In his New York Times opinion piece “How does a baby bust end?”, Ross Douthat discusses the declining American birthrate and lays out several hypotheses as to how to reverse this trend.
While the value of the question itself, much less his particular thinking, is debatable, it was fascinating to read through the comment section. Readers overwhelmingly felt that, at nearly 8 billion people, the real problem we face is the unsustainability of our global population, not declining American fertility. Others noted that any population decline could be met with immigration.
I decided to ask young adults I know about their thoughts. Many remain excited about having children. They have decided any problems are structural and out of their control.
They want to live life. Others mentioned student loan debt, affordable housing and inequality as concerns. Some focused on climate change, noting a creeping dread that, in addition to running for our lives with increasing frequency from weather disasters, we are likely facing an extremely volatile future with food and water insecurity.
Now add in structural racism, the lack of will to reduce mass shootings, the recent American dalliance with authoritarianism and disenfranchisement, the ugly us-vs.-them dehumanization of political others and our uninspiring “money-is-everything” culture, and raising a child at this historical moment doesn’t sound enticing to many young Americans.
I can’t imagine having babies now. Raising the two children I already have in this environment of political gridlock and uncertainty is already stressful.
While I dread the day my young children fully grasp the reason for their “lockdown” drills, they blissfully remain free of the stress of that knowledge. But I do not.
Yet my children are reaching the ages where an awareness of the scale of our climate problems is dawning on them. For the third day in a row, my 8-year-old son wanted to talk about Antarctica, for example. “It’s going to be gone,” he noted. Finally, today, what was really bothering him came out. “The polar bears will all die.” There is nothing I can say to change the likely truth of that painful prognosis without lying.
So I found myself repeating the mantra I have recently chosen for these moments: “Yes, you are living at a challenging time. It is a time of great change. Many of the changes are really hard and sad. But it is also an exciting time because you and your friends will get to be the problem-solvers. There are always helpers, and you will get to join them and help us all find a way forward.”
Every time I say a version of this statement, a deep sadness and uncertainty sweeps into my body. I want to project confidence and hope but cannot. He may be able to sense it. But what choice do we parents have when it comes to talking to our children about their futures? We have failed to take serious and consistent action on a problem that has a knowable cause. Yet I cannot let myself descend into hopelessness, because I will not give our children despair as a legacy.
In such times, it is perhaps wise to cede the moral high ground and look to the voices of those closest to the earth — those who understand its language and never believed that life was anything other than cyclical, that the law of reciprocity is the forever foundation and that humans are animals that must act from within the circle as stewards and not outside of it as gods. These are the people with deep knowledge of our various local cycles of nature, of animals, of plants: local farmers and ranchers, and especially Indigenous people, who occupy 28 percent of the planet’s land.
Their voices and knowledge should be elevated for the benefit of all. They should be consulted and at the table when decisions are being made. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Joy Harjo, Clifford Kapono, Angaangaq Angakkusuag, Davianna McGregor, Jamaica Osorio and Nikki Cooley are some of the Indigenous scientists, cultural practitioners and activists that may already have a vision to share for our road ahead. Nainoa Thompson, a Native Hawaiian master navigator who recently led the first traditional circumnavigation of the globe in 600 years, definitely does:
“If you want to make change, don’t worry about the scale. Worry about whether or not you’re going to get up and do something. When you add it all up, every act of kindness and compassion in a community counts ... I believe that we’re in a race with the things that are changing the world. And I don’t believe that any single individual or institution or country can deal with the enormous challenges that we must face to ensure that the future for our children is worth it — so we need to come together.”
I look into the eyes of our children and know we must try. May they provide the bridge for humanity from an era of extraction and exploitation to an era of stewardship and sustainability. They are the future we need.