Let’s begin with a story. This one comes from science-fiction. One of the most adored episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is “The Inner Light” (S5E25), a beautiful piece in which Captain Picard is given, by a memorial probe, to experience life as a member of a species that went extinct a thousand years ago, when its sun went nova. I was six years old when the episode first aired, which is possibly why one part puzzled me above all else, while I watched it:
The civilization that Picard experiences has him living as a man who knows the world is going to end… and yet he has children, who then have children of their own.
Why? Why bring children into a dying world?
I was reminded of that episode while sifting through various media this week, and reflecting on a major difference between certain spiritual and secular communities. A recent study of 600 people, for instance, not only found a strong correlation between climate-change fears and reduced inclination to give birth, but also regret, among those who already had children, for having brought them into so difficult a global environment.
(Uncannily, that study emerged in my feed alongside a review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, about an international organization formed to address suffering from global warming; and also near a report about how over 3 billion people are currently affected by water shortages. So, we’re very much in that TNG episode now, aren’t we?)
Conversely, part of Catholic Twitter was again grousing this week (among other things) about the ending of The Good Place, which many of them call “nihilistic” because it culminates (spoiler) with the end of consciousness, and no god.
Now, I usually just get a good chuckle from this definition of “nihilism,” because there’s an embedded assumption in such contexts: a conflation of “nothingness” with “meaninglessness,” when the real nihilism comes from the assumption that nothing outside one’s own cosmology has meaning. I find these folks to be engaging in nihilism when they insist that the ending of The Good Place strips all meaning from life, because it’s abundantly clear that plenty of viewers, atheist and spiritual alike, found great meaning in this show. (More honest discourse would therefore reflect on why this return to nothingness still has meaning for others, even if it does not offer them the same satisfaction.)
However, in light of the bleak climate-change discourse, I was also reminded, when reading all this disdain of nasty old atheism with its supposedly distinct nihilism-fetish, that a great many religious communities are also interested in definitive endings — endings to life on Earth, that is. From many U.S. evangelicals today; to North Americans and Europeans in a wide range of 19th-century end-times cults; to Puritan settlers to the New World believing that theirs would be the last generation; right back to Biblical Christ himself (with his end-times prophecy about the sky falling and the world becoming a wretched place for pregnant women and mothers of small children in the lifetime of his listeners)… a lot of doctrine hinges on an intensely spiritual desire to see this earthly realm terminated.
And yet, this in no way halts their interest in propagation.
The Use (and Misuse) of Childbirth
Now, yes, there are some… very disturbing maintenance-of-power reasons for this fixation on keeping people tethered to specific spiritual communities by throwing them into as much childrearing work as possible, for as long as possible.
Putting those issues to one side, though, we’re still left with a haunting disregard for the quality of a child’s life in many of those circles. To this end, Waiting for Armageddon (2009) was the most affecting documentary on extreme U.S. evangelicals I’d ever seen, because it has a scene wherein one believer expresses frustration around how children respond to the end-times “news” that her generation has been feeding them. She is… visibly annoyed and indignant when talking about how it upsets the children to learn they won’t get to grow up.
In that moment, you can see that the children’s distress has shaken her, at least a little, from the comfort of her sweeping and cavalier belief in impending apocalypse… but only enough to entrench her further in her sense of spiritual superiority. The apocalypse will come, she believes, and it will be righteous, and all must fear the god that brings about this terror if they’ve any hope of being counted among the righteous on that day, too. (Ergo, shut up about being sad you won’t make it to prom or ever experience a first kiss.)
And so, we have a bit of a schism on our hands, as a species: a body of one-thirds-world persons (most of whom are probably non-religious, let’s be honest) who have opted out of childbirth at least in part because they see creating life under these planetary conditions as unconscionable; and a body of people who have long since believed that, since consciousness does not end with death (in their view), it’s no problem to continue propagating without pause through all manner of extreme situations, even until the planet is uninhabitable. In fact, it might even be their duty to accelerate the species to the end-times, so convinced are they that a greater order will then arise.
Those one-thirds-world persons opting out of childbirth are actually also making the biggest personal contribution possible to the reduction of our carbon footprint, because while it is sheer classism and racism to suggest that the world would be better off if “the poor” and “poor nations” lowered their reproduction rates… it’s dead on the money to note that a one-thirds-world child has by far the larger carbon footprint, such that lower reproduction rates among the most industrialized nations is useful to our fight against climate change.
Here, though, we find ourselves confronted by a fairly important division in perspective between people whose strong faith in life after death fuels a god-given imperative to create more life, and… those of us who believe that, as self-aware beings, we can choose to turn from individual biological imperatives for the betterment of our shared future.
