‘Iknew only that I had to survive,’ Jane Lazarre writes about the process of giving birth.
I pushed hard only because that was the only way to get the bastard out. And because pushing is not an urge; it is a demand backed up by all the violence your body, turned suddenly into an enemy, has at its command … pushing with all my might, I experienced for a moment what I would feel for hours with my next child – the certainty that I was dying.
‘To let the baby out,’ Maggie Nelson writes, ‘you have to be willing to go to pieces.’ ‘Just this is miraculous,’ Carole Maso writes. ‘That I ploughed without illusion towards death. Even as I gave life.’ Not everyone describes birth as an encounter with death: there are ecstatic births, orgasmic births, traumatic births, and what would be traumatic for one may not be for another. How we make sense of such experiences has always depended on the contingencies of biology as well as those of time and place, gender, class and race.
For those in industrialised countries where reproductive care is more readily – if by no means universally – available, having biological children has come to be seen as a matter of choice. Although women have been practising methods of contraception since long before the introduction of the pill, it’s relatively new that having a child should be thought of as a choice. At the same time, advances in assisted reproduction technologies have made the possibility of becoming a parent more widely available, at least to those with the resources to take advantage of such technologies. The mechanics of gestation and birth have been transformed by in vitro fertilisation and egg-freezing techniques: today a pregnant person may be hetero or queer, without a partner or with many partners. They may be a surrogate gestating a foetus for friends or for paying customers. They may be a trans man or identify as non-binary.
Recently, in Sweden, for the first time a baby was born to a woman whose pregnancy was made possible by transplanting her mother’s uterus into her body – the baby gestated in the same womb that had gestated the baby’s mother. In 2018, in Brazil, for the first time a baby was born to a woman who had received a uterus from a deceased donor, a feat repeated in North America last June, giving reproductive hope to trans women who want to carry children of their own. So far, at least, it seems that a womb is still necessary to bring a baby into being, though researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have successfully brought premature lambs to term in an artificial womb. The apparatus – somewhat unfortunately known as a ‘biobag’ – is basically a plastic bag with one tube carrying amniotic fluid in and another carrying it out. Human testing is still a few years away at least, but in the future some version is likely to be used with late-term human foetuses. This could be an early step towards a more complex artificial womb capable of handling human foetuses at an even earlier stage, something that might have been welcomed by Shulamith Firestone, who called for the ‘freeing of women from the tyranny of their biology by every means possible’.
If we live long enough, we are unlikely to die without having at least considered what it means to bring a new life into being. Whether or not you have children, whether you want to have a child, or dread it, or both, whether you feel confident in your desire never to procreate or find that you are not able to procreate, at some point before you reach the end you will have navigated the question of whether or not to be a biological parent. If you are reading this sentence, it is almost certain that at some point, perhaps as you are making toast in your pyjamas, or taking a bus to work while looking out at the grey right angles of a city block, or dancing barefoot, or lying awake at night with the pillow too hot against your cheek, the modern fantasy of choice and control will whisper to the age-old fantasy of ‘self’ knocking about your brain that having or not having a child is a decision. And you will make it. Or you won’t. Or you will feel – with rage, or sorrow, or relief – that it has been made for you. But the fantasy of choice quickly begins to dissipate when we acknowledge that the conditions for human flourishing are distributed so unevenly, and that, in an age of ecological catastrophe, we face a range of possible futures in which these conditions no longer reliably exist.
One evening last year, the Democratic member of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was chopping vegetables in her kitchen while speaking to her millions of Instagram followers via livestream: ‘Our planet is going to hit disaster if we don’t turn this ship around,’ she said, looking up from a chopping-board littered with squash peel. ‘There’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult.’ Her hands fluttered to the hem of her sweater, then to the waistband of her trousers, which she absentmindedly adjusted. ‘And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question, you know, should …’ she took a moment to get the wording right: ‘Is it OK to still have children?’ Her comment spawned a flurry of pieces on why you should or should not procreate. But the thorny question of whether it is OK to have children – a question about what we owe one another and what we owe the unborn – remains. As Ocasio-Cortez put it, there’s ‘just this basic moral question: like, what do we do?’
It seems increasingly clear that we are living in a time of radical destabilisation of life on Earth which complicates the act of bearing children in ways that society has yet to grapple with. We lack the language to talk to one another about the fact that a child born today will live on a planet hotter than it has ever been since human civilisation developed. The mind baulks. Language fails. How do we talk about having children when we keep hearing that even if global emissions dropped to zero tomorrow some amount of global heating is already locked in for at least a decade, as a result of the amount of carbon we have already released into the atmosphere? Or when it’s possible that we have already passed tipping points, with effects that researchers don’t yet understand?
We know enough to know that people are living with the effects of global heating right now. We know that climate risk and the worst effects of ecological disaster are unevenly distributed across race, class and gender, and among industrialised and developing countries – for many people, conditions tantamount to the end of the world have already arrived. We know that to avoid the devastation of vulnerable communities and to avert the risks of mass starvation, civilisational collapse and species extinction, we need to decarbonise the global economy. The faster the better. And it’s not just carbon. Human activity is causing catastrophic soil degradation, chemical pollution and ecological collapse. We are witness to a staggering loss of biological diversity. Extinctions. Microplastics. Bee colonies. Dead zones. Every biological mother on the planet has DDT in her breast milk.
