A catchall phrase for a generalized sense of hopelessness about the future of humanity is "climate anxiety."
Because of it, many young people are opting not to have children, which scares the bejesus out of mainstream pundits on left and right. Why? And to what degree is the trepidation a rational response?
"Climate change" stands in for many things, the least of which is the changing climate. It's become shorthand for the modern world's frightful disruption of the Earth's primeval systems, as well as man's decimation of the planet's biodiversity. But it also symbolizes a dread about the future, a feeling that the world as it is and will be is an unfit place to bring children.
The conventional left and the rational right converge on the supposed imperative of young people continuing to have children. This is exemplified by back-to-back columns by two doyens of the New York Times, the ubiquitous voice of progressivism, Ezra Klein, and a last holdout of intellectual conservatism, Ross Douthat.
Ross begins by praising the same mistake Ezra makes in comparing the unprecedented challenge young people face in the present to the often 'nasty, brutal and short' reality of our ancestors: "I endorse my colleague's argument unreservedly, especially his reasonable historical perspective on how the risks of a hotter future compare to the far more impoverished and brutal straits in which our ancestors chose life for their children and, ultimately, for us."
Where Klein misses the mark in his analysis of "climate anxiety as a primary motivator for opting out of procreation," Douthat leaks vitriol, insinuating climate anxiety is "a kind of secondary excuse - something grasped at by a youth culture struggling with romance and marriage as a justification for those difficulties, something invoked as a moralistic reason for avoiding the exhaustion of parental life."
That's horseshit. "Climate anxiety" also stands in for a violent world, especially gun violence in the United States, which is seen as intractable and uncontrollable as the weather. Indeed, the violence in America, including and especially the slaughter of innocents, is not an exception to the rule of American exceptionalism, but the deepest and darkest expression of it. US militarism has been turned back on itself, using the same assault rifles on children that our soldiers use in dozens of places Americans don't even know about.
I had hoped the pandemic would induce Americans to reflect on themselves and the culture more deeply. Political polarization is merely a manifestation of a long-brewing zeitgeist. Having tried a number of times to initiate zoom dialogues at a deeper level, I found that the vast majority of people just wanted to have a "return to normalcy. " We now see that means accepting an even higher degree of hellishness.
Even before the pandemic, I wondered how people could have children in a culture like this. However it's become difficult to tell the difference between the sick American psyche and the crisis of human consciousness generally. Is the problem primarily this culture, or is it human consciousness? Does it not matter where one lives anymore?
As far as I can see, there are two kinds of people who have children in America now - the willfully blind, or the inwardly dead, and that may be a distinction without a difference. Both make pets into family members. Both seek to feel aliveness and joy again through having children. Until, that is, they destroy them by conditioning them into a culture of materialism, capitalism, consumerism and nationalism.
Klein writes, "To bring a child into this world has always been an act of hope. The past was its own parade of horrors." That's dense. Comparing the present to the past renders one purblind, since however difficult life was in the past people were generally alive, whereas in America at least, the vast majority are now inwardly dead.
Comparisons between the present and past are unintelligent anyway, since the psychological and emotional burdens people feel in the present cannot be compared to the physical hardships people felt the past. Besides, humans have never faced the kind of psychological, ecological and spiritual challenge we do today. The only precedents for what people who still give a damn are feeling today are probably the many peoples overrun by colonialism and driven to extinction or assimilation.
In glib and haughty tones, Ross Douthat performs a reductio, chalking up opting out of procreation to "simple misapprehension...people steeped in the most alarmist forms of activism and argument may believe, wrongly, that we're on track for the imminent collapse of human civilization or the outright extinction of the human race."
The rest of his manifesto is hard to read and impossible to digest. But I'll try to provide some clarity in response to Ross's disingenuously rhetorical question: "Why is climate change seemingly yielding deeper procreative anxieties than the Eisenhower-era threat of nuclear doom, which didn't exactly impede the baby boom?"
For one thing, young people, including millions of veterans home from the wars in Europe and the Pacific, were flush with optimism and prosperity. For another, a global ecological crisis was unimaginable given the untrammeled spaces and wilderness that still existed in America and the planet. Finally, despite the fault lines of racial discrimination and anti-Black and anti-Semitic undercurrents, the culture, country and people were still intact in ways that someone born in 1979 cannot imagine.
It's grating when one of the last remnants of semi-thoughtful Catholic conservatism says, "A person raised in a resolutely secular milieu and taught to regard the consolations of religion as so much wishful thinking don't want to have kids because they're afraid... of the general idea of bearing a child fated to extinction."
Like all religionists, Douthat pits "godless secularism" against "the consolations of religion" in a God-created universe. In doing so, he ignores or dismisses mystical experiencing of the sacred, for which one must free oneself of the fraying fetters of organized religion.
So who wrote the following sentence, the secular progressive but Catholic-admiring Klein, or the die-hard Catholic conservative fighting a rear-guard battle against secularists?
"If some of the passions of progressivism have their origins in spiritual impulses and aspirations, the absence of ultimate religious hope may darken the shadows of despair over young-progressive souls."
Besides doing his best Steven Pinker imitation by mashing statistics in masking the multi-faceted crisis of the present, Ezra Klein avers, "At some point we're asking whether we believe in the continuation of society."
Indeed, but why should we believe in the continuation of the present society, American and global? What is there to preserve except in science and technology that has not already been lost to perhaps the final act of man's fragmentation?
Ezra is no less grating than Ross when he exclaims, "This is a vision of more, not less. Electric cars are quicker to accelerate. A well-insulated home is warmer." Egad, that's shallow and foolish.
Can "human agency overcome existential threats and usher in a welcoming and even thrilling world?" Not without a creative explosion of insight, and certainly not from the threadbare and hackneyed intellectual sources of either traditional religion or moribund progressivism.
If one is alive, then "life is worth living," no matter how much man decimates the Earth and darkens the world. But that doesn't mean, "life is worth conceiving even if the crisis comes, and the hope of progress fails." For those of us who still see, feel and think, the crisis has come, and the hope of progress has failed.
In this age, calling for a belief in a "purposive, divinely created universe" by an omniscient deity standing apart from the cosmos is an insult to any thinking person's intelligence. That doesn't mean that we must accept the opposite side of the debased coin of the realm, that of a "purposeless universe." It simply means that "the consolations of religion" no longer offer consolation, and progressivism's hopes and fantasies have foundered on the shoals of the world as it is and as it has become.
Like it or not, we each have do our own spiritual spadework now. There are no shortcuts to understanding our place in the universe, much less understanding whether the universe has an intrinsic intent beyond the secularist's randomness or the mystic's oneness.
So unless human beings create an inwardly generated quasar of insight that bores all the way through the pervasive darkness that human consciousness has become, it's folly to bring a child into this world.
"Your Kids Are Not Doomed," Ezra Klein:
"Children In the Hands of God and Climate Change," Ross Douthat:
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
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