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Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak
Transcript of Episode 2: Population and Climate Change

Transcript of Episode 2: Population and Climate Change

This is the transcript of Episode 2: Population and Climate Change of the How to Make a Difference podcast.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Hey everyone! I am so excited for you to be here. 

We have a super interesting and very controversial topic for you today. And that is: Having fewer children. According to a 2017 paper, having one less child is THE single most impactful climate action you can take.

As you can imagine, this is highly, highly controversial. It’s entangled with our identities, our culture, our traditions, our views on what a family should look like, religion, there are economic and geopolitical aspects to it – in short: I kind of understand why most people keep their hands off this topic. 

Before we go on, I just wanted to mention that if your organisation is looking for a speaker – I might be the right person for you. I talk, for example, about effective climate action and I also have a keynote on the environmental crisis and what we as individuals or as a business can do to make the biggest impact. If this sounds interesting – please reach out! You can connect with me on LinkedIn or Instagram, or simply send an e-mail to hello at elisabeth  

And now – back to today’s topic: Population and Climate Change. Because this is such a controversial topic, I will not be moderating this episode on my own – I have a guest moderator today! Her name is Anja Kollmuss. Welcome, Anja!

Anja Kollmuss: Thank you for having me, Elisabeth. Very happy to be here.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Why don’t we start with you just quickly introducing yourself?

Anja Kollmuss: So I’m a climate policy analyst. I’ve been working in the climate field for over 20 years. Well, actually, a few years ago, I was quite burnt out and I went back to school and I became a grade school teacher. And so l do a little bit of both, now. I do climate policy, and I teach many young children. And it’s a nice combination to have these, these children in my life and also still work on climate change.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah. And kids is the… a good point you’re making since this was the topic of our episode. You grew up in a… in a time where overpopulation was a big worry, right?

Anja Kollmuss: Yes. So about 50 years ago, when I was in kindergarten, I somehow learned about overpopulation. It was probably one of the very first environmental problems I learned about. And in my mind, it meant people took up too much space and there was no longer enough space for animals. And this really troubled me because I loved animals. I spent my days in the fields and in the forests and watching and catching and saving animals. So I was really troubled. And at the same time, I also loved my parents, my friends, my kindergarten teacher, and I knew that if people were to die, a lot of people would be really sad. At some point, I remember thinking: Maybe if one person dies, and then everybody who would be sad that this person died would die too, and so on and so on. By the end, there would be some lonely person who died who had no one else to be sad and this way people… we would lower population but no one would have to be sad. And it’s almost a little bit embarrassing to tell this story because it’s such an extreme idea, but I tell it because I think it’s indicative of the mood of the times. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: What do you mean by that?

Anja Kollmuss: Well, in the late 60s, this US biologist, Paul Ehrlich, had published this book, The Population Bomb, and it really took off! Millions of copies were sold and he didn’t mince words. If I can just read you a sentence from his book,…

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Sure.

Anja Kollmuss: “A cancer is an uncontrollable multiplication of cells, the population explosion is an uncontrollable multiplication of people.” 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: That is extreme. And his solutions were also quite extreme, right?

Anja Kollmuss: That’s right.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: I think he suggested to put temporary sterilants in water supplies, right?

Anja Kollmuss: Yes.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Or to cut foreign aid to countries that don’t have population control measures. 

Anja Kollmuss: That’s true. And he wasn’t the only one suggesting such extreme measures. There were others…

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: For example?

Anja Kollmuss: …that called for radical measures. For example, there was Garrett Hardin, the author of The Tragedy of the Commons, who called for societies to give up their “freedom to breed” and the Club of Rome published their important report Limits to Growth in ‘72. And also they warn that exponential growth of population and consumption could lead to an uncontrollable and sudden decline in both population and also in economic growth.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: So why was population growth or overpopulation such a worry? 

Anja Kollmuss: I think it’s because in the 1950s population growth really took off. When I was born in the late 60s, we were about three and a half billion people on this planet. And now we are close to 8 billion.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: We’re actually gonna be 8 billion this year, according to the United Nations, in November. 

