Why bother to bear chil­dren in a hos­tile cli­mate?

The Washington Post - - FREE FOR ALL - EL­IZ­A­BETH BRU­ENIG

In one re­spect, the de­ba­cle in the Gar­den of Eden is an ur- cli­mate change nar­ra­tive. If you can’t use your nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment the way you ought to, then you’ll lose it. And then where will you be? Af­ter their trans­gres­sion, Adam and Eve find them­selves in a far less hos­pitable place than the one they used to know. In their strange world, newly hard and un­yield­ing, they pro­ceed — al­most un­think­ably — to have chil­dren. Cir­cum­stances then fa­mously es­ca­late.

Like our mythic fore­bears, we seem locked in a doomed cy­cle of es­ca­lat­ing dam­age. This week, re­searchers at the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) re­leased a re­port stat­ing that the world is not on track to limit global tem­per­a­ture in­crease to 1.5 de­grees Cel­sius, the goal of the 2015 Paris agree­ment. In con­crete terms, this means that hu­mankind can — un­less rapid, ex­treme mea­sures are taken — ex­pect se­vere weather, dis­rup­tions to agri­cul­ture, and re­sult­ing po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic jolts, along with ir­re­versible cli­mate shifts such as the de­struc­tion of po­lar ice shelves and per­ma­nent sea-level in­creases. The IPCC re­port holds that it is pos­si­ble for hu­man­ity to halt the course of cli­mate change. But do­ing so would re­quire, at this late hour, more than a few rad­i­cal acts of po­lit­i­cal will.

As Hur­ri­cane Michael leaves be­hind a wake of death, in­jury and de­struc­tion in the South­east, the fact of cli­mate change feels par­tic­u­larly tan­gi­ble. Those who live near the coasts can see their fu­tures in ev­ery splin­tered palm and blasted shore­line, and in the blue tarps fixed over torn roofs by the Army Corps of En­gi­neers. But even those liv­ing safely in­land and those who have the means to move to higher ground as flood­wa­ters rise won’t be able to es­cape the po­lit­i­cal tur­moil that will arise as space and re­sources be­come more and more scarce.

Nonethe­less, de­spite the fact that the United States could play a ma­jor role in cre­at­ing a sus­tain­able fu­ture, many Amer­i­can politi­cians re­main glibly in­dif­fer­ent to the threat of cli­mate change. In a very prag­matic sense, there­fore, and in a mo­ral one, peo­ple seem to be the prob­lem.

On the prac­ti­cal level, some sci­en­tists have ar­gued that con­trol­ling hu­man pop­u­la­tion is key to slow­ing cli­mate change. A 2010 ar­ti­cle in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences cal­cu­lated, for in­stance, that “slow­ing pop­u­la­tion growth could pro­vide 16-29% of the emis­sions re­duc­tions sug­gested to be nec­es­sary by 2050 to avoid dan­ger­ous cli­mate change.” A rad­i­cal shift in pro­duc­tion meth­ods and con­sump­tion habits could pre­sum­ably have the same ef­fect. But tai­lor­ing pro­duc­tion to pro­vide for a sus­tain­able fu­ture isn’t some­thing most cor­po­ra­tions seem en­thu­si­as­tic about, and cut­ting con­sump­tion is, in our cul­ture, also a steep ask. Laws could help. But politi­cians seem even less in­ter­ested in pro­tect­ing our shared fu­ture than their mas­ters in in­dus­try. Our con­di­tion isn’t al­to­gether hope­less. But it can feel fu­tile.

Which raises a ques­tion that, while grim and dis­turb­ing, has come to me in wor­ried mur­murs again and again as cli­mate pre­dic­tions con­tinue to worsen. Why have chil­dren at all, when the fu­ture seems so dire? Even if one as­sumes that hav­ing a child won’t con­trib­ute to the prob­lem — that our prog­eny will take se­ri­ously the creep­ing catas­tro­phe their par­ents didn’t — it still seems likely that to­day’s youths will be faced with a world vastly and un­pre­dictably al­tered. Why put them through it? Ev­ery child is born to risk. One might ar­gue that all par­ents know they are de­liv­er­ing their chil­dren from the blank con­stancy of nonex­is­tence into a world that is cer­tain only to change, and that it’s im­pos­si­ble to be sure of any­thing ex­cept that life is not per­ma­nent and is prone to rad­i­cal, sud­den rev­o­lu­tions. This is true, if a bit more de­ter­mined, in the case of cli­mate change. Bring­ing a child into a world star­ing down the throat of its own deadly ex­cesses is both as rea­son­able and ir­ra­tional as hav­ing a child in any other fright­en­ing epoch, and there have been many.

But there’s more to it than that. It also ap­pears to me that a cer­tain dis­re­spect for hu­man life is how we ar­rived in the cli­mac­tic fix we’re in now. Gov­ern­ments and cor­po­ra­tions have, for too long, prized the li­cense and lu­cre of a hand­ful of peo­ple over the well-be­ing of the vast ma­jor­ity of the planet’s in­hab­i­tants, who are suf­fer­ing thanks to their reck­less­ness. Hold­ing those ac­tors ac­count­able will re­quire an enor­mous amount of po­lit­i­cal will, but also a recog­ni­tion that the cul­prits of cli­mate change are not pro- but anti-hu­man­ity, and that it’s their ethos that in­clines to ni­hilism, de­s­pair and death. Chil­dren are a clear state­ment of hope, a de­mand that we claim ac­count­abil­ity for the fu­ture. They are a re­jec­tion of cava­lier dis­re­gard for the planet we share.

Af­ter the Fall, in a wounded world, Adam and Eve still had chil­dren be­cause life is good. This is ul­ti­mately the great­est im­per­a­tive for halt­ing cli­mate change, and for bear­ing chil­dren, for the par­ents who want to do it: Life is good. Life it­self is good.

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