Leilani Münter makes environmental activism look very cool. The 44-year-old was named one of the top ten female race car drivers in the world by Sports Illustrated in 2007, and her likeness to Catherine Zeta-Jones offered her the opportunity to pose as a photo double in two movies, which funded her early racing career. But before all that, she earned a degree in biology with a specialization in ecology, behavior, and evolution, and had plans to work with dolphins and other marine animals. Despite her packed schedule, she makes time to sit on three environmental non-profit boards, and she is a patron of Population Matters, an organization in the UK that boasts such high profile patrons as Jane Goodall and Sir David Attenborough.
When Leilani was a student at the University of California – San Diego, her biochemistry professor showed the class Population Connection’s “dot” video, World Population. She recalls the shock and devastation she felt at learning how rapidly the population was growing (and this was before the world even reached 6 billion people). She decided then and there that she would never have biological children. Leilani has been married for nine years to Craig Davidson, and didn’t allow their relationship to get serious before he understood how serious she was about not having kids.
Leilani’s interest in biology was only natural, with a neurologist for a father and a hypertension nurse for a mother. And growing up surrounded by the natural beauty of Minnesota, she has always been concerned about the impact humans are having on the planet and its wildlife.
She tries to live in ways that reflect that concern. Leilani has been vegan since 2011 (and was vegetarian before that), she has solar panels that power her house and charge her Tesla, she has a 550-gallon rainwater collection system for her vegetable garden, and she adopts an acre of rainforest through the Rainforest Trust for every race she runs. She even serves up free vegan burgers at the racetrack for willing fans to sample — sponsored by her Vegan Strong campaign, which aims to show the public how delicious vegan food can be.
As someone who has known for a very long time that she didn’t want to have biological children, Leilani has endured all of the usual comments: You’ll change your mind, You’re only saying that now, and You’ll grow out of it. She laments, “There’s always a lot of dismissal of my decision.”
Sometimes, though, there’s understanding and agreement in surprising places, which motivates her to keep talking about her childfree choice. She told me about a flight she took recently during which she sat next to a man who had five biological children. After explaining to him the reasons that she doesn’t have children, he readily admitted, “Yeah, I get it. You won’t have any argument from me.”
She has observed that people who are already parents often feel as though they don’t have a voice in this conversation because they’ve already made their decision to bring more people into the world. She encourages them to participate in this movement all the same, because ultimately it will be those people’s children who will benefit from any measures we take today to protect the environment. She says, regarding the children of people who decide to become parents:
They’re going to have a more pleasant world to live in if there are fewer people on the planet and more resources to go around. This issue is one that everyone should care about and everyone should be talking about, and it feels like one of the least talked about issues of all. Population is the thing that tends to be glossed over or swept under the rug, because people think it’s an uncomfortable conversation. Do we have to wait until we hit 9 billion or 10 billion people? I’ve been on the planet since 1974 when the population hit 4 billion; it’s almost doubled in my lifetime! That’s the thing about this issue that’s frustrating is that it’s such an easy thing to understand; it’s not complicated in any way. It’s a simple, really simple, math equation.
Leilani was generous enough with her time to spend over an hour on the phone with me in July. She couldn’t have been kinder or more knowledgeable about the causes that receive her support. Excerpts from our conversation are transcribed below.
Do you think your activism on this issue has affected the way your fans think about population, the environment, and their own reproductive decisions?
I was at a screening in 2015 for Racing Extinction, which is a documentary film that I worked on with the Oceanic Preservation Society. Racing Extinction is specifically about the sixth mass extinction of species. We were doing a screening of it in Vail, Colorado, for about 700 people, and somebody from the audience asked if there was something that wasn’t addressed in the film that we wish had been addressed. I said, “Yes, population.”
You can always gauge the feel of a room, and I would say about two-thirds of the audience were clapping and nodding their heads, and maybe a third of the audience had the defensive body language of crossing their arms and checking out of the conversation. I remember at that moment feeling encouraged that more people in the room were responding in a positive manner to having that subject brought up.
I think people get it. Everything that we’re doing as humans is just being multiplied by billions. More and more people, or at least the logical people of the world that have some common sense, can admit that this is not sustainable, this is not viable, we can’t just keep increasing exponentially on this planet and expect that everything’s going to turn out okay when we’re already losing so many species and so much biodiversity as it is, with 7.6 billion of us. What’s going to happen when we’re at 8 billion, 9 billion, 10 billion? Everything that’s going on is just going to get worse because it’s being multiplied.
When I signed up to be a patron of Population Matters, I got a lot of requests from media outlets that wanted to talk about it. That was really encouraging to me in that I feel like people are not as scared to talk about it as they once were. Hearing the conversation on a radio show or seeing it in the newspaper is all it takes. The more it’s talked about the more accepted it will be to start talking about it and the less taboo of a subject it will be.
I’ve found that one of the first questions strangers ask on an airplane when they’re starting a conversation with me is, ‘Do you have kids?’ It’s usually the first or second question. You know, ‘What do you do?’ , ‘Do you have kids?’ , ‘Are you traveling for business or pleasure?’ I always answer the question with, ‘My husband and I are childfree by choice.’ And saying ‘by choice’ has oftentimes opened up the door for a deeper discussion. It lets them know that it wasn’t like I wanted to be a parent and I couldn’t have kids — it lets them know that this was a conscious decision that we made.
What do you say to people who believe that science and technology will save us from resource limits and our own environmental destruction?
