Is it okay to have kids amidst ~~all this~~? Is it acceptable to bring a child into the world, if the world is on fire both literally and figuratively? What are the ethics of having babies given climate change? Should I, personally, have a kid? This question has become more and more common, and on today’s episode Rose talks to Meehan Crist, writer-in-residence in Biological Sciences at Columbia University. Meehan recently wrote an essay about these very questions, which you can read here.
And in the crystal ball coda, we consider babies, dinosaurs, fear and secrets. And if you can’t get enough of this question, check out last week’s episode of Flash Forward, about a global one-child policy, and what that might look like.
Advice For And From The Future is written, edited and performed by Rose Eveleth. The theme music is by Also, Also, Also. The logo is by Frank Okay. Additional music this episode provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Thanks to Sara Rivera and Kathy Randall Bryant for your thoughts on having children. To get even more, you can become a Flash Forward Presents Time Traveler for access to behind the scenes exclusive content, early access to new shows, and other surprises & goodies.
Rose: Oh hi, back again? Have another question, or quandary, about tomorrow? Well, you’ve come to the right place. This is Advice For And From The Future, where your friendly neighborhood futurologist, (that’s me) answers your questions from tomorrow, today.
As you might know, I make another show about the future. It’s called Flash Forward. You should listen to it! And over the years I’ve done a lot of public talks about the future, I’ve been on other podcasts, I’ve been on TV. And, just generally, made myself known as a person who tries to make the future accessible to normal people, like you. Because of that, I get a lot of emails. And a lot of those emails are full of questions. Do I think it’s possible that blank might happen? What about driverless cars? Will we ever get rid of cash? Are there clones walking among us?
But, by far, by far, the most common question I get, is this one:
Sarah: Hi, Rose. My name’s Sarah, and I’m a 24 year old college student. I’ve never wanted kids. I’ve never been attracted to the idea of it. And, I also really wonder whether that’s an internalized fear of climate change. I’ve always been aware of it, and the threat that climate change is having on the future, and how dire it looks. As a biology and ecology student, I’m getting more and more of that every day. And I wonder, a lot of the times, whether my aversion to kids is so that I don’t get my hopes up for wanting them, and then being disappointed when I don’t. And it’s just easier to avoid the thought of having them, and never really wanting them as a way to avoid those complicated questions of the future. Mostly because if I don’t have any stake in the future, then I can’t feel as sad about it. It’s kind of personal, and feels kind of selfish. But, I mean, as a biology student, and someone interested in that, I’m already seeing how much our planet is suffering, and it would be really hard to think about what it would be like in the future for my children.
And so it’s just easier to not really think about it.
Rose: The planet is burning. The future of humanity can sometimes feel … very bleak. Climate change is going to have huge, serious impacts all over the world. Is it okay to bring a kid into this? I get this question, a lot. Like, really a lot. And I understand it, but I also never know how to answer it. So to help me answer this question for people, I called my friend, Meehan Crist, the writer-in-residence in the Biological Sciences department at Columbia University, which, yes, is a real job, I swear. And I called Meehan because a few months ago she published this great, wide ranging essay on exactly this question: is it okay to have kids?
Rose [on the phone]t: Why did you write this piece? Like, what inspired you taking this question on?
Meehan Crist: Right. So, you know, one thing that inspired it was that I had a child. So, this is a thing that was on my mind. I’m a person who, you know, writes about and thinks about the climate crisis a lot. And so, when I was thinking about having a child, those things seemed, to me, intimately connected, and really hard to think about. And hard to think about, in part, because it seems like we don’t really have the language, as a society, yet to talk about how they’re connected, and how to think about, you know, bringing more humans onto a planet that is undergoing ecological collapse in various ways. And partly, I think we don’t have that language because there’s a problem of scale. You know, having a child is the most intimate, personal, private kind of decision that you can possibly make with really high stakes. And global ecological collapse is the biggest scale over which you feel like you have no control personally, and yet which is going to impact your life, and the life of your child. And so there’s this kind of — what I have seen is just a failure to be able to think both of these things at the same time. And so I wanted to write about it because I didn’t feel like I knew how to talk about it.
Rose: Yeah, maybe we can spell out some of the arguments that people make about why you should not have a child now, and kind of talk through some of them. Like, what are people saying in terms of, well, you shouldn’t have a kid because X?
