This morning, the New York Times published an essay by University of Notre Dame English professor Roy Scranton that began with this remarkable paragraph:
I cried two times when my daughter was born. First for joy, when after 27 hours of labor the little feral being we’d made came yowling into the world, and the second for sorrow, holding the earth’s newest human and looking out the window with her at the rows of cars in the hospital parking lot, the strip mall across the street, the box stores and drive-throughs and drainage ditches and asphalt and waste fields that had once been oak groves. A world of extinction and catastrophe, a world in which harmony with nature had long been foreclosed. My partner and I had, in our selfishness, doomed our daughter to life on a dystopian planet, and I could see no way to shield her from the future.
I couldn’t help but think back to the day when my son was born — my second child. I had tears in my eyes twice that day as well. The first, when he was born (seemingly healthy), and the second time when he was pulled out of our arms for emergency care. He had pneumonia. His breathing was labored. And for almost two full weeks he received the best care that modern medicine could provide. He wasn’t born on a dystopian planet. He was born in the only era of human history when he could survive.
Think for a moment about the elements of modern life that Scranton condemns in his essay. Cars and roads that enable people to travel to hospitals for the births of their children, box stores and drive-throughs that provide goods and comfort and nourishment without the necessity of scratching out a living from the land. Curiously, he even decries “drainage ditches” and “waste fields” that keep our communities sanitary and protect public health.
Indeed, it is the very spread of this progress — the spread of the very things that Scranton decries as the instruments of our doom — that has contributed to longer life expectancies across the planet and a stunning 74 percent plunge in extreme poverty from 1990 to 2015. I wonder: Are the speculative projections of a dystopian future ever weighed against the very real relief from a dystopian present? Do the many millions of lives saved now matter when we calculate the “costs” of progress?
And even if your focus is on the future, does our past ability to triumph over the challenges of the natural world — challenges that shortened human lives and impoverished generations past — give you any confidence for the days ahead?
Consider this: The United States — the nation that activists constantly decry as not taking the challenge of climate change seriously enough, the nation that allegedly is dilatory in mobilizing its government and national resources to combat a mortal threat to our planet, and the nation that continues to grow in population and national output — also happens to lead the world in reducing carbon emissions. And it’s not close:
Innovation and modernization are enduring features of capitalist economies. They have transformed the human condition and freed the vast bulk of humanity from the formerly omnipresent dangers of disease and famine. Simply put, the greatest engine for human progress in the history of mankind can’t be the instrument of its doom.
But don’t tell that to Scranton. He looks at an expanding economy and a shrinking national carbon footprint and sympathizes with even suicide as a response:
There is simply no more effective way to shrink your carbon footprint. Once you’re dead, you won’t use any more electricity, you won’t eat any more meat, you won’t burn any more gasoline, and you certainly won’t have any more children. If you really want to save the planet, you should die.
He’s not willing to go that far, of course. He does want to live, but he also wants us to know that “to live at all means to cause suffering.”
This is the language of a doomsday religion. Of course all men suffer, all men cause a degree of pain, and all men die, but the enduring, eternal imperative to “choose life” rests in part on the reality that children are a blessing, that the human mind has an extraordinary capacity to create, and that those who are good stewards of of their considerable intellectual gifts can create, well, the progress we see today.
Honestly, I’m puzzled by the environmental doomsday prophesies. I remember in the 1970s, when my family would drive south to Chattanooga, for example, and you could see the dark cloud of smog from many miles away. There were times not long ago when rivers caught fire. The alleged “point of no return” — when the world is too far gone to save — keeps getting pushed back at the exact same time that economies continue to grow. The America of today is far more populous, it’s wealthier, and it is still an industrial powerhouse. Yet it is cleaner. If anything, it is more beautiful, and with a few additional changes (more nuclear power, anyone?) even the alarmists will be forced to admit that the doomsday will never come.
But one gets the feeling that men such as Scranton don’t want to save us more than they want to change us. There’s more of a sense of aesthetic and moral revulsion at American capitalism and consumerism than a scientific argument that growth and progress are incompatible with human flourishing. But if changing us is the goal, make that case. Try to convince us that living with less is morally better, not that living with less — fewer children, less comfort, and stopping progress before the rest of the world reaches American levels of prosperity —is the only thing that can save our lives.
In fact, I’d argue that history has shown us that restraining growth is ultimately the more dangerous course. Yes, we can turn our tools into deadly instruments, and greed can pollute the human heart, but time and again our capitalist societies have demonstrated that they can improve the human condition and can solve and control the problems and complications that prosperity invariably yields. That’s not to say that capitalism enriches the human soul. Despair can touch the richest of men. But if dystopia is to come, it will come as it always has — through human sin, not through human progress.