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"How could I bring a child into this world?" The climate change edition.
January 3, 2014 10:49 AM   Subscribe

Many people I know who aren't global warming skeptics are still planning to procreate. Though I might like to have a kid someday, the thought of their future quality of life strikes me as a potentially decisive ethical objection to it. While I've seen plenty of arguments against procreation that deal with the ethics of creating more consumers, that issue is distinct from the ethics of creating new sufferers. Can you point me to any well-reasoned arguments--whether yours or something you've seen, on either side of the issue--that deal with the ethics of choosing to bring children into a hotter world?

The one place I plan to look is the small philosophical literature that relates environmental considerations to the nonidentity problem. But I'm also interested in writing and reasoning that's less abstruse.

P.S. I know that parenthood via adoption will avoid this issue; my question here is just about choosing to have your own biological child.
posted by Beardman to Religion & Philosophy (41 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
What if your child could be responsible for breakthroughs that would end everyone's suffering?
posted by Night_owl at 10:53 AM on January 3 [11 favorites]


My plan is to raise my kid(s) to be good advocates for our planet. Someone needs to be, even (and especially) in the future.
posted by lydhre at 10:54 AM on January 3 [4 favorites]


if none of us procreate anymore, our species will die out in a generation, and chimps, coyotes and cockroaches will take over.

full disclosure: 58 y.o. and zero children.
posted by bruce at 10:55 AM on January 3 [3 favorites]


Each generation has (and will always have) it's own challenges to tackle. By arguing against procreation in light of future challenges you would never find a time where procreation made sense.
posted by NoDef at 10:57 AM on January 3 [21 favorites]


Lots of us were brought into the world when we could've been annihilated at any moment by the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons on a hair trigger and yet here we all are. That's not to say there aren't serious concerns with climate change but all of human history is full of pending doom apocalypses and...here we all are.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:57 AM on January 3 [10 favorites]


Is there a reason to focus only on one type of potential "suffering?" Children are being born into undesirable situations all the time (poverty, war), so there are a number of ways that this issue comes up and the analysis might be useful to you. This piece analyzes the issues and might be helpful to you.
posted by slmorri at 10:57 AM on January 3 [6 favorites]


Since you specify that the arguments can be our own, I would say the following:

Any child you bring into the world today (that's the specific you, someone who apparently lives in present-day Massachusetts and posts to Metafilter and is thus relatively well off by global standards) is going to have a far brighter potential future than the vast, vast, vast majority of children have historically faced. And that's taking into account climate change. Consider how much better off your child would be than one born, say, outside of Prague in 1620? As a Carthaginian before the Punic Wars. As a woman basically anytime before the 19th century. And so on.

Do you consider virtually every single child born outside of developed countries in the second half of the last century to have been brought into the world unethically? Because they almost without exception would have had poorer life prospects than any child of yours brought into the world today. Given that I doubt you do consider 99.99% of children ever born into the world to have been born to parents acting unethically, it seems dubiously narcissistic to consider it unethical to bring your own child into the world under vastly better circumstances.
posted by Justinian at 10:58 AM on January 3 [32 favorites]


The opening sequence of Idiocracy lays out why smart, well-off people should go ahead and procreate because the idiots already are anyway, so you need some offset to keep humanity in balance.
posted by planetesimal at 10:59 AM on January 3 [4 favorites]


I don't know if I would call this 'well-reasoned,' exactly, but I was born in 1981, and I've read a lot of novels and seen a lot of movies produced around that time that portray people having conversations along the lines of, "How could anyone possibly bring a baby into this world when the nuclear holocaust is imminent, the population is exploding and soon we will all be living in boxes the size of elevators, etc. etc. etc.?"

Of course, the nuclear holocaust hasn't happened (yet), the population has not continued to grow at baby-boomer rates, and I am pretty happy I was born. I don't *at all* think the right approach to nuclear proliferation or overpopulation was skepticism per se - and I believe global warming is a problem that needs to be solved - but in my mind, there's a huge, huge leap from that to basing major life decisions rooted in the mindset of everything is interminably fucked, life from here on in is apocalyptically bad, nothing but suffering is in store.

