Published May 17th, 2022 at 4:27 AM
Naturally strong maternal instincts and having a small baby doll always in hand earned Angelica Chavez-Duckworth the childhood nickname “Little Mommy.”
Now 26, the Kansas Citian — keenly aware of a worsening climate crisis around her — isn’t so sure she’ll ever become a mother.
“As a kid, I thought, ‘This is something I’m going to do, something I’m going to be.’ Fast forward to now — having to be in the space of contemplation because I don’t even know if I can protect my (younger) brother,” explained Chavez-Duckworth, the founder and principal of LivZero, a climate equity firm focused on developing intersectional climate solutions. “I can’t lie … I still want to have kids of my own. But it becomes more philosophical at this point.”
That worry and apprehension about future generations can be categorized as climate anxiety, also known as eco-anxiety. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines eco-anxiety as the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concerns for one’s future and that of generations to come.
Chavez-Duckworth is not alone in terms of climate and reproductive anxiety. A 2018 survey conducted for the New York Times found that out of 1,858 Americans between the ages of 20 and 45, a quarter said they had or expected to have fewer children than they wanted. A third of respondents who wanted more kids listed climate change as a reason they weren’t having them.
Those who work in climate-related fields and/or stay up-to-date on climate news appear to be the largest component of those who feel eco-anxiety. When Sarah Mayerhofer, 26, started graduate school for sustainability leadership, she saw her daily existence in an entirely new light.
“I just became obsessed with, I would say plastic and just waste in general,” recalled Mayerhofer, sustainability coordinator at the Kansas City nonprofit Kanbe’s Markets, which focuses in part on eliminating food waste. “And then knowing what was going to happen to that waste and how it is going to affect future generations and that was never going to go away.”
Since then, Mayerhofer’s anxiety has expanded to other issues — from the oil industry to billionaires going to space when resources are needed on Earth.
“I feel helpless sometimes,” she admitted. “Six years ago, I felt like, ‘I can do something to impact the world’ — and then you learn more, you read more and you have a better understanding of what’s going on.”
Although her climate anxiety feels debilitating for her at times, Mayerhofer said, she has found solace in sharing her passion and knowledge on social media. She doesn’t want her climate anxiety nor climate change to prevent her from having children.
“From a young age, I always wanted to adopt kids; I always wanted to be a mom, and that only gets stronger the older I get,” Mayerhofer said. “I feel like climate change has already robbed so much from us … I don’t want it to rob my experience of being a parent.”
Britt Wray had her own existential worries about having a child. It led her — a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University — to write, “Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis,” which explores a generational perspective on how to stay sane amid climate disruption.
In her work, Wray explores how child-free people have often been stigmatized as “selfish” for deciding to live a life without kids. Amber Abram, 35, procurement manager at Kanbe’s Markets, said she has felt judgment over her and her husband’s decision to not have children.
“I am one of the few people that I grew up with who don’t have children,” Abram said. “I think there are a lot of questions around it as far as: ‘What’s wrong with her? Why doesn’t she want kids? She’s not going to get that fulfillment.’ It’s a really personal decision that no one needs to know about, but it is definitely in the back of my mind of, ‘What will the world look like for the future generation?’”
The “selfish” label is alternately used to describe people who intentionally reproduce during the climate crisis, Wray acknowledges not only that her own desire to have a child outweighed her fear, but that she wants her child to do more than survive. She wants them to thrive.
“Those are these interesting shifts that are harmful on either side of where that language is being targeted,” Wray said, “but I think understandable in terms of aligning with people’s concerns about children’s well-being — especially when the (World Health Organization) publishes a report saying … no single country on the planet is doing what must be done to protect children’s well-being at this time.”
Abram, who spent her life growing up in Kansas City, has watched how extreme weather phenomenons have occurred both in the Midwest and on the coasts.
“What is (the Earth) going to look like in 20 years? We’re already nervous with: ‘What is the summer going to look like? Is it going to be really hot?’” Abram questioned. “Or, ‘Are the hurricanes going to be really bad this year?’ My parents live out in Florida, so I’m constantly worried about hurricane season.”
Again, studies show that Abram’s concerns are widespread. A 2020 study published in “Climatic Change” found that 80% of survey respondents were extremely concerned about the impacts of the climate change that kids will experience.
“Lots of people want families, and I think that’s great,” she noted. “… (My partner and I) have always been on the same page about it … and we feel really comfortable with our decision.”
