Why I Won’t Have Children

Dr. Émile P. Torres
21 min readDec 26, 2023


Climate Change and Procreation

In a recent CNN op-ed titled “Why I’m Not Going to Have Children,” a 21-year-old college student named Anna Lee explained why so many young people are choosing — or vowing — not to have children. “As climate catastrophes are already well in motion,” she wrote, “I feel as if I would be doing an … injustice to any children I would bring into this world with my inability to offer them a future.” She added that “if things were different, I’d be honored to become a parent,” but given the abject failure of our political leaders to take the climate crisis seriously, “passing on my own climate anxiety would be akin to a generational curse.” Starting a family and raising children, she argues, “isn’t so much a matter of preference, anymore. It’s also a matter of feasibility and, more importantly, ethics. How do we justify bringing children onto a planet where the future feels more indeterminate than ever?”

Lee is hardly alone in her “near-certain choice to hold off on parenthood.” Many millennials and Gen-Zers are choosing not to have children. As Lee notes, one study from the University of Bath found that “nearly 40% of 16- to 15-year-old participants from several countries stated that they were hesitant to have children because of climate change.” Another study from 2021 reports that 60% of young people feel “very worried or extremely worried” about climate change, with 56% saying that “they think humanity is doomed.” In the UK, there’s the rise of a movement called “BirthStrike” described as “a voluntary organisation for women and men who have decided not to have children in response to the coming ‘climate breakdown and civilisation collapse.’”

Public figures have also given voice to this view. Miley Cyrus declared in a 2019 interview that “we’re getting handed a piece-of-shit planet, and I refuse to hand that down to my child.” That same year, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said to her 1.5 million followers on Instagram that “basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?”

The decision not to have children because of climate change may be motivated by two considerations, which are not mutually exclusive. On the one hand, the carbon footprint of children is enormous. A study published in Science found that having one fewer child saves about 60 tons of CO2. In contrast, the next best way to reduce one’s footprint is to “live car-free,” which saves just over 2 tons of CO2. That’s a 30-fold difference. The third best way is to “avoid one round-trip trans-Atlantic flight,” which saves about 1.5 tons of CO2. The evidence is clear that, if you want to live an environmentally friendly life, you should refrain from having children.

On the other hand, as Lee foregrounds in her op-ed, children born today will witness global-scale catastrophes that are completely unprecedented in human history. One recent study predicts that at least 1 billion people will die prematurely due to climate change by the end of the century, while another suggests that some 2 billion people will be displaced. Pause for a moment to imagine what seeing 1 billion deaths and 2 billion desperate climate refugees struggling to find a new home in some foreign land will look like. Even if one’s child isn’t one of these people, they will still be forced to experience the psychological trauma of watching all of this unfold. The headlines of today are nothing like what the headlines of tomorrow will be like. Imagine waking up to read that another 1 million people have died this month due to climate change, or that another 20 million people have been displaced over the past year — to paraphrase another article of mine. This is, without hyperbole or exaggeration, the future that we are right now barreling toward.

Yet even those born into wealthy countries will face hardships beyond the stress of reading the news. The past summer provided a glimpse of this terrifying future, as devastating floods, record-breaking heatwaves, massive storms, and blazing wildfires wreaked havoc in North America and Europe. Now reflect on the fact that the scorching summer of 2023 will be among the least extreme, most stable, coolest summers that people on Earth will experience for at least the next century (if not thousands of years). Bringing someone into the world is to sentence them to life that will be nothing like the one that you and I, much less our grandparents, grew up in.

The Future Looks Scary

However, the situation is much worse than this. While Lee’s “main concern is climate change,” as she writes, that’s just one of many unprecedented dangers facing humanity this century. There’s the continuing threat of nuclear war, for example. If such a war were to happen, entire metropolitan regions would be obliterated. Firestorms caused by the explosions — where firestorms are conflagrations so large that they produce their own gale-force winds — would catapult black soot into the upper atmosphere. This soot would then spread around the globe, blocking out incoming sunlight, causing surface temperature levels to plummet to subfreezing levels and the sky to turn pitch-black in the middle of the day. Global agriculture would collapse and mass starvation in a radioactive hellscape would ensue. According to a 2022 paper in Nature Food, an all-out nuclear exchange between the US and Russia — perhaps triggered by a war like the one in Ukraine — could kill more than 5 billion human beings. To put this in perspective, that’s the entire global population in 1987.