Anja Kollmuss: So that’s quite extreme. In a little bit over 50 years, we more than doubled population. So starting in the 1950s, when global population really took off, governments and environmentalists saw overpopulation as a huge problem. There was the fear that it led to environmental degradation but also that it could lead to high unemployment, even famine or political unrest. So it was mainly in the 60s and 70s, that some countries implemented some really quite forceful and coercive family planning and population control measures.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah. And the one I know about is China. They had this one-child policy, and as far as I know, they even sterilised parents that had more than one child.

Anja Kollmuss: Yes, it was quite coercive policy, but China was not the only country. We also had India for example, under Indira Gandhi in the early 70s, there were… Officially, men with two children had to get themselves sterilised. But many unmarried young men or even political opponents and poor men were sterilised sometimes without even knowing what procedures they’re undergoing. By the way, there is a wonderful novel called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, who describes very vividly the devastating effects of brutal family planning measures. And this programme is actually still remembered in India. It has created very widespread suspicion towads family planning measures.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: I can really relate to people being suspicious and this created a backlash not just in India, but worldwide.

Anja Kollmuss: This is true. It was not just the catholic church that was – and still is – against the population control measures.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah. It’s also people just in general felt that this is something that should be decided by themselves individually. It’s a deeply personal decision and so they were really turned off by these coercive measures.

Anja Kollmuss: And with that, environmental groups also started turning away from the topic of population. It’s not just because it became unpopular, but also because we had to realise that some of the most ardent proponents of population control measures turned out to be xenophobes and racists!

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah… Historically, unfortunately, population control measures were often directed against in quotes “unwanted” populations.

Anja Kollmuss: Yes. Hello, eugenics. 

Let me read you a quote by Arno Kopecky. He’s a Canadian environmental journalist and author and he puts it quite succinctly.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Tell me.

Anja Kollmuss: “It’s not just that overpopulation isn’t a planetary concern. It’s that the moment you say that humans need to make fewer babies, you run into the question of who exactly should be making fewer babies and who should be telling them to do so.”

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: So blaming people in poor countries with higher birth rates for our overpopulation is simply racist.

Anja Kollmuss: I fear in most cases it is. In any case, it’s highly problematic, especially if you also look at consumption patterns.

Patrick: I’m Patrick. I’m a climate and energy campaigner working for about 20 years on climate issues. And actually, it’s exactly 20 years ago that I made the decision that I wanna have kids. Back then I was completely aware about the environmental footprint that human beings and kids bring with it. Especially, in the industrialized world. But nevertheless, I felt back then that this was the right thing to do for my own life. I’m not sure if I would have to decide now whether I would make the same decision, since, in my view, the clarity of the crisis we live in has become even more obvious, now 20 years later. So I would keep that question open.

I also may add one additional thought. We are talking a lot about ‘net zero’ and of course, if everybody lives on a net zero emission, then in theory, the quantity of people doesn’t matter at all. Nevertheless, I think that’s kind of not an honest view on the real situations, since the amount of resources needed to get to net zero, both mineral but also food stuff and other resources are so immensely huge that I do not subscribe to this easy way out answer of having kids.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Ok. Let’s look at consumption.

Anja Kollmuss: Starting in the 1950s the consumption energy and materials started to grow exponentially. And our current levels of consumption are not sustainable. They lead to biodiversity loss, pollution, climate change, etc. etc. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: And we know that it’s mostly the rich people that consume all these resources. 

Anja Kollmuss: Jap. And there is some really staggering research on this, actually was done by some former colleagues of mine at the Stockholm Environment Institute. So, let me just illustrate: If we have 10 people, and we have 10 pizzas to share. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: I love pizza.

Anja Kollmuss: I love pizza too! So. The richest person gets to eat five pizzas. The next four people each get to eat one pizza.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Ok. So that means there’s one pizza left for five people to share.

Anja Kollmuss: Exactly, so maybe we shouldn’t be so eager to be the ones who eat five pizzas. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Well, who… talking about that: Who is that rich person, who gets to eat five pizzas? 

