For a year now, I’ve been a dad. Being a dad is great. My daughter is a chubby, smiley little cutie pie who giggles when she sees me, who likes to dance, and who thinks it’s hilarious to put her pacifier into my mouth. It is hard being a parent, yes, but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
My wife and I have always wanted kids, but there was a night in November 2016 where we briefly decided against it. You can probably guess the night. It was a bad night. It was a bad month. The two years that have followed have been no fun at all.
The kicker though, what made us decide to go ahead and have the kid, was that we didn’t want Donald Trump to be involved in our family planning decisions any more than he already would be. We didn’t want the man to hold any psychological power over us, on top of the political and economic power he already wielded.
But the past two years, we’ve both been grappling with the fact that the future our daughter is going to grow up in has darkened substantially in comparison to the one we envisioned we first got married and started thinking about her (then totally hypothetical) life.
For real though, the apocalypse is coming
I am not constitutionally capable of having a rosy view of the future. This may be a side-effect of having grown up consuming almost exclusively dystopian culture. I have long been an aficionado of zombie apocali, of days the earth stood still, of furious roads. I know these are fiction, and that they perhaps distort my perspective on the world, but even setting aside my congenital alarmism, it does appear that we’re coming up on a breaking point.
The most alarming thing I’ve read recently is The Limits to Growth, a 1972 book put out by the Club of Rome that pointed out that exponential growth (both economic and population) on a planet with finite resources is, to put it simply, not sustainable. The study of LtG was one of the first to use computer simulations to try and predict the trajectory of global political, economic, and ecological systems.
While they ran their simulations, they kept noticing that, on their current trajectory, these systems all collapsed within 100 years or so, and by the year 2100 at the latest. They concluded:
“If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”
Without a serious global attempt at slowing both population and economic growth, they argued, collapse was almost certainly inevitable, and within a lifetime or two.
The world — briefly — took this seriously. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof, people started wearing sweaters instead of using their heating. But it was seen as too burdensome, too oppressive, for many Americans, and when Ronald Reagan was elected, the solar panels were binned and the era of unrestrained growth began anew. Now, in 2019, if you hear about slow economic growth, or a dropping of the birth rates, it is inevitably mentioned as a bad thing, and not as the only thing that can prevent us from catastrophe.
The LtG team ran a 30-year update in 2004 (with exponentially better technology this time) in which they found that all of their initial predictions were still pretty spot on, and that we still hadn’t corrected ourselves from the “collapse” scenario. We are now 47 years into their 100 year timeline.
And this, for the record, is just environmental catastrophe. This does not even take nuclear weapons, AIs, nanotechnology, particle accelerators accidentally creating a black hole, or bioterrorism into account as potential world-enders (If you want a full list of the things that might kill us all — along with the ways we may survive — read Sir Martin Rees’ great book, Our Final Hour).
Dealing with the apocalypse as a parent
Thinking about this in the context of my daughter’s future makes me want to swan dive off the Empire State Building. The thought of a total environmental and economic collapse in her life time — with the most likely result being that she starves to death along with billions of others — is almost unbearable. I have stayed up nights (not a smart thing to do in your first year as a parent) fuming at the Trump supporters and climate deniers in my life, apoplectic at their callous disregard for reality, at their willingness to take a measly, short-term tax cut at the expense of my daughter’s future. Sometimes, I continue thinking about it into my sleep, dreaming about shouting at them, about burning all the bridges, about reducing them to quivering, weeping heaps.
I know that other friends, other parents especially, feel this way. The panic we feel is not represented in the media, which, unlike us, is focused on the latest Tweets and bits of palace intrigue. If the media mentions climate change, its attitude is, “Oh look, another doomsday report. Oh well! Nothing we can do!”
To which we all shout back, WE ABSOLUTELY CAN DO THINGS! The reports all say, “if we take no action, climate change will be out of control.” TAKING NO ACTION IS NOT AN INEVITABILITY!
We don’t have our eyes fixated on our retirement portfolios, like our parents’ generation does. We have our eyes fixated on our children’s ability to even get to retirement age. What we see is haunting, and the inability of the rest of the cultural landscape to grasp this is infuriating and crazy-making.
Earlier this week, I got home from work and my daughter was standing in front of the door waiting for me, and she raised both arms and screamed “YAAAAASSSSS” while charging at me for a hug. I mean, come on. How the fuck am I supposed to reconcile that delightful shit with the world I'm leaving her? How do I bring that into line with this bleak-ass future with clouds of ash, scorched earth, and hills covered in fire? How did I go from hugs, kisses, and gawp-gawps to The Road?
