For some millennials and Gen Zers, climate change complicates the question of having kids
Taking public transit, using less electricity and eating a plant-based diet are all ways an individual can reduce their carbon footprint. But studies have shown the biggest impact could come from having fewer children, or none at all. Climate activist Daniel Sherrell grapples with how to imagine a future during the climate crisis in his new book “Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: You frame your book as a letter to your hypothetical child [as] an explanation of why the world is the way it is right now and how you made your own choices. Why did you decide on that style?
Daniel Sherrell: I'm not sure that I even made a conscious decision about that style. I didn't know I was writing a book. It was like a series of desperate attempts at processing I would jot down in the Notes app on my phone, and I found myself starting to address a child I wasn't sure I was going to have.
We're currently headed for about three degrees Celsius of warming, and that's a very, very dangerous world for a child to live in. It felt like if I'm ever going to be able to justify actually starting a family, I'm going to need to be ready with some document that can prompt an honest and very difficult conversation about the world that they were brought into without their consent.
CB: You refer to climate change throughout the book as the "Problem" — with a capital "P." How do different generations experience climate change or the Problem?
DS: You and I are both in this strange generation, the millennials, that sort of straddled the pre-Anthropocene and post-Anthropocene world. I remember growing up in the '90s, the sort of alchemy of democracy plus capitalism seemed to be eternal and unassailable. You could become a doctor or an architect and go shopping at the mall, and that basic state of affairs would pertain forever into eternity.
And then, as we grew up, the climate crisis, within the span of about a decade, went from a niche research topic to an ongoing global catastrophe. I think that created a kind of whiplash for our generation. We thought we had inherited one world, but in fact, we had inherited something very different. My heart really goes out to the generation below us, Gen Z, who have never known anything else, who never got the childhood — this sort of age of innocence we were afforded.
CB: You and I are both 30, and I think there's something of an expectation at this particular point in life that that is when you really settle down. And the massive question at the center of this book — and it's a massive choice I think all millennials and Gen Zers are now facing — is whether to have fewer children or any at all. Here in Utah, fertility rates have been declining in recent years. There are likely many factors at play, but when you were putting this book together, what did you hear from other young people about their choices?
DS: I first want to say that this book does not contain a prescriptive take on whether or not people should have children. I do think that it's still a deeply personal choice. There's a whole range. Some people are like, 'I'm afraid for the person that I'm going to bring into this world, and frankly don't want the responsibility of bringing somebody into a collapsing planet.' And then there are some people, and I think I fall more on this side — having children and loving them is like a statement of belief in the value of the human project and its continuation.
I think our parents had a model of settling down. You find a spouse, you have kids, you put a down payment on a mortgage and you can live your private life and trust the bedrock of society to hold steady. What maybe they have a hard time understanding about our generation is that bedrock — there's been an immense asterisk placed over all of it. That's like an outdated life narrative at this point. So young people are desperately trying to craft new narratives for themselves that can allow for things like family, like love, like meaning making through taking action on the immense structural violence that is the climate crisis
CB: After the work you've done on this book, do you have any clearer idea on where you land on whether the child that you've addressed this whole book to will remain hypothetical?
DS: I guess I'll say this: what my heart wants is to start a family. So I am fighting tooth and nail every day in the climate movement to create the kind of conditions where that choice would feel justifiable, while also acknowledging that, you know, we may fail. That's a scary prospect. But even the device of writing to a hypothetical future child allowed me under the skin — emotionally, philosophically, psychologically — of the climate crisis in a way that I hadn't found access to before. And in that way, even the prospect of having a child has brought me further into the world and has made me feel less like I'm sleepwalking.