On Children, Climate, and the Future

When I was growing up, I made a lot of assumptions about my future.

I assumed that, sooner or later, I would attain a degree of clarity about what I wanted for my life’s work.

I assumed that I would always have a basic level of security that didn’t involve entering adulthood in the age of mass shootings, graduating college during the worst economic downturn in almost a century, and having the great unknown of my generation be whether, over the course of my lifetime, human beings would irrevocably damage our planet’s ability to sustain us.

I assumed that I would get married, own a house, and have children.

Not yet, of course. There were so many things I wanted to do first, before having children. But someday.

As time ticked on, I started to notice that my feelings about having children never seemed to change. I always wanted children abstractly, in the distant future. But as I got older, there never came a time when I felt like I wanted children soon. Never now.

The entire question became further complicated when I cast my lot with a man who has never wanted children, not even in the foggy future where mine always dwelled. I suppose, if I were committed enough to my hypothetical children, this is the sort of difference that might split apart a marriage. But as I make my way through my thirties, it seems that rather than knowing better what I want, I’ve only made better peace with not knowing.

We do talk about it now and then: not just whether we should have children, but why people in general have children, what reasons make people want to have children. I know, for some people, it’s an unquenchable yearn, a question that has never needed asking; for others, it’s something that simply happened, without plan or design.

For me, I think a lot about duty. Do I owe it to my ancestors, who necessarily date back to the origin of human beings, to take my place in that ancient and unbroken chain so that some small part of whoever they were can exist into the future, so that whatever happens to humanity from here, a human to whom I contributed might be a part of it? Do I owe it to the future to make use of what might be my most direct tool for influence, to contribute to society humans who I would raise according to my values, to be kind and accepting and imaginative and brave?

I told Lawrence this week that maybe having children would be a way to have a stake in the future. But, you know, maybe I don’t need to birth my own child to feel like I have something at stake in how the future unfolds.

Today, our Republican President pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement, an accord signed by every nation on Earth except Syria (in the midst of civil war) and Nicaragua (in protest that the agreement was not strong enough). It was our collective commitment to the proposition that we must act together to preserve the only habitable planet we have. It was all of us, saying together as members of the human species, we will invest in a future we may not live to see. We will do what it takes to make sure that our civilization survives on this Earth.

Now all of that is at stake. I find myself fumbling with the order of my concerns. What does it mean to think about what I want to do with my life, whether I want to have children? Shouldn’t I first be asking other questions, such as, will we have a planet?

Like the President, I make my home in midtown Manhattan. We live on an island that sits at sea level in New York Harbor. The President is old enough that he may not live to experience firsthand the devastation he is wreaking; he will reap his gains in the here and now and leave it to the rest of us — including his children and grandchildren, who evidently are not enough to make him care about the world he leaves them — to pay the price. But, in my lifetime or the lifetime after mine, rising sea levels caused by climate change caused by human activity may submerge entire neighborhoods in New York City.

I don’t need to have children for that to matter to me. It’s enough that I love this city and this country and this earth. It’s enough that I love human beings enough to want us to go on.