The polar icecaps are melting. Is it OK to have a child? Australia is on fire. Is it OK to have a child? My house is flooded, my crops have failed, my community is fleeing. Is it OK to have a child? It is, in a sense, an impossible question. With her careful rhetorical shift from the intimate ‘should I’ to the more theoretical ‘Is it OK to still have a child?’ Ocasio-Cortez conjured the paradox of scale that haunts any consideration of the ethics of childbearing in a time of planet-wide catastrophe. Having a child is at once the most intimate, irrational thing a person can do, prompted by desires so deep we hardly know where to look for their wellsprings, and an unavoidably political act that increasingly requires one to confront not only the complex biopolitics of pregnancy and birth, but also the intersecting legacies of colonialism, racism and patriarchy, all while trying to wrap one’s head around the relationship between the impossible extremes of the personal and the global.
A recent article in Outside magazine called ‘I Got a Vasectomy because of Climate Change’ begins: ‘I’ve always struggled to combine the idea of personal responsibility with the overwhelming need for human society to address the threat posed by climate change.’ ‘Want to fight climate change?’ a Guardian headline from 2017 reads. ‘Have fewer children.’ The piece discusses a widely cited paper by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas published in Environmental Research Letters in which the researchers considered ‘a broad range of individual lifestyle choices’ and came up with recommendations for four ‘high impact’ actions which had ‘the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions’. These were, in ascending order of impact: eating a plant-based diet, taking one fewer transatlantic round trip by plane per year, living without a car, and having one fewer child. According to their calculations, having one fewer child would lead to emissions savings more than 24 times greater than the next option, not having a car. A US family that chooses to have one fewer child would, they write, ‘provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives’. Cue candy-coloured graphs in the mainstream media with icons for a cow, a plane, a car and a baby, their emissions impact bars rising like tiny condo towers, illustrating what you can do to help ‘solve’ climate change.
I find this framing troubling. Most obviously, it shifts responsibility for global emissions from systemic actors like fossil fuel companies and governments onto individuals. By doing so, it gives corporations a pass while placing moral responsibility on people who live within systems where they are not free to make carbon-neutral choices. It accepts as inevitable the neoliberal order that has driven the climate crisis, and insists that our responses to this crisis take place within the same system. You can reduce your carbon footprint by eating less meat, but you can’t buy carbon-neutral food. If you live in a city with poor public transport, you may have to drive to work. I am reminded of the journalist who tried to live without contributing to the destruction of the rainforests, so tried to avoid products like paper towels or plastics linked to deforestation. But despite her best efforts, she simply wasn’t able to manage it. What’s more, this framing ignores the fact that people living in different parts of the world have very different per capita emissions, and that overconsumption in the Global North means that children born in the Global South will feel the effects of the climate crisis with far greater force. Even the assumption that getting pregnant is a choice gives this whole conversation a decidedly Western flavour, ignoring the realities of baby-making in much of the world.
And as other researchers have pointed out, the maths don’t even work. The total share of moral responsibility is overdetermined, because for any given generation, ‘every preceding generation is 100 per cent responsible for that generation’s emissions.’ You are 100 per cent at fault for every subsequent generation’s emissions, but so is every subsequent generation; so why, come to think of it, shouldn’t you just blame your own parents, who are also 100 per cent at fault, for choosing to have you in the first place? This is the logic of the personal carbon footprint: you cast a shadow on the planet that it is your moral duty to minimise. If you extend that logic to the question of whether it’s OK to have a child, it’s hard to see how the answer could be anything other than ‘no’.
When I look at those candy-coloured graphs with cows and planes and babies, I see a glaring category error. Not having a child is not the same as choosing not to have a car or to eat a plant-based diet. Having a child isn’t merely one consumer choice among many. More than twenty years ago, in Maybe One, Bill McKibben preached a neo-Malthusian sermon to his fellow affluent Americans about limiting damage to the planet by making the only child ‘a cultural norm’. McKibben and his wife have one child, and, he writes, ‘what eventually made up our minds was largely simple desire.’ As if there has ever been anything ‘simple’ about desire. ‘Like most, though certainly not all, people,’ he wrote, ‘we felt some need deeper than deep to raise and nurture a child. Anything else may simply be justification.’
Today, our desires are conditioned by a baffling confluence of forces: the cultural fantasy of free consumer choice, a sense of personal responsibility for global phenomena, the pressures of precarious economic circumstances, and the terrors of ecological collapse. Some people say they don’t want to bring a child into a devastated world, or they don’t want to harm the planet, or don’t want their child to suffer in a degraded future. And then there is the moral imperative to erase that carbon footprint, which has as much to do with care for the environment and other people as with relieving the misplaced burden of moral responsibility. In wealthy, industrialised nations, we are told to be better, greener consumers. But do we have meaningful choices? What would it look like if we did?