We simply don't know the specifics of what global warming will bring. In many ways, our children will take the world they were born in for granted, for both better and worse. As a woman, I'd way rather have been born now than in 99% of all worlds that have ever existed, but I'm glad my poor suffering ancestors were born, lived, and procreated in order to get me here. Thinking about global warming as creating a future not even worth living in seems weirdly historically short-sighted and unimaginative to me.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 11:00 AM on January 3 [4 favorites]


If everyone took that logic, nobody would ever have children.

There is always a risk that life in the future is going to be bad, or that your specific child's life is going to be bad. What if the world doesn't end, but your child is born with a debilitating medical condition? What if the future is great, but your child turns out to be a victim of any of the vast array of bad things that can happen regardless?

Regardless of what happens with climate change and the environment, life is going to go on.
posted by Sara C. at 11:01 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


There was a question on here a while back by someone who was concerned about having kids because the kid might be a girl and women have it so much harder in society, and wouldn't bringing a girl into the world just be horribly unfair.

The general consensus was basically, oh my gosh, in that case you should want to have a girl even more because you can raise her to be strong and you can raise her to expect more of the world and your daughter can contribute to changes for the better.


That is basically how I feel about this, too.
posted by phunniemee at 11:04 AM on January 3


I understand your concern, but I have chosen to have children. I find it important that some people raise children with an education and a sense of responsibility with which to tackle the problems we are facing. My children are not amused, but neither was I in those years when I grew up trying to prepare for nuclear armageddon.

The best thing you can do, if reproduction is a issue you worry about, is to support the reproductive rights of women in developing countries. Make sure first-born babies live, and make sure their mothers have their own means of controlling reproduction, and you will see a sustainable development all over the world.
posted by mumimor at 11:04 AM on January 3 [3 favorites]


The idea that YOUR specific child will be the savior that will solve the global climate crisis is ... well, unrealistic is the most polite way to put it. Wealthy countries like ours consume more of the planet's resources per capita, compared with other countries, so it would be extra beneficial to not have a child if you live here. Unlike the 80's nuclear holocaust threat, our very existence is the cause of the climate crisis, so not bringing another person into the world would have an actual (admittedly, very small) effect.

Warning: I have merely skimmed this site, so please don't blame me if it turns out to be funded by Scientologists or something, but it seems to provide the kind of data that you might find helpful.
posted by chowflap at 11:08 AM on January 3 [11 favorites]


Oh, and if this is something you're thinking about a lot - not global warming, but the ethics of bringing children into the world in the face of potential suffering - I have a book recommendation for you:

Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree.

The ways people wrestle with these questions are more complex and awe-inspiring than I (as a non-parent) could have ever imagined.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 11:10 AM on January 3


The philosophical claim that procreation is wrong because it harms people to bring them into existence is usually associated with David Benatar. But he doesn't relate this claim to environmental considerations; that school of thought holds that basically everyone, including you, would have been better off not having been born.
posted by escabeche at 11:10 AM on January 3


I don't think there's a rational, well-reasoned response to the question. The world is (hyperbole warning) an un-ending litany of misery and pain, and there never has been or will be a rational way to justify subjecting another human being to it.

The desire to procreate isn't rational. It's instinctual. Hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution has produced people who really, really want to procreate. When you're standing next to (or lying in) that hospital bed, and holding your new infant for the first time, there's not a rational thought in your head, or any worry about anything at all.
posted by colin_l at 11:16 AM on January 3


the thought of their future quality of life strikes me as a potentially decisive ethical objection to it.

Based upon what I can deduce of your current circumstances, as someone living in early 21st century America with at least a middle-class standard of living, your children will have a standard of living that is better than that of the vast majority of people who have ever lived. Most people who have ever lived never heard of a computer or central heating or even sanitation.

Have children or don't. None of us will ever know either way.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:18 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]


Life is suffering. All children suffer and die, whether climate change exists or not.
No parent can save their child from this fate.
The question is: was the suffering worth the time spent stopping to smell the roses?
Did the life well spent make the ultimate tragic death worthwhile?