Although countries like the US and Russia have reduced the number of nuclear weapons since the 1980s, the US is set to spend $634 billion on maintaining its nuclear arsenal this decade alone. As Martin Hellman, founder of NuclearRisk.org, notes, if the odds of a nuclear bomb being detonated is 1% each year, then “in 10 years the likelihood is almost 10 percent, and in 50 years 40 percent if there is no substantial change.” I have written before that it would be a wonder if I were to reach a natural end to my life and not have witnessed at least one nuclear device exploding somewhere around the world. We have luck to thank for getting through the Cold War without a nuclear catastrophe. Will we continue to be lucky in the 21st century?

No less worrisome is the possibility of synthetic biology enabling terrorist groups, or even lone wolves, to synthesize designer pathogens far more dangerous than anything natural selection could produce. We just — of course — experienced a global pandemic due to Covid, though an intentionally “engineered pandemic” involving designer pathogens could be orders of magnitude worse. Theoretically, one could create a virus that combines the lethality of rabies, incurability of Ebola, contagiousness of the common cold, and long incubation period of HIV. What this means is that the germ could spread around the globe completely undetected, hopping from one person to another, until literally everyone is infected. Years after the initial infection, people en masse would suddenly come down with horrific symptoms, flooding emergency rooms for medical assistance and overloading the health care system — though no help will be available, as the doctors and nurses, too, will have become infected.

Then there’s artificial intelligence, which has been all over the news recently due to existential fears — peddled in part by the leading AI companies themselves — that a “misaligned” artificial general intelligence, or AGI, could kill everyone on Earth. The arguments for this risk are highly speculative, developed over the past few decades by adherents of the TESCREAL bundle of ideologies, a cluster of overlapping worldviews that I have argued poses a much greater and more direct threat to humanity than AGI itself.

I won’t explain why here — I’ve done that in other articles — but suffice it to say that one doesn’t need to accept the sci-fi fantasies of TESCREALists to admit that “advanced AI” could be extremely dangerous. Such systems are already empowering authoritarian regimes, enabling them to control, surveil, and manipulate their populations with ever-greater efficacy, while simultaneously hyper-charging political propaganda, disinformation, and discriminatory biases that could push Western-style democracies to the brink of collapse.

Imagine a future in which deepfakes flood social media, spreading noxious falsehoods about political leaders, geopolitical events, and even climate change. In a world where no one can agree about what’s true, where no one can tell fact from fiction, how can democracy function? How can people join hands to combat existential threats like climate change? How can humanity survive such a predicament, much less thrive in peace and harmony?

So, climate change isn’t the only major threat that humanity will have to face this century. It isn’t even the only environmental catastrophe: habitat destruction, ecosystem fragmentation, pollution, overfishing, and other human activities — in addition to anthropogenic global warning — have devastated the biosphere. According to the 2022 Living Planet Report, the global population of wild vertebrates (mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians) has declined by a staggering 69% since 1970. Other studies report that — as I write here — vertebrates in freshwater environments declined by 41%, farmland birds in Europe have declined by 50% since 1980, birds in North America declined by 40% between 1968 and 2003, and about 25% of all plant species — the foundation of the food chain — are currently “threatened with extinction.” Similarly, 19% of all reptile species, 50% of freshwater turtles, and some 60% of the world’s primates are under threat, while the populations of about 75% are declining.

A UN-backed study from 2019 found that “up to one million plant and animal species face extinction, many within decades, because of human activities,” and a consensus is emerging that our collective actions have initiated the fifth major mass extinction event in the 3.8 billion years that life has existed on Earth. (The last major mass extinction event killed off the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.) This dramatic loss of biodiversity is why a team of scientists argued in 2012 that we could be on the precipice of a sudden, catastrophic, irreversible collapse of the global ecosystem, which would threaten the continued existence of modern civilization.

