Is this the right question to ask?
At this very moment, as I am typing these words, the population of planet Earth is 7,870,790,354. However, as the number of births per minute is an average of 250, by the time you read my article, the global demographic stats will be different. (Here you can see the data of births and deaths second by second.)
Overpopulation combined with our ever-growing greed leads to a future filled with sufferings. And it is the children of today who will have to bear the inconceivable consequences of our reckless decisions. So what can we do?
Before we dive into this tough topic, let’s make something clear:
"Earth will outlive you no matter what. Don’t worry about Earth, worry about your own a**, and that of other animals, flora and fauna…”
That is what popular astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson thinks about all the desperate cries to “save Earth.” So, because our planet will outlast all extinctions, the right approach would be: “save the life on Earth”.
Having a child is a huge responsibility…
…as well as an indescribable feeling of fulfillment. In the developed world today, there is a growing number of women and couples who voluntarily choose not to have children. Reasons behind these decisions vary a lot, as is often the case where people take on a child for their own interest, for example, they expect the child to save their marriage.
So if we believe it is morally unacceptable to take on a child for selfish purposes, we also have to contemplate the following question: Is it right not to have a potential child out of selfish interest? When I asked about his opinion, physicist and head of Hungarian Atheist Association, Tamás Waldmann pointed out that from a humanistic perspective a child is an independent person, therefore we need to consider whether we can ensure a good life for the child to be born, preferably with as little suffering as possible.
“The easiest way would be to ask the person at the end of his life if he is happy to have been born, or whether his happiness was commensurate with the suffering he had to endure. Unfortunately, this is not possible, and even if it was, the situation would be unchanged in retrospect. This is the main dilemma of our moral decisions: we are usually unable to previse the consequences of our actions. Since we do not foresee the fate of the child we want, we do not know whether he himself, as a human being, would have chosen life if we had asked. Nor do we know in advance whether he will be a useful member of society or he will simply be a happy person who can truly love and be loved. All we can do is hope that most people want to live and they do not want to throw away their lives. Even if not everyone is a good person, in an open, enlightened, humanistic society generations are less and less passing on to each other destroying habits, hatred and aggression they receive from their parents. We might as well say that fewer and fewer children will be daddy’s screwed up life,” Waldmann told me.
We have a long way to go. But where and how?
If we follow the reasoning of Harvard optimist Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and The Violence Paradox, the world has indeed become a better place over time — despite all the rumours to the contrary and the negative influx of news from the media.
Pinker proved that the likelihood of one dying in a war or by other forms of violent acts has been dropping ever since. People live healthier and happier lives, more and more children are being vaccinated, and on a global average, girls are becoming less and less left behind when it comes to education. Of course, there are still plenty of areas to improve as well as social groups that live in inhumane conditions, but overall, humanity is making great strides forward. According to Hans Rosling, the situation is still bad, but less and less bad.
Another pretty good news is that the average life expectancy of mammal species is 2 million years, and since we’ve been around for a couple of hundred thousand years in our current anatomical form, we have a long way to go. The question is: in which direction are we headed regarding moral values? “I still worry that this primal brain of ours will segregate us all by some arbitrary factor and thereby justify doing harm to other groups,” Neil deGrasse Tyson confessed in a StarTalk episode. Needless to say, our future depends on our actions. Actions that are influenced by personal beliefs, values and will.
Uncertainty is not a new phenomenon
“I, too, went through a mental crisis caused by helplessness, resignation and anger because I was convinced that giving life to a baby determines his lifelong unhappiness in the first place. Until I realized I must not let fear rule my life. It is important to see that men have always lived in uncertainty, so from this angle, having a child has always been irresponsible. But from the perspective of primal instincts there is no such thing as moral or immoral,” explains mental health specialist and climate ambassador Anita Keresztes-Bolla.
"Today, with the help of scientific method, we can predict more things more accurately which makes our lives much easier than ever, but it can also result in overwhelming fear and anxiety."
“Our ancestors’ relationship to nature was based on blind trust, respect and faith. They knew that nature had the greatest power and they had everyday coping strategies for adaptation. Compared to that, our thinking is too linear, finite, and we have drifted far from the everyday experience of the cycle of life and death. The comfortable urban lifestyle and the institutionalization of our living areas have alienated us from our natural ability to cope with difficulties. No wonder that in the age of the most complex climate change ever, civilized people feel so desperate and helpless,” she says. By the way, chaos theory might sound quite scary, too, but it does not exclude the possibility of positive tipping points in global warming.
