It is a good thing, we are increasingly told, to not have children. Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, have graciously announced that they will be limiting the number of new royals they spawn to two, in order to reduce their carbon footprint. This seems fair enough in their case, since the carbon footprint of an impossibly wealthy member of the British royal family, coddled in palaces and private jets, is likely to be very significant. But even we mere plebes ought to be considering this course of action as well. A 2017 study, for example, found that the greatest impact an individual can have in reducing their carbon footprint is to have one less child.
Naturally, philosophical ethicists have taken this suggestion and run with it. Earlier this year, a special issue of the journal Essays in Philosophy on the ethics of procreation included articles arguing that we have a moral duty to reduce our family size in the face of climate change; even going so far as to suggest that anyone financially capable of supporting a child has a moral obligation to abort them.
If this is indeed the case, then perhaps I am an ethical monster — I became a father just over a month ago. I love my son, but would the human species have been better served by his never coming to exist? And what about my son himself? The problem we must confront is not just that his merely existing in the world is making it worse. It is that it is making it worse in ways he will be forced to live through. Who would do this to another human being? Produce someone they love, and then force them to exist through what may very well be the apocalypse (or, at any rate, the collapse of civilization as we know it)?
How can we accurately gauge the carbon emissions of future generations?
If I’m the monster, then the heroes — presumably — are the BirthStrikers. Founded in late 2018 by London-based climate activist and musician Blythe Pepino, BirthStrike invites members (numbering around 140 as of this spring) to declare their decision “not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face if (sic) this existential threat.” For Pepino, the point of BirthStrike is “not to discourage people from having children, or to condemn those who have them already, but to communicate the urgency of the crisis.” Their action is a “radical acknowledgement” that looming climate disaster means that we need to “(alter) the way we imagine our future.” This, Pepino claims, is “in a sense a very hopeful act. We’re not just making this decision, hiding it and giving it up. We’re politicizing that decision — and hoping that will give us the chance to change our minds.”
Thus, for Pepino and her fellow BirthStrikers, the decision not to have children is not just an independently good thing — it also constitutes an act of resistance. From interviews with Pepino, I’m not wholly sure if she means the idea of a “strike” here to be understood literally — a withdrawal, that is, of gestational labor, in order to exert pressure on the powers-that-be; to force them to capitulate to the environmental movement’s demands. But it certainly seems plausible that it might be. The political right, in particular, actively wants women to have more babies, as long as they are middle-class and white. This helps explain why it wants to restrict access to abortion; why in Poland the ruling hard-right Law and Justice party offers generous child benefit as an incentive for mothers to have more children.
A BirthStrike, then, is on one level a rejection of what the queer theorist Lee Edelman named in his 2004 book No Future as “reproductive futurism”: the ideology which casts the figure of “The Child” as “the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention” — what the Helen Lovejoys of this world just want “someone to please think of.” According to Edelman, reproductive futurism imposes an “ideological limit” on political discourse, preserving “the absolute privilege of heteronormativity” by making any political intervention somehow not in the interests of children morally unthinkable. Reproductive futurism is thus a way of disciplining people — not least against queerness. “There is a fascism in the baby's face,” he writes.
At one point in the book, Edelman relates seeing an anti-abortion advert and believing it to be aimed against him — a cis gay man. “The sign, after all, might as well have pronounced, and with the same absolute and invisible authority that testifies to the successfully accomplished work of ideological naturalization, the biblical mandate ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’” “Fuck the social order,” he writes, “and the Child in whose name we're collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net... fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.”
But Edelman’s argument misses something important. As Maggie Nelson puts this when discussing Edelman in her memoir of queer parenthood, The Argonauts: “Why bother fucking this Child when we could be fucking the specific forces that mobilize and crouch behind its image?” At one point in No Future, Edelman cites the example of Bernard Law, the former Cardinal of Boston, who in 1996 opposed legislation that would give health care benefits to the same-sex partners of municipal employees:
“He did so by proclaiming... that bestowing such access to health care would profoundly diminish the marital bond. ‘Society,’ he opined, ‘has a special interest in the protection, care and upbringing of children. Because marriage remains the principal, and the best, framework for the nurture, education and socialization of children, the state has a special interest in marriage.’”