We’ve razed forests, obliterated ecosystems, exterminated species, polluted the oceans, and flooded the atmosphere with heat-trapping CO2. Speaking of the oceans, there are now giant “dead zones” all around the world due to pollution, in which marine life has become impossible. Massive “islands” of plastic debris are found in most oceans, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the middle of the Pacific. Rising ocean temperatures are “bleaching” coral reefs, leaving them underwater ghost towns, while ocean acidification (due to more CO2 in the atmosphere) is literally causing the shells of snails to dissolve. In fact, one study found that the rate of acidification may be happening roughly four times faster than it did during the end-Permian extinction, ominously known as the “Great Dying,” when upwards of 96% of all marine species kicked the bucket.

Making matters worse, in the midst of this buzzing swarm of existing and emerging threats, studies suggest that humanity “must now produce more food in the next four decades than we have in the last 8,000 years of agriculture combined.” Yet soil erosion is reducing the annual crop yield by 0.3%, meaning that “at this rate, we will have lost 10% of soil productivity by 2050,” which is roughly the same loss that global warming is anticipated to cause.

This is the world that people born today will inherit.

Such considerations only reinforce the decision of Lee and so many other young people not to have children. Is it really okay to have children — paraphrasing Ocasio-Cortez — if the future looks this scary, unstable, and perilous? Consider that, right now, the Doomsday Clock is set to 100 seconds before midnight, or “doom.” The decision to set this clock is not made lightly: a group of experts, including “more than a dozen Nobel laureates,” look closely at the direction the world is heading and, after deliberation, vote on whether to move the minute hand forward or backward, or leave it put. In 1991, the minute hand was pushed back to a reassuring 17 minutes before doom, but since then it has steadily crept forward. In 2018, the clock was once again set to 2 minutes, and then in 2020 it moved forward to a record-breaking 100 seconds, where it remains.

Is there any reason to believe that the minute hand will move backward anytime soon? No. Climate change, biodiversity loss, nuclear weapons, and emerging technologies all point to the idea that, as I write in my recent book, the worst is yet to come. This is, indeed, why Lord Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal and one of the “concerned scientists” who has written extensively about the dangers of emerging technologies, argues that modern civilization has a 50/50 chance of making it through this century. Even if one cares little for “civilization” as it currently exists, the collapse of our civilization would cause unfathomable harm to billions of people.

All of this, once again, just underlines the moral urgency of Lee’s central question: “How do we justify bringing children onto a planet where the future feels more indeterminate than ever?”

Looking Down

I myself have decided not to have children, although the reasons go well beyond climate change, nuclear proliferation, and other such existing and emerging dangers — all of which I’ve spend the past decade thinking and writing about. They also concern personal experiences and reflections on the world that have convinced me, despite my best efforts to resist, that our world is mostly full of sadness, cruelty, selfishness, pain, loneliness, and — perhaps worst of all — moral indifference to the suffering of others. It’s not that I think existence itself is bad (or a “net harm”), as some “philosophical pessimists” have argued. Rather, it’s that existence in this particular world very much is. The world didn’t have to be this way — there’s no law of nature requiring things to be the way they are. There may very well be some parallel universe with its own Earth in which people have created a world that is, all things considered, very good instead of awfully bad.

But that’s not the world we occupy — just look around at the state of things today, or crack open a history book. The best way I can explain how I feel is that on several occasions in my life, I’ve experienced extreme physical pain. A moderate amount of physical pain might cause me to cry, but there’s a phenomenologically strange, weird-feeling threshold that one crosses with extreme pain, beyond which one stops crying. It hurts too bad to cry. That is the way I often feel — psychologically — about the world in general. I’m too upset by everything to cry anymore. I’m all out of tears — nay, I’m beyond tears. So I end up kind of floating above it all, depersonalized, looking down in constant astonishment and horror.