When I asked her about the idea of colonizing other planets, Keresztes-Bolla noted that it is not the most constructive attitude, moreover, “this vision can encourage humanity to develop an extremely negative approach. Thinking that we do not have to worry about our destructive actions and lifestyle anymore since we can simply leave this mess behind and start a new chapter on another planet, is what I would call utterly and totally irresponsible”. The solution, she believes lies in improving our mental health and building self-sufficient ecosystems. “At least this should be the first step towards global sustainability.”
Threats and facts
If you’ve ever read books like The Uninhabitable Earth by David-Wallace Wells, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, Drawdown by Paul Hawken or How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates, then I guess it is totally okay to experience so-called future anxiety (perhaps some guilt as well) to some extent, and at the same time, remain hopeful. In order to take steps for a better future, it is unavoidable to be aware of all the factors that play a role in those devastating visions pictured by climate experts.
Severe storms, floods, droughts, epidemics, mass migrations caused by desertification and rising sea levels— the dangers are not only real but increasing constantly due to insane levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So giving life to another human being who will be responsible for emitting thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide during his lifetime, and thus worsen the impacts of global warming, is not a good idea. This is what more and more people in prosperous countries believe.
It is clear that the lowest population growth rate (or even decline) is in the wealthiest, highest energy-consuming and most carbon-intensive countries, whereas the growth rate is the highest in the poorest countries, especially in Africa.
“Economic well-being, education and the emancipation of women are the most effective means of preventing population growth, but there is a culprit here: succeeding in the catching-up strategy of developing countries comes at a price: larger emissions of greenhouse gases. So unless we shift to using only renewable energy sources in all industries possible, people having fewer children in poor countries seems to be exacerbating global warming,” Waldmann added.
Disconnecting entirely from fossil fuels is a frighteningly major task that should be made relatively soon — as stated by many scientists, before 2040. Yes, there is a lot to be done individually, locally and globally, but as long as we have solutions, we must keep working on repairing what we screwed up. Here are some of the most effective ways of limiting carbon emissions according to Project
reduced food waste
health and education
tropical forest restoration
onshore wind turbines
utility-scale solar photovoltaics
improved clean cookstoves
distributed solar photovoltaics
peatland protection and rewetting
tree plantations (on degraded land)
temperate forest restoration
concentrated solar power
Come hell and high water
What about the prospects and well-being of our children and grandchildren?
“There have been much more terrible disasters in the history of mankind than the ongoing and upcoming ones: a wide variety of epidemics, the Mongol invasions, the Plague, genocides, world wars, but humankind stood up after each one of them. And most of those who survived, did not say that I wish I had not been born! or that My life was not worth living. I believe that if we leave the dark shadows of the past behind, if we learn living in peace and harmony with each other, we can come to an age where, regardless of climate crisis, no one has to debate about sacrificing an individual’s life to lessen the number of environmental footprints,” said Waldmann.
“On the other hand,” he continued, “since the desire for survival and discovery is written in our genes, I assume that the adventures of mankind will still last for a good while. Especially if we can grow up for today’s challenges and get better at long-term thinking. For that, more and more healthy, happy and curious minds are needed. People who think independently, dare to ask deep questions about life and have the freedom to make their own decisions without fearing the consequences.”
Preventing further deterioration is not inevitable — it is a matter of choice
From plummeting fertility rates and the possibility of adopting orphans through the potentials of advancing science and technology to philosopher Leonardo Caffo’s concept of “the contemporary post-human”, there are plenty of aspects we could take into consideration when it comes to the future of next generations. But the real debate here is not about whether to have or not to have children. It is about developing good habits in our lives that will help our descendants cope with all the issues of global warming. It is about setting good examples and encouraging others around us to act right now. If more and more people do so, there is a bigger chance that the leaders of our world make changes due to our expectations — for every living creature’s sake, and for a brighter future of mankind.
In case you are wondering about my own situation: no, I do not have children, and I do not feel called to be a parent yet— despite some gynecologists and other acquaintances’ polite comments about my biological age. I really appreciate (no!) your worries guys, and I promise that you will be the first ones (nope) I let know once I change my mind…
For now, I am over the moon to become an aunt in a couple of weeks and am gladly doing my part to make sure that my beloved niece will have the best life I can imagine for her.
Mentálhigiénés szakember, művészetterápiás coach, női mentor, párkapcsolati tanácsadó, klímanagykövet
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