A philosopher’s plea for people to keep having children reveals an unwillingness to confront the realities of climate breakdown
I read the NYT Op-Ed Why, Despite Everything, You Should Have Kids (if You Want Them), by philosopher Tom Whyman, secretly hoping it would change my mind. It did not. Worse yet, it seems to espouse unrealistic expectations about climate change.
To begin with, I am not what you would call an avowed anti-natalist – I do not advocate for non-reproduction nor do I think having children is morally wrong as such. I am however one of those millennials Dr. Whyman mentions who do not want to bring new life into this world because in light of what the future has in store, it just seems cruel.
This conclusion is not an easy one. The desire to reproduce is one of the deepest drives shared by all living things, and I doubt how much rational discussion can override it. For myself, I once eagerly looked forward to parenting, and I hate disappointing my own parents’ desire for grandchildren.
Whyman’s argument, as I understand it, is essentially that the optimism involved in having kids must be independent of our concrete expectations. To put his point bluntly, we might say “things may look bleak now, but who knows what the future may hold. Today’s kids may fix it all somehow.”
He acknowledges that his position runs the danger of deferring all hope to an unknown future, or worse, idly waiting for future generations to solve present problems. This is important. Yet I fear that his piece still feeds into the widespread unwillingness to confront the actual prognoses of climate science.
Because although the future is inherently unknowable, we currently have a better guess than ever before. Climate science, the biggest collaborative scientific endeavor in history, gives us a detailed outline of what to expect in the next decades.
Desertification and rising sea levels will displace hundreds of millions of human beings by the end of this century. Falling agricultural yields and increasingly chaotic weather will likely result in famines. Covid-19 is likely to be followed by even worse pandemics.
The ecological crisis these are part of entails not only terrible suffering for many, many people, but massive societal and political upheaval. In many countries, the political response to these changes is already taking the route Naomi Klein has termed “eco-barbarism”: violently maintaining a semblance of stability in an increasingly destabilized world.
To turn around these catastrophic trends, we need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by nearly half before 2030. Current government targets come nowhere close, not to mention reductions in practice.
It is not too late quite yet, and there is still much to be done. But we must confront the reality of what can be done and when, and also by whom: by the time children born today enter high school, runaway global heating could be locked in for good.
If we fail to reduce emissions in time, global heating will continue to worsen drastically throughout the lifetime of today’s newborns. Yet even if we succeed, global heating and its effects are bound to continue making things worse for years and decades before they get better. Children born today will live through the worst of it, an outcome they are simply born too late to prevent.
This is why deciding to bring new life into the world just seems cruel. But Whyman does get one important issue right: foregoing reproduction is no kind of solution, either.
As he writes, “it makes no sense to think of children as tokens of their parents’ carbon consumption.” Private consumption is only one driver of emissions – alongside military fuel consumption, for example – and no reduction in birth rates could put much of a dent even in consumption-driven emissions within a decade.
Ultimately, the fact remains that no matter how big the population is, the ways the world lives, eats, travels and works must be transformed in short order if we are to halt global heating.
What are we waiting for?
How then could a reasonable person hope for things to get better for the next generation? The main way seems to be techno-optimism: the belief that a future breakthrough may transform our dire situation. Whyman does not speak to this, but it is implicit in many positions like his own.
Indeed, if a new technology were to emerge, one which could provide clean energy or remove greenhouse gases on scale, at an efficiency far beyond anything presently available, rapid climate stabilization might suddenly become possible.
That is, however, a very big if. And as entrenched economic and political interests appear unwilling or unable to rapidly decarbonize our economies, it looks more and more like our collective survival strategy is beginning to hinge on just such ifs.
For those with a vested interest in business-as-usual, such beliefs are incredibly convenient. They suggest that decarbonization is not so urgent, perhaps altogether superfluous. Yet for the sake of future generations especially, this is a fatal gamble we should take care not to entertain.
Have children, don’t have children – that is your choice to make. But do not justify it by suggesting that maybe everything will just get better, somehow. For the younger generations alive today, and the ones after them, things are almost certain to get worse first.
If anyone is going to fix this mess, it will have to be those of us who are already grown up – and we are going to have to start fighting like hell.