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September 20, 2004

Attack of the zygotes

There are posts that you pretty much have to begin with a disclaimer, otherwise people will tune you right on out. I know for a fact that many of the people reading this won't do so, but in this particular case I really do want to reassure those of you who might feel, I don't know, offended, or defensive, that this post does not stem from some deep-seated mental antipathy, that this is a position I have thought through and arrived at almost reluctantly.

The disclaimer: I do, in fact, like children. I even like yours. In fact, I'm the kind of guy that is more than infrequently referred to as a "kid magnet." Put me in a circle of adults on a lawn, release a four-year-old boy at random, and soon I will have sneaker tread marks on my shoulders and grass in my hair, while the other adults are unmussed.

That said, I think you've all had enough of them already. I think it's time for a moratorium on making any more of them. Maybe for twenty years or so.

Yes, I know. Your child is the light of your life. Her mind is a marvel, his ability to hit a ball with a stick is unparallelled in the known universe. They have brought meaning to your life that you would not otherwise have had. I do get it. But at what cost? Witness the conscientious parent who meticulously carries cloth shopping bags to the grocery store each few days, carefully buys a vehicle that gets fifteen more miles per gallon of gasoline than the alternative, and shakes every drop of liquid from the aluminum cans before placing them in the recycling bin, and who loads three kids into that hybrid Civic, thereby undoing all his hard work to save the planet. All those incremental gains washed off the slate by those acts of procreation.

If there is in fact a fifth horseman of the ecological apocalypse, he is not riding an SUV. He's pushing a stroller.

This issue is taboo to a number of environmentalists. Ed Abbey, for example, had five kids – although you could argue that as he made them with four women, he was merely reproducing at replacement rate. A popular "ecological footprint" calculator - which tells you how much of the planet it takes to support your personal habits - not only ignores the issue of procreation, but actually penalizes those who don't have kids. Don't believe me? Take the test yourself, regardless of how many kids you have - and then take it again, adding five hypothetical kids to your answers. (Hint: it's in the "how many people live in your house?" section.)

"But, gosh," you may say, "it's not the children's fault that we live in a society that is predicated on environmental destruction." "Well, um, that's pretty much my point," I reply. Because if environmental destruction was a wholly voluntary activity, then all you'd have to do is prohibit your child from harming the planet, and viola! Problem solved, right?

But things are the way they are, and each new child necessarily represents damage to the planet. That damage can be mitigated, but the only way to prevent it is through a rather common technology known as contraception. We might someday reach a point where human numbers and lifestyles can exist with a thriving, diverse biosphere, and then each new child might be cause for unmitigated celebration - but rest assured that there will be a damn sight fewer such new children.

"But gosh," you may continue, "who will lead the future movement for ecological sanity if we stop having children?"

Good point, because all those children created in the last thirty years are doing such a bang-up job of fixing the world's problems.

"But gosh," etc., "raising children is one of the most rewarding things a person can do with his life! I just can't picture my life without children in it!"

Good for you! The world needs more teachers, and there are thousands of parentless children desperately in need of loving homes.

"B.G.", you continue, "I mean my own children!"

Your own? You can't love a kid unless he or she shares your genetic makeup? What kind of sicko DNA-fetishist are you?

"Hey, you enviro-Nazi," someone else continues, because you certainly wouldn't advance this argument, "it's called survival of the fittest, and those who reproduce survive. You want to be a Darwin-style loser, go right ahead, but you can have my reproductive organs when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers."

This is the funniest argument, because it essentially says that a human's life is measured by performance in an activity at which cockroaches excel. In any event, we've already won the breeding game: the world quivers beneath our feet. We have subdued her. There are so few big fierce animals left that when one of them eats one of us, it make the global news. We win. Can we play something else for a while? Bocce, maybe, or checkers?

Last in the objection parade comes the sober economist. "We need children," he says, "because our economy is based on an expanding consumer population. As our society ages and the old consume more of our social services, we need more young workers to create wealth that can be taxed to provide those services. Your agenda would bring about the collapse of our society as the engines of capital ground to a halt. We might even go extinct."

"Yeah, but there would probably be a downside," I reply.