A few examples of things that have profoundly affected me: about a decade ago, my best friend growing up fell down the stairs and hit his head. At first he was fine, but then ended up in the ICU for a month with literally half his skull removed, to allow his brain to naturally swell and heal. (This is one treatment for traumatic brain injuries.) His recovery has been extremely challenging — the injury changed his life — and the last thing I saw him post on social media was simply: “Loneliness sucks,” which broke my heart. Another had a child who caught the common cold. As the child was getting better, she woke up one morning paralyzed — permanently — as the result of a mysterious disease, associated with the common cold, that’s becoming more frequent in the US.

Numerous friends of mine have died, sometimes under the most excruciating circumstances. One perished in an Airbnb fire while attending an academic conference. They had to identify him by his DNA. Another married a woman who, shortly after, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and then suddenly died 6 months into the marriage. He was devastated, but eventually picked himself up and started dating again. His new girlfriend later dumped him around the same time that he lost his job. Then, he vanished. Friends — like me — were frantically posting on social media for tips, but none came in. About a week later, the police made an announcement: without telling anyone, he rented a car, drove 3.5 hours from his hometown to the graveyard in which his former wife was buried, sat next to her grave, and shot himself with a gun that he’d just bought. I think about this frequently. Numerous other friends of mine have also committed suicide, died young due to illnesses and accidents, and suffered miseries that, it seems, no amount of future happiness could possibly compensate for.

I’ve also have had various chronic health problems, which have significantly reduced my quality of life. On top of that, I was in an abusive marriage that once left me bed-ridden for 6 months. Another long-term relationship ended with my partner ghosting me about a week into a serious illness. Ghosting is arguably the most extreme relationship dissolution strategy, which psychologists describe as a kind of “emotional cruelty” or abuse. As I’ve written before (here and here), being ghosted in a long-term relationship feels as if one’s partner has suddenly died, and studies suggest that the psychological effects on ghostees can be long-lasting and profound.

When I extrapolate the tragedies mentioned above — and many more that could have been adduced, just from the archives of my own biography — to the world more generally, I find myself utterly staggered. I think about all the people who took their last breath alone; all the forgotten souls who suffered sickness unto death; all the injustices and atrocities and genocides and loneliness. Right now, incidentally, we are living through what some experts call a loneliness “pandemic,” with surveys showing that a stunning 46% of Americans sometimes or always feel alone, 43% “lack companionship” and “are isolated from others,” and another 39% are “no longer close to anyone.” Another study estimated that 19 million Americans — that’s 1 in 14 — spent last Christmas alone (I’m writing this on December 26, 2023).

An honest look at the state of the world, I believe, reveals that this place is a nightmare. A disaster zone. For many, a torture chamber. Even philosophers who most definitely aren’t pessimistic in the philosophical sense acknowledge these facts. Consider the following passage from William MacAskill, who explicitly worries about too few babies being born. He thinks that we should actively and drastically increase the human population. Yet he says the following, quoted in a New Yorker article:

Imagine you’re traveling through a foreign country. During a long bus ride, there’s an explosion and the bus overturns. When you come to, you find yourself in a conflict zone. Your travel companion is trapped under the bus, looking into your eyes and begging for help. A few metres away, a bloody child screams in pain. At the same time, you hear the ticking of another explosive. In the distance, gunshots fire. That is the state of the world. We have just a horrific set of choices in front of us, so it feels virtuous, and morally appropriate, to vomit, or scream, or cry.

All of this leads me to wonder: How can I possibly justify to myself bringing someone into a world this frightening? How can I have children knowing that they might end up suffering the way many of my friends have? Or dying alone? Or taking their own life in a dark night of hopeless despair?

If someone had been considerate enough to approach me before I was born and say: “Hey, Émile. Let me show you something: this is what the world is like — the best and the worst — and here are some of the things that you’ll personally experience — the best and the worst — if you’re born. Are you in? You wanna do this thing?” I would have vociferously shot back: “That world? Those experiences? Are you mad? Have you lost your damn mind?” What, then, if a hypothetical child of mine were to say the same thing? Am I willing to take that risk? Not even close — precisely because, so to speak, I love the children who I could have brought into the world.