You remarking on the ethics of a particular culture, and then using that as a guide to personal choice.
The two categories are distinct here (unless you assume that parents can never raise children to be counter-cultural).

Too many consumers does not mean you will raise your child as a consumer !!
Too many global warming contributors does not mean your child will contribute to global warming !!

Or, is your question really: how do I stop my child from suffering during his lifetime?
Because again, life is suffering and you can not stop that.
posted by Flood at 11:19 AM on January 3 [6 favorites]


I'm not sure if you are considering this ethical question yourself or if you are just interested generally in others' takes on it, but there are big logical fallacies in your question, so addressing them might help you consider things -

"Creating new sufferers" is not a given. You can't ask, "Is it ethical to bring new children into the world when they are sure to suffer?" without assuming part of your premise is true. There is no guarantee, even given the science that we are looking at right now, that any given child, experiencing global warming or not, is going to suffer, or suffer as the result of global warming.

Secondarily, you're adding "who are just going to suffer" to an already-debated question of, "Is it ethical to have children?" There are loads of philosophers who sound off on this topic regardless of the outcome of said children or said world. The ethics of procreation generally is fraught with dilemmas.

Finally, you are looking for an answer to a specific question by jumping to a larger question. The question of "Is it okay if one has children, given the realities of global warming?" is different than, "Should children be had, given the realities of global warming?"

These are just a couple of the logical fallacies in your question. Maybe others will pipe in with more. The fact is, the question of whether it is ethical to have children under any circumstance or none at all has been debated by philosophers both "professional" and armchair for thousands of years. There's a reason we're still debating it: we don't have an answer.
posted by juniperesque at 11:20 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Having children is an incredibly selfish decision. The parents are bringing a child into this world when the child has no agency to say no to that decision.

I think you will find that people's decision to have children or not do not, in the vast majority of cases within the first world, look beyond, "Can I take care of a child properly?" And even then, there are cases when asking that question is not the case.

Quite frankly, I had my children because I wanted them. And that's it. It's incredibly selfish of me, but there you have it. I wanted them, so I have them.
posted by zizzle at 11:22 AM on January 3 [10 favorites]


I don't personally get this argument at all. Are *you* currently suffering? Would you rather have not been born because of the awful state of the world? What makes you think this will change in your children's generation?

And if your main goal is elimination of suffering, then you might as well start WWIII and eliminate the human species through a nuclear apocalypse. No people, no suffering. I just don't get that argument. You might as well kill yourself (painlessly) to prevent any future suffering you may endure.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:22 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]


EPA estimates suggest that global temperatures will rise by 2 degrees by 2100 (obviously this is just one estimate of what might happen). Now, even that small a temperature change will be devastating in some ways, but it's not going to make life miserable for the majority of humans in the world.

If I were the underwater denizen of a coral reef, or if I were a destitute family living in a hut on a floodplain in Bangladesh, I'd definitely think twice about reproducing. But here on my house on a hill, in a place where most of the animal and plant species are hardy enough to survive a couple of degrees average change in temp either way… I am not concerned that my daughter is going to suffer due to global warming in any other sense than sympathy for other people and species who will be suffering from it, or a general existential angst because she would have liked to see the world when it was different. As far as doomsday scenarios are concerned, I think a nuclear war or a modern day plague would be just as worrisome if not more worrisome, but I'm glad I didn't decide not to have children because of some daydream of an unlikely future outcome.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:28 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


I really recommend reading Dan Gardner's Future Babble.

It spends a lot of time discussing Paul Ehrlich, the guy who wrote The Population Bomb in the late 60s and assured us that population growth was going to lead to Malthusian horrors in the 70s or, at the latest, the 80s. Of course, the world's population has doubled since then and starvation rates are actually down.

