I don’t mean you and me. I mean in general. At this particular moment.
Last week, I walked past a man with a loudspeaker in Liverpool Street. He was saying ‘please don’t reproduce’ to the passers-by. ‘There are already too many humans on the planet. Please stop having children.’
He’s not the only one taking this stand.
There’s a new movement, connected to laugh-a-minute funsters Extinction Rebellion, called BirthStrike.
Its manifesto reads: ‘We, the undersigned, declare our decision not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face if this existential threat.’
For the last two centuries, our ruling religion has been belief in the future, faith that things will get better, our children will live in a better world, because of advances in science and culture.
That religion is pretty much finished.
Instead, we daily read reports like this one from an Australian think-tank or this one from Jared Diamond, suggesting the collapse of civilization is likely by 2050, unless there is a World War Two-style rapid mobilization to de-carbon our economy.
Let’s face it. We are a long way from that. The west is embracing little big-men like Trump and Farage, Brazil’s little big-man Bolsonaro has speeded up deforestation of the Amazon, India’s little big-man Modi does nothing, China’s little big-man Xi does nothing.
Given the coming cluster-f***, should we have kids?
There are two issues here, maybe three.
The first is not having kids to cut down on your emissions. It’s true that not having children does far more to reduce your emissions than anything else you can do — more than if you gave up flying and went vegan.
That should make you feel morally superior to all your friends who have children.
But it’s not really a good way to save the planet. The only thing that will do that now is global policy change.
Your kid won’t make a difference to that…or maybe they will! Look at how young activists like Greta Thunberg are changing the global conversation.
The second issue is not having kids because it’s not fair to bring them into a collapsing civilization. And (third consideration) perhaps it will only increase the pain for you as well.
This is a tricky one.
Life has always been rough. If you were born at any other time in history, the likelihood would be you’d die in the first year of your life, or you’d die before you were 35, from disease or violence.
This is an absurdly lucky time to be alive, in terms of our life prospects and life opportunities. Absurdly lucky.
What’s tricky about our situation is we have a good idea that things are going to get a lot harder in 10, 20, 30 years.
But we don’t quite know how hard it will get. Like…Thirty Years War hard? Mad Max hard?
This is an unprecedented situation. I can’t think of another civilization which has known there is a good chance it might suddenly collapse in 20–30 years. Other eras have faced sudden plagues, or sudden wars, which would kill millions and then pass. But they arose unpredictably, passed after a few years, then the smoke cleared and everyone shagged.
This predictable future catastrophe is a real boner-killer.
Should we have kids? Or just get a dog. Dogs only live a decade or so, they’re always happy, and they have no idea of the future.
I don’t really know, to be honest.
But I think, if the opportunity arose, I would have children.
I can’t give up on the future. I can’t check out of the next 30 years, move to a mountain hut, and curl up in a ball.
I think humans will come through this death, and be re-born into a deeper reality.
And I want my children to have the chance to play a role in that.
Do you know humans almost died out once before?
It was in 70,000BC. A volcano in Sumatra called Toba went off, and blew 650 miles of vaporized rock into the air.
The sun was dimmed for six years, the ecosystem collapsed, and most humans died.
DNA studies suggest that perhaps as few as 40 humans survived.
But we did survive.
I’m not sure that is a massive aphrodisiac for you as you consider starting a family.
Your kid could be one of the 40 survivors!
Let me try a different tack. I am reminded of the quote by Martin Luther.
‘If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today!’.
I have no idea what he meant, but it’s a good quote for our situation.
Buddhists — and all the other religions in fact — believe that what we do matters. It matters right up to the moment we die, and beyond.
It matters whether the economy is booming, or the world is collapsing.
We live in a moment where there is going to be a lot of suffering. It was ever thus. We live in a hospital full of the terribly sick and disturbed. And the ward is about to get crammed.
What we do matters. We can work in this hospital for the suffering beings around us, and do what we can to help them. We can make an enormous difference — not perhaps to the global situation, but to the lives around us.
Buddhism — and all the other religions — tell us that the good that we do matters, for us and for all beings, even at the supposed end of the world.
That gives me a sense of purpose, stronger than the failed ‘religion of tomorrow’ ever could.
It may be that, if you don’t have children, you are able to really help in that hospital. Perhaps go to some of the places on the planet where suffering will be most intense in the next 20 years. Work in the refugee cities that are going to rise up.
We are going to need warriors of compassion like never before. If you have children, try to make them strong, brave, and open-hearted. They will live in a moment where they can do a lot of good. Perhaps they will even help construct a new civilization.