I never wanted children. At least, not at first. I loved the agility of my childless life - and as a child of the late 70s, I was raised as an early adopter of an environmentally-led sustainable lifestyle. I knew that having one fewer child is a surefire way to reduce CO2 emissions. I was brought up growing vegetables and reusing single-use plastic. I made pocket money reducing my parents’ energy bills. I even wrote about how having kids scared me in a Nathan Barley-ish magazine.
Then a switch flipped, and starting a family became mission-critical. And one summer day (or was it night, I can’t remember), while the world masked up and hand-sanitised their way through another Zoom pub quiz, our little sprout was born. Over 200,000 of the 600,000 babies born in the UK during the first year of the pandemic came when lockdown was at its most restrictive. In addition to being slow at achieving developmental milestones and not having much by the way of the “normal” things new parents schedule for their babies (classes, visits to grandparents, interaction with human beings outside your bubble), these babies were conceived in a recession, born in the middle of a global pandemic and will be raised listening to the wheezes of a dying planet. Parental guilt is inevitable - but the guilt felt by those with kids born in 2020 can be crippling.
“I’ve had to seek professional help since B was born,” Ivan, a young father, told me. “I’m prone to thinking about darker things, so I try to avoid the news. I skim headlines and listen to true crime podcasts. The algorithm knows what I’m avoiding and it helps me.”
Ivan isn’t alone. Selective news avoidance has doubled in the UK since 2017. People say there’s too much politics, that the news and the amount of it affects their mood and, hey, you can’t trust it anyway. My partner and I are both journalists and news, in our house, is whether Mrs H is playing at a local church or who in the nursery room has chicken pox. The other stuff is work.
Work, or the other stuff, can be tricky when you’re trying to avoid doom-scrolling about the state of the world so you can be fully present for your child. We’re in a unique position - being the among first to know the worst and best things, often in depth, while our brains try to compartmentalise that knowledge so it doesn’t affect your parenting too much. But it’s rarely possible: consumption and sustainability has guided our parenting from day dot. From using sharing apps like Young Planet to cycling as a primary means of transportation and co-adminning a WhatsApp mega-group of around 2,000 parents and carers, growing communities and the gift economy has been a hands-on gesture to ameliorate our guilt.
So why subject your crotch goblins to the world in the first place? Well, quite simply, because they are the last chance we got. Functioning societies depend on healthy, working people and we are hard-wired to survive. Ageing populations eventually drain resources and services like healthcare. Previous generations have sent carbon emissions down a death knell through extractive energy and relentless consumption and either thought there was nothing wrong with that or that someone else will clean up the mess. An older cohort is currently on janitor duty. This consists of Genesis Butler, Helena Gualinga and Joe Brindle and other pandemials under twenty, like Greta Thunberg, who appeal to the increasingly deafening ears of ageing boomers running countries and corporations. But the Extinction Generation is the one that will be handed the broom and burden to save the planet - and they’ve only just learned to sing the alphabet. Risk analysts who talk about a lost generation refer to youth under 25, and say “hard-fought societal wins could be obliterated” if this generation and ones that follow it lack pathways to educational and job opportunities.
“I don’t want to bring a kid into a world where water is a commodity,” says Dani, a finance professional in their mid-20s. “We don’t want kids precisely because we’re worried about resources.” Substantial levels of climate distress, or eco-anxiety, have been reported globally with children and young people particularly vulnerable to it. The Extinction Generation turned two this year. Nurseries teach children about the environment before they are potty trained - and these toddlers are feeling the brunt of an energy and cost of living crisis partly caused by the powers that are supposed to protect them. Fuel poverty can affect educational attainment and mental health, as well as having more direct effects on physical health.