In an uncertain global future, is it ethical to have children?

A spiraling pandemic and impending climate crisis prompt a broody reader with an ethical dilemma.

Illustration by Emma Peer

Q: I always thought I would have children, although I wasn’t in a hurry when I was younger. Now I’m in my early 30s and the time seems right in many ways. I’ve been getting those pangs of desire to bring a new life into the world, but when I think about the climate crisis and state of the planet it stops me from wanting to go for it. I’m terrified when I think about how things could be by the time any children I have reach adulthood, unless things change radically. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought that feeling of impending collapse even closer. Should I just get a dog and focus on looking after other people’s kids?

Broody in Toronto

A: Every push notification, every search-engine-optimized headline, every ‘Did you hear…?’ uttered by a friend offers variations of the same fact: things are bad. Really bad. This is no longer the subjective opinion of doomsayers. It’s a robustly verified fact. We are running out of time to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change, a fragile world economy is about to experience a depression, thousands are suffering from both the novel coronavirus and the side effects of lockdown. To add to the misery, later this year, the most powerful job in the world is either going to be held onto by a white supremacist reality TV star or given to a barely sentient sleepwalker.

It is unsurprising that you’re having second thoughts about whether you should introduce new players to this farce. The philosophy of ‘anti-natalism’ isn’t new. As the writer Tom Whyman has noted, there were medieval Christian sects who believed the world was created by Satan and so denounced reproduction as sin, while the philosopher David Benator and others have argued that creating a new subject who will necessarily experience suffering is a selfish act. Not in a long while, as you point out, has there been such an anxious consensus that we do not know what the world is going to look like in 20 years. Youth without a future is no youth at all.

But anti-natalism depends on the glum fatalism that things can never get better. It is possible that a mobilization of progressive social and political forces during this crisis will force elites to implement, as they did after World War Two, a more equitable world order. Think that protest achieves nothing? I find it hard to believe that President Macron of France would have been so quick to nationalize the labour market and protect workers’ incomes when the pandemic struck had the gilets jaunes not been holding his feet to the fire for two years.

There’s a philosophical point here too. I started answering your letter expounding on how the world is bad. This might seem depressing, but it also marks a profoundly human note of hope. The animal world reproduces itself blindly, but the human deliberates. Why? Because we know that things could be otherwise and we try to make them so. The very fact that you are able to see that we are sorely lacking in environmental, social and political justice is, as John Berger puts it, ‘a historical achievement’. ‘The world is not intolerable,’ he writes, ‘until the possibility of transforming it exists but is denied.’ Every new child is an argument for that possibility.

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