Ross Douthat: Children in the hands of God and climate change

The absence of ultimate religious hope may darken the shadows of despair over young-progressive souls.

(Seth Wenig | AP photo) This Feb. 16, 2017, photo shows newborn babies in the nursery of a postpartum recovery center in upstate New York.

For a while, I’ve been meaning to write a column about the phenomenon of young people saying that they don’t want to have children because they fear raising them in a world laid waste by climate change. As with any idea that you keep on the shelf too long, I’ve now seen it executed by a colleague — in this case, Ezra Klein, who devoted his weekend column to arguing for an optimistic, life-affirming response to the challenges of rising temperatures.

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. But I want to use his column as an excuse to push a little further on the subject and theorize a bit about the psychological roots of the procreation-amid-climate-change anxiety.

First, since I noticed some incredulous reactions from conservatives on Twitter, I can testify that the anxiety that Klein describes is real enough. I probably hear about the issue less frequently than he does — he lives in the Bay Area, after all — but frequently enough, especially from liberal baby boomer parents discussing their still-more-liberal millennial offspring’s delay in having kids.

We can argue about whether climate anxiety is a primary motivator for opting out of procreation or 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.

But at a certain point, even as an excuse, the idea becomes interesting. Why this, why now?

One answer is 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.

Another answer is ideological: The ideas of white and Western guilt are particularly important to contemporary progressivism, and in certain visions of ecological economy, removing one’s potential kids from the carbon-emitting equation amounts to a kind of eco-reparations. Here there are cultural parallels to the overpopulation anxieties of the 1970s, which often took a more overtly racist form (too many of them, over there, in India or China) but which also wove in a version of today’s progressive guilt. When my parents conceived me in Berkeley, California, in 1979, in a then maximally liberal milieu, they had almost zero friends with kids, and they were occasionally chided for pushing the earth closer to its carrying capacity. That kind of fear receded somewhat over subsequent decades, but now, like astrology, it has cycled back to prominence.

But the cycle also seems possibly connected to trends in religious adherence and belief. Why, for instance, has climate change seemingly yielded deeper procreative anxieties than the Eisenhower-era threat of nuclear doom, which didn’t exactly impede the baby boom? Perhaps because 1950s America was experiencing a religious revival, whereas the ‘70s were a period of rapid secularization or at least de-Christianization; likewise the past two decades, which have yielded the least-churched younger adults in modern American history.

Just as it makes sense that superstitions like astrology would become more popular amid religious disruption or decline, it isn’t surprising that such periods would generate cultural anxieties about bringing children into the world. Framed as fears about the death of modern civilization, they arguably partake of a more primal fear of death itself.

When people raised in a resolutely secular milieu and taught to regard the consolations of religion as so much wishful thinking say they don’t want to have kids because they’re afraid the kids will suffer and die amid rising sea levels or wildfires or some other ecological disaster, I don’t think they’re being insincere. But I still suspect the fear of suffering and dying per se is more important than the kind of suffering and death being envisioned — that it’s the general idea of bearing a child fated to extinction that’s most frightening, not the specific perils of climate change.

Global warming is clearly the sharpener, the memento mori; like wartime or a pandemic, it forces a focus on a reality that might otherwise stay out of mind. But the reality itself — that all suffer, all die — seems more fundamental. In worrying about hypothetical kids faring badly under climate change, the secular imagination is letting itself be steered toward the harsh analysis of Blaise Pascal:

Let us imagine a number of men in chains and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of the others, and those who remain see their own fate in that of their fellows and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. It is an image of the condition of men.

Or, rather, an image of men in a godless universe. Not that this pitiless conclusion is inevitable; certainly many serious nonbelievers would find reasons to dispute it. But the problem of meaning in a purposeless cosmos clearly hangs over the more secularized precincts of our society, lending surprising resilience to all kinds of spiritual impulses and ideas but also probably contributing to certain forms of existential dread.

I am not suggesting that secularization is the only factor in, say, rising rates of anxiety and unhappiness and suicidality among American teenagers. Explanations for the recent surge in teenage misery that focus on the effects of social media, the impact of the pandemic, overprotective parenting and other factors all make a lot of sense.

But religious shifts belong in that conversation, too, especially since depression and anxiety appear sharpest among the most liberal younger Americans. 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. And to the extent that every child deliberately conceived is a direct wager against Pascal’s dire analysis, it would make sense that under such shadows, anxieties about the ethics of childbearing would be particularly acute.

Against these anxieties, my colleague’s column urges a belief in a future where human agency overcomes existential threats and ushers in a “welcoming” and even “thrilling” world. This is a welcome admonition; I believe in those possibilities myself.

But the promise of a purposive, divinely created universe — in which, I would stress, it remains more than reasonable to believe — is that life is worth living and worth conceiving even if the worst happens, the crisis comes, the hope of progress fails.

The child who lives to see the green future is infinitely valuable; so is the child who lives to see the apocalypse. For us, there is only the duty to give that child its chance to join the story; its destiny belongs to God.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.