Anja Kollmuss: Good question. I mean, we all know about the super-rich, who have their private jets and their big villas and they do actually consume more than anybody else on a per capita basis. But here, we’re talking about the richest 10%. 

And that’s actually us. You and me. We think of ourselves as the normal people, really when you think about it, we now live the lifestyles that, you know, a few decades or centuries ago would have been unimaginable even to kings and queens. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: So you’re saying that me, middle class, in Germany, I’m that rich person eating 5 pizzas.

Anja Kollmuss: Jap. And so am I, that rich person from Switzerland.

Ghjulia: My name is Ghjulia. I’m a computer science master’s student at ETH, working on machine learning applications to the environmental crisis. Regarding my decision to have children or not, the ecological crisis definitely played an important part in my decision. I mean, I was still young. So I still might change my mind. But I’m convinced that I want to raise a child. Just because I mean, I believe that the future will need climate activists. And I know that I will be raising my children with this goal, but since it’s been reported that not having children is a very effective way to reduce one’s carbon footprint, I might look into adoption. But in any case, I really believe into raising the next generation of climate activists, because we will need them.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: So this raises the question, should we, those rich 10% focus on consuming less rather than having fewer children?

Anja Kollmuss: In 2017, two researchers Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas published a paper on exactly these questions. And they tried to answer them. And boy, did they make big waves with this paper. The Guardian’s headline, for example, was: “Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children”. So bam! There it is: Fewer children!

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Let me give you the numbers. In their paper, they analyse a variety of lifestyle choices to fight climate change, and the top four are: in fourth place is ‘eating a plant-based diet’ which will save you about 1 ton of CO2 per year. Then in third place is ‘abstaining from a transatlantic flight’, which will save you about 2 tons per flight.

Anja Kollmuss: Okay, and let me do the second place, which is ‘living car-free’, which I do because I’ve never gotten a driver’s licence. This will save you about 2 tons per year.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: And number one: ‘having one less child’. So they say this will save you about 59 tons of CO2 per year.

Anja Kollmuss: 59 tonnes of CO2 per year! I mean, that makes me scratch my head. I’m asking myself, did they really calculate this correctly? How did they calculate it? 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: So what they do is they basically assign half of your child’s emissions to you and then they also assign a quarter of your grandchild’s emissions to you and so on. So basically, they make you responsible for the emissions of all the generations after. And this is how they get to that number.

Anja Kollmuss: Okay, so, you could argue that this is really giving too much responsibility to the original parent since they can’t really choose if their children or their grandchildren have children.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Sure. Though, you could also argue that if you don’t have a child, then that non-existent child can also not have further children.

Anja Kollmuss: Okay, okay. Yes, that’s true, too. So, so maybe you can quibble somewhat with how you assign emissions. But having a child that lives a western lifestyle certainly requires a lot of resources and adds quite a bit of CO2.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: We should probably back that up a little bit. Because this is actually not the only paper looking at population and its environmental impact. 

Anja Kollmuss: So you look at a bunch of research and so did I… do you want to summarise what you found?

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Sure. Let me start with the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They state very clearly, and I quote “Globally, economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions” and I wanna emphasise that they named both population and economic growth. And also what’s interesting is that they say that even though technology is getting more efficient, this efficiency cannot keep up with population and economic growth.

Anja Kollmuss: So the IPCC says when it comes to climate change, our growing population is a problem, right?

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yes. And I found another paper that also makes a strong case for smaller families from a different point of view. And I’m gonna quote the title of the paper which in my opinion already says everything. It is: “Overpopulation is a major cause of biodiversity loss, and smaller human populations are necessary to preserve what’s left.” So according to them, it does actually matter that population growth is slowing down. We are already too many.

Anja Kollmuss: And so maybe I wasn’t that wrong as a kindergartener with my strong feelings about overpopulation. And back then we were only three and a half billion. So I guess for me this brings up the question, how many of us are too many?

