We live in an exploding world. Reaching seven billion people and counting as of approximately this week, we’re constantly pushing (and expanding) the brink of sustainable life. Yet, as equilibrium biology tells us, the earth will eventually buckle. It’s inevitable.
Even though resource and space depletion won’t occur until the distant future, there are plenty of indications that humanity is bracing for impact. We’re subtly changing the way we live. Most people take in less food, take up less space and use fewer materials.
Sometimes these deficits are self-inflicted: We feel guilty about humanity’s destructive nature and respond by recycling or buying eco-friendly products. Other times and in other places — especially developing countries — these limits are a part of life. Eating fatty beef or driving gas guzzlers is simply unaffordable. Although the amount of change varies, it’s certain that we’re all sacrificing (whether we want to or not).
All these sacrifices mean we’re less comfortable in the crowded world we now share. This brings up a challenging, but interesting question: Should this be the last generation? Philosopher Peter Singer raised that very question, in a piece in The New York Times. Should humans willingly stop reproducing if it contributes to the world’s degradation?
Most people are quick to discard arguments against human reproduction. (We were, after all, born — a fundamental bias.) But that doesn’t make the argument against future life, as David Benatar describes in his book “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence,” any less valuable.
In fact, the only way to respond to the problem of generational existence — how mounting populations affect future generations — is by confronting anti-reproduction critiques. By challenging the premises of Benatar’s views, we can with full conscience support life as an ideal and a practice. Like Malthus, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche before him, Benatar is best characterized as a pessimistic philosopher. What makes him a pessimist is his outlook: Life serves as a series of meaningless ends, all of which amount to nothing more than death.
Within this perspective, each child’s existence is detrimental to the sum existence of all children. New persons reduce collective resources, slowly draining the vitality of all human life from the bottom upward. The root of this argument is as much practical as it is philosophical: Humanity constantly makes the world a worse place.
Fortunately, we’re not limited to a pessimistic understanding. In fact, it’s worth challenging the premises behind Benatar. A response might be threefold. First, an optimistic framework for humanity’s future does exist; second, we need not accept life as ends-driven; third, the origin of each individual life is inherently positive.
For the first point, consider the limitations imposed by pessimism. Benatar’s arguments, though aimed to protect us from ourselves, do so in a confining manner. The pessimistic approach enslaves us within the limits of ourselves. By cutting off reproduction, we accept as a forgone conclusion that humans are brutish and fallible. This nips human potential at the bud.
To replace the pessimistic frame, I suggest a notion of humanity bedded in invention, energy and productive forces. Even as we speak, innovators are finding ways to make life better. Despite setbacks, mankind makes gigantic leaps at regular intervals. Electricity, space travel and the Internet are just a few modern examples. Human history is a story of constant advancement.
Second, even if the world crumbles as predicted, life’s ulterior sanctification (God, science or whatever justifies and creates) makes it worth living. Instead of living from end to end, we live as part of a greater process. It’s perfectly human to see life’s aim as some higher thing, attained through the course of life.
Benatar’s assertion that everything eventually leads to death is insufficient to explain human principle and psychology. By nature of having beliefs, most people live with greater resolution. This purpose defies pessimistic definitions of limited human foresight.
Finally, life is more or less a random occurrence. We don’t choose to come into being but instead rely on the reproductive luck inherent in context, circumstance and our parents. What’s important, though, is the fact that creation and reproduction — the forces behind this luck — are optimistic acts. Each new life exists as an emblem of human success and evolutionary prowess, both of which are positive expressions. At the foundation of all life, then, is an act that embodies human optimism.
Whether reinforcing human optimism, expressing higher purpose in our beliefs, or acting to influence and improve existence, humanity makes its own case for reproduction. The better question to ask isn’t “Should this be the last generation?” but rather “How can we reach humanity’s full potential?” In our exploding world, the answer will come from us.
Matthew Hoyt is a senior in the College. He shares with Mike Meaney a joint column, The State of Nature, the appears every other Friday.