A Relatively Modest Proposal
In Zadie Smith’s essay on the same (well, at least in broad strokes, seeing as she also admonishes the trend towards masturbatorily lamenting the inevitable end, but I of course have nothing to worry about since that’s not at all what I’m doing here — I’m presenting an actionable solution) subject, she writes that “the apocalypse is always usefully cast into the future.” I think that just about sums it up — we need to fully process the fact that the world isn’t just going to become inhospitable to human life someday in the future. Rather, the changes that will make this planet unsuitable for us are already underway. Now, there’s a difference between the “the end is built into the beginning” kind of rationalization that still allows for present comfort because the grand finale is still far-off and inevitable even if it’s in progress, and the ending in which the cataclysm could have been avoided but is now underway. True, from the moment you’re born your body is slowly marching towards its inevitable failure — your cells weakening, losing their ability to adapt and grow and increasingly exposing themselves to mutation — but things change when that weakness finally gets exploited and the cancer takes hold. They change again when you look down and see that the shit in your toilet bowl is streaked through with red and you go to the doctor to be told that you have six months to live.
If sea levels rise by a meter, which the scientific consensus states will happen by as soon as 2100, Miami Beach will be nearly entirely underwater. Since no one gives a shit about Miami beach, I’ll add that 100k homes in NYC would no longer be part of their original home islands as well). But it’s still pretty easy to dismiss this diagnosis since it comes with the caveats of improved carbon outputs and possible, if costly, local flooding preventatives to couple with the sheer distance of the the thing that makes it easy to believe that it will only come to fruition in some dubious, hypothetical future. There’s the seemingly ubiquitous happening of the Grandfather who lived 11 years with late-stage prostate cancer or the uncle who survived stage 4 colon cancer. These hopeful happenstances are “proofs” of the same kind as the grandmother who lived to be 100 in spite of, or perhaps — in some wishfully ill-defined way — because of, her devout consumption of a pack of Marlboro Reds every day. They’re personal, immediate, and therefore incontrovertible. We know the person that they really happened to. They are the facts that make up our lives Those become your baseline for ‘reality’ and the person we knew in school who got a brain tumor his senior year and died before graduation becomes an unfortunate statistical anomaly that you’d be foolish to keep yourself up at night worrying about and the 50-year-old friends of parents and parents of friends who died of some form of cancer or another become the unfortunate warnings to those people who lead less healthy (and central) lives than our own.
But maybe that’s an alarmist comparison to make since even NYC getting flooded wouldn’t be the literal end of the world. But in that vein, while me getting cancer isn’t the end of your world either, it would be the end of mine.
Of course, all these examples become even easier to dismiss when you don’t believe in cancer and, to abandon the metaphor entirely, the ringing reminders that death comes to us sooner and more apathetically than we could possibly expect become so much white noise that needn’t and shouldn’t be dwelled upon when this death that we all now face is believed to be almost exactly like (most forms of) cancer, in that its intrusion upon our lives has little to nothing to do with our previous choices and that there is little to nothing we can really do to stop it.
The hardest world to live in is one in which we are forced to come to terms with the fact that nearly every aspect of our lifestyle has contributed to our slow, collective death, a death that we can actually spare ourselves from, but only with an unimaginably radical overhaul to that lifestyle.
Imagine if I were to hand you a plastic bag and tell you that you had to dispose of it in any way you’d like, but you couldn’t throw it in the trash. Where would you put in? Would you tuck it behind a tree? Burn it and watch the noxious flames rise up from a safe distance? Bury it? You’d learn very quickly that trash doesn’t “belong” anywhere and so there’s no non-destructive place where it can be put. Now think about how much shit you throw away on a given day. Now multiply that by all the people living in your city. Now go and write a thank you note for the company that handles your city’s trash: they’re like the fucking givers (a la The Giver) of our society, taking on the anxiety each and every person should rightly feel for watching their trash bags billow incongruously in the breeze.
If our everyday actions really carried appropriately commensurate weight, buying groceries would be intolerable, driving to work would be an exercise in self-loathing, sitting in an air-conditioned building would feel chokingly claustrophobic. The longer you enjoy air conditioning, the harder the ac will have to work in order to properly cool your air and so the quicker it will clog and heat the outside air, ensuring a cycle of ever-increasing effort and heat, which will be trapped in the ceiling of the atmosphere blanketing the world outside your windows with an increasingly-thick layer of smog to remind you that you’re to blame for the dripping humidity of the air underneath it.
There’s an alternative to all the outlooks listed previously: we can feel responsible for global warming and the Earth’s eventual inhospitality, but accept that that doesn’t matter since everyone alive now will be dead within 100 years and, until then, the effects won’t yet be intolerable. Now, there’s an obvious moral hangup. Shouldn’t we feel guilty for forcing those humans who come after us to lead deeply uncomfortable lives and, eventually, to die from one of the myriad effects of our current way of life? Some would argue that, even more importantly, shouldn’t we feel guilty to all the other life on Earth for the ongoing mass-extinction that we’ve brought on? Fear not, for I believe that we should feel morally obligated to both those that come after us and all other forms of life on Earth and have designed a solution that I believe is moral in its treatment of our obligation to both parties.
I’ll introduce this proposal with a simple question: why is it necessary that the human race continues? We should have concern for potential suffering, but there’s a simple way to ensure that no humans exist to experience and propagate it: just don’t have kids. No one individual is under a moral obligation to have children, and so, if everyone chose to not have children, would it be right to impose upon select individuals and demand that they do? If we choose to not have children, we can accept that we are to blame for climate change and not feel guilt or anxiety over its ultimately apocalyptic effects because we know that that lifestyle, and therefore its effects, will taper off and eventually end within the next hundred years or so.
If everyone chooses to not have children, we’d all be able to go about our lives, fully acknowledging the truth of our existence and still not feel guilty about the effect it currently is on track to have on the wildlife or our kin, and have to change almost nothing about our lifestyles. Why try to correct our destructive behavior when we can just choose not to propagate it.
Surely, human life ending in the next one hundred years would be better for the environment than any corrective measure that we could take at this point and our moral obligations are resolved either way, so the the final variable is the effort that both methods would require. Not having kids, via any of the diverse array of methods available to do so, seems to require far less collective energy than it would to overhaul our societal infrastructure to the point where we no longer produce pollutants at a damaging rate.
All else being the same, why not let ourselves die? What significance is there really to the continued life of your species once you’ve personally expired? After all, there won’t be any humans around to care (and I’m sure whatever animals are left won’t exactly be sad that we’re gone).