Science and technology can’t give us a second planet to live on at this point. Maybe in the future humans will be interplanetary and we’ll terraform Mars and we’ll have a second civilization there. But at the moment, all we’ve got is Earth and there’s only so much room, there’s only so much of the wild places left.
Humans are 0.01 percent of the life on Earth and we’ve already killed off 83 percent of the wild mammals… Yes, I think technology will help us have less of an impact — the more electric cars we have, the more renewable energy we use, and the more people that go vegan — all of that is going to help us as humans live in a more sustainable way, and if we can live in a more sustainable way with the planet then we can have more people because those people aren’t harming the environment as much as they had been in the past. But I don’t think you can then just dismiss the population issue and say, ‘Oh, technology will save us.’ What if it doesn’t save us? You’re placing a pretty big bet there, not only on tech, but also on the human nature to hold on and resist change.
It’s hard to get a person to switch from a gas car to an electric car, or to get a meat-eater to eat vegan food — this is what I spend my life trying to do, trying to get people to make more conscious choices. Change is happening and it’s encouraging, but we can’t ignore the population issue and say, ‘Oh this isn’t an issue.’ I have a lot of faith in technology, but not that much, and not that much in human beings’ willingness to change.
People resist change. They like to stick to their old ways. People are creatures of habit, so changing behavior and changing people’s minds about these choices that they’re making is really difficult. I just spent all this past weekend trying to get meat-eaters to eat a vegan burger at the racetrack. It’s not an easy thing to do and it’s just not happening fast enough. It can’t counteract the growth of the billion people every 12 years. It’s just not mathematically feasible.
You live in the Bible Belt and you’re surrounded by racing fans — not the easiest audiences for your outreach. Are you met with a lot of resistance?
I think those are the people that need to be talked to the most. One of the things that annoys me is that people tend to go around and talk to people that already agree with them. If you really want to change things and have a positive impact on the world, you have to be a little bit braver than talking only to people who already agree with you. You have to go out and seek out the places where people really need to have this discussion — it’s a more difficult conversation to have, but it’s by far the most important because you’re going to have the biggest impact.
I always feel like I’m making the most difference when I’m at the racetrack and I’m talking to people that haven’t learned about these issues — they haven’t seen Racing Extinction, they didn’t know we were losing species at that rate — that’s where you can really make a difference.
I encourage everybody who’s reading this story to get outside of your comfort zone and go out and talk to people who don’t agree with you. Otherwise, you’re not changing anything. You’re just hanging out with your like-minded friends and talking about how you’re going to save the world. In order to create that change, you have to start that discussion with people that don’t agree.
Population discussions can raise people’s suspicions about government interference and unsavory agendas regarding reproductive health and rights of citizens.
People need to realize our own evolution on the planet is dependent on us reacting to this issue and reducing how quickly we’re reproducing. That is ultimately how we will survive or we will destroy ourselves. Yes, millions of years of evolution were telling us to pass on our genes, have kids, and grow the population — but now that’s what’s going to hurt our species.
If we truly are an intelligent species, we will adapt to the new circumstances and not just go along with those evolutionary instincts and urges to procreate. If our species wants to survive on this planet and keep this planet beautiful, we need to slow down and stop increasing our population.
Charles Darwin wrote about adaptability to change, not necessarily strength or intelligence, being the most important factor in species survival. We need to adapt the way that we’re living on the planet in order to survive, and one of those things is adapting how many people we’re adding to the planet every day.
Truly, if we are the intelligent species that we claim to be, that will be one of the main things that we’ll have to address. I’m not talking about any sort of government one-child policy or anything like that — if we’re an intelligent species, we should be able to make that decision willingly, on our own.
If I want to have kids I’ll adopt one of the 153 million orphan children already on the planet who need a home. I don’t need to have my own little mini-me version of myself to be a parent. There are plenty of children out there already who need homes, so why would I not do that instead?
I really feel that one of the best things that you can do if you want to preserve the world for the future is to look at the numbers and draw with common sense that because we are destroying the world around us by living in such an unsustainable way, a natural reaction to wanting to reduce that impact is to add fewer people. It’s just such a simple thing to understand, it boggles my mind when people try to argue against it. I don’t understand what they’re thinking is going to happen that’s going to make it okay for us to keep adding a billion people to the planet every 12 years. It’s just so unrealistic.
People often conclude that childfree people are selfish. What would you say to those who feel that way?
We are doing the selfless thing. We are going to make the world a better place for all the people who have had kids. Their kids are going to have a better world because we’re choosing not to have children. We have nothing selfishly to gain from creating a better world because we don’t have kids or grandkids. Our kids are not going to benefit from it because they’re not going to be here!
And not having children allows us the free time to volunteer and otherwise support causes we care about.
All parents, I think, are short on sleep and short on time and short on energy — they don’t have time to dedicate themselves to causes. If they do, that’s amazing, but they’re a huge exception to the rule. I think, in general, parents are just trying to get by, to make it on very little sleep, working and balancing being a parent. When would they have time to be an activist or educate other kids?
There are so many more kids I can educate by having the extra time to go and fight for these issues. I can go to a high school and do a screening of Racing Extinction and reach hundreds of kids, thousands of kids, through screenings and through talking about these issues. I can positively impact children that are already here. I’m reaching many more kids than I would if I had kids, because if I had children I wouldn’t have the time.
I certainly don’t need to bring another child into the world to have a positive influence on future generations. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. I feel totally satisfied with my life and like I’m having a much bigger impact than I would if I had my own kid.
Learn more about Leilani’s lifestyle and career at leilani.green and veganstrong.com. Find out where to watch Racing Extinction at racingextinction.com/film.