(NYTIMES) – Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children Of Men depicts a dystopia of childlessness. For the past 18 years, the human race has been completely infertile, with no new babies born anywhere in the world. As the species faces the possibility of extinction, society is in an advanced state of collapse.
In his book Capitalist Realism, philosopher Mark Fisher claims that the question Children Of Men poses is: “How long can a culture persist without the new?”
Without a better future to hope for, there is no ultimate point in any of the characters being alive.
Dr Fisher was writing not long after the film had come out. But Children Of Men has become much cited in our current apocalyptic moment. For with the pandemic has come not only an immense toll of death, sickness and immiseration but also, for many, a loss of joy and possibility – disenchanting our feeling for the future.
The baby bust
At the start of lockdown, some puckishly predicted that all those couples locked away together would set off a pandemic baby boom. In fact, across the developed world at least, the exact opposite has proved true: In the United States, an estimated 300,000 fewer babies are expected this year. And Europe has experienced the most severe slump in its birth rate since the end of the 1970s.
What is driving the Covid “baby bust”? Perhaps some of it can be explained by people simply getting sick of each other, feeling unable to maintain the mystery and romance in their relationship. More profoundly, the pandemic has compounded the material difficulties – low wages, high rents and insecure jobs – faced by the generation that came of age in the wake of the 2008 economic crash.
Increasingly, young people feel not only deeply uncertain and insecure about the state of their own lives, but also so drastically concerned about the state of the world that they almost feel it would be an act of cruelty to bring new life into it.
In recent decades, South African philosopher David Benatar has argued extensively in support of the doctrine of “anti-natalism” – the belief that birth is morally wrong. According to him, reproduction is usually, if not always, a selfish act: “Most people, where they even make a decision to have a child, make that decision, I suspect, in order to serve their own procreative and related interests.”
But the “baby bust” may also reflect what seems to be a growing common sense among the highly educated and liberal minded, which holds that not having children is the morally right thing to do. Having a child, we are told, is among the heftiest additions you can make to your “carbon footprint” – especially if your child grows up to be the sort of pampered citizen of the developed world who will eat steak, fly on airplanes and mine bitcoin.
Kafka and the case for hope
This was a problem that I was confronted with when in January 2019, on an ultrasound screen streamed directly from my partner Edie’s belly, I first saw the shapes that would grow up into my son, Iggy.
Edie and I had always wanted to be parents. But was my love for my unborn child really anything more than the selfish, perhaps patriarchal, desire to see my genes carried on?
Previously, such anti-natalist worries had seemed abstract, but now they had become concrete. I am a professional philosopher, so I had no real way of articulating this anxiety other than to understand it as a philosophical problem.
I know that the world is far from perfect. But can I reasonably hope that the world might get better, in ways that justify bringing new life into it?
I found the solution in one of the last places one might expect – two quotes from Franz Kafka, a writer more often allergic to hope.
The first is from a fragment of conversation, as reported by Kafka’s friend and literary executor Max Brod.
“I remember a conversation with Kafka which began with present-day Europe and the decline of the human race. ‘We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts, that come into God’s head,’ Kafka said. This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall. ‘Oh no,’ said Kafka, ‘our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his.’ Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know. He smiled. ‘Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.’ “
The second is from a diary entry dated March 1922, during the period when Kafka was working on perhaps his most characteristic masterpiece, The Castle. Here, Kafka describes a certain profound sensation of hope: “This pure feeling I have and my certainty of what has caused it: the sight of the children… the rousing music, the marching feet. A feeling of one in distress who sees help coming but does not rejoice at his rescue – nor is he rescued – but rejoices, rather, at the arrival of fresh young people imbued with confidence and ready to take up the right; ignorant, indeed, of what awaits them, but an ignorance that inspires not hopelessness but admiration and joy in the onlooker and brings tears to his eyes.”
Taken together, these quotes allow us to trace the outlines of a theory: What if hope exists not for any individual human being now living – but rather for the members of future generations, who though powerless to redeem us, might nevertheless be able to overturn the injustices we have been subject to and carve out a better existence for themselves?
The new beginning
It makes no sense to think of children as tokens of their parents’ carbon consumption, inheriting a taste for steak and air travel. And it makes no sense to think that whole generations might simply be blindly condemned to a certain fate, before they have even been conceived.
The reason for this is that human action is not determined in any hard sense: human beings exist transformatively in relation to their world.
Another philosopher, Hannah Arendt, referred to this fact with the concept of “natality” – “the new beginning inherent in birth”. The world might well be a terrible place, but by having a child, you are introducing something new into it. Of course, this is a sort of gamble with reality: You don’t yet know who your child might be. But if we dare to bring something new into the world, we might hit upon the right path – and then things really could, conceivably, get better.
I admit there’s a danger that this might all come across as mere “reproductive futurism”, the future endlessly deferred to some hypothetical child, who it is incumbent on couples to produce. Or else it might seem as if I’m preaching a sort of idle waiting, every generation sitting around hoping for “the kids” to come along and tell everyone what to do.
But these failings are not inherent to the theory. They can be overcome. In the wake of the pandemic, we must work to reverse the ways in which we have become increasingly isolated from one another, reduced to atomised cocoons of individuals and their families.
Children require many people, not just their parents, to help them flourish. They must be raised to participate in the world – through the care and guidance of grandparents, godparents, teachers, friends, community.
And so actually having kids is far from the only way to help bring about the future we must hope can be made not only for or through future generations, but with them, too. I am happy enough, at any rate, with the gamble Edie and I took defying the baby bust. We have a wonderful boy.
Our second child is due in September. I cannot wait to help them – just as I am sure so many others, in love and hope, will help them – to become themselves.
• Tom Whyman is a philosopher and the author of the forthcoming Infinitely Full Of Hope: Fatherhood And The Future In An Age Of Crisis And Disaster, from which this essay is adapted.