The national birth rate, long in decline, reached an all-time low this year. Different theories have been floated to explain the trend, but none have been more revealing than the answers young people give themselves. In a 2018 New York Times survey of Americans aged twenty to 45, only 42 percent of respondents said they wanted children. According to an international report released this May, just 39 percent of millennials listed having kids as one of their life ambitions, in last place behind traveling the world, getting rich, buying a home and making a “positive impact.”
Meanwhile, in the past few years several organizations—part advocacy network, part support group—have formed to promote voluntary childlessness as an appropriate response to climate change. For all the media coverage they’ve managed to attract, their numbers are still quite small: one of the most visible such groups, the activist collective BirthStrike, counts just over four hundred members worldwide. The broad interest in the question they are raising, however, is supported by the trend pieces published almost weekly on the issue, often with titles like “We Need to Talk about the Ethics of Having Children in a Warming World” (Vox) and “Want to Fight Climate Change? Have Fewer Children” (the Guardian). Last February, the ever-attuned millennial politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it succinctly to her 2.5 million Instagram followers: “There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?”
It’s reasonable to wonder whether it’s fair to bring children into a deteriorating world, and yet it’s nevertheless hard to shake the suspicion that, for many of the people inveighing against the morality of child-rearing, the prospect of a life without children appears to be less a sacrifice than a relief. For a generation that came of age during the financial crisis and now faces unprecedented levels of student debt and the threat of ongoing job-market disruption, financial insecurity may play a part in their reluctance. But neither money nor climate change were main factors in the Times survey. Rather, the most common reason cited for not having children was wanting “leisure time.” Second most common: “haven’t found a partner.”
For most of human history, having children was only barely a choice. Childlessness was understood not as an option to consider but a terrible misfortune, or an extraordinary sacrifice. It made no difference that you might die in childbirth, might not be able to provide for your family, that they might suffer, that you might lose them. But why is that? It is undeniable that offspring performed various political, socioeconomic and religious functions in people’s lives. Yet it also seems that people’s desire for children, for bringing forth new life in one’s image, could never be fully reduced to any such explanation or aggregate thereof. That at some point in life one would start a family, have children of one’s own, was as inevitable as growing older. That one would bring forth life was just about as certain as death. It was not simply that children used to be a biological or economic or political necessity; as far as most people were concerned, they were a necessary part of a life well lived.
Now that children are something we can freely choose, it is all the more important that we try to understand the reasons behind our ambivalence. Are we hesitant to bring new life into the world because we are more morally upright than previous generations, or because we are more selfish? One thing seems relatively clear: our caution reveals something more than concern for the next generation. It seems to point, above all, to an anxiety about those who are already here and to whom we already feel responsible: ourselves.
The suspicion that the world is so ugly that bringing children into it is irresponsible and cruel is nothing new. Already in Aristotle, we find a reference to Silenus’s so-called “wisdom” that life is so miserable it would be best not to have been born at all. More recently, the twentieth century saw its own share of variations on the theme. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the addled veteran Septimus Smith sees in Shakespeare nothing but “loathing, hatred” and “despair” as far as human life is concerned, concluding, “One cannot bring children into a world like this. One cannot perpetuate suffering.” Fifty years later, Philip Larkin deadpanned in his famously caustic poem on family:
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
For all that, one senses something is different this time around. No longer just material for misanthropic poets and war-weary novelists, childlessness is now the theme of charismatic politicians and the concern of ordinary people. And easy as it is to satirize a generation now entering their thirties who—for the sake of the phantom children of the future—would choose to continue their lives uninterrupted over starting families of their own, you’ve got to admit the moralizers have a point. There’s certainly plenty to worry about.
“It is, I promise, worse than you think,” David Wallace-Wells writes in the opening salvo of The Uninhabitable Earth. “If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today.” Over the course of his comprehensively researched account, Wallace-Wells lists out the biblical horrors that may be visited upon mankind in the coming centuries, and many as soon as this decade, if we continue on our current fossil-fuel-burning trajectory. But it is even grimmer than that: considerable levels of environmental degradation, of a sort that will have profound implications on our politics, economy and culture, are already more or less inevitable; as for the rest, Wallace-Wells’s analysis makes painfully clear that the sort of rapid collective action (World War II-scale global mobilization, according to the IPCC) necessary to prevent catastrophic warming is exceedingly difficult to execute and therefore highly unlikely.
