The first Earth Day was celebrated April 22, 1970. If the environmental movement was conceived with the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, it was born on the first Earth Day. I was born not long earlier into a world where rivers burned and people were starting to ask what sort of life children of the day would live.
I had no idea in 1970 the level of existential dread and hopeful expectation I and everyone in my generation would face. I wasn’t even a year old, and the idea that humans had turned to planetary destruction—in part because of another existential threat that had been posed in the 1940s—was beyond me. However, while my parents struggled to keep me in the suburban comfort of my schoolmates, they succeeded in sheltering me from what all those beatniks and hippies were preaching: I was 19 years old the first time I heard the term “earth day” at all. Pollution was a problem facing the poor, and in the time and place of my rearing there were two important truths: no one was poor if they worked hard, and my family was in the middle class (just like everyone else).
By the time I learned about Earth Day, I had already realized that beyond the chemically-manicured lawns of my home town was a world that paid the price for my upbringing. That didn’t make it easier to know how to change the course of history. The weight of humanity upon this incredible planet felt like it pressed upon me personally. The question that faces each of us individually is, “What can I do?” A lot of the answers are contrived: we are told to focus on recycling instead of rejecting plastic, for example. It’s easy to claim that individuals can do nothing, but when we’re asked to take buses and trains instead of buying cars we reject it because, again, that’s an issue for the poor. Automobiles are a sign of success and independence and on a planet where it’s increasingly obvious that all life is interdependent. When we are asked to take on larger, more collective actions like expanding mass transit and giving up the convenience of sitting in traffic in our own vehicles, we resist.
Despite our incredible advances in the understanding of the world around us, we remain driven by instinct. We have an endless number of ways to rationalize it, but our individual and collective decisions are based on securing food, and shelter, and making babies. Mind you, we are making babies as if there was still a 50% infant mortality rate in the world. I adore kids, but I haven’t forgotten the existential dread of living on a planet that might be doomed by my own species. I have chosen not to bestow that curse on a new life. Having no children of my own means not having to figure out how to shelter my kids from that difficult truth. Unfortunately, the instinct to breed is powerful and usually unrecognized in our discussions about the environment. The only people who seem to talk about not having children are the ones who dislike children. I definitely think anyone who doesn’t like kids shouldn’t have them, but it’s those of us who love children who really need to cross our legs. While it’s true that your next child may find the solution to all of our environmental problems, it is absolutely true that your next child contributes to those problems by existing.
Inevitably, the instinct-driven arguments involve misrepresentations and absurd distortions. I will be invited to kill myself, for example. I will also be accused of supporting genocide or eugenics. These are not rational positions, and I hold none of them. All I know for certain is that if we continue to ignore the simple math of an expanding population on a planet with finite resources, there will come a time when human suffering will outstrip all the horrors of history combined. I reason I don’t have children is because I love them too much to make them part of the problem. I’ve lived under the weight of Earth Day all of my life, and I know that the most important thing any human can do to protect our children is not to have them in the first place.