Are people not having children because of the environment?
Investigating the childless-for-the-planet meme
“Highly environmental people can in an aggregate sense be estimated to have 154 first-borns compared to every 246 first-borns from extreme non-environmentalists.” – Lockwood et al. 2022
Are more people choosing not to have children because of the environment? Since we began writing about why people do or do not become parents, many have asked us if we are investigating this question.
There is immediate intuitive sense in the idea that worry, precarity and uncertainty negatively affect fertility. And there is good evidence that economic uncertainty does influence fertility decisions, particularly their timing. To have a child is to take an irrevocable step into a new life and we can imagine that many varieties of uncertainty about the future effect when and how this irreversible decision is made.
Let us consider a typical couple who, taking each other’s hands, ask themselves if they are ready to take the plunge. We can assume they have some of the typical apprehensions of prospective parents, from childcare costs to whether their flat is large is enough. But can we assume that fears about melting icecaps, diminishing faunal diversity, and extreme weather enter into this conversation as the serious equals of these prosaic matters?
BirthStrike: refusing to procreate for the planet
Certainly, there are people who publicly and clearly choose childlessness for the climate, because of the environmental impact of having a child, their fears for its future as an inhabitant of our compromised planet, or a mix of both. The BirthStrike Movement, founded in 2019 and disbanded in 2021, described itself as “the refusal to procreate until humanity has resolved its own social/economic/environmental issues”, in part because “not having children is the single most impactful decision that a person can make to reverse climate change”. But it is unclear how many people were ever involved in BirthStrike, founded by indie electronica singer-songwriter Blythe Pepino. Should we dismiss this phenomenon as confined to a small number of highly educated and motivated environmental activists?
But in November 2023, the Guardian reported the conclusions of a study investigating the relationship between fertility and environmental concerns in no uncertain terms: “More people not having children due to climate breakdown fears, finds research” read the headline. Despite the confident reporting, the meta-analysis in question drew on only thirteen studies in total – three of which were purely qualitative and had sample sizes of twenty people or less – and found only an association between environmental concern and fewer numbers of children. This is interesting but not strong evidence.
Studies such as this are also complicated by the fact that we can see how people who are childless, for complicated and intricate reasons, might post-rationalise that outcome by referencing concerns about the environment and framing their childlessness as an intentional, planet-cherishing choice. Are the studies the meta-analysis drew on capturing the efficacy of environmentalism as a good explanation for childlessness or as a genuine cause of it?
Fertility and ‘Greenness’: actions matter more than words
A paper by Lockwood et al., published in 2022, cuts through much of this froth by looking at the relationship between reported environmentally friendly behaviour, reported environmental attitudes, and the number of children people have.
Though Lockwood et al. found no statistically significant relationship between reported environmental attitudes and fertility, they did find a significant relationship between reported pro-environmental behaviour and fertility: those reporting more environmentally friendly behaviours were less likely to have children over a six-year period than those reporting less. The effect was graduated along a spectrum: those scoring lowest in environmentally friendly behaviours were 60% more likely to have a child over the six years than those scoring in the top few percent of environmentally friendly behaviour. We must sit up and take notice. Sixty per cent is a substantial effect indeed.
Lockwood et al. uncovered this effect by following 2,300 initially childless UK adults for six years, using environmentally friendly behaviours to assess them for their “greenness”, and using these behaviours as a proxy for both their level of environmental concern and commitment to environmentalism.
The green behaviours were:
Do not leave TV on standby at night.
Switch off lights in rooms that aren’t being used.
Keep the tap running while you brush your teeth.
Put more clothes on when cold rather than turning on heater.
Not buy something because of too much packaging.
Buy recycled paper products such as toilet paper or tissues.
Take your own shopping bag when shopping.
Use public transport rather than travel by car.
Walk or cycle for short journeys less than 2-3 miles.
Car share with others who need to make a similar journey.