Posted by Chris Clarke at September 20, 2004 03:49 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Well, I don't like crowds either. So I guess I can't say much.

Posted by: Robert at September 20, 2004 05:37 PM
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Posted by: the_bone at September 20, 2004 07:16 PM
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well it's certainly courageous of you to take on this controversial topic.
One of my kids is birthed, and one adopted, precisely because of overpopulation and the number of homeless/parentless kids.
you may ask, why didn't I adopt both? Dad wanted to birth one. Now, at this moment, I would claim that they are destined to be who and where they are. I concede most of your points, other than the one which says that it would be ok if only people who were too impoverished to use/understand birth control continued to have kids. I think that would be a problem, not because the rest of us couldn't love the kids, but because they might never get to sustenance level homes. I don't think that's a good longterm formula. But neither is the rate of births in all countries.

Posted by: susurra at September 20, 2004 10:24 PM
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Hot potato here.

(rushes to touch it...)

I fully understand not wanting children (not so difficult: I personally don't want kids), not least because they would be a drain on my money and my time and my emotions. I'm already happy, and I feel no sentimental need to complicate things. Thankfully, my partner agrees with me 100%. We're neither of us DNA-fetishists.

But not wanting them for *environmental reasons*? What the hell?

I suppose I haven't really met people who've felt this strongly about the environment. I should be honest and say that it discomfits me somewhat, that anyone feels so strongly about anything. You sound scarily religious in this piece, Chris, and though I would agree with you about many of the disadvantages of making new children, you seem to completely neglect that there is a powerful biological and cultural impulse at work, one that is not necessarily bad. The jibe about cockroaches was funny, but it doesn't controvert the fact that life excels at one thing, at that is the making of more life.

It is us, the willingly childless, who are unnatural.

Posted by: elck at September 21, 2004 06:32 AM
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Chris: you already know what I think about this. I just had a friend staying from the UK. He was talking about the efforts now underway in Britain to get people to procreate (by "people," here, they mean white, "British" people, not West Indians or even the swarming throngs of Eastern Europeans, now encouraged to enter the country because nobody else will clean the toilets). The problem is that the contributions to the social security system (there called National Insurance) will have collapsed by the time people now in their twenties will have reached retirement age, if not sooner. It's the same problem here, of course, but much more acute. Yet for the first time ever, the current couch-potato generation is predicted to die at a younger age than their parents. (They are also not procreating, though not through any great environmental zeal.)

Posted by: Pica at September 21, 2004 06:43 AM
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I concede most of your points, other than the one which says that it would be ok if only people who were too impoverished to use/understand birth control continued to have kids.

I'm not sure where I phased things so that you might get that impression, Susurra, because I wouldn't agree with that point either!

I suppose I haven't really met people who've felt this strongly about the environment.

You make rather an astonishing statement there, elck. You've really never met someone who has changed his or her life dramatically because of his or her politics or beliefs? Do you mind my asking where you live?

In any event, it's not about "natural" or "unnatural." Tsunamis are natural, and it's not wrong to try to avoid them. I don't hew to that dichotomy as particularly useful when discussing human behavior. We also have a natural tendency to want to commit acts of minor violence to people who annoy us - a time-old heritage from our ape forebears - and yet we manage mainly to neglect that powerful biological impulse while on the subway.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 21, 2004 06:49 AM
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Is there a confusion here, Chris?

I have never met anyone who felt as strongly about the environment as you do.

To answer your question (I don't mind your asking): I live in New York City, I've lived in London, Boston, Lagos, Vienna, Aberdeen, Berlin, Ann Arbor, and many small towns in between.

And, yes, my initial statement still holds. Why are you astonished? And why would you equate my statement with my never having known someone to change their life dramatically because of their politics?

I agree with you about "natural", but the point I was making was that environmentalists (in my, as we no know, very limited perspective) act to defend nature and the natural environment.

Posted by: elck at September 21, 2004 07:26 AM
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I'm 100% with Chris on this one, elck. Maybe it's because we grew up during the era when zero population growth was a major component of the environmental movement. The single most important factor affecting the earth's environment is that there are too many people here. The second most important factor is that the greatest consumption occurs in the most industrialized countries. Therefore, I think that people in these countries who have more children are actually contributing more to the consumption and demise of the environment than those in, say, India - not a popular opinion, or one often stated, to be sure. China, which is increasingly consumptive, does have a strict population-control policy. They know they have to.