The Single Biggest Project of My Life

I didn’t always think this way. I am not, by nature, a gloomy or pessimistic person — to the contrary! I’m quite cheerful and optimistic by disposition, as anyone who knows me will attest. I also understand the view expressed by Lee — that, in certain respects, “I’d be honored to become a parent,” because I thoroughly enjoy being around kids, with their endless appetite for playful silliness and their insatiable curiosity about the world. The way I understand my journey goes like this:

When I was a young child, I looked around at my surroundings in wonder and awe. What is this strange place that I’ve mysteriously woken up in? What is it like? Is it a happy place full of good times and kind, loving, compassionate people? Or is it a scary, dangerous place? Is it full of booby traps, trap doors, and torture chambers? Are these humans who share the existential stage with me mean, cruel, and selfish — or the opposite? I had no idea. I didn’t know how I ended up here, and I had no clue about what to expect moving forward. Coming into the world, for me, was like bursting out of the cold ocean waters after being held under for 2 minutes — gasping for breath, looking around with eyes wide open and pupils dilated trying to orient myself amid the waves.

Around the age of 10, something happened that changed my life: an older person apprised me that, each year, millions of people starve to death. I remember this vividly, although I don’t recall exactly how the topic came up. This shocked and horrified me, feelings that were further amplified by yet another person telling me, not long after, that children are sometimes diagnosed with brain tumors, undergo multiple surgeries, but still die. (I subsequently became obsessed with the possibility of being diagnosed with a brain tumor, though I also felt extreme sadness for those kids who weren’t as lucky as I turned out to be.)

Shortly after these exchanges, I formulated what I’d now call the “Schopenhauerian hypothesis,” which basically states that the world is, all things considered, a bad place to end up in. (Note that this is very close to a premise in one version of the “argument from evil”: an omni-benevolent God cannot exist because there’s (so much) evil in the world, much of it entirely gratuitous.) Pretty much everything I’ve done in my life since I formulated this hypothesis — that is, over the past thirty years, but especially the past twenty — is connected in some way to trying to disprove it. In a very significant sense, this has been the single biggest project that I’ve ever worked on in my life.

In those early years, I was very optimistic that I’d be able to show, to my own satisfaction, that the Schopenhauerian hypothesis is false: the world really isn’t a bad place, all things considered. I was confident — naively confident — that the more I traveled the world, the more people I met, and the more I read about history, philosophy, and science, the clearer it would become that this hypothesis is in error. Yet just the opposite happened. I had long conversations with older people who told me that they’re “broken” and regret most of their life. I witnessed the tragedies that my friends went through, and had my own experiences of loss and loneliness. Around 2017, I asked acquaintances on social media whether they would relive their lives if they could, and about half responded with: “No, absolutely not. My life has been a disaster, and I would choose the oblivion over having those experiences once again.” Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to know people who tell me about how lonely they are, their traumatic childhoods, and how the heartache of past relationships still haunts them like a ghost that slips in an out of the room. One person shared the following experience with me after I brought up on social media my own history of ghosting: “I got diagnosed with cancer a while back and entering that world made me see just how many people get abandoned during medical crises. … My spouse was dependable, but I lost several lifelong friendships because of it.” I myself was once hospitalized for two weeks after nearly dying, during which no one showed up to see me. That made me take seriously, in a way that I previously hadn’t, all the people — millions and millions — who have died without a hug. Many — most; nearly all — of these people do not even exist in our memories. They have died the second death, almost as if they had never been in the first place.

So, at the age of 41, I am ready to admit that my life-long project to disprove the Schopenhauerian hypothesis has failed. It has failed in a spectacular way, too, because I’m not sure at this point that there’s any amount of evidence that could change my mind. That’s not a statement of dogmatism: rather, it’s a point about how powerful and copious the evidence for the hypothesis is, if one examines it seriously and honestly, without flinching or looking away.

Returning to the question of children: through my 20s, and then 30s, I held off on having kids because I felt that I needed to know whether the hypothesis stands or falls before making such a profound decision. But that uncertainty is largely gone today. That the Schopenhauerian hypothesis is true is an empirical discovery, and a deeply upsetting one at that, because the conclusion of philosophical pessimism (that is, the more contingent variety that I accept) does not, at all, match my natural disposition toward optimism and cheerfulness.