(”Gawp-gawps,” by the way, are an onomatopoetic term that refer to the sound you make when you’re just EATING THAT CHUBBY LITTLE FACE RIGHT UP.)
The darkest thought, the one that the mind pushes away the hardest, is the thought that it was pure selfishness to have her, that our desire to play house has brought into the world a wonderful little creature who will now undergo untold suffering. Indeed, this is even built into the discussion about growth — we can’t go forward having kids at the same rate1. To do so is to doom them.
“You who grew up tall and proud, in the shadow of the mushroom cloud”
Every generation expects to be the last, and most of this is narcissism — it’s impossible and sometimes unpleasant to imagine a world beyond ourselves. But since 1945, being the last generation has been an actual possibility, and this has made us behave in weird ways.
If you’re a Republican, it means raping the earth so you can take everything you can get before you go. They have openly admitted this on occasion: James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, responded to a question about leaving resources for our descendants with, "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”
That’s some evil-ass shit right there. But it’s an understandable (if not forgivable) response to your impending annihilation. It’s hedonism cloaked in religious fundamentalism.
My grandparents’ generation spent literally all of their time thinking about “legacy,” which is why our world is covered in fucking plaques. At my alma mater, Penn State, the football coach was so intent on building a messianic legacy for himself that he handed the children in his care over to a sexual predator. When he found out, he didn’t tell the police. To let this out was to tarnish his legacy. So children continued to be raped. This is how badly some people want to be remembered fondly.
But what if you don’t get the comfort of being remembered? What if you are the end? What might you do? Might you take what you can and fuck those who came later?
I’ve become obsessed in recent months with Queen’s “Hammer to Fall,” a joyful little 20th Century danse macabre about resigning yourself to the inevitably of death and decay.
Here we stand, here we fall
History won't care at all .
Make the bed, light the light
Lady Mercy won't be home tonight.
It strikes me as odd that we’re so often encouraged to cope with the inevitability of our own personal deaths, but are never asked to confront the possibility of humanity’s death. Only the bleakest nuclear wasteland stories end in the extinction of the human race, but that extinction is just as inevitable in reality as our own deaths. We may evolve to something greater, we may build rockets that take us to terraformed Mars (although that sounds really unappealing if we have to live next door to Elon Musk), or we may escape the bonds of this solar system and live for millennia. But entropy is ceaseless; the heat death of the universe is coming.
At some point, there will be no one to remember us. What if this fact instilled us not with a rapacious consumptive greed, but with humility? What if we chose to instead live our ephemeral little lives as if they mattered, but not so much that they should blot out other little lives?
Wishing I’d been born
When I told my therapist about how much I worried about my daughter’s future, he asked, “Are you sad you were born?”
“No,” I answered. I have not, in fact, ever regretted being born, not even in my adolescent, “I WISH I’D NEVER BEEN BORN!” stage. Not even in the darkest days of my depression. I mostly like being alive, and I told him so.
“Well,” he said, “You were born during the Cold War. Your parents could have reasonably expected the nuclear apocalypse in the near future when they had you.”
I let it slide that my parents didn’t expect the apocalypse, they were Reagan supporters, which — I can’t even with right now. But the point was a good one. Even if they had been worried, I hadn’t been vaporized into a cloud of radioactive smoke.
“When I went to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam,” he continued, “I remember this moment where I was in the room they lived in, and I saw a little collage that Anne had made with cutouts from magazines. It was the type of thing you see in teenage bedrooms all of the time. And I realized, in spite of how she died, in spite of how young she was, that this was a life well lived.”
This had been sinking in recently with me anyway. All through my depression, I kept thinking about how horrific the world was, how it was dark and full of terrors, how it was bleak and pointless, but I never stopped to recognize that, at least for me, life had been largely pleasant. Even in the face of dreams deferred, loneliness, and the cold emotional deadness of depression, I had mostly enjoyed life. I could die tomorrow, aged 32, and feel that I had lived well. I would want more time, sure, but I would have enjoyed what I got, regardless of whether what cut me down was a heart attack, a bus, or a nuclear explosion.
My daughter may not get a full-length life. This is true whether the world ends or not. But she can still have a fully-lived life, if I can teach her to live in the moment and enjoy this experience. Even if her life contains immense amounts of suffering, it can still contain immense amounts of joy. A life cut short by global catastrophe is only necessarily a bad life if you give more weight to the mode of death than you do to the life itself.