Take fewer flights when possible
You will say that these behaviours indicate other traits that influence the number of children somebody has. Putting on more clothes rather than turning on the heating could be a sign of poverty or frugality. Walking as opposed to driving, or taking a train as opposed to a flight, might indicate greater leisure time and perhaps a higher paid, more flexible job. Many of these behaviours, from remembering to take a tote bag to the supermarket to not buying a box of chocolates because of the packaging, indicate a personality high in conscientiousness. Or perhaps people who virtue signal on questionnaires are less likely to have children…
But importantly, the study did control for several highly relevant variables, including education, income, mental and physical health, life satisfaction, and even optimism. Lockwood et al. clearly explain the fascinating graduated effect they observe of strength of environmental beliefs on fertility and we quote that explanation in its entirety here:
Consider a one-standard deviation (SD) rise in pro-environmental behaviour as measured in Wave 4 of the survey. This would be associated, six years later, with a 2.3 percentage point reduced probability of having given birth to a biological child when compared to the representative person in the sample. The mean of the dependent variable here is approximately 0.2, which corresponds to a 20% probability of having a child over the period. Thus, after subtracting the 2.3 percentage points, that estimate would imply a reduction to a 17.7% probability of having a first child during those six years.
That calculation is for a one-SD alteration around the mean (in people’s measured ‘greenness’). To think about the implications of a starker comparison, consider an extremely committed environmentalist, who is, for example, two-SDs above the mean. At the other end of this hypothetical spectrum, consider someone who is greatly unconcerned with behaving in an environmentally conscious way, and is two-SDs below the mean individual. In this case, the comparison is striking. It is between a probability of having a birth of 0.154 for the former (the highly environmental person) and 0.246 for the former (the highly non-environmental person). That difference, admittedly based on a deliberately wide contrast, is a large one. It implies that, ceteris paribus, the highly non-environmental person’s probability of producing offspring is approximately 60% greater than the committed environmentalist. Put in an alternative way, highly environmental people can in an aggregate sense be estimated to have 154 first-borns compared to every 246 first-borns from extreme non-environmentalists.
Lockwood et al. tells us clearly that UK adults who are strong environmentalists are less likely to have children than those who are not. We can now say that the constituency of people whose fertility is negatively affected by concerns about or commitment to the environment is likely greater than the narrow slice who participated in BirthStrike.
But is this a significant contributor to our low birth rate? To understand the potential size of the effect, we must understand how many strong environmentalists of childbearing age there are.
A majority of us in the UK report caring or worrying about the environment in some way, particularly women, and 86.5% of us report having made at least some changes to our lifestyle to protect the environment. But how are we to judge our strength of feeling? How to distinguish the person who began recycling their empty wine bottles a few years ago and now does so out of pure habit, sparing our planet not one more thought all week, from those who feel a real obligation to her?
Well, of those who said they had made changes to our lifestyles to protect the environment, 73.6% said they had made ‘some’ changes and 12.8% said they made ‘a lot’.
However, we can confidently expect that at least some of them will have developed their environmentalism too late for it to affect their parenthood decisions. Indeed, as those aged 50-64 are the most likely to make such changes and we can safely they are disproportionately represented in this group.
Analysis by the Centre for Population Change, published in January 2024, finds that among UK adults who do not have children, environmental concerns are positively correlated with intending to remain childless for those aged 36-41, but not in other age groups, including younger ones. It is not possible to establish whether the effect the Centre for Population Change identifies actually drove parenthood decisions in the 36-41 age group or developed later on. Remember also that Lockwood et al. found no significant relationship between pro-environmental attitudes and fertility, only between pro-environmental behaviour and fertility.
This tells us that concern for the environment alone is unlikely to affect people’s decision whether to have children. It is when these concerns are intense enough to also motivate a change in behaviour that we see some effect on fertility. And the Centre for Policy Change’s analysis indicates that this relationship might be weakening for childless people below the age of 35, who are now the main cohort of people who might still have children.
Next time we are asked whether worries about or obligation to the environment genuinely affect birth rates, we will say: yes. Strong environmentalists who reveal their commitment in deed (and not mere word) are probably more likely to remain childless. But the effect is likely small as strong environmentalism is more frequently found in older UK age groups and there is evidence that it is less present in younger ones. Ultimately, we expect that worries about childcare costs will comfortably beat out worries about polar bears or extreme weather events when deciding to have a child.
Phoebe Arslanagic-Little & Anvar Sarygulov
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