Recently, the logic of the carbon footprint has become tangled up with ideas about global human population in alarming ways. The idea that ‘unchecked’ population growth heralds disaster is most often traced back to Malthus, who warned in the late 18th century that ‘the power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.’ In An Essay on the Principle of Population, he observed that when food production increased, the standard of living temporarily went up, which led to population growth, and to the standard of living dropping again. In other words, humans tend to use abundant resources to create more humans rather than to improve standards of living. In time, he argued, the population would grow until there wasn’t enough food to support everyone. Only the strong would survive. Malthusian thinking led scientists, economists, policymakers and indeed whole populations to embrace social Darwinism and eugenics, resulting, for example, in China’s one-child policy, and forced sterilisation programmes around the world. In Puerto Rico between 1936 and 1968, the US government cited rising rates of poverty and unemployment as justification for the decision to sterilise nearly 35 per cent of women of childbearing age.
In 1968, The Population Bomb, a bestseller written by the Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich and his (uncredited) wife, Anne, predicted that there would soon not be enough food to support the human population and that famines in the 1970s would kill hundreds of millions. The only way to prevent this, they said, was strict birth control measures. ‘We must have population control at home,’ the Ehrlichs wrote, ‘hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail … the birth rate must be brought into balance with the death rate, or mankind will breed itself into oblivion.’ As the feminist scholar Sarah Franklin has pointed out, even Shulamith Firestone took demographers at their word, describing the issue of global population as ‘a genuine ecological problem which no number of fancy arguments and bogey statistics can erase’. The Ehrlichs’ most dire predictions did not come to pass, because the new technologies of the Green Revolution, including grain hybrids, irrigation systems, fertilisers and pesticides, enabled a massive surge in global food production, but Malthusian thinking has never really disappeared. In 2012, reports from Uzbekistan revealed the forced sterilisation of women with two – or in some cases three – children, as part of an effort to keep population down. HIV-positive women have been subject to forced sterilisation, particularly in countries with high HIV rates, such as Chile, Namibia and South Africa. In Japan sterilisation is still required of trans people seeking legal recognition. After Hurricane Katrina, one Louisiana state representative proposed paying people who receive state assistance $1000 if they agreed to be sterilised. He cited budgetary concerns and the likelihood of more frequent hurricanes.
In November 2019, in a statement published in the journal BioScience, more than 11,000 scientists working in fields other than climate science declared a climate emergency: ‘The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected … It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.’ The authors outlined six broad ‘steps’ that could be taken immediately. Their concerns followed a report from 1992, and another from 2017 known as ‘the second notice’ that warned of impending ecological disaster and highlighted the pressures of ‘unrestrained population growth’. The lead author of both the 2017 and 2019 reports, an ecologist named William Ripple, told Business Insider that ‘if an individual is concerned about climate change, three things to consider include: one, reducing the use of fossil fuels; two, eating mostly a plant-based diet; and three, having fewer children.’
Ecological limits are real. Without trees, everybody dies. Without fresh water, everybody dies. Since 1960, the global population has more than doubled while the renewable supply of fresh water has fallen; it is also distributed unevenly, and much of it is wasted, polluted and unsustainably managed – today nearly half the global population is affected by chronic water stress or scarcity, which will only worsen. People in North Africa and the Middle East will be hardest hit, then those in South Africa, Pakistan, and large swathes of China and India. Meanwhile, the total amount of land used to grow food has remained about the same, which means the amount of cropland per person on the planet has dropped by at least half. Constant production and unsustainable agricultural practices have led to worsening soil quality, which means the food we produce has fewer nutrients, and the soil itself is continuing to erode as a result of poor human management and increasing extreme weather. Fertiliser, one of the boons of the Green Revolution, increases crop yields (though not essential nutrients), but requires massive inputs of non-renewable resources including fossil fuels and minerals like phosphorus, which is essential to life on Earth. While phosphorus can be recycled, it is currently being depleted at accelerating rates. There are fears that we will soon reach ‘peak phosphorus’, and about the possibility of shortages owing to geopolitical instability in the places it is mined, such as Morocco and China.
There are currently about 7.8 billion people on the planet, and demographers predict that number will rise to roughly 10.9 billion by the end of the century. In Staying with the Trouble, the radical feminist icon Donna Haraway suggests the increase in global population expected over the 21st century will ‘make demands that cannot be borne without immense damage to human and nonhuman beings,’ and argues for ‘personal, intimate decisions to make flourishing and generous lives … without making more babies’. Here, and in a collection co-edited with Adele E. Clarke called Making Kin Not Population (2018), Haraway imagines an ecotopia of collective, non-racist, non-coercive ‘kinnovation’. ‘Maybe,’ she writes, ‘the human people of this planet can again be numbered two or three billion or so … over a couple of hundred years from now.’ The most generous reading of Haraway is that she values life above all else, that she envisions a world in which thriving and interconnected ecosystems are valued above any single species. But this utopia is hard to imagine without also thinking about the bloody path that would lead to it. ‘I was horrified,’ Jenny Turner wrote in the LRB (31 May 2017). ‘How can a planet lose seven or eight billion humans “over a couple of hundred years” without events of indiscriminate devastation? When people start thinking about getting rid of other people, which sorts of people does history suggest are usually got rid of first?’