Meehan: So I think there are three main trends in the arguments about why you shouldn’t have a child. And they’re all based in fear, really. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
You know, fear is a survival instinct, but it is also arguably a terrible place from which to be making major life decisions. So, you know, we’ll leave that wherever that can fit. But there seem to be three things.
One is out of fear for what it will do to the environment. Alternatively, you could also call that a certain kind of care. Not wanting to have a child out of care for the environment, or out of fear for what it would do to the environment. The second is, again, the sort of care/fear dichotomy of fear of what it would do to the child. Or, care for this unborn human that you don’t want to cause to suffer. And the third is really fear for/care for your own self, and feeling like you are not capable of, and don’t want to, bring into the world a human that you love, and then watch them suffer. And just people feel like, “I can’t do that, I can’t do that to myself.” All of which is sort of rooted in a real sense of fatalism about where we’re headed. But it is also acknowledging the reality that things are going to get worse. You know, we are not doing the things that we need to do to slow climate change. We are not decarbonizing the economy. We could. It’s entirely possible that we could. We could do all of these things. But so far, we’re not. And if you take our current trajectory seriously, do you want to bring a child into that kind of a trajectory?
Rose: So many people cite those statistics. OK, well, we know that, you know X, Y and Z actions, personal actions can actually make a difference. Not eating meat, you know, having an electric car, not having a baby. And those things are all listed as bullet points, as if they are equivalent choices to be making.
Meehan: Yeah. I just don’t think that having a baby is a consumer choice. And I think, culturally, it has come to be seen as a consumer choice, particularly because reproductive technologies make having a child — particularly in wealthy countries and for people for whom those technologies are available — make having a child seem like it is a choice, which is a very new historical development. Right? But seeing a child as a consumer choice or a lifestyle choice — like having a car, or like eating meat, or not eating meat — to me, seems just like a fundamental kind of category error that ignores the deep weirdness around the biological and psychological desires to have a child. And what those might be, and where they might come from. Including also, you know, the ways that people are socialized to want to have children, or not want to have children. That just doesn’t seem the same, to me, as eating a hamburger or not.
Rose: How much of this connects to, sort of, the desire for, and maybe the illusion of, control over the future, in the context of climate change? We want to be able to do something, and this seems like something that we can do?
Meehan: Right, yeah. I think that’s really meaningful because I think that individuals want to have actions that they can do that will make a real impact. You know, whatever “real” means in terms of carbon emissions, or changing the culture, or whatever. And I think there… I think there is a dangerous sense of the bigger the sacrifice, the better it is for the planet. And I’m not sure that that equation always actually works. And part of the reason that I don’t think it works is that the idea of personal sacrifice sort of comes to us from fossil fuel corporations. So, the idea of the personal carbon footprint was actually popularized by BP in a 2005 ad campaign, that was a multimillion dollar ad campaign. They put up carbon footprint calculators online, and these calculators have proliferated across the Internet. So, when you think about your personal carbon footprint, and the guilt that you feel about it, and the responsibility that you feel for making yourself smaller on this planet, and making your own impact smaller on this planet; when you think about the fact that that comes from fossil fuel companies that are interested in you making the changes, so that they don’t have to, so that they can continue to profit; I become less and less interested in discovering bigger ways that I can sacrifice, personally. I’ve become more interested in ways that we can ask the systems around us to change, and the ways that we can make fossil fuel companies more responsible for their actions, rather than putting the onus onto individuals. Which is not the same as saying that personal choice doesn’t matter. I think it does matter, and I think it matters because I think culture matters. There’s a term from social science called behavioral contagion, nd it looks like when individuals make those kinds of changes in their communities, they end up voting differently. And eventually, you know, climate policy will be different, because people have made different voting choices, because they and their neighbors have all decided to compost, right/ So, individual choices do matter. But I think that they matter not in the sense of direct impact on carbon emissions. Personal choices do matter, but not necessarily in terms of bringing global emissions down. They matter in terms of changing culture, so that the systems that are causing those global emissions can be changed.
Rose: You mentioned, also, this idea that there is a number, right? The Earth can carry X number of people. And that number has been set by a lot of different people, from a lot of different backgrounds. But, I’d love to talk about why it is that it’s not really possible to set a number.