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Well, I have one more paper for you. They asked the question whether a good life for all is possible within planetary boundaries. And they actually come to the conclusion that it would theoretically be possible to meet basic needs – so that’s nutrition, sanitation, access to energy – at a sustainable level for about 7 billion people.

Anja Kollmuss: But we are already eight billion and population is projected to grow to about 10 or 11 billion by the end of the century. So even if we stabilise then at 10 billion people that’s still much more than 7 billion.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: You are right. And the authors of this paper state that if you want more than basic needs… remember what I just said, that 7 billion numbers, that’s just the basic needs… If we want more than that, so for example, secondary education or social welfare, this would require two to six times more resources than is sustainable.

Anja Kollmuss: So if I understand this correctly if we wanted 7 billion people to live a decent life, we would need two to six planets. That’s pretty sobering. 

So let me summarise: So what these papers all say is that technology and redistribution are both important, but alone will not get us there. So we must also lower the global population if we want to stay within planetary boundaries. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: And even though there is science to back that up, that statement is still super controversial. Over and over in every paper that I read on impacts of the population growth, the authors say that this topic is underrepresented in research, in conservation efforts and in policies. It’s still a taboo topic.

Anja Kollmuss: And that surely has to do with the questionable history of population control measures.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yes. History is definitely a reason why this is a taboo topic, but there is one argument I came across a lot, that is used to shut down any conversation on population. 

Anja Kollmuss: And what is it? 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: It’s: the economy.

Michael: My name is Michael. And I’ve been working on all facets of climate… well many facets of climate change policy for over 30 years. Was climate change a consideration when I and my partner decided to bring children into the world about 30 years ago? We now have two wonderful children, 26 and 29, who are doing amazing things. And they bring joy into the world, they bring promise, they bring opportunity for the future. It was a consideration. All consumption decisions have to be thought through if you’re serious about, you know, connecting the personal and political on climate change. You know, is it fair that we bring in the children… bring children into the world, in affluent part of the world where you’re going to consume far more of our resources than the average child? Yeah, that… that weighs upon me. But we felt like we want to bring more joy into the world, we wanna bring people who can help us through this, navigate this difficult period for humanity right now. We need to learn how to be kind and thoughtful, respectful beings, with each other, first and foremost. You know, bringing children who bring that respect and can help make change the world I can only feel good about.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Most economists and politicians say that a healthy economy is a growing economy. Our current economic system is all about growth. Growth is good. Anything else is bad. Everyone knows that. And that means that a declining population is a disaster for the economy. 

Anja Kollmuss: How so?

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: The simple answer is: If there’s fewer people, then fewer goods are being manufactured and sold, consumption goes down and this is bad for the economy.

Anja Kollmuss: Okay, I get. And come to think of it… so if the public is shrinking, we will also have to deal with an ageing population. There will be many, many more older people and fewer young people. So the way retirement pension systems and healthcare systems work at the moment really wouldn’t work because, right now, it’s younger generation that pays for the elderly. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: And these are actually real problems. Nations with really low birth rates are already facing these challenges. For example, Japan, Norway, China. They’re actually trying to encourage their citizens to have more children rather than fewer. 

Anja Kollmuss: So that’s one way of addressing this issue: incentivising people to have more babies. But that of course increases population. Another way would be to restructure how we pay for pensions and the care of the elderly. This would of course mean significant policy changes and I guess maybe this is politically much harder than incentivising people to have more babies. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: The issue goes much further than just finding new ways to ensure the well-being of an ageing population, which, to be honest, is tough enough. If the world population were to shrink, it would have a profound impact on the economy. And we would have to plan for this. 

Anja Kollmuss: So, by planning, do you mean we would need to question our current economic paradigm? I mean, are we talking system change? 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yes, there are economists that argue that if human societies want to stay within the planetary boundaries, we have to shift to new economic systems. New systems that are not dependent on growing consumption and growing populations. There is actually a growing movement, no pun intended, calling for such degrowth economies, or people also call them post-growth economies.

Anja Kollmuss: Interesting. So what would a post-growth economy, that is not based on growth, look like?