This isn't to dismiss global warming as a real issue that needs to be taken seriously. It's just that every other generation has an impending catastrophe of some sort or another that seems destined to make life not worth living. There's no way of knowing, sitting here in 2014, whether human culture in 2050 is going to be a hellscape or a paradise or (my bet) pretty damn close to what it's like today but with better smart phones and higher sea levels.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:31 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]


I feel you, OP. I think if I knew for sure that we wouldn't solve the climate crisis, and that we will see the worst potential impacts, I wouldn't have kids either. Fortunately, we don't know for sure that we'll see the worst possible scenario. Things aren't looking rosy these days, but we don't know what could change scientifically or politically in the coming decades.

It's true that a child born to a middle-class family in 21st century USA will have likely have a high quality of life relative to children in other parts of the world or other times in history, but I think it's naive not to recognize the unique and existential threat posed by climate change. Life in the United States in 2100 really could be substantially worse than it is today. Think multiple Hurricane Sandy's ever year. If you doubt that, maybe take a look at this.

Elizabeth Kolbert has written about climate change and popluation here and here. Some of what those pieces address is the impact of population on making climate change worse, though, and it sounds like you're looking at this from a different angle.
posted by Asparagus at 11:38 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]


Also, in looking at the fact that global temperature may rise by 2 degrees by 2100, consider that a child born next year will be 85 in 2100 and will have already lived the vast majority of their (hopefully full, rewarding, and enjoyable) life by then. That child may not get to see many (or any) glaciers, and may see a world infected with more tropical diseases/with cities subject to flooding/and increased number of natural disasters, if the child has good access to medical care and doesn't choose to live on the coast, I'm not really sure how their quality of life will be much affected by climate change at all.

On preview, I see what you're saying, Asparagus, but people make the choice to live on the coast. I myself am unclear as to why people choose to keep moving back to New Orleans when it clearly isn't a safe place for people to live. Assuming your child chooses to live in Michigan or Montana, even if there was a Hurricane Sandy every month it wouldn't affect them.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:41 AM on January 3


A few threads to follow:
Ethics of the decision to procreate at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Intergenerational Justice at SEP
Death at SEP - canvasses some arguments about whether death is a harm
Anti-natalism - the view that being born is a harm

I think this question only grips if one has an ahistorical view of one's own life as being somehow discontinuous with the great long slog of human life. To me, the most persuasive approach to the question is re-framing it as a question being asked by some previous generation facing whatever was the coming doom of their time - plague, famine, war, natural disaster. Would it be unethical of a person in Europe before the plague to reproduce? Doesn't seem so to me; the question even comes to seem a bit weird.

I find this kind of perspective sobering but also comforting, in a way, that we have this in common with hundreds of generations before us -- there is always something terrifying on the horizon that we're powerless to stop. Human life is short and vulnerable to all kinds of suffering; still, look at all the great art and music and literature and ingenious inventions etc created by past generations. We get a short window and the only choices are to give up or to keep on going, do the best we can.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:46 AM on January 3 [8 favorites]


The earth is always changing. It always has changed. It always will change. Do you know that 20,000 years ago the earth was experiencing a glacial maximum (ice age)? There were modern humans making babies during that ice age. Do you think they were thinking: My god, the earth is warming and the glaciers are melting and sea level is increasing! Why would I want to bring a child into this changing world!

That isn't theoretical. It happened. New generations of humans will accept or view the state of the planet they are born into as perfectly normal whether it be hot or cold. They will have their own challenges and like any other generation they will deal with them with varying degrees of success. And then life goes on. If you want a baby, then have a baby. You can't possibly predict the joy and sadness your child may or may not experience in their lifetime--whatever the temperature of the globe happens to be.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 11:49 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]


From the EPA report treehorn+bunny linked to:

Average global temperatures are expected to increase by 2°F to 11.5°F by 2100, depending on the level of future greenhouse gas emissions, and the outcomes from various climate models.

So 2°F is the absolute best-case scenario for global temperature increase. Is there anything that you see currently happening in terms of efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions that leads you to think we should expect to see the lower-emissions scenario?

Also, I think saying "A Hurricane Sandy could happen every month and I'd be fine if I live in Michigan" is a pretty narrow view of things. The rest of the US might not be affected that much when New Orleans or Miami become inhabitable, but the flooding of lower Manhattan would affect the US and global economy in a pretty big way.
posted by Asparagus at 12:05 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]


Don't feel the need to underplay the seriousness of global warming - respectfully, but most people (including mefites) have not read the IPCC and other reports and frankly have no idea how catastrophic a two (or likely more) degree rise will be to all life on Earth, including us. It is not just a matter of mentally adding two degrees (celsius, btw, not fahrenheit) to current temperatures; that will not work at all - and anyone taking that approach has no business holding forth on climate change.

That all said, low carbon lifestyles are becoming increasingly more accessible for westerners, and this accessibility and the price of it will only continue to drop as more people and governments take it up. For example, our power is 100% renewable; we only have one (highly fuel-efficient, second hand) car, and our next car will be electric - and thus renewable as well.

Secondly, your child can - and should - be properly informed about climate change, and be a powerful advocate for stringent action to curb it. People like this will make a difference. Your kid won't be a scientist that "solves" climate change, but they could be a scientist that works to curb it, or simply a private citizen donating time, money, etc to the cause. Believe that you and your kids can be a force for good in the world, and ensure that it happens.

Population is a red herring when it comes to climate change, at least. We could lose 2/3rds of the world's population and our emissions would still be going up. It's the "only winning move is not to play" scenario. But you should play. As a literate, wealthy, westerner, you have far more chance of helping curb emissions than someone in the Central African Republic.

Additionally, having one child only will still halve your population rate, and population rates are falling in most places in the world now.
posted by smoke at 12:55 PM on January 3 [10 favorites]


You can consider the ethics of bringing children into this world (or not) all you want. The fact of the matter is, you have no way of currently knowing what their world is going to be. So all the arguments and debates are moot. If you want kids, have them. If you don't, that's cool, too.
posted by sickinthehead at 1:31 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Why would you assume that your child's quality of life will be poor?

Climate change won't impede the progress of health science that will enable people to live longer and healthier; or of robotics, micro-manufacturing, telecommunications and transportation technology that will enable people to be more productive, more entertained, and better outfitted with material goods than our parents ever could have imagined for us.

These things won't be free, and climate change may so impoverish some people to the extent that they won't be able to afford even a constant lifestyle despite the progress of technology making each unit of lifestyle less expensive ... but a well-brought-up child of well-educated American parents is not likely to be on the sharp end of that stick.
posted by MattD at 1:36 PM on January 3


The world changes every day, no one can predict how life will be for the next few generations. Basing your family planning on that particular criterion doesn't seem particularly prudent; besides, a child born in X era won't know that the world was different (or better, in your perception) in the past. For example, my Dad was a youngster during the Great Depression, but he doesn't remember anything about people who once had steady jobs being out of work or standing in soup lines - he remembers his big brother buying him an ice cream cone for a nickel after spending all day Saturday at the movies for a dime, and playing mumbley peg and tag and other low or no cost games.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:50 PM on January 3


People who want to have kids are not going to let a thing like climate change or the world seemingly getting worse stop them from doing so. I really do think that's the case. This is why people haven't stopped having kids no matter what so far, eh?
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:30 PM on January 3


Now this is my kind of question.

If given the option I would annihilate all humans. Every last stinking, dirty one of us, wiping away all trace of existence we were ever here, turning it over to all of God's creatures that aren't ate up with sins from apples, who don't annihilate whole species into extinction, or remove mountain tops-turning them upside down and inside out, or poison water tables for profit so they can have the greatest and latest awesome plastic piece of streamlined shit made from China that will be obsolete next week.

I don't have children, and expect that I never will. Not that I don't "want" children, or wouldn't be a great parent, but because I don't have a uterus. If I was born a female, I'd be a different person. I am sure that I wouldn't have the views that I just explained above, and I more than likely, at the age I am, have more than one child by now. I would erase humans existence in favor of other species survival, but I would never do it with guns, or bombs. I'd do it with a time machine, going back to the dawn of man, six million years ago, to the very beginning-or with a snap of a finger, as if I am some great and greedy-judging God who knows better than mortals what's right and wrong. I'd only do it with magic. Now you know where I stand on the issue of the human race and creating more, but that alone doesn't answer your question.

