Environmental guilt, political mourning and contestatory citizenship: Responsibility and its ambiguities

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

‘There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: Is it OK to still have children?’ This 2019 Instagram statement by the US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez validated some of the emotions and dilemmas experienced by many young people, who are facing up to the bleak future of a climate changed world. That same year, the BirthStrikers, a women’s movement founded in the UK, publicly renounced procreation in response to ‘climate breakdown and civilisation collapse’. According to its founding leader, Blythe Pepino, the movement’s goal was not to judge people who have already had children or to discourage others from having any. In refusing to bring children into a world where they would have to live in ‘survival mode’, their main objective was communicative: to draw a powerful signal of alarm about the ecological crisis, out of sheer environmental despair at the failure of representative institutions to take meaningful action.

The group carefully distanced themselves from anti-natalism and its unsavoury racialised history. Moreover, they were sober about the potential impact they could have in relation to a crisis of such magnitude and complexity. Losing hope at the mismatch between the state of the planet and ongoing failures of political will, they politicised the mourning of their unborn children and avowed their environmental guilt as contributors to the problem, hoping to inspire others to become activists and push politicians to act decisively on the climate front.

This paper analyses this movement’s emotionally anchored plea and tries to answer the following questions: how should we interpret these women’s guilt-fuelled political stance? Can we read it as an exemplary, powerful act by citizens assuming political responsibility – for the future human generations and for the planet – against the background of inescapable implicatedness? And to what extent do they provide a perspective that could productively enlarge current imaginaries of how to live on an environmentally degraded planet? In wrestling with these questions, the paper hopes to offer a lucid assessment of the merits and limits of making women-as-mothers-in-waiting the focus of citizen mobilisation and on centring environmental activism on procreation. It argues that, while its avowal of responsibility via the expressive force of environmental guilt is an important political contribution within a (still) predominantly escapist public sphere, this discourse remains trapped in a maternalistic, pro-natalist and anthropocentric imaginary that bears problematic implications for green politics. As a counter proposal, the paper introduces several alternative accounts of how one could tackle the link between reproduction and environmentalism, all of which advance visions of non-natalist kin-making predicated on the revaluation of human life and death.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 5 May 2023


Dive into the research topics of 'Environmental guilt, political mourning and contestatory citizenship: Responsibility and its ambiguities'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this