Paris, France, November 29, 2015
The crowd stewing around the Place de la République seems small for the occasion. It's a cloudy Sunday, and a few hundred left-wing climate activists are milling in the open plaza. It's 16 days after Islamist extremists killed 89 people at the Bataclán just down the road, and just a few after authorities outlawed this protest and arrested many organizers, so there's a certain defiant bravery to the presence of the protestors here. Nonetheless, they are outnumbered by a larger crowd of pedestrians — old folks, moms and dads, kids, me — who stand about to rubberneck. And we are outnumbered by a massive phalanx of riot police surrounding the plaza.
Of the three groups, only the cops seem to have much sense of purpose.
The protestors are noticeably halfhearted. They chuck a few objects (a rock, a shoe) at the police. Booming volleys of tear gas and a few shrieking sirens reply. But most of the activists just shuffle a few feet away from the smoke. (Some near me are too preoccupied with a spliff to even do that much.) One of the few signs in the crowd sums up the weird, sluggish vibe: "We didn't come here for the cops. ... Maybe we could just ignore them?"
Outside this plaza, others are using much stronger words. COP21 has been unofficially dubbed humanity's "last, best chance" to save itself from climate change, and inside the meetings UN Head Ban Ki-moon has said, "The clock is ticking toward climate catastrophe." Others agree: In a recent lecture for a Harvard course I attended, climate journalist Bill Blakemore warned of the prospect of "runaway climate change" making the world "ungovernable." Pope Francis has been frank that our species is "close to suicide." The pontiff has even acknowledged a starker question than the would-be rioters are asking, pointing out that discussions of the world we leave for our children now include a question of how excess mortality will manifest as a result of swift-moving, unpredictable climate change: "Are you sure that there will be children of this generation?"
Standing amid tear gas at the Place de la République, I am not so sure.
UN Climate Summit, New York City, September 21–22, 2014
If the climate change movement ever had a successful march, it was on this overcast Sunday in September 2014, when some 400,000 people filled New York City's Avenue of the Americas. The protest is among the biggest in American history, and every conceivable demographic, from tribal dancers and meditating Buddhists to veterans and disabled people, is in the streets. Al Gore rides alongside, in an SUV at cross-purposes with his message.
This march is placid by design. Although it aims to influence the 2014 UN Climate Summit, organizers have routed it to Times Square, not the UN Complex on the East River. No matter: The UN's Ban Ki-moon has joined the march, obviating any need to beat down his door.
Somehow, though, the calm feels sickly. As in Place de la République, marchers seem uncertain about how to address the challenges they've gathered to warn against. When I ask one activist what our collective future would look like if we don't avert climate change, he offers a blunt, "I'd like to not think about it."
For those who do think about it, false optimism seems to mask dark fear. When I stand near climate scientist Saleemul Huq, founder of Bangladesh's International Center on Climate Change and Development, he tells me that "almost every climate change problem you can think of is going to happen in Bangladesh." I agree — I lived there, in the most densely populated and arguably most climate change–vulnerable large nation on Earth, for a couple of years prior to this march. But Huq glosses over the topic of outmigration, a topic for which the only feasible answer — that the sea level rise now considered inevitable will flood a large portion of the country, and 40 million might be compelled to leave their homes — is considered grim and taboo in the country. ("We have to learn to see migration as a good thing," he later says, too glib an answer for people facing such dire circumstances.) Nonetheless, he says he's hopeful, that he thinks the work to manage the problem is getting done: "Bangladesh is the first country in the world to have a budget line item for tackling climate change."
What he doesn't say is that climate mitigation and adaptation will soon gobble up 30 percent of Bangladesh's national budget, that poor implementation and blank denial characterize his government's response, or that the problem extends to several other South Asian nations.
I don't contradict him aloud. But as I'm walking alongside him, my thoughts don't linger on his relatively upbeat take. Instead, I remember the street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where I once lived, and a family of beggars on the sidewalk — likely some of the hundreds of people who move into the capital each day, driven by climate-induced storms, land loss, and erosion, plus a resurgence of the hunger that has always plagued this impoverished nation — and of the short, thin woman who would hand me her baby boy each morning as I passed. (I would hold him for a moment, chatting in Bengali, and then hand him back with a coin or two.) Walking away from Huq, I enter the double-decker bus for press photographers, look out over the tranquil march, and hear almost no chants. Instead, I hear the beggar woman's soft Bengali accent in my mind, muttering, as she did each time I saw her: "Keep him, keep him."
The next day, I will think of that woman and her baby again when a poet named Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner takes the podium at the UN Climate Summit. Slight in body and black-haired, she resembles a Bangladeshi woman but wears a traditional outfit of her Marshall Islands culture. She is there to speak not for science or policy but for "civil society," a moderator says. That seems to mean she speaks for common heartbreak. Asking for a "radical change in course," she offers a poem about her home, a Pacific island that rising seas will soon submerge. She addresses it to her daughter, a kid as small as the one I held in Bangladesh, and reads:
You are a seven month old sunrise of gummy smiles...