The climate crisis is a threat for everyone, but it is not the first existential threat many groups have faced. Wray’s research on reproductive anxiety also revealed an inequity of justice — not solely climate justice, but racial, economic and generational justice.
Minority populations have been living under the oppressive thumb of existential threat for a variety of reasons (colonization, slavery and genocide). Historically, procreation can be a way to resist those pressures, she said.
“Communities that have been marginalized have long known how unsafe and difficult the world can be,” Wray said. “Yet, there’s resilience all around us from marginalized communities. (Their) kids are also an emblem of continuance and saying, ‘The future has us in it too,’ despite oppressive forces that might be raining down on them.”
In “Generation Dread,” Wray references Waubgeshig Rice, an Anishinaabe author from Wasauksing First Nation in Ontario. Despite the Anishinaabe people’s utmost respect for the natural environment, Rice shared that he has not heard of anyone from his nation choosing to not have children as a way to deal with climate change.
When Chavez-Duckworth studied indegennous linguistics, she felt moved by the ecological stewardship embedded in it, she recalled — noting that she now aims to live her life with the intention and values that she’s adopted from those cultures.
“Going back to indigenous wisdom, are we acting with intention?” Chavez-Duckworth proposed. “If I were to have a child, I’m going to base it off the principles (healing, humility and harmony), and make sure that I can give them the best life that is also embedded in those principles.”
In Mayerhofer’s graduate studies, it became clear to her that the physical earth will always endure, even if some of the species — including humans — succumb to destructive forces.
“We won’t always prevail. We’re destroying our own home, and it’s going to come to the point where we can’t live in these conditions,” Mayerhofer said. “To me, that’s why climate change is so sad. Because we’re doing it to ourselves.”
But concern for the environment doesn’t solely breed despair, Wray said. Two main arguments for having children amid the climate crisis: the idea that having children will make parents more aggressively pro-environmental; and that people can raise their children to be eco-warriors — activists, voters and professionals who will contribute to a decarbonized society, she noted.
Wray and her partner ultimately decided to bring a child into the world.
“Now my kid is a reminder of all the joy and the beauty in the world and all the things worth fighting for and saving,” Wray said. “… (The idea that a child is) a real, physical stake in the ground that centers you and refocuses you and commits you to this work is very true for me.”
A young couple at University of Missouri-Kansas City could also embody that passion for passing environmental stewardship through generations.
Armondo Alvarez, 22, member of the Heartland Conservation Alliance, and Justine Dale Gelbolinga, 20, intern supervisor at the North Kansas City YMCA and leadership advisor for The DeBruce Foundation, envision their future with a big family — despite their climate anxiety.
“We’re very goal-oriented, and one of them is that we have to have some kind of career where we can make a difference in the world,” Alvarez said, noting that they want to teach their children with the same mentality. “For more, it’s the environmental career where I can do remediation or restoration of any natural places. … We feel like it’s almost a necessity to have kids and raise them in a good, positive way so that they can make the world a better place.”
“For us and our kids — future kids I should say — one of the biggest goals for us (is) to give them that freedom of choosing what they want their life to be, but guiding them up until their adulthood,” Dale Gelbolinga added.
The couple still worries about the state of the world their future children will encounter. A 2021 study of 10,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25 in 10 countries — including the U.S. — found that more than half of respondents felt that climate change threatened their families’ security. Yet, Alvarez and Dale Gelbolinga remain hopeful that sustainable progress can be made.
“The fact that we have each other definitely makes us optimistic,” Alvarez said, smiling. “For our kids, I think what makes me optimistic is that humans have always found a way, and with advancing technology, who knows what could happen in the next 50 or 100 years?”
“I also think a really big thing is the push for youth empowerment and youth leadership,” Dale Gelbolinga said. “You now have these kids who are more aware of what exactly is going on — or maybe not as aware, but who are more willing to learn.”
By believing in future children who could be courageous climate leaders, while also putting the work in themselves, the couple is not only feeling positive, but excited for the future.
“There is a possibility that we can do something,” Dale Gelbonina said. “If it’s not a grand thing, we can at least do something, which is better than nothing.”
Channa Steinmetz is a reporter for Startland News, a nonprofit newsroom elevating Kansas City’s innovation community of entrepreneurs, startups, creatives, makers and risk-takers through objective storytelling. Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Nomin Ujiyediin is the host of KCUR 89.3‘s Kansas City Today podcast.