Culture Magazine

Is It Moral to Raise Children in a Doomed World?

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

I cried two times when my daughter was born. First for joy, when after 27 hours of labor the little feral being we'd made came yowling into the world, and the second for sorrow, holding the earth's newest human and looking out the window with her at the rows of cars in the hospital parking lot, the strip mall across the street, the box stores and drive-throughs and drainage ditches and asphalt and waste fields that had once been oak groves. A world of extinction and catastrophe, a world in which harmony with nature had long been foreclosed.

Take the widely cited 2017 research letter by the geographer Seth Wynes and the environmental scientist Kimberly Nicholas, which argues that the most effective steps any of us can take to decrease carbon emissions are to eat a plant-based diet, avoid flying, live car free and have one fewer child - the last having the most significant impact by far. Wynes and Nicholas argue for teaching these values in high school, thus transforming society through education. On its face, this proposal might seem sensible. But when values taught in the classroom don't match the values in the rest of society, the classroom rarely wins. The main problem with this proposal isn't with the ideas of teaching thrift, flying less or going vegetarian, which are all well and good, but rather with the social model such recommendations rely on: the idea that we can save the world through individual consumer choices. We cannot.

Of course, nobody really needs to have children. It just happens to be the single strongest drive humans have, the fundamental organizing principle of every human society and the necessary condition of a meaningful human world. Procreation alone makes possible the persistence of human culture through time.

To take Wynes and Nicholas's recommendations to heart would mean cutting oneself off from modern life. It would mean choosing a hermetic, isolated existence and giving up any deep connection to the future. Indeed, taking Wynes and Nicholas's argument seriousaly would mean acknowledging that the only truly moral response to global climate change is to commit suicide. There is simply no more effective way to shrink your carbon footprint. [...]

When my daughter was born I felt a love and connection I'd never felt before: a surge of tenderness harrowing in its intensity. I knew that I would kill for her, die for her, sacrifice anything for her, and while those feelings have become more bearable since the first delirious days after her birth, they have not abated. And when I think of the future she's doomed to live out, the future we've created, I'm filled with rage and sorrow.

Every day brings new pangs of grief. Seeing the world afresh through my daughter's eyes fills me with delight, but every new discovery is haunted by death.

Read the rest and think on it.


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