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Young people question whether to have kids during a climate crisis: ‘What will the world look like?’

Armondo Alvarez, 22, and Justine Gelbolinga, 20, are concerned about climate change. But they still have plans to get married and have four children.
Channa Steinmetz
Armondo Alvarez, 22, and Justine Gelbolinga, 20, are concerned about how global warming is changing the planet. But they still have plans to get married and have four children.

Young people around the world are suffering from anxiety and stress relating to global warming. For Kansas Citians in their 20s and 30s, the future of the planet is becoming central to their decision about whether or not to have children.

Angelica Chavez-Duckworth grew up wanting to be a mom. As a child with a little baby doll always in hand, she says her early maternal instincts earned her the nickname “Little Mommy.”

Now 26, and keenly aware of a worsening climate crisis around her, Chavez-Duckworth isn’t 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,’” Chaves-Duckworth says. “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.”

Chavez-Duckworth is 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,” she says. “But it becomes more philosophical at this point.”

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 less children than they wanted; a third of respondents who wanted more kids listed climate change as a reason they weren’t having them.

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.

As climate change continues to threaten the well-being of the planet, young people around the world have suffered from anxiety and stress relating to global warming. And the future of the planet has become something to consider for Kansas Citians in their 20s and 30s choosing whether or not to have kids.

 A woman wearing glasses poses in front of a brightly colored background, looking to the side.
Channa Steinmetz
Startland News
Angelica Chavez-Duckworth grew up wanting to be a mom, but concerns over the environment have her questioning the choice to bring kids into the world.

Is it selfish?

Amber Abram, 35, says she’s felt judged over her and her husband’s decision to not increase the size of their family.

“I am one of the few people that I grew up with who don’t have children,” Abram says. “I think there are a lot of questions around it as far as, ‘What’s wrong with her? Why doesn’t she want kids?”

Abram, who grew up in Kansas City, has watched how extreme weather phenomena have occurred both in the Midwest and on the coasts. The changing climate factored into her decision to take an environmentally friendly job at Kanbe’s Markets. It also factored into her decision not to have kids.

“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?’”

Amber Abram, 35, says her concern about the future of the planet is one reason she and her husband don't have children.
Catherine Hoffman
Amber Abram, 35, says her concern about the future of the planet is one reason she and her husband don't have children.

Britt Wray, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, had her own existential worries about having a child. It led her 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.

But over time, that “selfish” label has evolved, and is alternately used to describe people who intentionally reproduce during the climate crisis.

“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 wellbeing — especially when the [World Health Organization] publishes a reportsaying … no single country on the planet is doing what must be done to protect children’s well-being at this time.”

Abram says in the Midwest, getting married and having kids is expected of young people. Some of her friends have started families. But some of them haven’t. And climate change is a part of that conversation.

“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.”

Intersectional climate justice

While Wray found many people opting not to have kids for a number of climate-related reasons, she also found plenty who felt differently.

Wray says for Native American and Black communities, having children can be an act of defiance and resilience.

For populations who have lived though historical oppression, including colonization, slavery and genocide, procreation can be a way to resist those pressures, she says.

“Communities that have been marginalized have long known how unsafe and difficult the world can be,” Wray says. “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.

Sarah Mayerhofer, 26, is the sustainability coordinator for Kanbe’s. She says her climate anxiety began to sink in when she started graduate school for sustainability leadership.

“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.”

While that anxiety feels debilitating at times, Mayerhofer says 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.”

And for some young people in Kansas City, deciding to have kids is about raising the next generation of environmentalists.

A woman with long brown hair looks straight into the camera, smiling. She stands in front of a chalkboard sign that reads "Kanbe's markets."
Channa Steinmetz
Startland News
Sarah Mayerhofer, 26, is the sustainability coordinator for Kanbe’s. She says her climate anxiety began to sink in when she started graduate school for sustainability leadership.

Raising a generation of climate activists

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 says, noting that they want to teach their children with the same mentality. “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.”

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. But Alvarez and Dale Gelbolinga are hopeful that sustainable progress can be made.

“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.

Alvarez agrees.

“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?”

What they hope to pass on isn’t fear and anxiety — it’s their love of nature and their desire to make the world a better place.

Read a longer version of this story at Startland News.

Crysta Henthorne
KCUR 89.3

This story is part of a series on climate change in the Kansas City region produced by the KC Media Collective, an initiative designed to support and enhance local journalism. Members of the KC Media Collective include KCUR 89.3, American Public Square, Kansas City PBS/Flatland, Missouri Business Alert, Startland News and The Kansas City Beacon.

Corrected: May 17, 2022 at 2:46 PM CDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Armondo Alvarez' first name. It has since been corrected.
As a newscaster and a host of a daily news podcast, I want to deliver the most important and interesting news of the day in an engaging and easily understandable way. No matter where you live in the metro or what you’re interested in, I want you to learn something from each newscast or podcast – and maybe even give you something to talk about at the dinner table.
Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.
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