In the opening scenes of the 1995 film 12 Monkeys, we meet gritty protagonist James Cole, played by a very worried-looking Bruce Willis. The year is 2035, and the dwindling remnants of humanity have been driven underground, thanks to a virulent super-virus that has killed almost everyone on earth. Cole spends his days as a prisoner in a claustrophobic lair scrunched beneath the remains of Philadelphia. Wild animals roam the world’s former cities.
The deadly virus was released deliberately, by a human being, in 1996.
Since 12 Monkeys is more than 20 years old, I hope I won’t spoil it for you by revealing the disease-spreading culprit: It’s a crazed environmentalist, convinced that human beings are destroying Mother Earth. Thanks to some glitch-filled time travel and hijinks involving a wild-eyed Brad Pitt, you’ll be pleased to learn that the movie has a somewhat happy ending. Unfortunately for all of us, certain people in 2017 seem alarmingly sympathetic to the ideas of the villain in the film.
Take this headline from a recent piece at NBC News: “Science proves kids are bad for Earth. Morality suggests we stop having them.” (Ah, “science.” If I had a dollar for every headline that claims that “science proves” this or that batty premise, I could probably buy NBC News and hire a bunch of winsome kids to write endearing articles that might make a semblance of sense. But I digress.)
Children, the argument goes, should be considered first and foremost as problematic carbon-generating machines. With the planet facing almost-certain existential peril — Travis Rieder, a philosopher at Johns Hopkins University and the author of the piece, describes it as “the very real prospect of catastrophic climate change” — the decision to have children becomes a deep moral question. The decision to have more than one child, meanwhile, could be a serious moral failing.
“If I release a murderer from prison, knowing full well that he intends to kill innocent people, then I bear some responsibility for those deaths,” Rieder helpfully explains. “Something similar is true, I think, when it comes to having children: Once my daughter is an autonomous agent, she will be responsible for her emissions. But that doesn’t negate my responsibility.”
If you’re wondering if this was actually written by an android cleverly disguised as a human, join the club. Who refers to their daughter as a future “autonomous agent”? Who compares a young human being — a child of God, I would argue, with an immortal soul — to a “high-cost luxury” of which we “should limit our indulgence”?
Children, the argument goes, should be considered first and foremost as problematic carbon-generating machines.
Here’s the bad news: A shocking number of environmentalists do. In her 2015 book One Child, philosopher Sarah Conly argues that no one has the right to more than one child, comparing siblings to “expensive toys.” No one “needs” more than one child, she argues: Once you’ve had one, you’ve checked your primitive “urge to parent” box, and can reap all the benefits associated with doing so. In this view, people are commodities — and at certain points, Conly seems unsure if the human race should continue at all. In the end, she halfheartedly admits, it’s “more rational” to “improve individual human lives, and make our lives less costly to other species, rather than giving up on humans entirely.” Whew! That’s a relief.
“Want to Slow Global Warming? Researchers Look to Family Planning.” That’s NPR. “Having Children Brings High Carbon Impact.” That’s The New York Times. “Having children is one of the most destructive things you can do to the environment, say researchers.” That’s the Independent. Meanwhile, groups like Conceivable Future declare that “the climate crisis is a reproductive crisis”; Negative Population Growth, an organization dedicated to the existence of fewer kids, recently applauded the striking drop in Millennial childbearing.
Given the embarrassing “Oh, never minds” that came after previous population panics — Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich come to mind — one would think a minor dose of humility would be in order. Given the horrors and unexpected consequences of the Chinese one-child policy and the problems arising due to low population growth in Europe and elsewhere, one would also expect a sense of hesitation from hard-core one-child advocates.
On both counts, one would be disappointed. “We know more,” writes Conly, “and have better science.” For his part, when it comes to practical solutions, Rieder proposes a progressive tax penalty for families who have children. “Children, in a kind of cold way of looking at it, are an externality,” he told NPR. “We as parents, we as family members, we get the good. And the world, the community, pays the cost.”
Perhaps this is true, if you see people largely as a problem to be solved or a commodity like any other. But that view, of course, is not scientific at all.
— Heather Wilhelm is a National Review Online columnist.