So excited for bananas, hugs, and our morning walks past the lagoon.
Men say that one day
That lagoon will devour you...
Norway, late August/mid-October 2015
My oldest friend in the world emails me. (We've known each other since she was a 17-year-old exchange student, sitting behind me, age 16, in an American history class.) Today is a day we've been anticipating for years. A baby she and her husband has desired for years, created through a multi-year course of IVF treatments, has been born.
Soon, she sends dozens of photos. In one, the wee girl lies on her hospital cot and holds her arms up in a V, as though she knows her very existence is a victory. In another, my friend looks at her child with a love so deep it borders on awe.
I agree with mother and daughter both. The baby is a victory, and I marvel at her, too. She reminds of my first nephew, whose birth seemed to make my life easier by adding pure love to it, and of my enduring delight at watching him, his sister, and my other two nephews grow.
She reminds me of my enduring question of whether I should have a baby, too.
Seven weeks later, in the middle of the hottest October on record, I board an airline flight. The ticket price is far cheaper than the toxic harm it does to our ecosystem will cost to repair, but it's hard to resist wanting to see the little family. Traveling 4,000 miles across the Atlantic and the Baltic, I land in their Norwegian town not far from the melting Arctic.
In their little apartment, the baby rests on a white blanket. She is blonde and round-bellied and sweet, a good sleeper, prone to charming cooing sounds when she wakes. Her mother lets me hold her, and she rests on my chest like a water bottle, tiny heartbeat fluttering against the one in my chest calmed now by her. Although it's not the primal tug of motherhood, I realize I love her, too.
And I think of Jetnil-Kijiner's poem again, and I worry.
Kathmandu, Nepal, October 2015
The trip to Norway is a side jaunt on a business trip to Nepal, where I have a grant to report on the April-May earthquakes six months after the fact. In Kathmandu, I visit a displaced persons camp. Then, just up the road, I do something personal, a part of the Buddhist faith I joined at 23: I visit Boudhanath.
Boudhanath is a massive, 15-century-old stupa, a hemispherical structure at which Buddhists meditate. It's the largest in Nepal, with a dome a full city block in circumference. It's set in a neighborhood of Buddhist monasteries so dense that it's hard to see the massive structure for what it is — but even with its 118-foot spire toppled by the earthquake, it is vast, towering, and impressive.
Meditation here means circumambulation. Tibetan monks and laypeople walk around the structure clockwise, spinning prayer wheels set into a recess at the base of the dome.
I walk around, too, spinning the cylindrical metal prayer wheels engraved with Tibetan texts as I pass. I cannot read them, and speak no Tibetan, either. As a result, I am separated from the practice, alone among the swarm of chanting Buddhists around me.
Lost in my English-language brain, I begin to consider a question I've carried all the way from Norway to Nepal: Should I have kids?
It would be no question — it would be an automatic "yes," a fulfillment of a life course I've slowly come to favor — but for the climate. It's just over one year after the People's Climate March and just weeks before the COP21 Summit in Paris. Headlines make it clearer each day that our planet is in enormous trouble. Scientists predict 25 to 30 years of somewhat normal weather ahead — still long enough for a childhood, but shorter than a full human lifespan. And every new threshold in climate change, every cleaving iceberg and massive forest fire, seems to come sooner than scientists said it would. (Men say that one day/That lagoon will devour you, baby...)
Alone in a Tibetan crowd, I consider that I'm also alone in my American one: not in pondering whether to have kids, but in linking the question to climate change.
A few months before I traveled to Norway and Nepal, I'd read Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, an anthology of 16 essays by childless writers released to much attention this spring. Several authors noted society's harsh judgments of child-free women. But the book says little of the tension between parenting and the environment. Just one author, Pam Houston, raises the idea — and then in a brief, desultory paragraph that suggests the idea is outdated, silly, and no one's real concern:
"In the 1970's and 1980's it has not yet become critically unfashionable for writers to be concerned about the environment. We didn't even know about global warming, and yet the average citizen — at least in the circles I ran in — felt considerably more pressure to reduce the impact she was making on the planet's ecology than she seems to feel today. A woman could say she didn't want to contribute to the overpopulation of the earth — that already teeming planet — and while some people may not have believed her, it was an acceptable, even admirable way for her to take a pass."
May not have believed her.
I'd believe her. Maybe others wouldn't. When I looked up reader responses to the book, I noticed few mention the climate, but for me, there is no "taking a pass." I don't ask, Do I want to be a mother?