Is there any way of reconciling such wildly different approaches in the realm of meaningful public policy?
Uh. Well, About That…
Okay, I have to admit: It’s a difficult question. Possibly one of the most difficult I have ever tried to grapple with here.
I, for instance, have zero intention of bringing life into this world, and have felt this way since I was a teen. To do so solely for genetic imperative feels like naturalistic fallacy — and can cultivate dangerously tribalist thinking. There are also enough people in need already that my main interest lies with maximizing resource distribution to all of them.
But I also have no issue with paying taxes that support societal institutions focussed on children and the well-being of child-focussed families. I love the idea of contributing to making the world a better place for them, and by extension, for everyone who shares a planet with them.
The trouble lies with those who do not care about leaving the world a better place for others, not even for their offspring. Indeed, folks who have bought into the idea that their sole responsibility is to look after their many children often fail to provide well enough even for that target group, because in the process they’re usually supporting the construction of a world in which a) generational outcomes are determined by the parental lottery, and b) little to no effort has been put in to improving background social conditions — which also stand to benefit one’s own, in time.
We all know the kind of people I’m talking about: The folks who condemn debt relief, universal healthcare, and improved education systems as morally outrageous simply because “they” didn’t have them, “they” had to suffer, so others should have to suffer, too. The folks, furthermore, endlessly fixated on the idea that taxation is theft, and that the government should have no say in individual outcomes… yet who can’t quite process that “family” is an even more intrinsically undemocratic enterprise, with far greater risks of tyranny imposed on the most vulnerable within it.*
*I’m being a bit disingenuous here, granted, in presuming that taxation-is-theft folks don’t recognize the undemocratic nature of family. It’s probably more accurate to say that most of them know full well they can run their families like little fiefdoms… and want to, and from that place of longing for “might-makes-right” rule on the home front, come to assume that all other societal enterprises must also be interested in tyranny — and for this reason, present a direct threat to their personal aspirations.
Is it any wonder, then, that the spectre of egregious suffering aligned with environmental change meets with such disdain? That young people are mocked for expressing a desire to live in a better world?
Tribalism, Nihilism, and… a Choice
Changing this mentality is hard, though, because it’s not the sole provenance of extreme evangelical cults. Yes, doomsday fantasies have thrived for generations in a range of North American spiritual communities, but plenty of retribution-minded policy-makers exist in the non-religious sphere as well. These are the folks who claim to be fiscally conservative, but cannot tolerate research showing that education in prisons reduces recidivism rates, which in turn reduces cost to taxpayers and increases economic output (from reintegration of ex-cons to the greater workforce). These are the folks who also insist government shouldn’t get too involved in the upbringing of children, especially in contravention to a parent’s wishes… but also want to throw away the key or otherwise punish the adolescent who either commits a crime or gets pregnant due in part to the precarity, ignorance, and violence in their childhood home.
Which is why “The Inner Light,” like most ST:TNG episodes, is an extraordinary work of utopic thinking… because it does more than give Picard an insight into a dying world: It also imagines a world dying well. A world where, right to the bittersweet end-of-days, there is public debate, and there is some measure denial, but there is also… love, and a genuine interest in building community consensus from an earnest discussion of society’s ills and possible recourses.
If we were to make a memorial probe filled with memories of our species, to be found an eon hence, after we’ve wiped ourselves out from climate change… what kind of life would that alien visitor be given inhabit, so as to know us best?
A world in which infotainment media relentlessly drives “gotcha” takes and a sowing of distrust in public research, democracy, and debate.
A world in which children are expressly frightened by adults who so delight in the promise of the end-times that they have zero interest in building a better world for interim generations.
A world in which we are all of us shamed for mourning what we’re losing, right before our eyes, and often even derided for trying to hold off that bitter end for as long as we can, by as many means as we can.
I don’t know if we can fix the problems we’ve created. Certainly, I think the sunset days of my life will find me acclimated to even more egregious news about the state of global suffering: huge spikes, that is, in environmental refugeeism, as well as mass deaths from natural disasters, plagues, famines, and resource wars. Other species, too, dropping from our ecosystem without ever fully understanding what brought them to their own demise.
No, I don’t know if we have the time, the means, or the wherewithal to reverse the dying of our collective light.
But we can choose our attitude toward the nothingness that awaits us.
We can choose how we will comport ourselves, how we will live with greater dignity, and how much we will extend that same agency to others all about the globe… until the end for either one or all of us arrives.