As for me, our choice not to have children DOES have a great deal to do with our political and environmental beliefs. It's not only that, by a long shot, but the impact on the environment is a major factor for both J. and me. I've chosen to try to be a 'parent" and a teacher in other ways besides reproducing myself. And believe me, when you are 38 or 40 or 42 this is a very hard decision to stick to.

Posted by: beth at September 21, 2004 10:04 AM
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My intellect is agreeing with you, Chris, but emotionally this is too hot a topic for me at this point in my life, so I'll just stick with that. Good for you for daring to lay it out.

Posted by: Rana at September 21, 2004 10:22 AM
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Chris, I hope you don't find me belligerent.

But, for me, any moral stance must be resolutely local, even individual* (this requires a detailed explanantion that I won't get into here). Human culture is a fiercely woven thing, and so are genetically woven impulses.

For some people, "love" means having no children. But for some others, love means precisely the opposite. I can see the "facts" that you and Beth are presenting, but there are other facts out there, expressive facts, anthropological facts, that contraindicate childlessness. And those other facts are real and important too.

Humans are seeking happiness and/or bliss, and the needs of "future generations" is necessarily an abstract consideration for the vast majority of human beings. That is how it is. And, while so many now living suffer, I don't know that I'd necessarily have it different.

In other words, I feel no desire to propagate my DNA, but I don't think it would be right to impugn those who do.

Shall we disagree amicably?

Posted by: elck at September 21, 2004 10:43 AM
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Before somebody totally jumps on me, I'm not saying "it's wrong to have kids". For most of us, that's too far, too tough. I really admire people who have one child, and adopt the rest, for example. But when you don't have any, and people think it's because you're "selfish" - that's when I really get upset.

Posted by: beth at September 21, 2004 10:47 AM
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By the way, Chris, the last line of your rant is hilarious.

Posted by: elck at September 21, 2004 12:00 PM
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Hey! No jumping on Beth! My blog, my rules!

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 21, 2004 01:22 PM
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Selfish not to have kids? Good Lord. No, it's selfish to have them. Absolutely.

And I'm guilty as charged. Having kids was a completely selfish act. But if I were to made to choose among acts to undo, that is the very, very last act I'd choose.

I'm with you intellectually all the way, Chris, but for me, intellectual doesn't win on this one. In fact, it doesn't even compete. It doesn't make it into the ring. I can't say -- I've often wondered -- how much is cultural, and how much individual, and how much hard-wired, but I could no more have not had kids than I could not breathe. So I don't feel I can legitimately ask anyone else not to have kids. I'll happily try to dismantle any artificial/economic/culturally-determined incentives to having kids -- & it appals me that, in these days, people who don't want kids, or don't want more kids, get pressured into it, or fall into it because they don't have access to birth control. But I simply couldn't look someone with the kid-yearning in the face and say, "don't do it." Couldn't say it.

Posted by: dale at September 21, 2004 05:06 PM
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Not having children for environmental reasons I understand.

Having children for political reasons . . . now that is beyond me.

To wit:

The Fertility Gap?

Posted by: Siona at September 21, 2004 06:11 PM
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I'm not "jumping" - honest! - but I do beg to differ with Beth on her relative valuation of over-population vs. consumption. Though perhaps my thinking is based on a weak analogy with the white-tailed deer who are busy eating up the future of Penn's Woods. Just reintroduce wolves & cougars, put the fear of predation in them, and All Will Be Well. Similarly with humans: we need something to put a good old-fashioned Fear of Whoever into us again. ("The Fear of Whoever is the beginning of wisdom," as it sez - more or less - in the Good Book.) And like any American I long for the quick fix, especially if it smacks of righteous Just Desserts, such as endocrine disrupters and other man-made pollutants soon making human reproduction next to impossible. But I realize that's a long shot.

Otherwise I tend to side with Dale and Elck in this debate, sadly enough. But that was a killer last line, Chris!