I ask: Can I really bring a kid into a world careening toward crisis?
In Kathmandu, I fidget my fingers across dozens of brass prayer wheels and wonder about ecology, society, safety. I think about the relationship between population and climate change, about the leveling-off of population replacement and how we'll nonetheless increase to 9 billion in the next few decades. I think about how reducing the number of children born is a likely help, but not an absolute one, because per capita emissions vary — but how a reduction in carbon emissions might eventually tighten enough to make extra lives an issue. I think of equality —a topic of hot debate among developing countries that have done little to create climate change but stand to lose much by it — and, how in a situation of equal per capita emissions worldwide, population would become the decisive factor in limiting atmospheric carbon.
I think of the sweeping change on which our future hinges, and then of the inevitable parental anxiety of raising a kid whose future I cannot guess and safety I cannot ensure —multiplied now to some exponent fearsome in its unknowability.
Eventually, I pull myself out of my head and look at the Tibetan monks around me, and a thought strikes me: Holding off on having kids for environmental reasons isn't outdated at all. It's ancient. It's entrenched. It's what Tibetans have been doing for centuries.
The roof of the world, millennia
There are said to be two kinds of species in this world. The first are so-called "r-species" (like rabbits) that reproduce in large quantities, delivering nearly mature offspring and gambling that enough — not all, but enough — will make it into adulthood without much parental assistance. These species are usually small in body and sometimes small in number, but they're opportunists, able to thrive in unpredictable environments by rapidly increasing their population when conditions allow.
Then there are "K-species" (like elephants), who bear just a few offspring in a lifetime and rely on close parent-child relationships to ensure their slow-maturing, long-lived children reach adulthood. Big in body and brain, these species thrive in predictable environments, maintaining stable populations near the maximum carrying capacity of land areas they control.
Humans are neither and both. We're a bit of "r" — having evolved through unpredictable circumstances and constant migration, and capable of having many children — but we're mostly "K," favoring predictability and producing offspring whose long infancies we manage in an environment we've subjugated. (We transcend both a little, too, by willfully altering our population growth to accommodate complex economic and social changes.)
Himalayan populations dwelling in or near Tibet, sometimes called the roof of the world," lean harder than most cultures on a K strategy. The Tibetan plateau is a fragile environment, dry, frozen for most of the year, and inhospitable to many plants and animals. With its harsh climate and few resources, it's traditionally been hard to develop (just as well, as industrialization or a forced increase in productivity would imperil glacier systems that feed rivers on which 1.4 billion South Asian lives depend). It couldn't produce enough crops to feed a large population, either, and therefore has had to maintain very low population density. For centuries, Tibet achieved this through multiple means, including enlisting one in four men into monkhood and as many women to lifelong singlehood. Their celibacy helped ensure the population didn't grow beyond what their land can bear.
The practice of recruiting Tibetan males into massive monasteries for their entire lives has existed since 1642, when the fifth Dalai Lama founded the modern, theocratic Tibetan state. Unlike any other country in the world, Tibet made this a mass phenomenon — which seems to have endured, as social structures tend to, because it addressed circumstances in some satisfactory way. In Tibet, where children born per woman hovered above five for generations, celibate monks ensured zero population growth. By the late 1950s, Chinese surveys found that 24 percent of Tibetan males lived in monasteries. In the region and its Asian enclaves, male monasticism endures today, and can still bring the family prestige, reduce a claim on family land or assets, and offer a monk a bit of education and income.
Where masses of monks have existed, nuns have too — if only because some girls had no one to marry. In traditional rural Himalayan Buddhist communities, parents have assigned a daughter to monastic status in her youth. Her life path set, she'll live at home in monastic robes to bolster the care her family provides her siblings, then their children, and finally her aging parents. Eventually, when her youngest brother has taken over the natal home and her parents have died, she'll move into a small temple she owns herself.
Tibet, in other words, carved a space for a woman to be an auntie rather than a mother.
Kathmandu, Nepal, October 2015
At Boudhanath in Nepal, I watch Tibetan women in traditional skirts and aprons cluster with friends, chatting and laughing. I think of my friend in Norway, and how I'd hugged her goodbye and felt that our friendship, like these women's, is a part of a well-ordered, stable life for both of us.
It occurs to me that being an auntie (even informally, through a close friendship) means that I can do what women without children can do, which is to contribute — in part ecologically, by the very fact of my childlessness — to the well-being of children who are not my own.
I realize that not becoming a mother is not the judgment on parenting that some seem to think it is. It's not selfish or shallow. It's a way of life traditional to fragile ecosystems, and every ecosystem is fragile right now. (Mark it down along with Arctic shipping lanes among the sad "benefits" of climate change: The grave danger we face offers a resolution to the judgmental standoff between millennial parents and non-parents.)
