Anti-natalism won’t save us from climate change

By Rowan Light February 25, 2020

One of my favorite movies of all time is Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 adaptation of PD James’ Children of Men. The premise is simple but powerful: sometime in the near future, human beings have become infertile. Without population replacement, the economy fragments, institutions collapse, and the state becomes increasingly brutal as it attempts to protect a dying elite. Society rips itself to pieces.

Cuarón’s artistry is showing what a world looks like without hope. Without children, there is no future; without a future, there is no purpose in the present. Human connectedness and solidarity breaks down. It’s everyone for themselves.

In what is the most powerful scene in the film, a battle between government soldiers and resistance fighters grinds to a halt when the cry of a newborn baby – the first in over 20 years – is heard. Soldiers drop to their knees in a kind of religious epiphany: life has meaning when you have something to live for.

Human connectedness and solidarity breaks down. It’s everyone for themselves.

I was thinking of this profound connection between hope and children when I read last month’s feature article of North & South by Sharon Stephenson, titled “Saving the planet one (less) child at a time.”

Like Children of Men, Stephenson’s argument is simple but powerful: if we want to reduce the impact of human beings on our environment, then why not simply have fewer human beings? A newborn baby in Cuarón’s hopeful meditation becomes, in Stephenson’s worldview, the “chubby carbon footprints” of an existential threat. Only in reducing human life can we save the planet and children are the first to go.

Life has meaning when you have something to live for.

The anti-natalist movement is a depressing, dismal story at a time when we need to be thinking about hope, generosity, and self-sacrifice to meet the challenge of climate change.

Much of the logic of anti-natalism doesn’t add up. The history of the 20th century is less a story of uncontrolled births and more one of humans living longer, producing more, and consuming at unprecedented rates. Fewer people are more than capable of hoarding (and consuming) more resources.

More concerning is the way that the anti-natalist myth undermines the vital cultural role that children play in our collective actions as communities and societies: providing a sense of shared future and purpose in the present. As Children of Men shows, children are like a cultural short-circuit; they jolt us out of our apathy and selfishness and remind us what truly matters. A community without children becomes a microcosm of despair.

For hope to exist, we need children.

If we want to fight climate change, we need hope. And for hope to exist, we need children. It’s precisely that we do not act for our own selves, but owe a duty of care for future generations, that forms a key principle of kaitiakitanga. We are but stewards of our planet.

Rather than a threat, our children are the very thing we need to galvanise new collective movements against climate change, raising them not as perpetuators of a failed consumerism, but as creators who relate to each other and share, as “children of men,” a tremendous project of ineffable hope.

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