In January 2020, Meehan Crist found herself in the middle of a minor crisis.
Less than a month before she was slated to give a talk on the ethics of having children in the era of climate change, Crist learned she’d be speaking in the British Museum’s BP Lecture Theatre—an auditorium funded by its multinational oil-giant namesake. The revelation, delivered via a tweet from a group called BP or Not BP, briefly prompted Crist to consider trying to get the lecture moved or canceled entirely. “I can’t do this,” she recalls thinking to herself. “There is no way I can do this with any sense of intellectual integrity.”
Crist ultimately decided to move forward with the lecture, and added a passage that tackled the apparent incongruity head-on and allowed her to wrestle with the decision on stage. The same forthcoming approach—one in which Crist pushed through a problem, rather than simply extracting herself from it—drove the entirety of her lecture. In March, it was adapted into a long-form essay, “Is It OK to Have a Child?”, in the London Review of Books. A nonfiction book by the same name is forthcoming from Random House.
Inspired in part by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who triggered a media storm when she posed the same question to her Instagram followers last year, Crist’s piece blends scientific analysis with personal narrative. Crist, who is now the mother of a toddler, is not just a narrator or guide, but an active participant in a fraught discussion about parenthood, crisis, and, ultimately, individual empowerment. She describes the dire straits in which humankind has left its home planet, then puts the reins back in her readers’ hands, ending her essay with a note of hope. The answer to the question of whether it’s OK to have kids amid a global crisis, she argues, isn’t an automatic no—or an easy yes. “This is not to say that you should have a biological child,” she writes. “I rather think the point is that no one should tell anyone else whether or not they should procreate.”
Here, Crist tells Katherine J. Wu about her inspiration for the piece, the stumbling blocks she hit along the way, and the process of grounding the difficult subject of climate change in personal narrative. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
What inspired this piece?
For me, the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth, and the first year of my son’s life, are sort of inextricably interwoven with the ongoing realities and revelations about climate change.
I’ve been writing about climate change for a while and thinking about it for a while. After my son was born, the first paid writing work I did was to write about Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich and The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. I would walk from my house to this millennial nightmare co-working space and be sitting in this half-frosted little booth, pumping milk with one hand and holding a book about the end of the world in the other, and I would have these moments of just thinking, How did I end up here? What am I doing? It felt very much like having a child was an event in the world, not just an event in my apartment in Brooklyn.
At the same time, I’d been tracking this emerging public discourse around children and climate change in both the sciences and the media that I found deeply troubling. It left me concerned about where this discourse was heading.
I was also having more frequent conversations with friends who were considering having a child, but were really struggling to think about what that meant at a time when we’re going through this climate crisis. Part of the impetus to try to write this piece was just to try to discover a way even to talk about these questions.
“Once you see it, you can’t unsee it—the profound risk and the profound harm that climate change is doing, and is poised to do, to our planet. It just feels like the most urgent thing I could be writing about.”
Climate change is the backdrop for much of your writing. What about this topic has stuck with you?
David Wallace-Wells [describes the idea that] climate change is the setting for modernism—the stage on which everything else unfolds. For me, it’s very hard to think about anything that happens in the world without thinking about it happening [against the backdrop] of the climate crisis.
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it—the profound risk and the profound harm that climate change is doing, and is poised to do, to our planet. It just feels like the most urgent thing I could be writing about.
How did you structure a piece that delves into so many complex and contentious topics? What served as a starting point for you?
This writing process was sort of like starting from the outside and just drilling deeper and deeper in. I started from the place that might already be visible to other people. That was the place of AOC talking to her Instagram followers, and other things that have been written about childbirth and climate change—pieces that the reader could have picked up in the news. And then I just tried to keep asking questions, and going deeper, until I got to places like the far-right eco-fascist online world where most people probably haven’t spent a lot of time.
Climate change is, for many people, a scary but largely intangible, hard-to-understand threat. How do you make the phenomenon and its consequences concrete and empathetic for your readers?
You have to look for the concrete signs and signals and experiences that are touched by climate change, which at this point is more or less everything. I tend to be a very private person, and I’m not particularly prone to wanting to invite a bunch of readers-slash-strangers into the space where I gave birth. I felt very raw and sort of exposed after writing this piece. But I think that’s a sign that I wrote it from the right place.
