I interviewed entrepreneur and astronaut, Mark Shuttleworth, over Skype whilst he was at his Isle of Man home. I wanted to know more about his choice not to have children. I could see a verdant green lawn through the windows behind him. It was all very different to Welkom, in the Free State, where Mark was born.
After years of careful consideration Mark finalised his decision to remain childless by having a vasectomy. Yet I knew he had also had a sperm sample cryogenically frozen. Was Mark’s decision to visit the cryogenicist because he was uneasy about the permanence of sterilisation? Or was there a more intriguing reason behind what might otherwise seem to be a contradictory action, for someone not wanting children?
The answer, it turns out, is partly down to a somewhat curious radioactive design feature in the seating arrangements of Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. For the entire duration of Mark’s voyage to the International Space Station and back, onboard a Soyuz, Mark said he had, “a gamma radiation source about 25 centimetres from my nuts”. The potential danger of infertility, caused by irradiation, means cryogenic storage of cosmonauts’ sperm is standard practice at the Russian Federal Space Agency. It was four years later, after Mark had already become South Africa’s first astronaut, that he chose a sterile and childfree future.
Given Mark’s extraordinary entrepreneurial background, and the scale of the multiple projects with which he is passionately involved at any one time, Marks says, “it would be very difficult [to split my time] between being a better father and being more involved in a project”. He appreciates the joy children provide many parents, but believes adult happiness is not always dependent on having them. His decision not to father any children was therefore a personal lifestyle choice. Put simply, parenthood would restrict his ability to undertake the many other activities he loves.
In most cultures and societies there is pressure to conform to the so-called norm of parenthood. But are parents happier? Not if you read some of the academic reports from the United States.
Given the pressures of parenthood, it is unsurprising that parents who are currently raising children have been found to be more likely to suffer from depression or other forms of emotional distress than childless adults. What might be more surprising, for many people, are the results of research focussing on parents once their children have left home. Some studies show that parents who have reached the “empty nest” stage have similar levels of well-being to their childless friends of the same age. For people like Mark, pursuing happiness by means other than parenting is the right choice.
Mark’s desired lifestyle is only part of the story. He remembers being exposed to the concepts of climate change and other environmental issues for the first time whilst at junior school. Since then, the world’s population has risen by over 2 billion people. The consequences of our swelling population make climate change and all other threats to biodiversity harder to manage, which Mark finds deeply concerning.
When discussing the demands placed upon the earth’s finite resources and the twin burdens of human population and consumption growth, Mark said, “Having seen the earth from a distance, I’m very mindful there isn’t very much buffer space left”. Part of Mark’s desire to remain childless is to not enlarge his own family’s footprint by expanding their number.
There is reluctance among many people to talk about the impacts of population growth but Mark believes “it is perfectly normal to [say] some things which are taboo or difficult to talk about are, in fact, deeply profoundly important subjects and mature people have to get involved in those conversations.” He is right.
Integrated solutions to slowing population growth focussing on improving women’s rights, education, ensuring girls and women gain equal academic and workplace opportunities compared to male counterparts and enhancing healthcare and family planning advice benefit everyone. Far from being controversial, they should be seen as essential on a number of grounds, many unrelated to calming population growth.
Humanity’s impacts are generated not only by our numbers, but also by the way we live. As Mark pointed out, wealthier individuals have, generally speaking, more substantial environmental footprints than those who are less wealthy. There is no denying that the carbon emissions of Mark’s space flight, for instance, are equivalent to many times the lifetime total emissions generated by the average person. Nevertheless, by choosing to remain childfree, Mark has avoided creating additional lifetimes of emissions. Children who are never conceived nor born consume nothing.
Mark wouldn’t completely rule out using those cryogenically frozen sperm, but it’s not on the cards, there remains so much else still to do. Mark and his partner have hugely varied and fulfilling lives without having children.
The only good reason for having a child is a genuine yearning, rather than bowing down to cultural, societal or familial pressures. Mark was not being entirely serious when he said, “you can only be as happy as your most miserable child” but his point, that adult happiness is not dependent on parenthood, is supported by research.
Outside the lives of any couple themselves, a decision not to have children, or to have fewer of them, will also have a small but not insignificant impact on easing mankind’s future environmental burden. Not having children could be the greatest gift you could give the planet and, therefore, to someone else’s grandchildren.