Seven years later, Law was forced to resign over his failure to protect Catholic children from pedophile priests. He is an awful, bigoted hypocrite — but Edelman does not draw what seems like the most natural conclusion from this, namely that powerful men like Law, and the institutions they represent, have no real interest in the well-being of children at all; that they just want to use The Child as a sort of front.
The dominant social order only wants children insofar as it is concerned with its legacy; what it wants is to carry on the existing order of things. And this is why I don’t think the “resistance” of the BirthStrikers really makes much sense, in the face of climate disaster, a surfeit of actually existing children is in fact more of a threat to global capitalism’s ongoing hegemony than their scarcity.
Every new human being exists, in part, to carry on the human species — but they also act transformatively within the world.
Hannah Arendt used the term “natality” to refer to “the new beginning inherent in birth.” For Arendt, natality helps characterize all human life. “Labor and work, as well as action, are also rooted in natality in so far as they have the task to provide and preserve the world for, to foresee and reckon with, the constant influx of newcomers who are born into the world as strangers.” And this in a way is quite different to what the right want to get out of “reproductive futurism,” since for Arendt, the task to “preserve” the world goes precisely alongside the transformative “influx” of new children. The birth of the new threatens the logic of the present state of things, the denialist capitalism that would leave climate change unbounded would prefer the whole thing destroyed than yield to this; Saturn eating his children.
Democracies in the developed world remain defined by the baby boom, which has given people now in their ’60s,’70s, and ’80s an immense demographic weight. In an increasingly atomized world, in which individuals are discouraged from pursuing the collective interest over what happens to benefit them personally, this is one big reason why it might often make sense, from an electioneering perspective, for politicians to side with the forces of death against life.
For the world to improve, the number of people with an active interest in resisting the present state of things — the number of people who cannot afford to wallow selfishly in nihilism or complacency — must be increased. The youth climate strikes, inspired by Greta Thunberg, offer us an image of what this might end up bringing about, although of course they would need to become much more frequent; more comprehensive; more radical.
If we consider the child solely as an individual unit of consumption, an aspect of their parent's carbon footprint just as eating a steak or taking a flight might be, then yes, their existence could well be a bad thing; an irresponsible luxury in many cases, that the planet can ill-afford. But this is a really strange way to consider a human life. Every new human being exists, in part, to carry on the human species — but they also act transformatively within the world.
In the 2017 study I cited earlier, the carbon footprint of every new child was worked out by “totting up the emissions of the child and all their descendants, then dividing this total by the parent’s lifespan. Each parent was ascribed 50 percent of the child’s emissions, 25 percent of their grandchildren’s emissions and so on.” But how can we accurately gauge the carbon emissions of future generations? We might well be terrible — but why then should we assume that our awfulness is intractable, that our heirs can only hope to be just as bad? (Are we all just meant to end up like Jonathan Franzen, arguing in The New Yorker that maybe despairing over climate disaster wouldn't be such a bad thing?)
In stating the case for natality I’m not arguing that reproduction ought to be compulsory — there are plenty of good reasons why one might not feel they are suited to be a parent, either ever or not yet; and also plenty of reasons why someone might be more interested in adopting a child than having one of their own. Non-traditional family arrangements also seem like they are worth pursuing; in the Essays in Philosophy special issue, for example, one paper argues that multi-parent might raise children more sustainably — perhaps this would even lead to these children growing up to be more socially open and conscious adults. Involuntary childlessness, moreover, is a real source of pain: no one experiencing it needs arguments from philosophy that might make them feel even worse.
Over and above the act of reproduction, what seems important is that we stand with children, in whatever way we best can, rather than despair of their existence. Only through the new beginning, inherent in all new life, might we resist the overall tendency of society towards this life’s suffering and, ultimately, destruction. Parenting a child — whatever that might mean, or could mean, or come to mean — is a gamble: one stakes oneself in it, and also the world, and also one’s own child. But given how things are, this wager seems necessary if we are to hope to transform our world for the better.