You wrote this piece in the first person but didn’t include your most personal narrative—the story of the birth of your son—until you were near the end of the piece. Why didn’t you open with this experience?
It was a very conscious rhetorical strategy. I felt like if I started as a person who had a child, the reader would make all kinds of assumptions about me, which would make it harder for some people to hear me. I worried that the piece would come off as an elaborate justification for this choice that I’d made—basically, “You had a child and now you’re just writing this thing to make yourself feel better.”
But that’s kind of a toothless criticism. It leads down this logical path where if you are a person who has had a child, you are therefore disqualified from thinking about or talking about what it means to have a child—which leaves us with people who don’t have children to think and talk about what it means to have a child as if they are somehow unbiased, which of course they are not. As a writer, you are always entering into a subject with your own biases and blindnesses that you may or may not even be aware of. Part of the job is to be as rigorous as you can possibly be, and to question yourself as much as you can.
In the piece, you write about a hugely jarring discovery: learning that you’d be giving the oral version of this in the BP Lecture Theatre at the British Museum. How did you grapple with the revelation and ultimately weave the experience into the finished product?
At first, I thought, Oh, these things are totally incompatible. I don’t know how to do this.
But ultimately I decided that I would just be really honest. On stage, I would wrestle with the problem of how fossil fuels are integrated into every aspect of our society, and into our decision-making in every aspect of our personal and professional lives. That meant I had to take a sharp left turn, then try to figure out how this was all going to make sense in the same piece.
I ended up going down this rabbit hole of research about fossil fuel propaganda. It turns out that BP was the organization that popularized the idea of the personal carbon footprint in this multimillion-dollar ad campaign. Once I found that, it all kind of clicked into place. I was like, Oh, this is the same thing I’ve been talking about. Fossil fuel companies want us to feel personally responsible for this thing that we also feel like we have no control over and can’t change, so that they can continue doing business as usual and continue profiting.
What was the response to the piece?
“The future is not set in stone. The future is always going to be more terrible and more wonderful than we can possibly imagine. And I think that unknowability is often what keeps me going.”
When you write a piece like this, you’re not going to make everyone happy. I knew that there would be people who would disagree, and strongly.
But there were astonishing responses from readers all around the world. A lot of it was heartfelt thanks. There was a father in Oregon with a grown daughter, now wondering about having children of her own, who thanked me for writing something he could pass along to her. At least one pregnant person and some new parents wrote to say they were really relieved to hear someone else expressing the weirdness and conflicted feelings that they hadn’t quite been able to articulate. There were people who don’t want children who wrote to say that they were really grateful for the discussion about reproductive justice, and that they were grateful for how the piece helped them think more clearly about children in their own lives who they love.
Now we’re going through yet another crisis—the COVID-19 pandemic, which you’ve written about in the context of climate change. What’s the connection between this outbreak and our warming world?
Coronavirus and climate really are inextricably linked. The drivers of climate change are also drivers of disease risk. Burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases that pollute the air we breathe. Air pollution makes people more susceptible to respiratory illnesses like SARS and COVID-19. And the people who are living in areas that have more air pollution are usually the most vulnerable populations marginalized by class and race—the same populations that are going to be most impacted by climate change. Thinking of climate change as a threat multiplier for pandemics, much in the same way it functions as a threat multiplier for severe weather events like fires or hurricanes, seems to be a really important link to be making.
Things are not great in the world right now, for many reasons. What’s your outlook on our collective future?
John Berger talks about the concept of “undefeated despair”—the idea that when things look incredibly bleak, you can recognize that and feel despair without also feeling fear or resignation. The future is not set in stone. The future is always going to be more terrible and more wonderful than we can possibly imagine. And I think that unknowability is often what keeps me going.
You write about very heavy things a lot of the time. How do you stay happy and grounded through all of this?
Getting off of my phone and the Internet and getting re-rooted into the physical present tense really helps. That can take many forms.
Also, having a child in your home creates a real locus of joy. I live with a tiny, crazy person who makes me laugh every day, and I am deeply grateful for that. It’s not something that I expected or something that I desired when I thought about having a child, and that has been surprising and wonderful.
Katherine J. Wu is a science journalist and Story Collider senior producer who has written for Smithsonian, National Geographic, Popular Science, Undark, and more. She is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and is currently a reporting fellow at The New York Times’ science desk. She holds a PhD in microbiology from Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineJWu.