To Plan a Family: Children, Hope, and the Climate Crisis
A discussion with Australian playwright Melissa-Kelly Franklin on having children in a climate emergency.
By: Sadie Morris, SFS ’22 & Common Home Editor
Like the Cold War generations worried about the ethics of bringing children into a world of nuclear threats, young people today are asking serious questions about having children in a future shaped by the climate crisis
As each new IPCC report warns of humanity’s quickening descent into disaster, celebrities, politicians, and everyday people have publicly discussed whether it is ethical to have children. In 2020, the Morning Consult found that 25% of childless adults were factoring climate change into their reproductive decision to not have children, and 33% of 20- to 45-year-old adults cited climate change as a reason they had or expected to have fewer children than they considered ideal.
The data is clear that population size drives resource consumption and climate-driven hardships are exponentially increasing. But how should those prospects weigh into the profoundly personal decision of having children?
Professional ethicists offer guidance through the lens of morality and philosophy, but they reach vastly different conclusions. In the extreme, anti-natalist philosophers unequivocally find life on a dying planet a nonstarter for childbirth. The Voluntary Human Extinction movement, for example, believes people should voluntarily “cease to breed” to improve “crowded conditions and resource shortages.”
Other philosophers question how many children it is ethical for a family to have by weighing the environmental impact per child born. In the 2016 book One Child: Do We Have a Right to More? philosopher Sarah Conly argued that “the foreseeable harm from population growth seems to make unlimited procreation too dangerous to be something that can be protected as a right.”
Climate change and sustainability researchers Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas evaluated hundreds of lifestyle scenarios to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Having one fewer child was the single most impactful action, at 58 tons per carbon dioxide equivalent. The scale was striking, at 24 times greater carbon impact than living car-free and 72 times that of eating a plant based diet.
Yet, four years later Nicholas reversed her claim in her book Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World. She argued that given the timeline on which climate action needs to take place, the decision to have kids is really not that consequential. If someone wants to, they should go for it. Talk about an existential crisis: In her take, even one’s biggest, most personal life decisions have no impact.
Nicholas’ flip-flop speaks to the limitations of what an ethicist or data scientist can say about having children. Academics can point to the facts on either side of the argument but they fail to speak to the core underlying question of whether to have children: Do you have hope for a better world?
When it comes to amorphous questions like hope, art can often take us where philosophy falls short. Common Home reached out to writer Melissa-Kelly Franklin, whose play We’ll Dance on the Ash of the Apocalypse harnesses the power of art to tackle these morally-fraught issues.
The play is set in the unspecified future where the climate emergency (as it is often called in Franklin’s home country of Australia) has displaced millions. Disruptions wrack food chains, medical access, and the basic fabric of society. On a stripped-down set, a young activist couple learns that one of them is pregnant and they must decide whether to give birth.
When Franklin began writing in 2018, she foresaw a future that echoed historical movements; on the horizon, the rise of climate protests and concurrent authoritarian government that closed universities, museums, theaters–“places where people gather to share ideas.” Ironically, as she wrote, mass climate movements arose globally–Sunrise Movement in the U.S., Extinction Rebellion in the U.K., among others–but a global pandemic cracked down on protests before governments did, closing for two years the communal spaces of sharing and protesting.
As she saw her original themes play out in real life–and worked with the lead actress who actually became pregnant–she began to see her play as less about protest and more about “hope, defiant hope, and clinging on to that hope. Not a vain hope that someone somewhere is going to do something about it, but hope that’s going to give us the energy to keep fighting for the future that we all want to secure for each other.”
The play was partially born out of conversations with Franklin’s partner, a scientist. They were frustrated with “how it was quite difficult to emotionally engage people in these scientific questions and the thought of, what would it take in a storytelling capacity to emotionally engage people?” They concluded: “Think about the ultimate symbol of the future, which is children.”
Franklin entwines the couple’s decision with other issues in the not-too-distant-future world. This effort at intersectionality nuances both the characters’ decisions and the audience’s experience of imagining the future in a “visceral, emotionally raw way.” Franklin sought to “incorporate how the climate emergency is going to impact all of us to varying degrees based on race, gender and where we are geographically in the world. I felt that it was really important to explore how the climate emergency might impact women uniquely, compared to men, particularly when it comes to women’s health and access to reproductive health care.”
At the same time, Franklin intentionally left the play devoid of defining details like character and location names, so that it could be adapted anywhere in the world. The playwright worries “about the carbon footprint, taking the theater piece internationally and touring;” so, the current ambiguity leaves open the door for “other versions and different interpretations that could be translated,” anywhere in the world. The Icelandic version is already in the works.
As Franklin brings the play out into the world, she has found that people “recognize themselves in these characters and recognize the conversations that these characters are having.” The reception inspires her. “That so many people experience these anxieties and feelings makes me feel less alone. That brings some sort of kind of comfort in solidarity.” This ultimately is the hope that Franklin has for her play–and what she has begun to see come to fruition. “I’m hoping that if we can come together as communities through sharing these conversations and ideas with other people in our lives, that may lead to making decisions about what one can do on a personal level. It’s as the young woman says in the play, ‘it’s not just about doing all this on a huge global scale; it’s also about doing what I can in my little patch. I might not be able to stop the ice caps melting, but I can help make my corner better, greener, happier.’”
But, what does the play offer for those in the audience still wondering whether it is ethical to have children? Ultimately, Franklin says, “I don’t think the play seeks to answer that question. But I think thinking about what the future might look like for anyone who comes after us is a really important one. I see the exploration of family planning in the play as a symbol for the future, and kind of a broader conversation about the legacy that we’re going to leave.”
As I consider the existential threat that climate change poses to mine and future generations, I am left with the words of the male protagonist echoing in my head: “Yes, fear keeps us alive, it makes us run; but without hope, it’s a paralytic. Hope gives us something to run to.”
Melissa-Kelly Franklin is a writer and director based in London and Sydney. She has received international recognition for her independent film and theater. We’ll Dance on the Ash of the Apocalypse is currently being performed in London at the Come What May festival.