Many would-be parents in the millennial generation worry that bringing a child into this world might, in its effects, serve as a choice for more consumption, waste and damage to the planet. Others wonder whether the children conceived now might face a fate somehow worse than nonexistence in future years — a fate involving planetary apocalypse or catastrophe — and they don’t want to bring children into that future.
These fears have developed into an argument that suggests it is morally irresponsible to have kids (or at least to have too many). Indeed, at the Democratic presidential candidates’ climate change town hall, Bernie Sanders was asked about “the need to curb population growth,” suggesting that dissuading mothers around the world from having more children is a necessity for dealing with climate change.
I understand that, since the humans we bring into this world will also consume resources, there can be some fear among millennials that having children will make the problem of climate change worse. Still, I have made the choice to procreate — I have two daughters — even though I am concerned about climate change. And it’s important to argue for children and their parents and for the essential role they can both play in this urgent work of planetwide stewardship going forward.
The act of creation is opposed to the act of consumption: The latter suggests that everything exists to serve our needs and appetites, but the other reminds us of the value and goodness inherent in things themselves, and how creation encourages stewardship and responsibility.
As the writer Matthew Lee Anderson recently wrote, “Parents have an unconditional responsibility to cherish their children — and while that does not generate a reason to procreate, it does mean that being human is interwoven with a sense of obligation to one another.”
Our culture’s individualism can often cultivate a very solipsistic posture toward life on our planet — and having children has showed me how often I automatically act out of a desire to serve myself. But parenting slowly turns that impulse on its head, and over time, responding to the needs of my children, I am learning to embrace patience and delayed gratification in the interest of a greater good and fostering the health and happiness of my daughters.
Similarly, I’ve begun to re-evaluate my patterns of consumption. Sure, as Elizabeth Warren pointed out at the same town hall, “70 percent of the pollution, of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air, comes from three industries” — building and construction, electric power, and oil. Our consumption is just a small piece in a much larger puzzle.
But reforming our patterns of consumption is still deeply important, if for no other reason than that they help show us, and our children, the big changes we need to make. Children who are raised to love the world around them, to use their talents and imaginations for its good, could be an essential part of that work.
In his essay “The Body and the Earth,” Wendell Berry writes: “When all the parts of the body are working together, are under each other’s influence, we say that it is whole; it is healthy. The same is true of the world, of which our bodies are parts. The parts are healthy insofar as they are joined harmoniously to the whole.” He adds, “These things that appear to be distinct are nevertheless caught in a network of mutual dependence and influence that is the substantiation of their unity.”
This speaks to the dangers of our specialist society, in which we’ve severed ourselves from the entire system that supplies us with our food, clothing, cars and other “stuff.” But it also speaks to the danger of deciding that we can take human life out of the equation, thus severing the potential hope and life of the unborn from our hopes for worldwide healing.
If a member of the millennial generation asked me why I brought two more human beings into the world, this would form at least part of my answer. The work of stewardship is of course not limited to procreation: Parents who seek to adopt or foster children, care for animals or start a farm, for instance, are also part of this creative work. But as the Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig writes: “Children are a clear statement of hope, a demand that we claim accountability for the future. They are a rejection of cavalier disregard for the planet we share.”
My daughters and I are part of this world and ought to be seeking the health of the whole, even as we seek to cultivate health and wholeness in ourselves. Christianity makes this literal, as God in Genesis ties humanity and soil inextricably to one another: “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” I want my daughters to grow up with this vision: one which sees the world not as something to use or abuse, but as a precious creation of which we are a part.
When we are creators and stewards, we become aware of the infinite series of threads connecting us to the world around us — aware of the fragility and beauty of life, the preciousness of it. That is not an instinct, in my mind, which makes us less likely to fight climate change — but rather, more eager to seek to regenerate and heal our planet, and more likely to teach our children to do the same.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer who contributes to The American Conservative, The Week, The Washington Post and other publications.
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