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: So Jason Hickel, he’s an economic anthropologist and he defines it as follows: “Degrowth is a planned reduction of energy and resource throughput designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being.”

Anja Kollmuss: So this sounds super interesting. But I still don’t really understand: How would that work in practice?

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: So, a small example would be sharing more. If, for example, we do car sharing. Then 10 people maybe share one car, instead of each of them buying their own car. That means fewer cars are being sold, but we save resources and energy, all the while everyone still service which is ‘driving’. And of course, degrowth is much more complex than that. 

Anja Kollmuss: Ok. Let’s pause here for a second. Dear listeners, to be honest, we actually, Elisabeth and I, discussed quite a bit how much we should delve into the topic of post-growth. We realised it’s super interesting and super important, but at the same time, we also realised, it’s a bit too far from our original topic. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: We decided to add a few resources on degrowth to our show notes because we really think it’s important for you to know that there are alternative economic models, even if it goes too far for this episode. 

Anja Kollmuss: Ok. So let’s go back to our original topic, Population and Climate Change. To be honest, it’s difficult to take it all in. I mean, to confront all these big challenges. We have talked about the history of racist and coercive population policies. We learned that the rich, that’s us, are consuming way too much. We learned that population growth is one of the root problems but that no one really wants to touch the issue. It’s depressing! I really could need some good news right now.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: I’ve got something for you.

One of the most effective ways to slow population growth is improving women’s rights. 

Anja Kollmuss: Can you explain a little bit how women’s rights are related to slowing population growth?

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: So improving women’s rights is one of my favourite topics, actually. It’s been ranked as one of the top most effective climate solutions, by Project Drawdown.

Anja Kollmuss: So for people who don’t know Project Drawdown: It’s an amazing resource for climate solutions. They analyzed, almost 100 climate solutions and calculate the CO2 impact of each solution. And then they ranked them. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Exactly. And as I said, amongst the most impactful solution, the top 10 is family planning and education. It’s been well established that educated women have fewer children and that they have children later. And these trends can also be observed for men, by the way. 

Educated women are empowered to choose their own careers, the futures they want and maybe they want to have children, then that’s fine and maybe they don’t want children and then that’s also fine. The point is that having an education allows women to stand on their own feet and decide for themselves.

Anja Kollmuss: Okay, so that’s the education part and the family planning means giving women easy and affordable access to contraception and to medical care, to ensure the health of both mother and child.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Exactly. And women’s rights to choose how many kids they want to have. 

Anja Kollmuss: Unfortunately, this is not just a concern for poor countries, as the recent decision of the US Supreme Court shows. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Definitely. Bear in mind that according to the United Nations Population Fund nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended. Nearly half!

Anja Kollmuss: How? I mean, it’s hard to believe that. How can that be? 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Well, the reasons are broad. So… many women don’t have access to modern contraception or are not educated about it. A quarter of all women are not in a position to say ‘no’ to sex. Many women don’t have access to good health services. The list goes on. 

Anja Kollmuss: So simply enabling women to choose the lifestyle they want, the careers they want, the number of children they want, will reduce population pressure. So no coercion needed. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yes, thank God! And in fact, giving women access to reproductive health services and education has many other benefits as well. For example, healthier mothers and healthier children.

Anja Kollmuss: Which means much fewer women who die in childbirth, and much fewer babies who die. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: There’s also better nutrition… 

Anja Kollmuss: Because women can choose how many mouths they want to feed… 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: And better economic opportunities because women can choose when to work and when to have children. 

Sabine: Hello, my name is Sabine. I work in the energy and climate field since more than 25 years. With regards to why we decided to have children. So we decided to have children more than 25 years ago and climate change was not at all a point we thought about. It was much more about feeling complete as if someone is still missing. To be honest, I would be really happy if they too would decide to raise children, to bring the optimism we need for the future into the world. 

Anja Kollmuss: Should I have fewer children to fight climate change? 

