I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Henry David Thoreau, from Walden
In response to a characteristically brilliant and challenging piece by Paul Kingsnorth in the London Review of Books, Labour-left blogger and tweeter Ellie Mae O’Hagan (@misselliemae) published this pithy, sarcastic tweet:
It wasn’t the debate (such as it was) between these two that piqued my interest. It was O’Hagan’s inclusion of the example of not having children, with her other “comedy extreme” examples of building a nuclear bunker and dying young.
O’Hagan’s no Blairite centrist, not pro the current corporate hegemony. She’s to the left of Labour, a fierce, admirable activist and writer. So it’s fascinating to me that even someone like her can equate (mockingly) a decision not to have children (clearly meant to be read as ridiculous) with a nuclear bunker hidey-hole and an early death.
I (we) don’t have children, at least partly for ecological reasons. That decision is something I reflect upon a lot. I know I’ll feel sad about it in the future, yet news about the state of the world often makes me feel powerfully relieved that I’m not contributing in that way to the overall consumptive mess.
But it’s idiocy to present that as a reneging of some kind of responsibility, or an extremist’s reaction, as so often happens like this in mainstream cultural communication. It’s fascinating that within my life (particularly as we age, along with our social circle) it becomes a question I’m expected to answer – why haven’t we? – as opposed to the greater question that could travel in the other direction – why did you? – yet rarely does, still bearing a ridiculous sense of being socially unacceptable. I’ve even found myself pretending to acknowledge it’s my “selfish” decision not to breed, to make the answer feel easier for people who ask. While deep down thinking the very opposite. It’s taboo.
So, er, why did you?
What, don’t you bloody LIKE my kids!? They’re ACE!
What are the remaining selfless, outward looking reasons for having children in today’s world? Especially when children out there need adopting? Or do parents generally acknowledge it to be a fundamentally inward-looking, desire-based decision? Without meaning any disrespect, in my heart I know it as an inherently self-serving act (albeit co-ordinated with powerful biological imperatives).
Everyone’s presumption is that their own child will offer something unique, maybe even something so outstanding it singlehandedly counter-acts the global problems, because of that perfect nature of individuality where that is possible. How dare you question us: in 25 years my little Timmy will end the world’s food shortage! Despite huge numbers of wonderful offerings from smart humans; after all this time, we still head gradually for disaster while most people live in horrific, exhausted, soul-demolishing circumstances that they fight, day after day, to make the meagre best of, while those of us who have basic comfort don’t give a shit. If technology will save us all (rather than just saving the super-rich in the secret mountain) can it bloody hurry up please?
Your children aren’t special.
Undeniably there are too many humans on planet Earth. Unquestionably the world (as it is now) is being slowly devastated, not just by the greed and expansionism of a callow few (although there is that) but by the vast majority of normal, decent people around the world, trying to make their way within systems and infrastructures that were built in earlier periods of history, when we had space to go forth and multiply. That’s you and me – and our kids.
This reaches towards the core problem with mainstream environmentalism. The only viable solutions have a big effect on our comfort levels. The only viable solutions fundamentally alter our deeply embedded social and cultural ambitions for ourselves. In many ways, the only viable solutions require us to completely rebuild our sense of ourselves from the ground up. That’s how big the ask is. The scratching-at-the-edges solutions that we do engage with en masse (recycling, changing lightbulbs, a bit of middle-class composting, ooh I bought a fixed gear bike!) have negligible effect without an entirely different paradigm of global political and corporate willpower.
And we know this. And the Green Party can’t even get in the TV election debates.
Three things to save the planet: ditch cars, ditch the global meat trade and stop having kids. Me, out on the extreme? A skeptical reader reacting negatively to this blog entry is actually far more of a climate fatalist than I am: at least I chose a path to shift the riverflow of the rest of my days, for reasons of climate.
No, they’re the ones building a nuclear bunker, perpetuating what they think they need, for lack of the courage to step outside.
We are screwed.
Oh, by the way, look over there: some new episodes of High Maintenance on Vimeo.