick in for me at the age of 44, the question loomed large: should we try quickly for another child? It was now or never. I remember us putting it to our daughter, who said “No.” Ask her now, and she looks at us askance. “I was six years old! Of course I was going to say ‘no’!”
Over the years, we have grown to love “our little family”, although as time marches on, we sometimes feel guilt at the thought our daughter will shoulder the burden alone of her parents’ old age. But all regret is pushed aside by the things both of us witness through our work.
My husband’s research constantly reveals how rapidly aspects of the world’s life-support system are eroding. It can be bleak. It reinforces how life is going to change dramatically.
And me – I travel to some of the world’s most climate change-affected communities as programme director of international development organisation ChildFund, trying to do what we can to bridge the increasing inequity between the rich and the poor. I visit places where it hasn’t rained for years. Where mothers with sunken cheeks and pot-bellied babies plead with me for relief, and those working with them say, “Please tell people to stop climate change.”
Our sacrifice at having just the one child is nothing, when the parents I meet are losing theirs so tragically and brutally to hunger.
This article was first published as part of the feature article Saving the planet one (less) child at a time in the February 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our fortnightly email for more great journalism.