Meehan: So, I think there are, currently, about seven point eight billion people on the planet. And demographers are predicting that this will get up to about ten point nine billion by the end of the century. And so, there has been frantic attempts to calculate how many people can live on the planet. And there’s that word — carrying capacity — which is this question of like, “what is the Earth’s carrying capacity, given that there are, in fact, finite resources on this planet?” Which is true. You know, there are a finite number of trees. There is a finite amount of fresh water that we know about. So it would seem that, you know, as with any organism living in an ecological system, there are only a certain number of that organism that can exist. The problem is, any attempt to actually calculate the Earth’s carrying capacity requires understanding not just the relationship between, like, a frog and how much water it needs to put its tadpoles in. But we’re talking about humans, we’re talking about a relationship between population and environment that relies on this really complex interplay of forces, including institutions. and technology, and how we use that technology. and markets, and how markets work, and patterns of human consumption. All of which have to do with systems that humans have built, and live inside of, that are not necessarily intrinsic to human nature. They are the things we’ve built, and we don’t understand the relationships there very well. And so, when you say, “only four billion humans can exist on this planet”; doing what? Right? Living how? These questions are unanswered, which is why you get answers that are — they range from two billion or four billion to, you know, 10 billion, 15 billion. Because people are calculating them completely differently.
Rose: Do you think it’s a fool’s errand to even try to calculate them, or is there any value in trying to think about that number?
Meehan: You know, it’s a really hard question because I think… I’m not sure what good it does us to have that number, right? What do you do with estimates that we know are, necessarily, flawed? How does that help us make decisions? And I worry that having numbers like that will lead us to make decisions based on false data. Right? I think it gives us a sense of… we want so badly to know how to live on this planet that we might end up making choices that are detrimental to humanity in order to quote unquote, save humanity. It makes me very, very nervous, I guess. I don’t know, do you think it’s good to have those numbers or not?
Rose: I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m in the process of finishing the book — the Flash Forward book — and in a lot of chapters I have encountered this phenomenon that… I’m not the first to have observed it — you and I have talked about it before — but this thing in which people really want a science answer to a non science question. Whether that question is a policy question, or an ethics question, or just sort of a personal question, right? Which is the kind of thing that we’re talking about. Should I, or should I not have children? And they really want science to be able to step in and say, “here you go, here’s the equation. Here’s the graph. Here’s the thing.” That’s the thing I’m seeing so much with all of these sorts of types of futures. Not just this one we’re discussing, but so many of them. Talking about, you know, the future of the smart city. You know, people want these technology answers to what are fundamentally civics questions about what a city should be like, and who it’s for, and how it should work. But it seems as though we’re supposed to seek out science answers to these questions, because science is sort of this “true way” of seeing the world, supposedly. And I think that that’s sort of the instinct that I’m seeing. And I think scientists are often too quick to volunteer, to try. And maybe they should just often be like, “no, I’m sorry, this is not a question for us. This is not a science question.” But I think that it’s hard, sometimes, for even them to see that or to be willing to say that.
Meehan: I think that’s a really good way to put it. And I do think one of the dangers of this number — a carrying capacity number — is that it sounds like it has something to do with ecology, and with the nature of humans, and their environment. And, as you say, it doesn’t. It’s also a question of, you know, global capitalism. It’s not a human science number. But it will be used that way. And so it makes me nervous to have numbers like that floating around, because I think that there’s a real profound danger in them being used for profound harm.
Rose: If it’s not quite the right question to ask “should I have a child?” or “is it OK to have a child in this sort of environment?” what is the right question, or what are some of the questions that maybe we could substitute for that one, for people?
Meehan: One question is: Should I have a child? The question, you know, “should one have a child?” or “is it OK to have a child?” implies that there is a single, morally correct, calculus that one could make. And that is potentially the same for everyone on this planet. hurtling towards climate warming. And I think that the real problem with that question is that it implies that there is a moral truth that I don’t think exists. And so, you know, one question is: Should I have a child? Do I want to have a child? And how do I think about the intersection of, you know, bringing biological offspring into this moment? Because I don’t think we can answer that question for humans, and for everyone else. But I think we can try to answer it for ourselves, in whatever sort of, flailing, best way we can. And I don’t think the answer is going to be the same for everyone. And I think that’s fine.
Rose: So, if somebody comes to you and asks you this question; I don’t know if this has ever happened to you. But like, how do you think you would answer something like if I came to you and was like, “Meehan, should I have a kid or not?” What would you say?