IMHO there is only one person I have ever known that has said exactly what needs to be said over and over again-on all issues of life, great and small. He is a great man. He is a man that should be the poet laureate of the whole world for time eternal. He has spoken of a great many things time and time again. He is a man that gives me hope, not only for the human race, but for myself--convincing me that I can overcome any demons inside of me that might arise, and any demons that might arise in others. He is Wendell Berry.

“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
― Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays

Mr. Berry has written a great many things. I would recommend reading, no-consuming everything there is to consume that springs for his mind, heart, and lips.

If you are not a reader, either because you're blind, dumb, lazy, or just to plain busy, I'd suggest taking 54 minutes out of your life to watch Wendell on Moyers & Company. After that, I am sure that you will be convinced to study more of his life and works, and in turn he will convince you to have children of your own.

“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”
― Wendell Berry
posted by QueerAngel28 at 9:09 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


I know where you are coming from and I worry over what world my five year old daughter will inherit, and whether her generation will be the last on earth, or will be near the end. I am a worrier.

At the same time, she is happy now. She is having wonderful experiences now that she'd never have if she hadn't been born. As have I. If I die tragically, in despair, will everything that came before it have been worthless? No. I think I'd rather have been here, even if the very end is terrible. Your child or children, should you choose to go that way, will likely experience wonderful, joyous times even if they are ultimately negatively affected by climate change. I mean, even if the worst happens, it seems to me that it's still better than never existing, never even having a chance.
posted by onlyconnect at 9:20 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]


For some reason that Moyers & Company link isn't working now. Here is a updated link.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 9:32 PM on January 3


I thought a lot about this while pregnant and teaching ethics. I personally came to the (tentative) conclusion that it isn't so much a moral decision as a biological one: Life creates Life. In that, I am no different than an amoeba. Creating life filled me with joy and purpose because, well, that's what Life does ... make more of itself.

I wondered if Life creating Life maybe wasn't the foundational moral good itself, and we were working way too hard to come up with justifications for engaging in our primary biological purpose.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:44 AM on January 4 [2 favorites]


This question has (literally) kept me up at night. I love my two-year-old so much, but I didn't anticipate that a side affect of having a kid would be that thinking about future global problems would become almost unbearable. I'm much more likely now to stick my head in the sand because it's too painful to think about the world that my son will be losing. Me myself, I can deal -- I've experienced a lot of natural beauty and had a lot of joy in my life, and if things get bad enough, I could just go, be ok with having had a good life. But I can't ask that of my son, you know? I can no longer just say "well, I'll be dead before things get really really bad", because now I have interests stretching into the indefinite future. And that doesn't spur me to action, it paralyzes me.

This all weighs heavily on me when I consider having a second child. Much more than it did when planning the first, because now I know how it feels.

(Of course, some amount of this vulnerability and fear is just part of parenthood, no matter what you attach it to. As Steve Jobs put it, it's like having your heart walking around outside of your body.)
posted by wyzewoman at 2:47 AM on January 4 [3 favorites]


I think a lot of this is unknown. For example, your child could be the founding father (or mother) of a society on another planet. Or the person who finally figures out safe, sustainable energy source.

In addition, nobody's life is perfect. I and everyone I know have suffered hardships in their lives, from poverty, to abandonment, to abuse, but it doesn't mean life isn't worth living. It doesn't even mean life isn't wonderful. There are so many ways to live life, to enjoy life, to make a difference, and make it worthwhile.

No, your child's life is not going to be perfect; nobody's life is perfect. But it almost definitely is going to be worth living. Especially if your bring your child into this world with love.
posted by ethidda at 4:12 PM on January 4


Thanks for many thoughtful answers. I've begun looking into some of the links you suggested.

For my own reference, here's a slapdash roundup of the thread's distinct objections to the idea that one shouldn't have a child based on what we can reasonably expect life on this planet to be like for that child, due to climate change.

