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Pandora’s child


Here’s a typical example of a recent genre of essays, in which a young person — always a woman in the examples I’ve seen — talks about why she’s decided not to have children, given the terrible state of the world, and in particular the climate change crisis.

I know I am far from the first person, both in Gen Z and in history, to reckon with events of an existential scale when grappling with questions about the future, especially those related to having a family. The past century, alone, is riddled with near-doomsday crises, including WWI and WWII, nuclear threats during the Cold War and frightening economic downturns. In those instances, generations who came before me made different choices — ones that I respect, and which led to the lives my peers and I now enjoy.

But to me, where climate change and other events diverge is human cooperation and responsibility — while war and financial disasters are always caused by humans, they are also rectified by them. However, unlike wartime conflict and periods of financial uncertainty, I can see no hopeful reference point in history to show how humanity might come together to recover from climate change. People are fighting, but their efforts are falling on too many deaf ears.

The US, alone, is an increasingly fractured nation — with unrelenting tides of bigotry and racism, political dividessplit loyalties on global conflicts and domestic attacks on LGBTQ rights, women and other groups — and to garner the same level of cooperation with other nations seems like an impossible task. As environmental catastrophes reach a caliber we cannot predict or conceive, having children is becoming less of a risk I’m willing to take.

Obviously choosing to have or not have children is the most personal of decisions, and I would never criticize anyone’s individual choice in the matter.

But . . . I don’t think this particular genre of public climate doomerism is either warranted or helpful from a political perspective.

This is a tough topic to discuss, because it’s hard to thread the needle between two propositions:

(1) Climate change is a massive environmental crisis, and an enormously difficult collective action problem.

(2) The world as a whole is almost unimaginably richer and healthier place (for humans anyway) than it was one or two centuries ago, let alone in premodern eras.

Both things are true, and both things are difficult to keep in mind when talking about what changes climate change might bring about.

A simple, perhaps simplistic, example: You can get to something fairly close to the very worst case scenarios for climate change before you’re talking about a world which would look, in terms of economics and public health, anywhere close to as bad as the world into which people were born in, say, 1900. At that time, a new born American child — and America was just about the richest nation in the world already! — had a nearly 20% chance of dying before reaching adulthood (today the odds of that are 1%). 80% of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty, compared to around 15% today. A child born in that year, if they lived to see middle age, would witness two cataclysmic world wars, that would kill between them something like 75 million people. And so on.

Again, this is not in any way to deny that climate change is an enormous ongoing crisis of the first order. Of course it is. But the whole genre of “how can you possibly bring children into this world given the way it is now?” polemics makes me want to ask, compared to what? The world has always been a terrible place, and a wonderful place, and that is never going to change, despite the longings and fears of millenarians of every stripe, religious and secular.

Climate change is a thing that the new generations are inheriting from a world that is dying away. It’s a terrible burden, and dealing with it is a terrible quest, but it is in no way a new or unprecedented thing in that regard.

“I wish the Ring had never come to me.”

“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

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