Should Climate Change Stop Us from Having Babies?
The fact that the earth's atmosphere will undergo some pretty fundamental changes in the next generation raises questions about the benefits of procreation.
Barry Aliman rides her bicycle with her baby to collect water for her family near Boromo, Burkina Faso. Photo by CIFOR via Flickr
If you're like me, climate change keeps you up at night on a regular basis. It's not so much that we're still on track for the worst-case global warming scenario, or that the survival of countless species—not to mention civilization as we know it—hangs in the balance, but the quiet understanding that our kids are going to feel some of the worst impacts in just a few brief decades.
In the last few weeks alone, Boston has been buried under record amounts of snow, an endless winter hell that's been linked to warmer-than-normal water temperatures in the Gulf Stream. Meanwhile, California is shriveling up, amid predictions of imminent mega-droughts across the western US. It's hard to predict how climate change will affect us next, but clearly it won't be good. Already, scientists are telling us to say goodbye to Miami and Manhattan, not to mention chocolate, coffee, and beer.
Increasingly, and understandably, these existential climate change crises have put a lot of us on edge, raising big, scary questions about the fate of humanity in the 21st century. That so many have opted for willful ignorance almost makes sense. For those who live in the real—and warming—world, though, the fact that the earth's atmosphere will undergo some pretty fundamental changes in the next generation can raise second thoughts about the idea of procreation.
I know firsthand. On the same day my wife and I gave up flying for good, I also publicly considered getting a vasectomy. (Fox News predictably ridiculed me for overreacting.) At that moment, I just couldn't bear the thought of contributing any more to the earth's pervasive climate problem. I had a breakdown. But I never got the vasectomy.
For natural pessimists, the inexorable destruction by climate change leads to thoughts that fall along the lines of this Jezebel headline, which asks: " Why Would I Ever Want to Bring a Child Into This Fucked Up World?" Because really, why the hell would someone of procreating age today even consider having a baby? It feels like an utter tragedy to create new life, fall in love with it, and then watch it writhe in agony as the world singes to a crisp.
There's a word for this sense of loss for things that haven't even happened yet: solastalgia, used to describe the sinking feeling of loss for places rendered utterly unrecognizable due to environmental ruin. In September, before a meeting of world leaders at the United Nations on climate, a young mother from the Marshall Islands brought people to tears with her own version of it.
According to Glenn Albrecht, the Australian environmental philosopher who coined the term after his work with people displaced by that country's rapidly expanding coal industry, "We've created something that has no historical precedent." That is, we're changing our environment so fast that our cultural cues no longer have a stable reference point.
Quite simply: Climate change is changing us.
Albrecht's goal is to create a linguistic framework that will help give voice to the increasingly pervasive emotional consequences of environmental change during this time of rapid transition. Albrecht himself is expecting a new granddaughter soon, and he told me "it's made me more determined to complete this work."
We live in a very critical time for human history, as the first generation to fully understand the implications of the damage we have done to the earth, and perhaps the last generation with the opportunity to change course. It's perfectly normal to get a little freaked out when you realize the implications of that at a personal level.
With more couples than ever choosing to remain child-free, deciding to have a baby has, in a sense, become a political statement. It's saying: There's still hope. And when you crunch the numbers, it's not really so much about how many people are on the planet, it's about how we live—another hopeful notion.
Jennie Ferrara, a mother of two and an American ex-pat living in Copenhagen, told me that in the last several years she's experienced bouts of a "climate angsty-anxiety-depression," which began soon after the birth of her first child. For Ferrara, reading news articles on the latest climate science amounted to "leaving one physical reality of how you think Earth is and then entering a new one that's a lot scarier." One afternoon while she was listening to a report on the UN climate negotiations, she'd had enough. She also gave up flying, for good. "Once you get to a certain point, you can't ignore knowledge anymore," she said.
It's true that the changes we're collectively inflicting on our planet are alarming, so it's understandable that people have started acting like it. In fact, it's possible that pervasive "stealth" denial—our emotional disconnect with the immediacy and personal nature of the climate problem—may be contributing to the sorts of "all of the above" half-measures on climate we've grown accustomed to from our leaders. It's difficult for us to wrap our brains around the fact that the carbon dioxide from our car's tailpipe will still be there warming the planet a thousand years later.
"I'm looking at my kids on a daily basis, and I don't think an hour—I don't think a half-hour—goes by without me thinking about the existential malaise that we're in," Ferrara said. "Had I not had kids, I'm not sure I would be where I am about the climate... That's my bubble, the climate bubble that I'm walking around in all the time."
After a three-year hiatus, Ferrara recently re-started her "Climate Worrier" podcast focusing on collecting stories related to the emotional responses people are having to climate change. Ferrara closes each episode with an appeal to her listeners: "It's good to be sad, it'll motivate us to do something."
But humans just aren't built to process intensely complex, deeply fundamental changes to the status quo (like, the impending inability for oceans to sustain life as a result of CO2 acidification). Instead, we choose to trust that the problem isn't happening, or is an elaborate hoax, or that we're too small to make a difference, or that somehow future technologies will fix the problem with minimal effort on our part.
By making global warming a science issue, campaigners against climate change lost the majority of the public's interest in the topic, even though the stakes have never been higher. It's time to admit that humans aren't perfect rational actors and just piling on more and more terrifying data isn't going to sway us. We are deeply emotional. Most of us don't make major life decisions based solely on science.
My wife and I just had a baby, and it's quickly becoming the best decision we ever made. Even though his future is uncertain, the knowledge that there's still time left to turn things around has become a tremendously powerful motivating factor in our lives. Our baby has brought us back from the brink. It's impossible to be hopeless with a newborn. Climate change has changed me. And I don't think I'm the only one.
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