This same arithmetic feeds the ecofascist fantasies that course through the online Deep Green right and helped incite mass shooters in Texas and New Zealand. In these darker visions of the future, racial purity will save the planet. Closed borders. Veganism. Drastically reduced technology. Ecofascist death squads. This is an ideology of death that claims to be on the side of life. ‘What to do, when a ship carrying a hundred passengers suddenly capsizes and there is only one lifeboat?’ Pentti Linkola, a Finnish polemicist of ecofascism, asks. ‘When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides.’ Who is seen as ‘extra’ is decided by those holding the axe. Having children is to be tightly restricted. ‘Birthgiving must be licensed,’ he writes. ‘To enhance population quality, genetically or socially unfit homes will be denied offspring, so that several birth licences can be allowed to families of quality.’ Deep ecology and the Third Reich serve as inspiration.
Haraway and Linkola would each be horrified to be associated with the other, but they share a core value of radical care for the natural world. As the anarchist and social theorist Murray Bookchin pointed out in the mid-1990s, ‘it would be foolhardy to ignore the tendency of antihumanism (particularly trends like sociobiology, Malthusianism and deep ecology) to feed into the politically charged social Darwinism that is very much abroad today.’ Since he wrote these words, we have seen a global surge in white nationalism and fascist ideologies. The racial politics of any proposal for a less peopled world cannot be ignored.
Listen closely to rights-based strategies to reduce carbon emissions through increased access to contraception and family planning. These strategies almost always involve black and brown women in developing countries having fewer babies. There is, of course, an unmet need for reproductive care and birth control in these countries, but we should be deeply sceptical of climate solutions that place the burden of solving the problem on women’s bodies, particularly the bodies of poor black and brown women, while demanding very little of those who actually caused the problem. Such approaches aren’t just ahistorical; in terms of global emissions they make no practical sense. Developing nations generally have much lower emissions per capita than the countries where such proposals tend to originate.
Increasing access to birth control for women in the Global South with the aim of reducing global emissions all but jettisons the possibility of reproductive justice, which supports every woman’s right to choose how many children she wants to have. Liberal feminists and reproductive rights advocates speak of the right to family planning, seeing the right not to have children as a form of resistance against the cultural demand to reproduce, while more radical feminisms try to include people whose biological and cultural reproduction has been discouraged by the same systems that support reproduction by others. ‘Not-making-babies is never much related to the objective of building counterpower,’ Sophie Lewis writes in a response to Haraway published in Viewpoint Magazine. ‘Even if universal flourishing is easier to imagine when fewer humans are in the picture, desiring fewer humans is a terrible starting-point for any politics that hopes to include, let alone centre, those of us for whom making babies has often represented a real form of resistance.’ A feminism informed by the climate crisis would do well to follow the lead of SisterSong and black feminists who coined the term ‘reproductive justice’ by focusing on the right to raise children in a healthy environment. Some have suggested we should be fighting for the right to have a carbon-neutral child.
There are no ‘good’ programmes for global population control, not just because it is anti-feminist, racist and anti-human, but because it is impossible to put an upper limit on how many people are too many for the planet. Any attempt to calculate Earth’s so-called ‘carrying capacity’ is highly controversial, because the relationship between population and environment relies on a complex interplay of forces – institutions, markets, technology and patterns of consumption – that is not well understood. In other words, it isn’t just the total number of humans that matters, but the way humans organise to use the available resources. Today, by most metrics, we’re doing terribly. The systems we have are utterly incapable of meeting the needs of the global population. According to the UN, 820 million people are suffering from hunger and hundreds of thousands of people die of starvation every year. At the same time, the US Department of Agriculture estimates that in the US alone, between 30 and 40 per cent of food is wasted; calories are dumped from various points along the supply chain into landfill, along with the energy, water and labour required to produce them. Population limits do exist: resources are finite, and we could be closer than we think to some boundaries we don’t want to cross. But it’s dangerous to assume that we know what those limits are, and to start curbing births accordingly. If placing the responsibility for the climate crisis on individuals is wrongheaded, placing it on humanity in general is barbarous.
The least bad option might be to focus on environmental efforts – on decarbonisation, for example – and leave global population alone. Since the 1960s the rate of population growth has been slowing, and demographers now predict that by the end of this century, for the first time in human history, the world’s population will stop growing. This is largely a result of falling fertility rates. The huge increase in the number of humans on the planet in recent decades, it turns out, isn’t the result of people having babies, but of their living longer. Today, roughly half the people in the world live in countries with ‘below replacement’ fertility rates. Women in these countries – the list includes the US, Japan, European countries, much of Latin America and parts of India – have, on average, fewer than two children. Breaking with Malthusian reasoning, many people are trying to maintain a high standard of living rather than creating more humans. At the same time, it seems that the chemical revolution that produced pesticides has also resulted in a dramatic drop in male fertility. We are all ingesting chemicals that mess with human hormones, and in the last forty years sperm counts around the world have dropped by 50 per cent. If this trend continues, it’s possible that humans will be incapable of unassisted reproduction within decades. At this particular moment in history, the ecological health of the planet may be endangered less by the number of babies born than by the export of a culture of overconsumption.
