“Am I an antinatalist?” I thought out loud, after coming across the term in an article. My husband responded, “Antinationalist? Aren’t we all supposedly antinationalist nowadays?” I corrected him – it is a philosophy that believes it’s cruel to bring humans into this overburdened world – while continuing to think about the idea. I am 38 years old, my husband and I have been together for 13 years and we do not have children by choice. Our hum do, hamare do family is completed by our two adopted dogs. I have never wanted biological children and if the maternal instinct should surface, adoption is the only route I would consider.

My reasons are not unusual. Parenthood is not for everyone; raising a child is a huge financial and emotional investment; the compromise and commitment required is enormous; and my husband and I find fulfillment in many other ways. But over the last decade another reason has crept in, and has only grown stronger with time.

This is not a world into which I want to bring a child. A child will inevitably be affected by the problems and stressful times we live in, from which I would never be able to guarantee him or her protection. In India, doomsday headlines scream out environmental and lifestyle-related problems every day. It all stems from overpopulation, many of the reports say. Though everyone agrees that environmental issues need to be dealt with, are we considering the impact our decision to have children has on these issues? Do ecological concerns feature in the decision-making process for individuals in India who decide to be child-free or adopt children?

‘Restoring balance’

Antinatalism is not a new philosophy. Traces emerge in ancient Greece where Sophocles laments life in the chorus of Oedipus, “Not to be born, O man, is the highest, the greatest word. But if you have seen the light of day, then consider it best to depart as quickly as possible to whence you came.” A rather bleak and grim outlook.

Radical antinatalists view birth as morally wrong, encouraging people not to procreate: this will gradually extinguish the human race and thus the inevitable suffering that human life endures as well as its causes. There are echoes of this thought in Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War, in which the antagonist Thanos explains to his daughter Gamora his reasons for destruction to restore balance: “Little one, it’s a simple calculus. This universe has finite its resources…if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting.” Other subscribers of antinatalism are less extreme in their views. They understand that it is virtually impossible for everyone to stop procreating, but a contribution can be made to slowing down the population growth – by abstaining from having one’s own children; adopting a child rather than having their own; or stopping at one biological child and adopting more children if they want to have a larger family.

Are we doing enough to leave something substantial for our coming generations? Photo credit: Chris Cunning/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0]

Some of these concerns are now playing on people’s minds in urban India. For several of them who choose to be child-free, these issues inform their decision to not have children, or adopt if they want to be parents. Neelam Singh, 44, works in publishing and has never imagined her life with children. “Since childhood, I was curious to know why it is necessary to have kids after marriage,” she said. Environmental concerns played a crucial part in her decision to be child-free. “Shortage of water, pollution levels, depletion of natural resources...all this matters to me. I live a disciplined life and want others to do so in order to leave something substantial for our coming generations.”

Procreation is but natural and for many, parenthood is the most fulfilling experience of their lives. In India the decision to be child-free, for any reason, is difficult. Pressure from family, friends, partners and society is extreme and for several couples it is the automatic next step in life that they are expected to lead.

Manav N*, a health and science policy professional, decided he did not want children 21 years ago, when he was eighteen. He never wavered from his decision after that. He did not want to bring a child into a world of suffering without their consent and further burden the planet. Another reason was the fear that the child may inherit the hereditary ailments that run in his family. “All of us are on survival mode; it affects our psyche and in places like Delhi, people are so aggressive because of this,” he said. “It is because of the density of the human population here”. He confides that his firm decision to remain child-free is why he is still single – no compatible partner has so far accepted his choice.

The idea of antinatalism harks back to ancient Greece and the time of Sophocles. Photo credit: Tilemahos Efthimiadis/Flickr [Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0]

Effects of overpopulation

The data is difficult to ignore, though seeing the rate at which the Indian population is exploding and the resultant problems, we clearly are ignoring it. India is currently teeming with 1.3 billion people, making it the world’s second most populous country, and will outrank China by 2024. And how does one less human impact the environment? A study published in Environmental Research Letters equates the impact of having one fewer child to reducing 58 metric tonnes of CO2 for each year of the parent’s life. Other helpful ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint pale in comparison. Going car-free saves emissions by 2.4 metric tonnes and eating a plant-based diet 0.82 metric tonnes.

Even if we ignore the numbers, the effects are being felt by all of us. Cities like Delhi and Bengaluru will run out of water in two years. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, every third child in Delhi has irreversible lung damage caused by pollution. Educational institutions are struggling to cope with the demand of an ever-increasing number of students. Forest cover shrinks to make way for construction.

Karen D’Souza, 35, an editor and writer, speaks passionately about her decision to not have children. “The planet is in crisis, be it climate change, crime and violence, pollution levels,” she said. “I think I would be totally irresponsible to bring a child into this world. Not only would he/she have a questionable future, but they’d put more pressure on a planet that’s gasping for breath.”

Echoing some of these feelings is Vardhan Kondvikar, 35, a writer, magazine editor and tour operator. “I don’t want to bring someone into the world who might regret being here, either because of society, or because of environmental issues,” he said. “Imagine bringing your child into a world with poisoned air and water. It is a pretty nasty world at the moment. I believe overpopulation is the single biggest problem on Earth, and everything else stems from that. You can’t be alive as a human today and not put pressure on very limited resources. That, coupled with constantly increasing life expectancy, is a major issue.”

India is bursting at the seams and the overpopulation problem continues to stare at us in the face. Photo credit: Anandajoti/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-BY-2.0]

For Zoe José*, 31, a development communication specialist, the unsafe world we live in has been an important reason for choosing to be child-free. “I believe I have no right to bring a child into this world when they have no choice in the matter and then force them with societal expectations and burdens. I really don’t see the need to bring more kids into an already overpopulated and polluted country like ours. I believe the best contribution I can make to the world is not bringing any more people into it and making matters worse.”

What about adoption?

For many who have these concerns and may still want to be parents, adoption is the only route they will consider. “There are already too many children in the world in need of love, and I can’t see why having a child of my own would be better,” said Kondvikar. “At least in this way I’d be taking on responsibility for a good reason, rather than just because it’s the norm.” José agreed, “If and when I ever choose to have children it’ll definitely be only through adoption. There are millions of homeless, orphaned kids who are way more worthy of a family than me bringing another kid into our already overpopulated country.”

Sulochana Kalro from the World Children Welfare Trust India NGO in Mumbai says that a majority of adoptions at the organisation are by couples who are unable to have their own children. Environmental concerns have, in her experience, never featured on the list of reasons for couples here wanting to adopt. “For many, sentimental reasons are the key motivators,” said Kalro.

The decision to have a child is primarily an emotional one and often in India, a cultural pressure to which most people succumb. But as our resources are being stretched to breaking point, it is evident that the uncomfortable truth associated with overpopulation is crossing people’s minds and motivating some to not contribute further to the problems. Whether environmental concerns will motivate more people to be child-free is still to be seen. However, allowing people to make a choice about having children, and celebrating all types of families, is a way to help many consider that parenthood does not have to be a part of their life’s journey, unless they really want it.

* Names changed on request.