I think in order to delve into this question, it might be helpful to summarise the most important aspects. We are overstretching the planetary boundaries. There is great injustice in the fact that we from the global north are gobbling up the world’s resources that future generations would need. And we may be 11 billion people by 2100. And we don’t really know how to provide for so many people in a sustainable way. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: What does that mean for me as an individual? Should I have fewer children to fight climate change? Or in other words, is it ethical for me that rich person living a western lifestyle to have kids? 

Let’s be honest, those are some really tough questions. I mean, I’m just at that age where all my friends are starting to have kids. It’s tough.

Anja Kollmuss: Yeah, it’s true. For me too. This is a really emotional, difficult topic. Most of us would like to have a family, to have children.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: And there are good arguments to be made for having children. For example, we’ve only talked about the carbon footprint of having children so far, but what about their social impact? What if your child becomes the next Greta Thunberg? Where would we be without our youth protesting and demanding change?

Anja Kollmuss: Yeah, all true. But, you know, I don’t feel so comfortable with this argument that you can raise your kids to become future climate activists.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Why not?

Anja Kollmuss: Well, you know, I feel quite strongly that we shouldn’t have an agenda for our children. Children should be free to choose to become who they want to be. We, of course, try to raise them with our ethics and our worldviews, but they may turn out to be very different. I mean, I have friends who are climate professionals and their children have chosen to become accountants, an artist, a butcher, a sex educator. You see… so yes, having a child is a wonderful act of faith, and it should not come with an agenda attached to it.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: That’s actually a fair point. Though, on the other hand, there’s also research that shows that children are really effective and getting their parents to care about the climate crisis. So many people became active in the climate movement because they are parents.

Juliet: My name is Juliet and I’m working on climate policy. I must say that at the time, I wanted to have children, I didn’t really make the link with climate change. Although I was working on the issue already. And even now, I don’t see why I would take the decision not to have children because of the climate crisis. Because the climate crisis… we have all the solutions, all the solutions on the table. I’m working on this a long time, but there is no motivation at political level to solve this. And I don’t see why I would pay the price for this lack of motivation at political level. I actually think it would be possible that people would still have children in a healthy world if politicians would have the courage to take the right decisions.

Anja Kollmuss: The political aspect is really important. In order to get the large-scale political action, we need everyone to be involved as a climate activist in some way.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah. And telling people not to have children may not be the most effective way to get them involved.

Anja Kollmuss: Yeah, you… you actually hit an important point and Ezra Klein made this point in a recent op-ed in the New York Times: He argues that calling for having fewer children will turn people away. And he writes: “The green future has to be a welcoming one, even a thrilling one. […] If the cost of caring about climate is to forego having a family, that cost will be too high.”

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: I can really relate to that. If the future is all doom and gloom why even bother fighting for it?

After having heard many facts and arguments, what could climate-friendly family models look like?

Anja Kollmuss: The first option may simply be to just have one child. Already 20 years ago, the climate activist Bill McKibben wrote a book called Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families. And he argues that choosing to have only one child can make a big difference and still be very fulfilling.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: I think having just one child was a really good option. You can be a parent and still do something good for the planet. My only concern would be those that mean our society will end up with lots of spoiled and selfish people or a lot of lonely ones? It’s kind of nice to have siblings.

Anja Kollmuss: Yeah, it is. But actually, McKibben cites a lot of research that shows that the stereotypes about only children are not true. Single kids are not weird, they are not asocial, they’re pretty much the same as everybody else. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Glad to hear. 

Anja Kollmuss: Another climate-friendly family model would be to choose adoption or foster care.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yes, adoption is a very complex issue and so is foster care, but I do think it can be a good option for some people. And we could actually think even further outside the box. Most of us know the traditional nuclear family model, but how else could a family look like?

Anja Kollmuss: Yeah, there are people exploring new family structures where children are raised jointly. When I was living in the US, I had divorced friends who lived in a big house together with their new partners and their children. So there were four adults and two kids. And of course, this wasn’t always so easy for the adults. But for the children, it actually was a great setup because there was always someone around who had time to spend time with them and do stuff together.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: And there’s also the climate scientist, Zeke Housefather. So he raises his daughter together with his wife and a good friend, David Jay. It turns out third-parent adoption is legal in California. So all three of them have legal custody of their daughter. I think that’s really cool.