Antinatalism? No!

In 2004, a Finnish philosopher named Matti Häyry argued that having children is tantamount to “gambling on other people’s lives.” His view was that procreation is both irrational (for decision-theoretic reasons) and immoral. The claim that procreation is wrong, and therefore one should refrain from having kids, is sometimes called “antinatalism,” a word that wasn’t added to the philosophical lexicon until after Häyry’s article, although the general idea goes back to the ancient Greeks.

I do not accept the antinatalist view, as I do not think there is anything at all immoral or wrong about procreation. Nothing I said above should be taken to suggest otherwise. This may sound odd. However, what I did above was outline various reasons for why the “no kids” conclusion makes sense to me. I do not think that all reasons must be universally applicable, and I fully acknowledge that some people will (reasonably) disagree with my assessment, or accept my assessment but disagree with my conclusions. One must respect the diversity of human experience, as I do, and hence I completely support anyone who decides to bring new people into the world. When my friends tell me that they’re expecting a child, I am genuinely — in my heart of hearts — happy for them. I do not for a moment judge them for this decision (absolutely not!), just as I hope others don’t judge me for choosing to never have children of my own (although I am seriously considering the option of adoption).

(That said, there are particular circumstances when I think having children is wrong. One example would be if a couple decides to have kids for eugenic reasons — because they believe their genes are superior and must therefore persist in the population. I have known multiple people over the years — all white people, some of whom went to elite universities like Harvard — who cited this as the main reason for having children. This is objectionable for obvious reasons. Another example would be if the decision is based on totalist utilitarian considerations: we have a moral duty to maximize happiness in the universe, and if one believes they are in a position to create and raise a “happy” child (meaning that their child has a net-positive amount of wellbeing across their life, or something like that), then one should do just this. It’s this idea that looms behind MacAskill’s claims that having more children and growing the human population is one way to make the world a “better place.” I find this abhorrent because it treats people as means rather than ends.)

All of this is to say that I strongly concur with Lee — the CNN op-ed writer — when she says that “reflecting on my experience isn’t a call to action for all young or middle-aged people to abandon their visions for their families, whether those include children or not. Nor do I wish to shame those who choose to have (or have already had) children.” The point is, instead, to “provide some insight into what many young people in the US and across the world are having to reckon with — a future that looks incredibly different and less hopeful from our older counterparts.” I’d say the same thing with respect to my own reasons for remaining childless: it’s not just that the future looks too scary for me to — as Häyry would put it — gamble with someone else’s life, but that the world appears to be incredibly sad and broken.

The Sense of Duty

There is a silver lining to this picture, though. In my opinion, sadness and unfixable brokenness of the world is why one should be motivated to make it better. The worse people are hurting, the greater the reason to be kind, compassionate, friendly, loving, and charitable. A famous author who I spoke with the other month put it well during our call: “I don’t believe in hope, but I do believe in duty.” That captures my attitude perfectly. I do not have much — or any — hope for the future, and I believe human history, up to the present moment, has been a phantasmagoria of unimaginable horrors, many of which cannot be compensated for by any amount of happiness. (Think of violent genocides, child abuse, and torture — or the loneliness of taking ones final breaths alone, without a hug, or hand to hold. Is there any amount of “happiness” somewhere else in the universe that can make this “okay”? As the philosopher Bernard Williams once observed, “if for a moment we got anything like an adequate idea of” the misery in our world, “then surely we would annihilate the planet, if we could.” I wholly disagree with his “annihilation” comment, but the sentiment is on solid ground.)

Perhaps I’ll write an article soon about this sense of duty, given the general awfulness of the world. We should all strive to be firefighters who, when some harm is detected, rush toward the person suffering rather than turning our backs.



Dr. Émile P. Torres

I study all things human extinction: its nature and causes, its ethical implications, & the history of the idea. Philosopher, but MS in Neuroscience.