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. My partner and I had, in our selfishness, doomed our daughter to life on a dystopian planet, and I could see no way to shield her from the future.
Anyone who pays much attention to climate change knows the outlook is grim. It’s not unreasonable to say that the challenge we face today is the greatest the human species has ever confronted. And anyone who pays much attention to politics can assume we’re almost certainly going to botch it. To stop emitting waste carbon completely within the next five or 10 years, we would need to radically reorient almost all human economic and social production, a task that’s scarcely imaginable, much less feasible. It would demand centralized control of key economic sectors, enormous state investment in carbon capture and sequestration and global coordination on a scale never before seen, at the very time when the political and economic structures that held the capitalist world order together under American leadership after World War II are breaking apart. The very idea of unified national political action toward a single goal seems farcical, and unified action on a global scale mere whimsy.
And even if world leaders somehow got their act together, significant and dangerous levels of warming are still inevitable, baked into the system from all the carbon dioxide that has already been dumped. There’s a time lag between carbon dioxide increase and subsequent effects, between the wind we sow and the whirlwind we reap. Our lives are lived in that gap. My daughter was born there.
Barring a miracle, the next 20 years are going to see increasingly chaotic systemic transformation in global climate patterns, unpredictable biological adaptation and a wild spectrum of human political and economic responses, including scapegoating and war. After that, things will get worse. The middle and later decades of the 21st century — my daughter’s adult life — promise a global catastrophe whose full implications any reasonable person must turn away from in horror.
Some people might say the mistake was having a child in the first place. As Maggie Astor reported, more and more people are deciding not to have children because of climate change. This concern, conscious or unconscious, is no doubt contributing to the United States’ record-low birthrate. Some people can’t bear the idea of having a child whose life is going to be worse than their own. Others, struggling with the ethics of living in a carbon-fueled consumer society, consider having children selfish and environmentally destructive.
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.
Society is not simply an aggregate of millions or billions of individual choices but a complex, recursive dynamic in which choices are made within institutions and ideologies that change over time as these choices feed back into the structures that frame what we consider possible. All the while, those structures are being disrupted and nudged and warped and shaken by countless internal and external drivers, including environmental factors such as global warming, material and social innovation, and the occasional widespread panic. Which is just to say that we are not free to choose how we live any more than we are free to break the laws of physics. We choose from possible options, not ex nihilo.
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 seriously 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. Once you’re dead, you won’t use any more electricity, you won’t eat any more meat, you won’t burn any more gasoline, and you certainly won’t have any more children. If you really want to save the planet, you should die.