A new question raised by the ecological crisis is whether climate change should dissuade people from bringing children into the world. The Sierra Club recently published a piece on choosing to be a parent as a member of a climate-concerned generation, and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) has linked access to birth control in developing countries to addressing climate change. Though climate change poses scientific and economic challenges, the notion that any challenge warrants a reduction in human futures is alarming and dangerous for the spirit of our generation.
There is nothing new about the idea that the Earth may not be able to sustain humanity. The notion of a “surplus population” that could not be fed by existing resources was popularized by economist Thomas Malthus in the early 19th century and ultimately rejected by society with the rise of the workers’ rights movement. More recently, Paul Ehrlich’s 1970s prediction that a “population bomb” would create a food crisis fell flat. Both of these theories, however, failed to see human innovation as the solution to a global crisis and instead simply determined that there was no way for society to accommodate the “surplus” of humanity.
Deciding against having children because of climate change is to deem the future generation the surplus population of the 21st century, and we should be wary of factoring out human innovation as a method of expanding the world for future humans. Whether solutions will emerge from nuclear power, carbon sequestration, renewable technological developments or some other field is hard to say, but the conclusion that no solution will present itself represents a climate defeatist attitude. Some may call the belief that our innovative capabilities will allow for another generation to be created and live in dignity a baseless fantasy, but I would argue it is an act of deliberate faith. Although the future is uncertain, we can choose to include future inhabitants of Earth in our creed of human resilience in the face of global challenge, and we should not exclude the coming wave of humanity from our vision of tomorrow.
Any arguments that insist parts of humankind exist in excess should be viewed skeptically. In the 18th century, political pamphleteer Jonathan Swift wrote a satirical piece called “A Modest Proposal,” which advocated for eating poor Irish children to reduce the population while nourishing the rest of society. Swift’s implicit insistence that the plight of the Irish must not be dismissed as an unavoidable reality of the world is analogous to deciding the society in 2020 should make room for the next generation, rather than writing them off as an inevitable loss.
The vast consensus of contemporary scientists is that human action and existence emits carbon dioxide and therefore contributes to the climate crisis. Just as Swift used satire to argue against the decision to view the Irish as a group inevitably destined to suffer in 1729, we too must object to the attitude that the future of humanity is too ecologically costly to create given the current state of our world. Being blessed, as we are, to dwell on a planet that offers resources for our current generation to exist does not give us the right to determine that there is no space for a future generation.
The decision to not have children for fear of future challenges represents the rising generation’s religion of surrender to the issues of today. Paul Tillich, a 20th-century German Protestant theologian, argued that all people worship something and the validity of that worship lies in the nature of the chosen deity. Tillich called the object of one’s worship their “ultimate concern.” We cannot allow our generation’s ultimate concern to be accepting an inevitable defeat of humanity by a warming climate. To allow the existence of the future generation to be inhibited by the fears of today is to worship a failure of our generation. Our ultimate concern must be one of love for the future, not despair for the present.
All prior generations saved their world so that we could live in ours. We have an obligation to pay that grace forward to the next generation. Climate change will be technically difficult to combat, but we cannot allow it to dominate humanity’s spiritual resilience. We mustn’t lose faith in the human beings of the future. Let’s dedicate ourselves to future humanity and not surrender our present opportunity to climate defeatism. The kids will be alright; we just need to decide to have them.
Sam Kehoe is a freshman in the College. Pondering Politics appears online every other Tuesday.