My response to “If you had a child you’d know living sustainably with them is impossible.”

March 1, 2023 by Joshua
in Nature

Parents tell me all the time, “If you had kids, you’d see you can’t help polluting.” They sound smug about it, like they checkmated me and showed they were smarter or more experienced therefore unassailable.

So far I’ve listened with curiosity. I’m not a parent, so they’ve experienced things I haven’t. On the other hand, their conclusion doesn’t make sense. People have had children since the first person, 300,000 years ago, but we only started polluting two or three centuries ago.

I’ve often felt like responding, “I haven’t tried to fix all the world’s problems myself overnight. I’ve worked to fix the problems I face and have reduced my pollution and therefore my hurting others by over ninety percent in under three years. If I lived your life, I would still reduce ninety percent in under three years, just facing your issues.”

It’s tempting to feign taking the moral high ground about infant mortality, but most of the pollution has nothing to do with infant mortality. Let’s gave all all the lifesaving stuff a pass for the sake of understanding the rest of the picture. Disposable diapers, toys, and disposable stuff doesn’t save lives and I suspect it constitutes most of the waste.

Poop used to fertilize. We made the world more fertile and abundant. Disposable diapers mean that instead of fertilizing the world, we wrap poop in poisonous plastic and effectively save it for future generations to deal with.

I haven’t yet reached a conclusive view, but I see the situation in two ways so far: socially and individually. Fundamental to these views is that pollution hurts people. Even if you think Earth can reprocess some materials, we’ve overloaded whatever reserves that allowed some pollution to exist without hurting people. We once made tall smokestacks so the biosphere could reprocess smoke before it reached people’s (and animal wildlife’s) lungs. Now the biosphere is full. New pollution affects everyone today.

Besides, even if the biosphere can reprocess some pollution, like smoke and poop, it can’t process some poisons, like plastic, PCBs, greenhouse gases, and forever chemicals, at least on human time scales. Besides pollution, we’re extracting materials that decrease Earth’s ability to sustain life.

Socially, and culturally too, if we’ve created a society and culture where creating human life here kills human life (and wildlife) elsewhere, how is fixing that part of our culture not our top priority? I discovered this pathology with packaged food in my first week of experimenting avoiding it. I saw that as long as I needed packaging to eat, which I need to live longer than a few days, I can’t live without hurting people. That realization prompted me to change myself and change my culture. I can’t stomach living in and supporting a culture that both forces its members to kill others for them to live and kills other cultures for itself to live.

How do we tolerate this pathology? If a culture has created a situation where the act of you living, loving, and bringing new life into the world requires needlessly taking life elsewhere, what does it do to our minds and hearts. Is it turning us into psychopaths?

On the individual level, on the one hand having children is a basic part of life. If you didn’t create our polluting culture and you can’t reform it within your parenting years, what can you do but have a child and accept that you’ve hurt people elsewhere?

But parents don’t seem to acknowledge the suffering they’re causing, even if they can’t help it. Most imply they try to some degree to lower the waste with Buy Nothing groups, but that stewardship seems overwhelmed by their resignation and capitulation that seem to morph into something more. I think they rationalize and justify until they believe their rationalizations and justifications and normalize what from a comprehensive view ends up cruel. It’s hard not to conclude all this mental gymnastics is turning us into psychopaths.

How are we not doing everything we can to end this situation? How are parents not overwhelmed with motivation to reform this system? Have we just given up?

I look at it more positively: what can we do to restore compassion and remove cruelty? Say we can’t change culture overnight. Don’t we still benefit from and feel an obligation to change it as much and as fast as possible?

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