Long Reads

“I’m worried about the environment - so I’ve decided not to have children”

30-year-old Emma Olliff explains how her concern about humans’ environmental impact led her to decide against having children

It’s no secret that the number of people on our planet is increasing every day. Figures from the UN show that there are now more than 7.5 billion people on Earth, with this number expected to rise by 30% to a population of nearly 9.8 billion people by 2050.

UK-based charity Population Matters addresses population size and environmental sustainability. One of its board members, 30-year-old Emma Olliff, has made the decision not to have her own children; she tells Stylist why.

“I first decided that I didn’t want to have children when I was quite young, and I’m not a hugely maternal person. Then in my late teens I thought ‘kids aren’t that bad, I might have them one day’. But as I progressed through my degree in marine biology and biological diversity and got a bit older, and the reality of having children became a bit more present, I saw what it really entailed. I love them but I don’t want to add to the burden that’s already on the planet. Our increasing population is putting pressure on the environment and if it keeps going the way it is, then we will destroy the earth.

When David Attenborough [a patron of Population Matters] said that an increase in population isn’t going to make any of our environmental challenges easier to deal with, it really hit home for me. Our presence is the biggest driving factor behind the majority of environmental issues that are affecting the planet right now. I might not directly experience any problems but someone else on the globe might – as a result of actions that I have control over. I’d rather internalise that impact than say, ‘I can’t see it, so it’s not my problem’. I should be taking more responsibility for my effect on this earth.

David Attenborough has spoken frequently on the environmental impact of our increasing population

But I’m not going around saying to people, ‘you shouldn’t have children, you’re terrible for having a third child, how dare you get pregnant, that’s appalling behaviour’. I love all of my friend’s kids, and I talk to them about my feelings around having my own children, but I would never criticise them for having offspring. My own approach to the situation is to spread information and educate people. I want to show people what it means to have an additional child on the planet, and the impact on the environment, and economics, and the social pressures in society. 

I’m one of five children, then my dad remarried and had another three kids. The children from his new marriage might grow up and think, ‘it was lovely having a big family and older siblings, that would be great for my own kids’. Or they might hate it and decide they only want one kid! There are some interesting studies on the psychology of sibling rivalry and how it influences onward reproduction. But statistics show that big families usually produce big families.

I don’t think we should drive ourselves to extinction by not having kids. But we could have a more integrated relationship with the earth and its other species, where we value them in their own right, rather than for resources. It’s more about the belief pattern relating to our place on the earth that needs to change, rather than our actual place on the earth. 

I certainly don’t want my own children but if I ever decide that I do want kids in my life, I will adopt, because that’s a person that is already on this earth. It’s an interesting one from a demographic point of view because I’m a Western white woman living in a fairly affluent area, and I have access to far more globally impacting things - such as a car - than a woman in Sudan, for example. So if I adopted a child from a country like that, I would be taking a child who might not pollute the planet and bringing them into a situation where they could. But if I were to adopt a child in the UK, that child would probably go on to have an impact on the world anyway, and I would hope that, through my influence, they would reduce their burden on the planet as much as they could. 

Either way, I wouldn’t adopt more than one or two children. Population growth is actually static when a couple only has two children, because they are essentially replacing themselves. I saw an article the other day about a family who had just welcome their 22nd child into the world and I thought gosh, that’s another 22 cars that will be driven around! And how many more children will those 22 children go on to have? That’s a massive, massive chunk of a family tree that’s just going to get even bigger and that’s something that people don’t consider when they have kids.

“Population Matters is trying to advocate for smaller families, so it’s about not having that third child”: Emma Olliff

Without having any children I have far more freedom to pass on my ideas to a much broader audience; I would be less focused on education and my other interests if I had kids, so it would narrow my impact.

I hope I’d discuss the idea of children with a potential partner before it became so serious that it affected our relationship. I have met so many people who have had children for their partner and it breeds resentment in most cases. It’s not that they don’t enjoy having a child or feel like the child was a mistake, but they feel like they’ve compromised themselves too much, and that they’ve allowed someone else to have power over them and their body.

Ideally, if I do meet someone he’ll be on the same page about the idea anyway, because it’s more than just the issue of children; for me it’s a way of life. My mind-set has led me to the decision not to have my own children and I’d hope that anybody I was romantically involved with would feel the same way. I just don’t think it would work otherwise.” 

Images: Getty, courtesy of Emma Olliff