Doing It For The Kids: The Environment, The Future, and Whether They Have One

Melting polar ice caps
Melting polar ice caps

Modern mummies and daddies pedestal their progeny to an almost nauseating degree – but without radical change, there won’t be much of a world left for them to inherit.

We’re living in a society where people obsessively dote on their children. Contrary to what practically everyone seems to think, that’s not a good thing. It’s not the doting itself that’s the problem, of course – that’s natural. It’s the extent of it, and what that means for everyone else in the world.

Dismayingly often, modern parenting boils down to prioritising your own little brood over everyone else’s little brood, if not the rest of the species. “You-and-your-family” politics was re-established with a vengeance back in the 1980s, but it’s been hammered ever deeper into the popular consciousness by every government since. It’s pure Thatcherism – really just the cuddlier-sounding flip-side of “there’s no such thing as society”. Strip away the frilly language and you’re left with the “fuck you, buddy” individualism of countries where any notion of social responsibility beyond your own four walls has been decisively smashed. Let the other poor saps’ kids drown – we’ll put little Billy through private school so he’ll come out ultra-competitive/emotionally stunted enough to make it big in market society, while doing his bit to perpetuate horrific social inequality.

Of course, it’s quite a lot to ask of parents to think of other people’s children when they’re proving so spectacularly bad at thinking of their own. They keep popping out sprogs left, right and centre – but most pay startlingly little attention to the world they’re bringing the poor things into.

It’s a half-entertaining diversion if you’re looking for something to ponder while you’re waiting for the microwave to ding – why do people have children in the twenty-first century? In most cases we’ve seen, the motivation isn’t any deeper than “because we want to”. “Because it’s just what people do”. We’ve met, and been puzzled by, people who say things like “I’m desperate to get pregnant before I’m 30”, as if a baby’s a boozy weekend in Malaga. Sometimes people will give a more thought-out response, treating reproduction as a kind of biological, post-religious meaning of life. Still, in the main, much of the reasoning behind tot-production doesn’t stretch much beyond “because it’d be nice for me”. There are a hell of a lot worse things you could do, no doubt – but the thought process is fairly selfish.

The problem is, without the most radical social overhaul seen in human history, civilisation is sunk. Balls-to-the-wall consumer capitalism is fatally undermining the planet’s capacity to support life. Most people are blasé about it – and to be fair, you can’t really blame them when governments and corporate media outlets treat the most cataclysmic threat we’ve faced in human history as a mild annoyance that can be sorted out with a few wind turbines. But even among a lot of those who are more savvy about looming resource exhaustion and climate crisis, there’s an acute lack of urgency – a sense of “oh well, we’ll all be dust in a box before the worst happens”.

This eco-apathy clashes profoundly with the near-fanatical devotion so many modern parents show their offspring. They might angst about their health, their safety, what they eat, where they go to school and their prospects for the future, but they don’t allot much fretting time at all to whether they actually have a future.

The future

A nice person we know recently reproduced. Summoned to pay our respects to the gurgling organism that resulted, The Bemolution rode up to Birmingham like a rubbish, stingy Wise Man bearing no gifts whatsoever.

The baby was nice. Not very interesting, because children officially only become interesting at about two, when they can talk properly – we recently had a very thought-provoking discussion about Maisy Mouse with a nearly-three-year-old in Taunton Nandos, for example – but nice nonetheless. And, half-Nigerian, half-Somersetian English, a pleasing, naysayer-defying embodiment of multiculturalism in fine working order.

But, predictably, baby inspection led to considerable amounts of our standard line in philosophical brooding. It’s unoriginal as heck, as cheesy as the Babybel factory on delivery-from-the-dairy day, but we can’t not look at a young child, particularly a new-born, without thinking about the state of the world they and billions like them are going to be left with. Without that radical, civilizational turnaround, new baby might live to see the beginning of the end. It’s now not completely far-fetched to wonder whether her generation might be one of the last.

Our political and economic system is completely insane. Because we’re catastrophically short-sighted, we imagine that just because in living memory things have always been the way they are now, they always will be. Actually, that’s because living memory is an inexpressibly short amount of time.

Our whole civilisation, our whole maddeningly wasteful and short-termist way of life, is built on a one-shot resource. Globe-straddling consumer-capitalism and the materialistic lifestyles it delivers has only been possible because of the frenzied exploitation of fossil fuels, oil especially.

It’s impossible for a modern person to comprehend quite how radically fossil fuels have transformed how we live, and how we perceive the world around us. Without them, the vast majority of us would probably still be subsistence farmers, living in largely agrarian societies where you’d be lucky to see as much change in a century as modern people expect from a decade. You’d still have the localised micro-capitalisms of old – but the amount they could expand, and the amount of damage they could do, would be heavily constrained by the limits of what manpower, horsepower, wind and hydro power could achieve.

