In one of his early works, the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche relayed an Ancient Greek legend about King Midas pursuing the satyr Silenus, a wise companion of the god Dionysus. When Midas finally captures Silenus, he asks him what “the best thing of all for men” is. “The very best thing for you is totally unreachable,” Silenus replies: “not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing.”
Raphael Samuel, a 27-year-old from Mumbai, offered an echo of this argument to the BBC this month. Samuel plans to sue his parents for bringing him into a world of suffering without his consent. “Why should I suffer? Why must I be stuck in traffic? Why must I work? Why must I face wars? Why must I feel pain or depression? Why should I do anything when I don’t want to? Many questions. One answer,” Samuel wrote on his Facebook page: “Someone had you for their ‘pleasure.’”
Once, such thoughts might have seemed far-fetched or even self-indulgent. Today, however, similar reasoning—known as “antinatalism—seems to be spreading as potential future parents contemplate bringing children into a world climate change is likely to devastate. “Why did you have me?” Samuel asked his parents as a child. If the bleak scenarios about the planet’s future come to fruition, will parents have a satisfying answer to such questions?
The basic antinatalist argument is simple, albeit easily misunderstood. As philosopher David Benatar argued in a 2006 antinatalist treatise, life is full of suffering and strife, the moments of pleasure and happiness few, transitory, and elusive, and ultimately it all ends in death. This is not the same as saying that life is not worth living, if you happen to be alive—for one thing, living and then facing death can involve its own physical and emotional pain. The argument is rather that it would have been better never to have been born in the first place. Some lives can indeed be rather satisfactory, even rewarding. But as a potential future parent, you are taking a risk on your child’s behalf, because, Benatar kindly reminds us, “there is a wide range of appalling fates that can befall any child that is brought into existence: starvation, rape, abuse, assault, serious mental illness, infectious disease, malignancy, paralysis.”
Which brings us to a risk unique to the twenty-first century: climate change. According to the 2018 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humanity has only 12 years left to prevent global warming from reaching levels that would result in the poverty of millions and the greatest displacement of people in the history of humanity as they flee extreme drought and floods. Such events also tend to involve violent conflict. The political community’s tepid response to climate change so far, with world leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsanaro refusing to acknowledge global warming as real, let alone as urgent, makes it hard to be optimistic. Given the very real possibility that life will be much worse for the next generation as a result of the global instability, some, recent trend pieces report, are thinking twice about becoming parents.
One might argue that, like Benatar’s catalogue of human suffering, this response is overly pessimistic. Hardship is nothing new. Life can be meaningful despite it, and sometimes even because of it. Strife gives you something to work towards, purpose; it’s what gives life meaning, not what makes it meaningless.
But if climate change causes wars to break out, would one still choose to birth children into a high likelihood of violent death? And if the looming 12-year deadline is missed, and further temperature increases become statistically inevitable, what purpose could life have in the face of an unavoidable, collective downfall? At least people living today still have the agency to change things. But bringing children into a decaying world, without even the opportunity to do something about it, seems a cruel fate to inflict on someone, especially your own child.
The great question is whether that fate is inevitable. During the Cold War, there was an existential fear about a possible nuclear war between America and the USSR, which would have brought about mass death and suffering. Instead, political history and fortune took a turn that made nuclear annihilation less likely—even though the risk of a nuclear war may since have risen. Going further back, around the turn of the nineteenth century, the English economist Thomas Malthus was warning that the pending overpopulation of the planet would lead to inevitable food shortages. That didn’t happen either. Technological advances have allowed the planet to feed a population many times its nineteenth-century tally of one billion. So, even if we can’t see it from our current vantage point, there is hope that politics, technology, or a combination of the two might retrospectively render our current anxieties exaggerated. But, of course, there is no guarantee of that—hope comes with its own risks.
Having children, some could argue, is a way of making that hope more realistic. While some environmentalists have suggested lowering birth rates to reduce greenhouse emissions for those who remain, there is also another side to the issue: Young people today care deeply about the environment and their activism is needed as political pressure. Young people will also be the future scientists and engineers that we need in order to come up with technological solutions to global warming that are still unavailable. Both these “greater good” arguments for and against procreation, unfortunately, amount to using future children as a means to an end, thinking about how they can contribute to our overall welfare, rather than thinking of their own individual well-being.
What is unsettling about all of these justifications for having children in the face of potential adversity is that they portray this decision as the result of a calculation. Most people don’t have children after doing a risk-assessment of the possible problems that could threaten their children’s well-being in the future. Philosophers like Benatar of course think that’s a mistake, unreflectively surrendering to our animal instinct to procreate—but arguably if our decision to bring a new person to life resulted from spreadsheet analysis, that would come with its own dystopian overtones, and somewhat compromise the inherently audacious nature of the act.
Nietzsche, ultimately, did not give in to Silenus’s pessimistic message that it would have been better never to have existed. Instead, he emphasized the life-affirming side of Dionysus’s outlook, an affirmation in full knowledge of life’s propensity for tragedy. This affirmation embraces life in its totality, its high points as well as its low points, without entering into a petty calculus of which side amasses a greater score. For Nietzsche, this was not a rational argument, or a religious belief, but more of an attitude towards things. Nietzsche called it “the will to life,” or “a triumphant Yes”: the “affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest of problems.” While future parents may not want to respond to the question, “why did you have me?” by handing a child the complete works of Nietzsche, they may yet find this attitude inspiring in the era of climate change.