Many of these responses are related to each other. Some are more persuasive than others, but I won't editorialize here, unless I inadvertently present one uncharitably. Feel free to let me know if I misconstrued any, and thanks again.


- This objection to procreation assumes too much about future conditions. Scientists could be mistaken about how bad things will get, so it's a bad gamble to base your decision to have a child on current environmental science. (This could be formulated as skepticism about the doomsday scenarios, but also as the suggestion that those scenarios are real possibilities that we may yet avert with prudence, technological fixes, etc.)

- A more general version of the last one: we can never know much about the future, period, so it seems rash to base big decisions on what you think might happen. (A general skepticism about predicting the future.)

- Relatedly: people have been predicting the end of the world since the dawn of time, and it has never happened, so we should not treat the current science as credible enough to base big decisions on it. (A kind of historical inductive argument about apocalyptic thinking.)

- If the reasonable expectation that your child will suffer is a decisive reason to not have a child, then almost all parents throughout history, as well as a great many around the world today, were/are wrong to have children. That's absurd, so it's a spurious reason. (This reductio ad absurdum could be formulated as "It's absurd and offensive to condemn so many parents," or "A principle is absurd if its implementation would have brought about a world so different from the one we're familiar with.")

- Another reductio: if you think suffering is a reason not to bring someone into existence, then you're rationally committed to kill yourself if you expect to suffer in the future. Since that's absurd, so is the decision not to procreate based on the belief that the child will suffer. (A reductio based on the assumption of an ethical symmetry between coming into being, and dying.)

- More generally: life is full of suffering, but even if a child suffers in the new climate and/or dies unhappily, it doesn't follow that their life wasn't worth living, or that it was wrong to create them. (A kind of cost-benefit analysis--the goods outweigh the harms.)

- Even if many people will suffer from global warming, a child born sooner rather than later, and who grows up in my socioeconomic and geographical situation, would not have a poor enough quality of life that its life isn't worth living. (This is compatible with conceding that lots of the most dire predictions are correct, but points out that my child would still probably be one of the lucky ones.)

- A child born in the present will never experience anything other than the present and future climate and its economic and political consequences. So, the child will not begrudge its own existence on the basis of the kinds of comparisons its parents are in a position to make. (This weighs the likely fact that the child will prefer to have been born, against the parent's belief that the child is growing up in a worse world than before.)

- Raising environmentalist children, or children whose social justice activism will redound to the environmental cause, is a positive thing, and possibly even morally obligatory. (A kind of utilitarian consideration.)

- Relatedly: you never know that your child won't be an important factor in ameliorating the environmental crisis in one way or another.

- The desire and choice to have a child is primal in a way that silences/overrides at least some forms of rational argumentation/decision-making. (A degree of arationalism about certain decisions, either as a prescriptive or descriptive claim.)
posted by Beardman at 10:31 AM on January 5 [3 favorites]


You mentioned adoption, and mumimor talked about reproductive rights, but the game-changing nature of birth control cannot be overstated.

With the proper use of birth control, pregnancy is now very much a conscious decision for the fertile heterosexual couple. A lot of ethics is choice, right? It blows my mind that I can trick my body into thinking it has fulfilled its biological instinct to reproduce. In the past, or even in the impoverished/disenfranchised present, people didn't (don't) have that choice. If you wanted P-in-V sexual gratification, you risked getting pregnant, suboptimal child-rearing conditions be damned.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system, I would offer the precautionary principle as a tool for decision-making. It's one of the widely held principles of sustainability, and is cited by many policymakers working on environmental issues. Applied to your question, it would read: if the act of bringing a child into this world has a suspected risk of causing suffering, the burden is on the prospective parents to prove that it will not cause suffering. TL;DR — better safe than sorry.

I'll end this by saying that I agree with zizzle: having children is selfish. Even in the best of circumstances, I believe it is the pinnacle of egotism. I acknowledge that I am selfish enough to want children, though I wish I weren't. Hey science, how about a pill that makes me less selfish?
posted by River Soong at 5:38 PM on January 5


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