Oil extraction only started in 1859, around 150 years ago. Before about 1800, world population had never topped one billion. In the century and a half since oil exploitation began, the number of human beings has sextupled to over seven billion. In the 14 years between 1960 and 1974, it increased by more than it did in the eight hundred years between 1000 and 1800.

You don’t have to spend hours prodding at statistics, though, to see that barring biological necessities like water, food and oxygen, there’s no substance more fundamental to the way we live. You just have to look around you – every man-made object in the room, in the street, on the bus, will have used oil at some stage in its design, manufacture, and transportation.

And, of course, it’s going to run out. In just 150 years, we’ve guzzled 2.5 trillion barrels of the stuff – half of what geologists estimate still exists underground. That means there’s probably 5 trillion barrels-worth still down there somewhere. But, obviously, we went for the easiest-to-get stuff first – it’s called the low-hanging fruit principle. And with current technology, the International Energy Agency thinks only about a trillion barrels-worth of the much harder to reach stuff left is recoverable – and even then only at colossal expense.

What’s more, our consumption of it is increasing all the time – and with China and India, home to two-fifths of the global population, powering through industrialisations, oil use is going to soar over the next century. Disputes, armed conflicts, maybe even all-out wars over declining reserves are likely. And without significant preparation for the time when it does eventually run out, billions of people could die.

But as far as the planet’s concerned, it’s a very good thing that oil, along with coal and natural gas, is going to run out – because our fossil binge has done more damage to the ecosystem in 150 years than any previous species has done in 4.54 billion. Those easily exploitable, (initially) readily available energy sources had an immense downside, pumping climate-altering carbon into the atmosphere. They might have enabled a mind-boggling expansion of the world economy – but that expansion has left us well on the way to wrecking the fragile ecosystem that sustains life, and shaped a civilisation that sees this freak, one-time only boom as the norm.

The Worldwatch Institute has calculated that the planet could only provide for 1.4 billion people living resource-guzzling American lifestyles. Just providing Western lifestyles to the West has resulted in global temperatures rising every decade since the ‘70s, with the ten warmest years all occurring since 1997. Deadly Hurricane Katrina-style freak weather events are becoming more and more common, the Arctic and Antarctic are melting, and sea levels are rising as a result. The Global Humanitarian Forum estimates that 300,000 people are now dying every year from causes that themselves result from climate change. A further 2.8 billion are living in areas vulnerable to floods, storms, droughts and sea rises.

At the current rate of exploitation, there will be no wild fish left by 2050. Animal species are dying out at a rate not seen for 65 million years. About 40% of the world’s farmable soil has been degraded. With global fresh water consumption doubling every twenty years, the UN estimates between a third and a half of the global population will be suffering severe water shortages by the middle of the century.

These are some of the things doting parents should perhaps bear in mind. Without a revolution in the way we live, this is the world that awaits their offspring once we’re all dead in the ground. In the West, we’ve been brought up to anticipate the kind of sci-fi utopia that Hollywood keeps making films about – in the future, we thought, everyone would have flying cars and houses on the moon. In an ecologically viable society, most people wouldn’t have cars, let alone flying ones.

There’s a quote in Orwell’s Wigan Pier about how working-class socialists often just saw socialism as little more than “the present system with the worst abuses left out”. You could say the same about a lot of environmentalists and environmentalism today. To survive, we need to do a darn sight more than carry on as we are with a few more solar panels.

In 2009, the Post-Carbon Institute and the International Forum on Globalisation produced a report assessing all renewable energy sources. The report concluded that no single renewable source, or combination of sources, could provide the same amount of energy that fossil fuels do now. We definitely need renewables – in fact, 100% of our energy has to come from renewable sources as quickly as possible. But wind, solar, tidal power is far too diffuse and pain-staking to harness to ever be used as flippantly as non-renewable energy is now. Society is going to have to slow right down. Economies will have to shrink, not grow. Consumerism needs to be buried, forever.

And, while we’re at it, we might as well do something about the incomprehensibly mad fact that between five and six million people starve to death every year despite 50% of all food produced on planet Earth going to waste. That’s what you get when your global food system is built around generating massive profits for agribusiness, not about securing the continued existence of the species. That principle in reverse – ejecting big business and enshrining sustainability and popular wellbeing – is one that needs extending to almost everything if today’s tots are going to end up with a planet they can survive on.

And to end, here’s some rubbish pop music from the year 2000.