Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

What’s at stake [April 29]

It’s 1989 and I’m cycling slowly across a bridge spanning an eight-lane freeway, on my way to save the planet. I’ve spent the last three years campaigning on ozone depletion and global warming for the Australian Conservation Foundation, trying to wrap my un-mathematical brain around the delicate sciences of climatology and oceanography. I’ve learnt things about the workings of the circumpolar vortex and the potential loss of island nations I would rather not know. The world has become a different place, full of institutional roadblocks and oblivious over-consuming humans. I’m not sure how to turn those delicate sciences into powerful stories that will nudge people into action.

At least one of my campaigning mates has given up on the idea of having children. When he turned thirty, he had a vasectomy. ‘Adding to the population will only make things worse,’ he told me. ‘Why create people you love and condemn them to an uncertain future on an over-heating planet?’ But I still want a child. Not right now, I’m too young, too busy, but later, definitely. And my child will help to save the planet, just like me. Well, she’ll try.

Cycling against the wind I turn my head to the left and see long lines of vehicles stretching eastward to the outer suburbs of Melbourne. The cars are not moving. They’re idling, waiting for the peak hour crush to dissipate, spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I brake to a standstill on the side of the bridge, stare at the ribbons of cars stretching to the horizon, and it overtakes me at last, the dread I’ve been pushing down for the last three years. It rises from the pit of my gut to my throat and now I’m whimpering. Standing astride a stationary bicycle above the freeway, fingers white-knuckled on the handlebars, I’m crying, because now I know. I can’t do it. The end of the world is nigh, and it’s my fault because I haven’t done enough, and I can never do enough. I’m too young and too tired and too afraid of the future. I swivel the bike around, scrape away the tears and ride home again as fast as my legs can manage. 

Three decades later a Swedish schoolgirl is addressing a United Nations summit in New York about climate change. Or rather, climate inaction. The world is still getting warmer and the adults in charge are still dragging their feet. Greta Thunberg is snarling. She’s lecturing the grown-ups about tipping points, feedback loops, climate justice, betrayal and forgiveness. She wants to cry, I can feel it in her throat, but she won’t. She is a genie released and she is trying to magic up some shame, before it’s too late. I do the maths. She is exactly the age my first daughter would have been. And I’m one of the grown-ups she’s lecturing. 

It’s 2019 and people are debating why fewer Australian women are having children. The Bureau of Statistics reports that the birth rate in the last couple of years hasn’t been this low since the turn of the century. A newspaper opinion writer claims that childless women are ‘opting for fur-babies’ because they’re ‘scared of lifelong responsibility’. I look up from the newsprint and watch the small black dog chewing on a sock at the end of my bed. Sometimes I call her ‘baby’, it’s true. But when it comes to parenting, she wasn’t my first choice of species.

Maybe the women who the opinion writer is denigrating don’t have as much choice as she thinks they do. Infertility affects about one in 6 couples in this country. And if some women are actively choosing not to have children, maybe there are reasons other than selfishness. According to a recent survey by the Australian Conservation Foundation, a third of Australian women are reconsidering their plans to have children because they believe climate change has created ‘an unsafe future’. Maybe it’s not freedom from responsibility these women crave, but freedom from guilt. Or from fear. 

I knew the future could be unsafe three decades ago, when I was campaigning on global warming for the ACF. But I still wanted a child, more than anything. Three decades ago – two decades ago – one decade ago – there was still time to make the world safer. There was still hope. 

Sometimes I feel only relief that my quest to become a mother was a failure. I’ve condemned no child of mine to the clean-up job my generation is leaving for the next, and the one after that. I try to tell myself I don’t have to care about those future children. I haven’t smelt their hair after a shampoo bath. I haven’t read them a bedtime story. I don’t know what foods they’ve pushed to the edge of their plate, saving them till last because they taste the best. But the future tugs on me like a child’s hand, reminding me that I’m attached to this planet, these people, even the ones I’ll never meet. Reminding me what’s at stake. 

(This essay was published in The Big Issue in April 2021)