Meehan: I would say, “that’s a great question. You should really think more about it.” I would say, “that is not for me to answer,” you know? As I said before, I really do think the point is that no one should be telling anyone else whether they should, or should not, be able to have children.
Rose: You make this point at the end of the piece — and actually, interestingly, this has come up in almost every conversation that I’ve had with people for this podcast so far — which is this question about choices that reveal whether you have hope or not. And, like, what are the hopeful ways of thinking about the future? And you kind of talk about how, you know, giving birth, and having a baby sort of is a fundamentally hopeful thing to do, because you’re sort of saying, like, “I think that the future is worth taking care of in this very specific physical way.” Is it fatalistic to just be like, “oh, well, I give up. I’m not dealing with this. I’m going gonna go to Mars and do my own thing and not have to, like, deal with what’s happening here.”
Meehan: I think that’s a totally valid human response. You know, I don’t think everyone should have a child. And if you don’t want to have a child, and if the idea of bringing a child into this particular moment causes you more, sort of, anxiety, and fear, and horror, than the opposite, then, you know, don’t do it. There’s no reason you should have to have a child. And so, don’t have judgment for that.
Rose: We’re not on the team of Big Baby here?
Meehan: No, I’m not on the team of big baby. I’m pro no one telling anyone else whether they should or should not procreate.
And I do think that it is a hopeful choice. At least for me, it’s not hopeful in the sense of “I think we’re gonna figure this out. It’s all going to be OK.” It is hopeful in a much more, I don’t know, sort of, gritty way, I guess. In the sense that I don’t believe that I have the capacity to imagine what the future is going to be like. I think the future is always going to be more wonderful, and more terrible, than we can possibly imagine. And because of climate change, the human future on this planet is very, very uncertain. I don’t know what it’s going to look like to live on a warmer planet in 50 years from now, or 100 years from now. I don’t know what this planet is going to look like for children that are born today. But I do believe that, even in the midst of great suffering, and even in the midst of potential political collapse, and chaos, and all kinds of terrible things that could happen, I think also there is the possibility of humans living life with joy, and honor, and integrity, and and having life be worth living. Even if what one is living through is really, really hard. And so, that’s the kind of hope that I have. That given the unknown shape of whatever the future is going to be, I still believe that people are going to have lives that are worth living. And that gives me hope.
Rose: Do you have a question about the future? Some conundrum you’re facing now, or one that you think we might face in the future? Send it in! You can send a voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (347) 927-1425 and leave a message.
And now, a quick break, and when we come back, the Crystal Ball.
Rose: Hey, I’m back, and this is the part of the podcast that’s kind of a wildcard. It might be an essay, it might be a song, it might be some weird archival tape. Who knows? Well, I do, because I make it. And eventually I’ll stop telling you what to expect in this spot, but it’s only the second episode, and we’re just getting situated. Okay, let’s do it.
In the 1960’s a doctor named Donald Woods Winnicott delivered a series of lectures about motherhood on the BBC. Most of it is about things like teething and feeding and digestive processes, but there’s also a series in which we hear from mothers themselves, talking about what parenting is like. And specifically — and this is the part I love — what sucks about it.
Interviewer: Well, I’ve asked you to come here this afternoon to tell me what you find irksome about being a mother. And, Mrs. W, how many children have you got, first of all?
Mrs. W: I have seven children
Mrs. W: Ranging from twenty to three.
Interviewer: And do you, in fact, find it rather, an irksome job, being a mom?
Mrs. W: Well, I guess I do, I think, on the whole, if I’m quite truthful.
Interviewer: In what way?
Mrs. W: Well, I think the difficulty is really in a family… little annoying things. Like the constant untidiness, and always chasing about. and trying to get into bed, those sort of things I find irksome.
Rose: And at the end of one of these sessions, Dr. Winnicott gives this speech about why anybody would ever become a mother.
Dr. Winnicott: For the mother who is right in it, there’s no past, no future. For her therse is only the present experience of having no unexplored area. No North or South Pole. But some intrepid explorer finds it, and warms it up. No Everest. But a climber reaches to the summit, and eats it. The bottom of her ocean is bathyscaphed. And should she have one mystery, the back of the moon, then even this is reached. Photographed, and reduced from mystery to scientifically proven fact. Nothing of her is sacred. Who would be a mother? Who indeed?