Posted by: Dave at September 22, 2004 12:27 PM
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Actually I was sort of hoping somebody WOULD jump on that "theory" about overpopulation vs. consumption that I just tossed out there...surely there is stronger disagreement? Or even fact? By the way, I went through a period where I thought if I couldn't have kids, I'd die. It isn't merely a matter of intellectual argument, and I'm mroe than willing to concede that some of my justifications, looking from this side of the divide backwards, are just that: attempts at justifying and coping with something that has a very deep emotional side to it.

Posted by: beth at September 22, 2004 05:16 PM
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You know, I felt very strongly about zero population growth and it was not at all hard for me to choose to adopt one, and probably I would have been equally happy to adopt both. It was a conscious decision made after my choice to follow my heart to become a parent. I don't suppose I'm the norm but I never felt any need to be reproduced genetically, to look into the eyes of my genetic thread extending through generations. I'm pretty sure both my kids are going to equally "represent" my beliefs into the future. But having had a child, I can also attest to the amazing miracle I feel I was granted in the privilege of giving birth. It is one of the most clear affirmations in my mind of the existance of "god". But I never felt like I'd been denied something via adoption, and yet reading some of the blogs linked through this circle of women suffering infertility, I have to believe that for some the urge is tremendously important to their happiness, as Dale infers. I have had to hold myself back from commenting how wonderful an alternative adoption is. I don't think they'd appreciate it. So it's easy for me to say my beliefs weighed heavy enough to direct my reproductive choices, and it's also easy for me to see that for some others, that is not the case. It would be tempting to judge, but I'd be the first to claim a person's choices over their body are their own decisions and no other's.

So to ask a really charged question, if one of you that chose to abstain from childbearing accidentally got pregnant, what would you do?
I do not know what I would do. Honestly. I believe I'd be torn in two.

Posted by: susurra at September 22, 2004 11:34 PM
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Since you asked - there's no way I could have aborted a pregnancy after my marriage to J.; we love each other, we had the means to provide for a child; there would have been difficulty raising him or her well and it would have strained our relationship and changed our lives tremendously, both positively and negatively, I'm sure. None of this would have justified an abortion, in my mind or in that particular case - although I am fiercely pro-choice. Our decision not to have children was based much more on what we felt was our ability (or lack thereof) to do it well, than on political considerations. The latter alone wouldn't have been enough of a reason for me, especially since I would have been happy having only one child. I think if you have kids, you have to be willing to put them first and change your life so that they really are your top priority. For us, like for many couples, it was a question of balancing our marriage, our careers/creative lives, and a family. We felt we couldn't do all three well, and for us, I think this was the right decision - but the hardest one I ever made.

Posted by: beth at September 23, 2004 05:00 AM
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No disagreement here, Beth, about what the difference between 1st world and 3rd world consumption implies about the morality of having kids. Though that means, you realize, that adopting a poor child from (say) India and bringing him or her here is pretty nearly as damaging environmentally as having one of your own.

Posted by: dale at September 23, 2004 01:07 PM
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What i was trying to get at is that if the coice is between getting people from the industrialized North to have fewer children, and getting them to consume less, I don't see that the former is invariably an easier sell than the latter, as everyone here seems to be assuming. I get by on a few thousand dollars a year without too much problem. Of course, it helps to be fairly easily amused & to have an active imagination - and access to the internet & lots of books! But one doesn't really NEED to own most consumer goods. If I had a kid, I'd raise him/her the same way i was raised - no TV, clothes from the Dollar Store and Goodwill, homeschooling, etc. The informal economy is a big part of the picture, of course: networks of friends and relatives, access to game, wild foods, big gardens, etc. It can be done.

Posted by: Dave at September 23, 2004 05:23 PM
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I couldn't agree with you more, Dave. My childhood wasn't that spare, but the basic values were the same, and we did very well at amusing ourselves. I made most of my clothes; read a lot; my father and grandfather made furniture and knew how to fix just about anything; J. is good at that too. It can certainly be done. But people don't want to. I don't think either option is a viable "sell"; the only way either would fly is if it had a serious financial downside.

Posted by: beth at September 24, 2004 06:14 AM
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