That possibility, obviously, is still absolutely un-fucking-acceptable, given that the only reason she should die young is so red-faced, small-hearted, fearful little chodes like Donald Trump can die with a few extra billion in their bank accounts. But. But. To live a short, happy life is perhaps not so bad.
Is optimism possible?
Our inability to imagine a brighter future may, in part, be a byproduct of our culture. Writer John Higgs makes an interesting point. He says in an interview with the Ransom Note:
"It seems to me that the last ditch attempt to say something positive about the future was in 1989 in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, when they say ‘The future will be great – it’s a bit like now, but with really great waterslides’. That was the best they could do. Ever since then the future has been shown as environmental apocalypse, zombie films, all of these things. And to create the future, first you have to imagine it, so this is a very worrying thing.”
Fear tends to inhibit imagination, and given that we’ve all been reduced to piles of quivering flesh over the past few years over the existential threats facing us, whether real (climate change, nuclear war) or imagined (immigrants, communists, Muslims), it’s perhaps unsurprising that our imaginations have failed.
When alternative futures are imagined, they tend to be put forward by 21st century flimflam men, billionaires who believe that AI or automation or Mars will save us, and who will coincidentally make billions more if we choose to heavily invest in those things. And while there could be cool futures with any of those, none of them address the underlying problem, which is the very structure of the society in which we live. If The Limits to Growth is right, then technology alone can’t solve the problem, because technology doesn’t decrease consumption (it usually increases it).
There are people who are imagining different societies, but at the moment, they are relegated to the margins. They are people like Bill McKibben, who in his book Eaarth, imagined a future where our economy is built on sustainability and endurance, where power is decentralized, and where community matters once more. They are people like Gar Alperovitz, who, in his book What Then Must We Do? looks at how a different type of society could be built for the many and not for the few. For Alperovitz, many of the necessary steps are already being taken, under the radar and across partisan lines (I wrote about some of these in an article for USA Today on microbreweries and the political revolution).
What we’re realizing is that the revolution that’s coming is not like the ones that happened in Russia, China, or Cuba, but instead is like the agricultural and industrial revolutions. What comes will be a massive shift in the way we live.
Or, you know, civilization will collapse. It doesn’t have to, though, if we can ditch the laziness of despair and start thinking creatively.
In Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book Hope in the Dark (which you should read if you’ve been in a state of constant despair for the past two years), she points out a curious side effect of the invention of Viagra: when the drug became publicly available, fewer endangered species were being killed for use as aphrodisiacs. Rhino horn, caribou antler, green turtle shell — all of these are traditional folk remedies for impotence, and all of them were rendered obsolete by a medicine that could actually give you a boner. Solnit’s point in this book is that history doesn’t move forward so much as sideways, and that things that were unimaginable 10 years ago are often the reality now. You can’t predict what will change or how.
When I was born in 1986, the end of the Cold War was inconceivable, as was a world shaped by the internet, as was President Donald Trump. It’s not all positive, sure, but I have no fucking clue what my daughter’s life is going to look like at 32, and I don’t know what strange things will take place between now and then. But the seeds of a brighter future are already there.
Take the freshman class of the House of Representatives. They aren’t bogging themselves down in the palace intrigue, they aren’t fixating on the Tweets of a deranged white supremacist, they aren’t “playing the game.” They’re instead out there presenting serious ideas for change, ideas that our current visionless leaders dismiss as impossible, just as the wrinkled old men leading the Soviet Union would’ve dismissed reform and collapse as impossible before Gorbachev took power in 1985.
As for me, my daughter has sharpened my focus. I’ve joined a local team of environmentalists and I’m organizing a set of lectures at the town library I work at. I’ve decided to stop writing horseshit clickbait for travel sites, and to start writing stuff that can change things. And I’ve started meditating, so I can better enjoy these moments with her, lest they be my last.
When I watch the news, it often feels like I’m on a train that’s barreling over the edge of a cliff. But that was true the moment I was conceived. This only ever ended with me kersplatting on a metaphorical (and, for all I know, literal) canyon floor. The same is true of my daughter. She, too, will die. But I can do what I can to make the fall a fun one, and I can work to keep her falling for a very long time.
 The best thing you can do for the environment, by the way, is to have fewer kids. This is far more effective than giving up cars, never flying, giving up meat, or changing your lightbulbs.
So: if you don't really want kids, don't have any! If you do want kids, limiting yourself to 2 will keep you below the population replacement rate of 2.2 children per woman. If you DO have kids, limiting yourself to 2 will mean you're not contributing to population growth. If you want more, that's cool, just talk someone else out of having one, or consider adoption.