In some liberal democracies, the growing global population is seen as an existential threat to humanity, while falling national birth rates are seen as a domestic crisis. ‘Can a progressive, reproductive-freedom-embracing society survive over time?’ the historian Trent MacNamara asked in the Atlantic. ‘Or is it doomed to a slow, comfortable death?’ The concern is that fewer babies means a diminishing supply of workers who will struggle to bankroll a heavily indebted welfare state, where, as MacNamara dispassionately put it, ‘citizens confront periodic eruptions of nativism.’ Many countries already rely on immigration to keep up the supply of workers that’s necessary to an economy predicated on growth. But even immigrants who come from high-fertility countries adapt within a generation or two to cultural norms and have fewer kids. So the demand for immigrant workers stays high.
Ecofascists put the Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ at a half a billion. Haraway’s utopian vision puts it at two or three billion. A recent paper in Nature Sustainability put the limit at seven billion, arguing that beyond this figure it is hard to sustain a ‘high quality of life’. But even if we could agree on a number, it would take generations to reduce global population – if it were even possible – and we need to cut carbon emissions now. Even ecofascist genocide wouldn’t move fast enough. The Second World War killed between two and three per cent of the world’s population. Getting from eight billion to three billion people would mean doing away with more than 60 per cent of the human population. If we act now to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, there is the chance of a better outcome for more people; if we act now to reduce global population, we have to ask, what ‘humanity’ are we preserving?
In recent years, some people concerned about the climate crisis – including Bill McKibben and the computer scientist Benjamin Kuipers – have been considering the relevance of an AI thought experiment in which an artificial intelligence is given the goal of maximising the production of paper clips. Like most of today’s AI, it will act with singular focus to achieve its goal – it won’t be turned from the task. In time, this AI diverts more and more of the powers of the planet towards making paper clips, to the point that people become alarmed and try to turn it off, but they can’t because this is a super-smart AI that has made itself smarter, not because it values intelligence, but because being smarter helps it achieve its goal of maximising paper clip production, so it finds a way to ensure we can’t turn it off (because then how would it keep making paper clips?). At some point it decides that keeping humans alive is detrimental to its goal, because humans need resources, and in fact humans are resources, and all these resources could be used to make more paper clips. With utter indifference, then, to the existence of humanity, it turns more and more of everything into paper clips, until the world as we know it is reduced to one giant pile of paper clips. This thought experiment, known as the ‘paper clip maximiser’, first proposed by the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, is a pretty good metaphor for a global socioeconomic system that values the production of profit above all else. In a sense, we’re living in an experiment in which fossil fuel companies, whose goal is to maximise profit, have become an existential threat to humanity.
Before I gave the lecture on which this piece is based I was contacted by a group called BP or Not BP? They informed me that I would be speaking in an auditorium at the British Museum called the ‘BP Lecture Theatre’ and that there was an active campaign to end oil sponsorship of the museum. It made me wonder: what is BP doing in a museum anyway? The question is worth exploring, because BP’s corporate sponsorship of the arts is part of a plan that affects us all. Early last year, BP launched a global PR campaign under the rubric ‘possibilities everywhere’, which paints the company as committed to a cleaner, greener future. One advert features a young woman cheerily popping open an umbrella to deal with ‘unpredictable’ weather on her way to work in a clothing boutique, followed by shots of a gleaming, floating solar panel array while a reassuring female voiceover explains that ‘BP is partnering with Lightsource, Europe’s largest solar company.’ Another ad begins with an alarm clock going off and a baby lying in a crib, mother’s arms reaching in, then a montage of a family’s busy morning, as another soothing female voice says, ‘Welcome to our busy world, where we all want more energy, with less carbon footprint.’ Just last month, the American Petroleum Institute, the largest American trade group for oil and gas, representing more than six hundred corporations, including BP America, launched ‘Energy for Progress’, a ‘seven-figure’ campaign aimed at convincing the public that the fossil fuel industry is – after decades of spending billions of dollars on disinformation and political lobbying to successfully stall climate action – a good-faith partner in the fight against climate change. If you’ve seen any of these ads (they’ve been hard to avoid), you’d be forgiven for thinking that renewable energy is now a core component of BP’s business strategy. You might think that the fossil fuel industry is investing heavily in a greener future. You would be wrong.
The International Energy Agency (IEA), which keeps tabs on all the major players in the industry, released a report in January which shows that renewable energy and carbon capture technologies currently represent just under 1 per cent of the industry’s investments. BP does slightly better than some of its competitors, with clean energy amounting to about 3 per cent of the company’s total capital expenditure. Environmentalist groups have long accused the fossil fuel industry of ‘greenwashing’, and it is indisputable that the PR campaigns grossly misrepresent what these companies actually do, and what internal documents confirm they plan to continue doing far into the future: extracting and selling increasing amounts of fossil fuels. BP’s own report on ‘Major Projects 2019’ states that in 2017 and 2018 it started 13 major oil and gas projects, which will ‘make a huge contribution to the 900,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day of new production’.
BP, to be fair, has been working on renewable energy for decades – it just can’t figure out how to make these technologies profitable. As its outgoing CEO Bob Dudley (who retired in February) told Axios in 2018, ‘if someone said here’s $10 billion (£7.6 billion), go invest it in these new energy technologies, for the good of our shareholders we’re not confident enough to be able to do that yet.’ Which is sort of the point: if the interests of shareholders – maximising profit – come into conflict with the public good, profit will always win. The problem isn’t just BP, it’s structural. BP is legally obliged to act in its shareholders’ interests.
