OUR BURNING PLANET
Planned parenting in a climate-unstable world
The planet is a hard place to live on right now, and it’s only going to get worse as the natural world buckles under the pressure of our industrial-era over-extraction. Should we be having children as the climate slips into a new unstable state that may not be able to support life as we know it?
This isn’t going to go down well, but it needs saying. If our society is really going to unravel under a barrage of extreme weather events, food and water shortages, and explosions of political instability, it’s going to be hard enough taking care of ourselves through the maelstrom. Do we also want the trauma and responsibly of caring for a 10-year-old or toddler who we adore, when we might be fighting for our own lives and can’t be sure we’ll be able to spare them from that misery?
Is it even ethical or responsible to have a child that we may not be able to protect or feed in a future where the climate system is likely to shift into a state that can’t support life on Earth, in its current form, for much longer?
Anti-natalists like University of Cape Town philosopher David Benatar, author of Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, argue that bringing children into the world where they may have to face terrible pain and suffering, is morally troublesome. It’s a philosophical conundrum: in an unpredictable world, where that child may be dealt a brutal blow of any number of miseries, would it not be better to have spared the child that future by never having been born, rather than subjecting her to a life of suffering that she wasn’t even given a choice to be part of?
Our evolutionary drive to procreate makes us spin all sorts of yarns to talk our way out of this Gordian knot: no, we can’t stop that cancerous tumour from devouring our future child’s lungs or brain; we can’t predict whether a drunk driver will slam into her car one night and shatter her spine; we can’t know if she’ll be one of the unfortunate few who will have to fight daily against the dark urges that come with life-threatening depression. We tend to hope for a better outcome: she might be lucky enough to live a charmed life; she might go on to create a vaccine that stops cancer in its tracks; she might develop stem cell technology that re-grows the broken tissue in a severed spine; she might be the one to master suicidal urges and help others on the other side of her recovery. Who are we to deny her that opportunity, or deny the world her unknown potential?
Those are delicious philosophical arguments that we could chew on for a lifetime. But the world we live in is different now. The likelihood of suffering from a random accident or becoming a cancer statistic still comes down to chance. But there’s near certainty that life in a climate-unstable world is going to be way more ugly, brutish, and short than the one that Hobbes thought our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived (outdated as his words now are).
Our cultural attitudes are about as plastic as our own brains, according to Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. So the values that shape our views on matters as untouchable as the question of procreation can also change and might be important now. In the arc of human history, we were hunter-gatherers for over 150,000 years. This is much longer than we were agriculturalists (12,000 years, give or take a few millennia). We’ve only been Capitalist industrialists for about three centuries or so. In his new book The Patterning Instinct, Lent reminds us that infanticide was a socially-acceptable practice in many hunter-gather communities. This wasn’t the deliberate slaughter of children, but infants were occasionally left to the elements, where they were allowed to die of exposure if they were sickly or if there were serious food shortages and parents couldn’t take care of them. Attitudes have changed in many ways since then.
Today’s society regards the need to parent as immutable, as though it’s somehow inevitable and necessary completion of ourselves, that we have a moral responsibility to do so. Just ask any woman what subtle forms of pressure she feels if she’s chosen not to have children: the biological clock is ticking; you’re not a complete woman until you’ve had a child; you’re selfish if you don’t; who’s going to look after you in your retirement; you owe it to the world because your child could be the next Einstein.
These cultural attitudes are out of step with the carrying capacity of the planet, and the severity of climate and ecosystem collapse that are already happening around us. These attitudes about parenthood should change, given the near-term future we’re walking into. And as Lent suggests, these values can change quickly.
According to one poll in the US earlier this year, 37% of people surveyed, aged between 18 and 29 years, said their family planning decisions should take climate change into consideration. And in the UK, the BirthStrike movement echoes Greta Thunberg’s school climate strike.
It’s the rich people who need to stop having children first
When it comes to the question of climate change and our global emissions footprint intersecting with the issue of population growth, the discussion gets messy. Population control debates often target developing world contexts: poor families should have two kids, instead of eight, the argument goes. This is a red-herring debate and often shot through with racism and eugenics-era thinking.
It’s not the poor family of eight kids that is dumping the most carbon emissions into the atmosphere, it’s the rich family of two kids that’s the biggest offender.
The world’s carbon emissions profile is a map of the “haves” and the “have nots”, as Oxfam points out. Comparing lifestyle and consumption patterns across the globe, Oxfam’s Extreme Carbon Inequality reports that the poorest half of the global population – around 3.5 billion people – are responsible for only around 10% of total global emissions from individual consumption. Meanwhile, half the individual emissions come from the richest 10% of the world’s population. These rich people “have average carbon footprints 11 times as high as the poorest half of the population, and 60 times as high as the poorest 10%”.
That poor family with eight children only becomes a carbon concern if those youngsters slip into middle-class consumption patterns through the course of their lives. The only sound reason to ask a poor family not to have kids in this context is to spare them the suffering they’ll face as their communities are blown apart by extreme weather events or famine or geopolitical instability flowing from ecosystem collapse. The two record-breaking cyclones which hit Mozambique recently are a case in point. Cyclone Idai wiped out 90% of Beira’s infrastructure. Flooding killed at least 1,000 people and left many thousands homeless. Imagine trying to survive that with an infant on your hip?
Another red-herring debate comes through in popular news angles these days: the single biggest thing you can do to cut your carbon emissions is to stop eating meat or go fully vegan. Not true. The single biggest thing you can do as an individual is to not replicate yourself, even once.
If our child is already born, the decision is no longer in our hands. We’re in it now and we’ll just have to grapple with all the majesty and beauty and pain and uncertainty of being a parent. If our child isn’t born yet, we should probably pause and think seriously about whether it’s fair and ethical to bring that child into the world without their consent, given the frightening and uncertain future we’re headed towards. DM