Anja Kollmuss: Yeah, the legal setup is quite unconventional, maybe only possible in California. But of course, the concept of communal child racing is nothing new.

Martin: Hi, I’m Martin and I’m heading Öko-Institut’s Energy and Climate Department in its Berlin office. When I started to think about political issues, climate change was not yet a topic. The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth was just published and were broadly discussed throughout the world. My focus at that time was global justice, both in terms of wealth and in terms of access to global resources. Not having children seemed to be one of the efforts which I could contribute towards achieving global justice. Later when I came with my dearest, I already lived in a self-managed housing project and I almost always lived together with children in the same flat. Some of them introduce me as one of their fathers until today. When my dearest moved to that housing project, she was keen to have own children. I was still reluctant since I still thought there is no lack of children in the world, but gave in after serious discussion. However, we never got a baby. For both of us, this was not a problem. According to an African saying, it takes a village to raise a child. We liked that saying and always contributed and still contribute to raise small and large children. We never felt that we are lacking something by having no own children. We think there are so many children in the world and our neighbourhoods who deserve more of our attention and support and that it’s fun to provide that.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: What if I decide not to have children? 

Anja Kollmuss: There are, of course, smaller ways of parenting. In many countries, you have organisations like in the US Big Brothers Big Sisters, where you’re matched with a child to be their friend or mentor. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: It sounds a little bit similar like the Christian tradition of assigning a child a godfather or a godmother

Anja Kollmuss: Ja, similar. I actually have three godchildren. Well, they’re adults now. But I was very much a part of their lives when they grew up: We spent vacations together, I stayed with them when I visited Europe, we played, I did homework with them, we cooked, we cuddled, we laughed and we are still very close. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: It does sound really nice. 

Anja Kollmuss: Yes, it is. You see, I chose not to have my own children. The ecological impact of having children was not the only reason for my choice, but it was one of the most important ones. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Do you mind, if I ask: Are you happy with your choice? Do you sometimes miss having your own children?

Anja Kollmuss: I don’t really regret not having my own children, but yes, sometimes I so miss having children. You see… I’m afraid there is no easy choices or easy solution. For that, we really have pushed the planetary boundaries too far. And I’m convinced that if we want to preserve a beautifully diverse planet we cannot be 10 or 11 billion people. So lowering the global population in a way that isn’t racist or colonialist or coercive or catastrophic will be a huge challenge. 

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: This is actually why I really love improving women’s rights as a solution. Just allowing women to determine their own futures will go a long way. 

And on a personal level… I do think it’s a really difficult decision. And an emotional one. It’s the most natural thing to want children. It’s tough. It’s really, really tough.

With this, we come to the end of our episode. We have touched on so many different aspects of population and climate change: from The Population Bomb to women’s rights all the way

to alternative family models, and we hope that this will contribute to an honest and constructive discussion about population and climate change. 

And now we would love to hear your thoughts on having children. Do you have children? Do you want children? Does climate change play a role in your decision? 

You can write to me at hello at elisabeth or reach out on social media. All the links to my and Anja’s profiles are in the show notes. 

Well, and now all that remains for me to say is thank you, Anja, for being my guest moderator today. I really enjoyed our discussions a lot. So thank you so much for disentangling this super complex and emotional topic with me.

Anja Kollmuss: Thank you, Elisabeth. Likewise. I really enjoyed delving into the topic with you. 

And I would also like to thank all the people who contributed. The quotes you heard throughout this podcast were from friends of mine who work on climate change. Having so many amazing friends who devote their lives to creating a better world is one of the main reasons I am still – after more than 20 years – working on stopping climate change.

Dr. Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yes, I love your friends! Big thank you from me as well! 

One last thing: If you liked this episode, we would be so grateful if you could share it with friends, family members, colleagues… This really helps to spread the message and hopefully inspires more people to make a difference. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Bye bye. 

Anja Kollmuss: Bye bye.