In a sense, we can see embodied in fossil fuel companies the problem both Haraway and Linkola are trying to solve: how to circumvent the suicidal logic of the profit motive. While Haraway and Linkola choose different kinds of antihumanism, fossil fuel companies have no choice: under modern capitalism and corporate law they have to choose profit. The one thing that differentiates these companies from the paper clip maximiser is that they can’t also do away with humanity altogether: oil companies need workers and consumers. So the profit motive is driving them towards their own destruction. This is not to say it would be good for humans if these companies ceased to exist tomorrow. We depend on the energy they provide for food, clean water, light and so much more. But the fact remains that BP’s incredibly lucrative business model and the products it sells are fundamentally at odds with human survival on this planet, and the company has spent billions of dollars to make us believe otherwise.
The legal charity ClientEarth filed a complaint in December arguing that BP’s new global ad campaign is misleading consumers. One lawyer described it as a ‘smokescreen’. But the most accurate description is propaganda. We have spent our whole lives being bombarded with the message that fossil fuels are good, that they are necessary for ‘progress’. Fossil fuel companies can’t keep doing business without public support, or at least acquiescence, and they know it. This is what the industry refers to as the ‘social licence’ to operate.
On her podcast, Drilled, the climate journalist Amy Westervelt tells the story of Ivy Ledbetter Lee, who helped create modern PR and wrote the propaganda playbook for the fossil fuel industry. Lee said the thing companies need to worry about most is getting the public on their side. He learned this while rehabilitating the reputation of John D. Rockefeller after the Ludlow Massacre, in which striking coal workers and their families were gunned down at a mine Rockefeller owned. Lee helped turn Rockefeller from ‘a man routinely described as the most hated man in America into a kindly philanthropist who was widely admired’. Lee also worked on propaganda efforts during the First World War. As Westervelt explains, the experience taught him that if you can pool together enough resources, you can wage a multi-front, ‘all-out psychological war that’s impossible to beat’. After the war, Lee worked with the head of Standard Oil of New Jersey, which later became ExxonMobil, to form the American Petroleum Institute, the organisation now spending billions of dollars on that new PR campaign. And it’s not just ads. The fossil fuel industry has been running outreach programmes in American schools since at least the 1960s.
These companies have also worked hard to avoid being held accountable for the climate crisis. In fact, it was BP that popularised the idea of the personal carbon footprint. They introduced it in a 2005 US media campaign that cost more than $100 million per year, deflecting responsibility for combating climate change onto the individual consumer. BP even created an online calculator you could use to work out your own footprint. Since then, ‘carbon calculators’ have proliferated. On the BP Education Services webpage, the part of its website targeted at schoolchildren, there is a ‘carbon footprint toolkit’ that includes ‘an interactive activity on the topic of carbon footprints, and how energy use and climate change are connected’, as well as a tool to calculate the carbon footprint of your school. In other words, the narrative that you, personally, are responsible for the climate crisis has been carefully crafted and drilled into you by the fossil fuel industry.
Fossil fuel companies are also astonishingly good at imagining the future. An internal document written for Royal Dutch Shell twenty years ago, ‘Group Scenarios 1998-2020’, sketched out two possible scenarios for the future, one of which seems eerily familiar:
Following the storms, a coalition of environmental NGOs brings a class-action suit against the US government and fossil fuel companies on the grounds of neglecting what scientists (including their own) have been saying for years: that something must be done. A social reaction to the use of fossil fuels grows, and individuals become ‘vigilante environmentalists’ in the same way, a generation earlier, they had become fiercely anti-tobacco. Direct-action campaigns against companies escalate. Young consumers, especially, demand action.
As the climate journalist Emily Atkin writes, ‘Shell not only knew about the massive harm its business model posed to life on Earth. Shell knew, for decades, how the harm their products caused could change the political, legal and cultural landscape.’ ‘They’re not scared,’ she writes. ‘They’re prepared.’
As the Shell document has it, ‘reputation is key to success’: in the future it imagined, corporations will have to respond to climate change with exactly the kind of propaganda that we’re seeing today. They will need to convince people, the document says, that they are ‘making the world a “better place” by spreading market capitalism, encouraging political pluralism, providing employment, and modelling cultural diversity and environmental concern wherever they go’.
Today, in a real world that looks a lot like Shell’s imagined scenario, fossil fuel companies are trying to appear serious about addressing the climate crisis while planning for a future of increased demand. In 2018, BP announced it would try to make enough carbon emissions reductions to ‘ensure that as our business grows, our carbon footprint does not’. Last month, its new CEO, Bernard Looney (yes, that’s his name), made a surprising announcement. He said that the company would stop ‘corporate reputation advertising’ as part of a new pledge to become a net zero company by 2050, and that the money being spent on the ‘possibilities everywhere’ campaign would be redirected ‘to promote net zero policies, ideas, actions, collaborations and its own net zero ambition’. BP says it will, among other things, aim for a 50 per cent cut in the carbon emissions of the products it sells, increase investments in non-oil and gas companies ‘over time’, and ‘more actively advocate for policies supporting net zero’, including carbon pricing. This is an unprecedented announcement from a Big Oil company. But 2050 is a long way off, and the plan lacks details, though Looney says announcements in September will help. BP has made big promises in the past, most famously when it tried to rebrand itself as ‘Beyond Petroleum’ in 2000. That effort fizzled when the company couldn’t make a profit on renewables and went back to business as usual. Climate experts and advocates have responded to this latest announcement with deep scepticism. As the Harvard researcher Geoffrey Supran wrote to me, ‘BP’s track record offers reason for concern that this “net zero” announcement may be yet another veil of propaganda that wins them social and political capital but fails to deliver action commensurate with the problem.’
Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry continues to oppose the regulation of methane, to block carbon taxes and fund climate deniers, all while touting the Earth-saving possibilities of carbon capture technologies that have never gone beyond expensive pilot schemes and are unusable on a large scale. This is where corporate sponsorship of institutions like the British Museum comes into play. What BP is buying – the social licence to operate – is far more valuable than the funding it offers.
In recent years, under pressure from divestment movements, cultural institutions have begun to back away from fossil fuel sponsorship. The Tate, the Edinburgh Festival and the Royal Shakespeare Company have all ended sponsorship deals with BP. And last month the Guardian became the first major newspaper in the world to ban fossil fuel ads. ‘Our decision,’ a statement issued on 29 January reads, ‘is based on the decades-long efforts by many in that industry to prevent meaningful climate action by governments around the world.’ BP’s relationship with the British Museum will be up for review next year. It is an opportunity for the museum to show leadership by ending the sponsorship deal.
Ihave spent more time than I’d like to admit scrolling through posts by people who have made the decision not to have children because of the climate crisis. These posts radiate varying degrees of fear, despair, political commitment, solidarity, anxiety, and a care for and delight in already existing children. ‘I always imagined myself having children,’ one person writes.
However I have felt incredibly hopeless for our future for many years because of the interaction [sic] of governments on climate change … I love kids and feel deeply saddened by this, but I would not willingly want to bring a child into a world I see will be plagued by disaster, ruin, famine & wars … total destruction. I am terrified for what our planet will be in just a few years.
‘The science is clear,’ someone else writes. ‘We are about to witness the destruction of everything we love because of the climate crisis. I feel incapable of welcoming an innocent human being into this world knowing the facts.’ Such fatalism worries climate scientists, many of whom are struggling to convey the profound risks they see inscribed on the planet and in their data, while also making it clear that scientific probability is not prediction. None of the scenarios that scientists have outlined is inevitable – they are more or less likely depending on what we do today. This is not to say that there is a linear path along which every carbon molecule counts: the climate system is a stochastic, chaotic system with tipping points that scientists may not recognise even as they are crossed. No one knows what happens when this much carbon gets dumped into the Earth’s atmosphere in such a short amount of time. Even the effects of the carbon already released remains unknown. According to one widely cited study, there is a 13 per cent chance that 1.5ºC warming by the end of the century is already inevitable, which leaves an 87 per cent chance that it is not. Depending on your disposition, you may interpret this as good news, or terrible news.
I am hesitant even to mention uncertainty in the same breath as climate science, because of the way climate deniers and obstructionists, especially those funded by the fossil fuel industry, have latched onto it as a reason to delay action. But I think it is worth trying to wrap our heads around climate science as best we can. It is unlike most other sciences, which tend to proceed by making predictions about the way natural phenomena work, then running experiments to test the strength of those predictions. A scientific law will accurately predict an outcome, given certain initial conditions: where a stone will land if launched with a certain force at a certain angle; the colour of your unborn child’s eyes. But there is no other Earth on which to run experiments. So climate scientists build models using known physical laws, then test and improve them with data. A climate model is, as the scientist and astronaut Piers Sellers put it in the New Yorker, theory written in code.
These models are constantly being updated to reflect new findings that might accelerate, slow or complicate trajectories. They are also missing processes that researchers still aren’t even aware of: scientists have struggled to model carbon cycle feedbacks, for example, and there could be some devastating surprises there. Then there is the speed with which fossil fuels have been extracted and burned over the past 150 years, which has resulted in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increasing at an astonishing rate. Geological records show that increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere have caused ‘extreme warming events’ and massive ecological upheaval in the past. During the Paleo-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when carbon levels spiked and temperatures increased by as much as 8ºC, it took between ten and twenty thousand years for temperatures to peak. And that is considered extremely rapid. The current rate of change is unprecedented.
‘I watch climate change happen every day on a computer,’ the climate scientist Kate Marvel said recently,
on a fake planet that I can do experiments on. But climate change doesn’t happen on a fake planet; it happens on our planet, in the world that we’ve built. You can’t put Bashar al-Assad in a climate model. You can’t put the legacy of colonialism in a climate model. The drying trend we’ve seen in the Levant region interacts with the world we’ve actually built. Climate change is … not something you can remove from the complexities of human society.
Those complexities may alter the nature and the extent of catastrophe. All of which means that the consequences of the heating climate are extremely difficult to predict. Pessimism may be warranted; fatalism is not. The future is not written. The real choice we face is not whether to eat meat or how many children to have, but how to make profound and rapid structural changes, without which no personal choices will matter. As one climate scientist recently put it to me: ‘Fuck hope.’ She is pregnant with her second child.