Rose: You know when you’ve got a really hard decision, or feeling, and you don’t really want to look at it head on? It feels like it’s the sun, and you’ll burn your retinas if you tried to really take it on, directly. But not looking at it, that’s also kind of terrifying, because you know it’s there. There’s a reason that masters of the horror genre don’t show you the monster until the end, if they ever show you it at all. It’s always scarier when it’s just out of sight.
Dr. Winnicott: At the very beginning, there’s no difficulty, because the baby’s in you, and part of you. Although, only a lodger, so to speak. The baby’s in the womb, joined up with all the ideas of babies you ever had. And at the beginning, the baby actually is your secret. The secret becomes a baby. You have plenty of time, in nine months, to develop a special relationship to this phenomenon. A secret turned into a baby.
Rose: I want to talk about dinosaurs for a second.
Dr. Ian Malcolm: Boy, do I hate being right all the time.
Rose: Please humor me. I promise this is going somewhere.
Most people agree that dinosaurs are pretty cool. These huge, almost mythical beasts that once roamed the Earth. They litter our movies, our children’s books, even our sports teams. Many museums have entire wings dedicated to them. And it turns out, the way we display dinosaurs in those museums often says more about us, than it does about them. When the US was on the brink of fighting a war, for example, dinosaurs in museums were rearranged to look more aggressive. To be strong, limber, efficient killing machines. They were depicted attacking, and ripping each other apart in ways we don’t actually know they did. The T-Rex was constantly arranged to be running; racing across the primordial plain, something that we know it couldn’t do. It’s too big, and too heavy, to run very fast.
But we needed dinosaurs to be this way. Museums used to break dinosaur bones to get them to stand taller and look more ferocious. And even later on, when they stopped breaking bones, they still displayed them in other inaccurate ways. In the 1990’s when the idea of ecology and a holistic view of animals gained popularity, museums would display dinosaurs in family units. But we don’t actually know how dinosaurs parented. Did they dote after their eggs? Teach their young? We don’t really know.
The point is that these creatures are, in some ways, a mirror. A way of talking about the things we want to talk about. Power. Might. Care. Connectivity. We mapped the worries and desires of the day onto them.
And I think that’s true of this question too — should I have a kid? A questions that’s huge. Like a dinosaur.
And when there’s a thing that huge, we map everything onto it. All our other fears, and hopes, and dreams, and nightmares. When you read people’s reasoning, their pro and con lists about whether to have a kid in these past advice columns, it’s not hard to read those questions and answers as a mirror held up to cultural moments. People talk about the ozone layer; they talk about their fear of rebellious teens; they talk about losing the progress they’d made as women in the workforce; and now… they talk about climate change.
Like the T-Rex, whose bones we broke to make taller, or whose remains we arranged artfully to make a point, we mold this big, huge, ancient thing into a commentary on whatever is happening at the time. In 10 years, the dinosaurs in the museum will look different, and so will this question. I don’t know what it will be, but it will always be something. Something scary, and unknown, and kind of hard to look at.
Interviewer: How do you cope, Mrs. W?
Mrs. W: Well, we have complete chaos, every night.
Interviewer: [laughter] I’m so glad to hear it.
Mrs. W: …half past seven, when we really don’t know if they’re coming or going. Things are supposed to happen at certain times, but they never do. Because something else dreadful happens. Somebody spills their milk, or something dreadful, or even the cat gets up somebody’s bed. And they can’t go to sleep because the cat is there, or isn’t there. And they come down about six times to see what I’m doing, and it’s complete chaos, that time of the evening.
Dr. Winnicott: I like that bit about the cat, which either is there or isn’t there. It’s not a matter of your doing things rightly or wrongly. What’s wrong is just the way things are.
Advice For And From The Future is written, edited and performed by me! Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Also, Also, Also, who have a new album out called The Good Grief, which you can get on Bandcamp. Thanks to Sara Rivera for your thoughts on having children, and to Meehan Crist for joining me to talk about this thorny, really challenging, question. I will post a link to Meehan’s essay in the show notes. And if you want to think even more about children, population control, and climate change, check out last week’s episode of Flash Forward, called One Child to Rule Them All, which is about a future in which the globe enacts a one child policy. Tons more on the history of these ideas, and the future of them, there.
If you want to ask a question for or from the future, send a voice memo to email@example.com.
If you want to get behind the scenes stuff about this show and the other shows in the Flash Forward presents network, you can do that by becoming a member of the Time Traveler program. Just go to ffwdpresents.com for more on that.
Until next time…