A writer’s path is paved with the flagstones of their unread essays. Years ago I wrote an essay entitled “Soil and Myself” for the collection Irish Spirit (Wolfhound, 2001). I was attempting there to come to grips with my youthful loss of religious faith and my growing enchantment with the earth as a source of inspiration and solace. This spiritual crisis occurred in the early eighties, an era when the dimensions of our global environmental problems were becoming apparent. I fell in love with a damaged world.
My turning to nature was a physical one to be sure, but my late teen years were also a time of reverie inspired by those Irish writers that cared about both people and wild landscapes: Liam O’Flaherty, W.B. Yeats, and Lady Gregory, for example, and by all the earthy shenanigans recorded in the Irish mythological cycles. An apposite ratio of nature hikes and of literary contemplation provided me a foundation for optimistic living.
“Soil and Myself” was published, the world turned, and I moved along as writers are wont to do. Several years later, I got a letter from a reader—perhaps the essays only one—who remarked on how the piece had moved her. She was getting on, she wrote, and was latterly attempting to draw consolation from the same sources I had. As a codicil, she noted that she had elected not to have children because of her worry about nuclear armageddon. Why bring a child into this damned world? She concluded wistfully that had she had a child that child would be my age now. By the time I got that letter I had survived nearly four decades without facing down any real calamities.
This small but arresting exchange came to mind on reading a number of recent pieces that assume a bleak environmental future. For example, a recent Onion headline quips dolefully “Sighing, Resigned Climate Scientists Say to Just Enjoy Next 20 Years As Much As You Can.” In in a less droll fashion, the Climate Change and Life Events app allows users map their future against projections of future temperatures (https://climate-life-events.herokuapp.com/). The future will not look like the past. The New York Times reports on some couples’ deliberations about their reproductive future in the light of such realities: “No Children Because Of Climate Change? Some People Are Considering It” (New York Times, Feb 5, 2018). A new generation considers the prospects of raising children in perilous times. Unlike nuclear annihilation, which, so far, has failed to materialize, the bombs of climate change, so to speak, have already left their bunkers, though there is some uncertainty about their yield. Facing an uncertain environmental future, and occupying a planet that horrifyingly may be unable to sustain its burgeoning human population, determining to have, or not have, a child is a fraught decision.
Even if the world’s population stabilizes in the next century (which seems likely) and does so within the limits of our finite planet (which is less certain), one might still hesitate before choosing to offer up your notional child to this crammed, tempestuous, and warmly steaming world.
Faced with such prospects—and as an environmentalist I was an early adopter of cataclysmic thinking, despite the sustaining quality of my early nature-reveries—my wife and I had our first child twenty-six years ago. Since she and I never dated and simply got married (don’t try this at home kids) we never had that conversation about kids that others seemingly do. I rather assumed we would not have children, regarding this as bad environmental practice, she rather assumed we would, regarding this as something that humans just do. We added another child to our reproductive tally four years later.
Had my wife been of the same mind as me, I might not have ever thought of the matter again. There are times now, when reexamining my cavalier indifference to parenting that I shudder to realize how blithely I might have set aside my life’s greatest pleasure. Not to have children would have seemed a failure of optimism. Not merely a failure to hope that crises can averted—perhaps they cannot— but a failure to imagine our children as being capable of loving this planet, however besmirched it may be.
Environmental calamity puts food on our family’s table. Thus, our kids grew up being aware of the full panoply of planetary horrors. Both boys are cognizant of what they are facing. My joy in parenting them notwithstanding, it’s fair to ask if we did them a disservice in birthing them into such a world.
I texted our boys to ask if they remain enthusiastic about the ambiguous gift we presented them in the light of what they now know about the world. Both answered in a way that reflects their adult interests. The eldest, a philosophy graduate student, texted: “There is no standpoint from which to sensibly ask whether life is going well, like a poker game, because there is no external standpoint.”
The younger child, an economics graduate student, took a more pragmatic approach: “I’m good with it…,” he wrote, “…although it’s difficult to say because it may get harder in the future. Right now, I good though. I’m content with this whole existing stuff.”
I suggest you try this sobering exercise with your children.
When both our children left home, the nightly task of locking up our, now empty, nest continued to fall to me. Instead of securing our children, ensconced in their feather beds, in the home, I lock them out instead. Since they left, I have been giving thought to the question of how prepared these kids are for the world that awaits them beyond the lintel. They certainly seem open to those perennial and perplexing gifts this battered world can offer: love, friendship, the joys of reflection, the joys of creativity. Like me, at their age, they draw solace from wild nature and interactions with non-human beings. Both have a warm regard for animals.
What else, I wondered, embolden them to be (cautiously) hopeful?
I got a partial answer as I moved the boys’ childhood library from bedrooms to basement. Or rather, my wife moved them, and I reread them. As I glanced at these books—from the classics to contemporary titles—on these short ambles through the house, it struck me that both boys’ optimism had been cultivated by the stories they read as mine had been years before (and continues to be). The world, even a fictional one, has its frightful moments undoubtedly. Yet powerful lessons abound in both life and in stories about how we can persist in loving and caring for the world.
After I lost my religious faith, and turned to the soil, and to stories rooted in the soil, it was not to lose myself there and ignore the breakages of the natural world. One can remain aware of such troubles, and yet be content to endure with all this “existing stuff.” Surely, we are not such latecomers to the world that we feel incapable of cultivating awe, love, and hope.
By all means, have a child in these precarious times. Hell, have two. Or don’t have kids at all. However, neither climate change, nor nuclear threats, nor even the heat death of the universe, for that matter, should stop you.
If you do have children, help them fall in love with the world. Immersion in nature and in quiet repose with books can help. Someday your kids may begrudgingly thank you for their existence if you care to ask them about it. Unless, of course, they haughtily refuse the very premise of your question. Cheeky, hopeful, blighters that they are.
Liam Heneghan is a professor of environmental science and studies at DePaul University. His book, Beasts at Bedtime Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature (University of Chicago Press) will come out in May 2018. (firstname.lastname@example.org)