When my son was born, language left. This was the way it felt, during the hours of hard labour, when I went inward, away from the world outside. I stopped thinking in sentences, then lost phrases, then words. Eventually, it was like being at the bottom of a deep, dark well, hearing voices drift down, but being unable, or perhaps unmoved, to respond. It wasn’t frightening. I was simply elsewhere, and too profoundly busy to bother with all that far-off noise. I remember, at one point, being distinctly aware of my mind – the conscious everyday mind that talks to itself and to other people, the self where language is loud – floating like pond scum on top of the vast, rich dark where I now laboured, a wordless inner world of sensation and drive to which I had never before had access. I was two selves at once. A double consciousness. If I had to, I knew I could still speak to the people around me, but it seemed so silly and small up there. I let it go.
Later, I remember being exhausted, and looking out at a grey sky, and understanding that time had passed and there was a storm. I thought I could not push again. And then I did. And again. And again. Then there was a moment I can only describe as ‘coming to’ – that’s what it felt like, that I had blacked out and was waking into the room, flooding back into myself, and my son had arrived.
The first time I read a story of birth that described it as an encounter with death, I remember thinking, that’s not how it was at all – I was not willing to go to pieces. I had work to do. But then, the overwhelming demand to let the baby out was not separable from the feeling that I had entered into something much larger than myself, and that my sense of self was unravelling, and that the only way out was through. Maybe that’s what it feels like to go to pieces. You have to risk life to give life.
I can understand why some people might see having a child as a turn towards death – a fatal complicity with the death spiral of global fossil capitalism. But, for me, having a child has been a commitment to life, and a commitment to the possibilities of a human future on this warming planet. It means giving up claims to moral purity, not because nothing matters, but because things do. ‘Staying open and willing is difficult,’ Louise Erdrich writes. ‘Very often in labour one must fight the instinct to resist pain and instead embrace it, move towards it, work with what hurts the most.’
It is increasingly delusional to believe that global heating will be kept under 2ºC. And even if we managed to keep it below 1.5ºC, the target set by the signatories of the Paris Agreement, almost all of which are currently blowing past their unenforceable emissions-reduction commitments, we will still see wrenching ecological and social disruptions. The climate we have right now – in which people are facing devastating crop failures, fires, floods and water shortages; in which fisheries are collapsing and pollinators are disappearing from increasingly silent springs; and in which millions of people are being forced from their homes in what is already the largest human migration since the last Ice Age – is the best climate for human flourishing we’re likely to see in our lifetimes. Everything is going to change. Even the most optimistic scenarios are fraught with uncertainty and potential catastrophe, but also the possibility of a renewed sense of futurity.
Before I got pregnant, my partner and I tried to parse the ethics of having a child at such a time. What was the risk to the world, to the child, to us? Was it worth taking, and was the alternative a better or worse kind of risk? In the end, not having a child didn’t seem, for us, like a powerful or particularly meaningful response to the realities of a changing climate, but a way of allowing the toxic logic of the carbon footprint to shape our sense of what was possible.
‘Two, maximum,’ Prince Harry assured the readers of British Vogue, following the calculus that says only replace yourself and add no more. Only one, Bill McKibben implored, the planet needs us to be fewer. None, Donna Haraway said, urging us to imagine bonds beyond the biological, as we are already far too many. None for you, the ecofascists say, or you, or you, or you. This is the moral logic of the carbon footprint at work, winnowing us to death.
I believe in the possibility of human flourishing on this planet while also acknowledging the profound barriers already in place, and the profound risks – which are not shared equally – posed by ecological catastrophe. Some may find this naive, but the alternatives can only guarantee a barbarous future. I have to believe there are ways that children today might learn to live lives with some joy in the midst of whatever is to come. This is not to say that you should have a biological child. I rather think the point is that no one should tell anyone else whether or not they should procreate. One does not have to give birth to believe in the possibility of a human future.
‘Is it OK to still have a child?’ This seems to be the wrong question in a world where our lives are intertwined, complicit and interdependent in ways we are just beginning to understand. It runs the risk of mistaking agency for power at a moment when the stakes are extremely high. As climate scientists wrote in Nature in November, evidence is mounting that climate tipping points are more likely to occur, and to occur at lower levels of global heating, than previously thought. If it is human nature to burn through this planet’s resources as we have for the past 150 years, then we’re done; if it is human systems that do this, then we’ve got a chance. Modern human civilisation hasn’t yet actually tried to exist sustainably on this planet: we rarely break free from the binary thinking that pits humans against the rest of nature.
The future will always be more terrible and wonderful than any of us can possibly imagine. What will the climate crisis look like in ten years, twenty years, fifty years? We don’t know. How fast can we achieve global decarbonisation? We don’t know. This uncertainty both inspires dread and allows for the possibility of hope. Not the false hope that global economies driven by fossil fuels will be able to keep chugging along as they have for too long already, or that the comforts, excesses and relative safeties of industrialised nations will be preserved, but hope for the possibility of human flourishing in unprecedented and as yet unimaginable circumstances.
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