For all the excitement about the rise in activism and consciousness about climate change, we are still very far from reaching the baseline of public interest and political engagement required to conceivably undergird such a massive effort. This doesn’t mean we should give up: every incremental change—every decimal point of a degree—makes a difference, so although we are all but guaranteed to cross the disaster threshold (two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels), we should do everything in our power to stymie further increase. But it does mean that in all foreseeable likelihood things are going to get significantly worse.
Research, it should be said, suggests that a global decrease in the birth rate on its own will not help much with the climate—surely not in our or even our children’s lifetimes. 1 This doesn’t make worrying about bringing children into a disintegrating world senseless. After all, lower birth rates could decrease the amount of suffering that climate disaster will bring about, simply by downsizing the population of those condemned to suffer. At the very least, it could reduce our own responsibility for their predicament (though it’s unlikely those bearing the brunt of the effects of global warming will be the children of American environmentalists). It seems we have good reasons, then, to welcome a reduction in the birth rate, and so to cheer on voluntary barrenness whatever its motivations. Life is what got us into this trouble to begin with; who needs more of it?
That we can even ask such a question suggests that having kids is no longer, as it was for previous generations, a necessary part of the good life. But it reveals something more besides: that as we deprive the earth of its capacities to sustain life, we are losing our own ability to see the point in it. Increasingly, we do not live as if life is worthwhile in itself—as if in the face of pain, disappointment and no credible promise of progress, the struggles it involves and the choices they demand are meaningful.
Some philosophers say that to ask “why be good?” is to betray a fundamental misunderstanding. If there is such a thing as doing the right thing—not right relative to some other goal, in the way that taking out the trash is the right thing to do in order to get rid of that smell in the kitchen, but right absolutely, in the way that keeping a friend’s confidence or standing up to injustice is the right thing to do—it’s the sort of thing one does for its own sake. To ask why one should do that which is obviously the right thing to do, to demand a further reason for it, is to admit that one no longer comprehends the possibility of such a thing as the right thing to do—one cannot tell right from wrong at all. To ask “why have children?” may not be so different. What, after all, is one asking for? A list of benefits?
The choice between the climate-moralizers and the leisure-maximizers, for all their apparent differences, is a false one. At heart they are the same: young people for whom child-rearing, once the expected outcome of adulthood, has become one possible project among many. Weighing the pros and cons, neither group can find a good enough reason to go through with it, and plenty of reasons to avoid it altogether. Even for many of us who want kids, starting a family is something we think we’ll get to eventually, once we’ve checked off enough of our personal and professional to-dos: education, a fulfilling and well-paid job, a few key professional accomplishments, an active social life, meeting “the right person,” adopting a rescue dog as a trial in co-parenting, terminating analysis. The interesting thing is not that there are fewer reasons to have children now than there were before—there has never been a shortage of reasons why it would be better not to—but that we’re asking why in the first place. The evident differences in the negative responses reflect mere variations in personal priorities.
In the best exemplar of childbearing-ambivalence literature published over the last decade, the narrator of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood asks whether she should have children, undertaking her novel with the explicit goal of making up her mind. She tries various strategies: throwing dice, asking friends with children, asking friends without them, reading about children, writing the book. She expects she’ll come out of it with some kind of answer. But a decision delayed long enough makes itself. By the end, she realizes that by writing the book and not making the decision she’s made the choice after all. In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath analogized the process of choosing between possible futures—motherhood, writing, traveling, a career—to an Edenic dilemma of picking fruit from a tree: “I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
How to affirm life in the face of suffering, sacrifice and likely failure may have the structure of a question, but, like the apparent questions of who we are and what we are here for, it is far from obvious that what we are meant to do with it is to search for an answer, let alone settle on one. To affirm life is not to give a theoretical justification of life, to acknowledge its merits and counter the charges of its detractors. To affirm life is to live, and to do so in a certain way: committing to projects and relationships, assuming responsibility, allowing things to matter to you. Bringing a child into the world is not the only way to affirm life—Heti’s narrator, for one, chooses art—but it is the most basic. This is not only because bringing forth and nurturing life is the most literal way of affirming it, but because parenting is the greatest responsibility a human can bear toward another.
This is no ordinary form of responsibility: life is neither a gift one gives nor a duty one burdens another with. This is why we have no more reason to fear that our kids will demand an explanation for why we brought them into the world than we are in the habit of demanding such justification from our parents. The question they will be justified in asking us is not why we gave them life, but why we didn’t do more to care for the only world they have to live in—and why we didn’t lead a better life ourselves.
Art credit: Laurent Chehere, Muriel Guepin Gallery