After a moment, I realize it also feels like an indirect answer to the anxious murmuring of impoverished Bangladeshis ("keep him, keep him"), who, consciously or not, depend on the Tibetans uphill of them heeding ecological limits, and who will depend on wealthy nations to help them cope with climate fallout in their ultra-vulnerable country. I'm not a Tibetan woman — but in a time in which "there is no status quo," there is presumably space for inventiveness. There is a place in this world for people like me, who, by not looking after their own children, remain free to become the aid workers, clinicians, or journalists who will work in crisis zones. There is a place, too, for aunts (whether biological or in friendship, or, in another manner of thinking, as adoptive or foster parents) who can help beleaguered families manage this difficult world.
Spinning prayer wheels again, I begin to think over and over: I want to help the people who are here now.
Paris, France, November 29, 2015
A few days after the climate protest in the Place de la République, scientist James Hansen will call the COP21 negotiations "half-assed and half-baked." At the protest, that vibe already seems pervasive. The vague, hapless protest is nothing like the history-altering, Paris '68 kind of moment the situation calls for. If this is meant to make onrushing climate chaos preventable — the apparent point of protesting — then one would have to conclude that chaos is our only option.
When the police begin to fire tear gas, I retreat to the edge of the plaza, rub a watering eye, and think about how gut-twisting the floundering here and at the negotiation tables feels to me. For a moment, it makes me want something other than chill Tibetan monasticism. I want the world I grew up thinking was possible: romance, a husband, a baby.
This makes sense. For millennia, Tibet existed in a climate that, though fragile, was stable. (These days, it's much less so.) But our global crisis isn't easy to predict or control —and thriving in those conditions is the forte of r-species, not K-species. Reacting to rising trouble with prodigious childbearing would be an unappealingly carbon-heavy, Duggar-style doubling down on our existing tragedy of the commons. But a certain impulse toward it is intuitive, too: Life threats make us want to reproduce.
Nonetheless, I look at the children in the plaza and wonder what life will be like for them in 30 years. Ambling closer to a line of cops, I consider a friend who told me he became a father only after accepting that his daughter might not get to live a full lifespan, a forthright disavowal of the high hopes of some new parents. A Bangladeshi I knew chose not to have kids after reasoning they would live through a different period in his society, and perhaps never get to have kids themselves; to not create them meant sparing them a situation he himself found hard to bear.
While the stillborn protest persists, a crowd of people standing around with no clear goal or endpoint in sight, I leave and walk down the street to the Bataclán. Sixteen days after Islamic fundamentalists killed 89 people here, it's still a site of mourning. Near the stack of funeral bouquets, knee-high and half a block long, one Parisian tells me he attributes the massacre and climate change to the same cause: "oil." He reiterates the common idea that burning fossil fuels created climate change, while exploiting the Middle East to extract the fuel provoked violent conflict. Standing in the cold, I mull the ongoing threat this implies and the collective grief for the lives already lost.
The funereal mood at the Bataclán hits me in the gut. In the course of this day, my decision has solidified: I can't see having a biological child. Now I realize the decision isn't about the hypothetical existence of my hypothetical kid. Rather, for one moment, I have the strange, dark feeling that a child who belonged to me has died.
But I recall the end of Jetnil-Kijiner's poem, and hear it now with a feeling of resolve:
Is drowning, baby.
Or should I say
No one else? ...
I apologize to you.
We are drawing the line here.
Norway, October 2015
It's an overcast day, and my friend's husband and I are driving around his car-friendly Norwegian town, talking about ecology. He notes the damage overpopulation does: "The problem is we are too many."
I know he doesn't mean to say that I must personally forgo having a kid. But I think of his new daughter, and her parents' desire for at least one more child. And I recall a moment he did not witness.
The day before, my friend was sitting on her sofa in a room half-darkened for the fidgety baby's benefit, singing a lilting lullaby in Norwegian, melancholic and mournful and yet deeply soothing, that made me think of dark blue ocean waves roiling near a rocky shore. Soon the mood in the room was so peaceful that the slightest sound felt like too much, and I fell silent and still, just like the baby did in her mother's arms.
I thought, If this moment is all there is of my experience of motherhood, then I can accept it. It was smaller than what I'd planned, just as our lives after climate adaptation will be smaller and less ambitious than the ones we Westerners now expect. But it was perfect anyway.
The next day, talking with her husband, I recall that moment. Aware that I can no more make a request of him than he can of me, that the decision must ultimately lie between the two of them, I say little. But I think: Your call, friend. Whatever may come, I promise I'll be around to help.
M. Sophia Newman is a global health journalist, former public health researcher, and current student at the Harvard Program on Refugee Trauma. She looks forward to reducing her own carbon footprint by renouncing plane travel as much as possible. Follow her on twitter @msophianewman.