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Climate Solutions // I S S U E # 7 3 // B I R T H D A Y
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There are 7.9 billion humans in the world. Bringing one more into it is not the obvious choice. For me, the question is no longer theoretical. By the time you read this, my son, Vaughan Adrian Hooper Coren, will have made his debut at a San Francisco hospital. He’s the descendant of Russian Jews, Scottish farmers, and the explorer Meriwether Lewis. People who have escaped many troubled places, and crossed at least two continents and one ocean, to give him the life he’s starting today.
Vaughan will live in a very different world than the one I grew up in, or the one we all live in today. So Ezra Klein’s column in The New York Times this week was timely: “Your Kids Are Not Doomed.”
I’ve heard many people say they are not having children because of the climate crisis. I’ve heard even more who worry about the world their children will inherit once they grow up. I sympathize with both sentiments. A full 96% of survey respondents in a 2020 study in Climatic Change felt “extremely to very” concerned about climate impacts on their children. I am squarely in that category.
It’s true, fewer people means lower emissions, at least on paper. A 2012 study in The Lancet predicted if population growth slowed significantly, emissions would drop by 40% by 2050 compared to a high-growth scenario. But I’m not betting on less people making a big difference. I’m betting on more people who are willing to fight for a world they believe in.
If too many people is our concern, we can set those fears aside, at least in the industrialized world. The current fertility rate in OECD countries—about 1.6—is well below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1. In countries like South Korea, the average woman, statistically, is now expected to bear just 0.81 children in her lifetime. Some day in the not-so-distant future, we may even face a shortage of people. For now, we are most definitely facing a shortage of people in power who are willing to struggle for a common future.
Klein observes that many of the people who have done the most to combat climate change in their lives and careers are still having children. People like Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at Columbia University: “I unequivocally reject, scientifically and personally, the notion that children are somehow doomed to an unhappy life,” she says.
I agree. I don’t assume it will be an easy life, but I know it won’t be a hopeless one. Bringing a child into the world remains just that: an act of hope. One day, around 2040, Vaughan will have to look around and decide for himself what kind of world he’s going to pursue. Until then—besides changing diapers and dawn feedings—the best I can do is give him the love and courage he’ll need to make that decision (and, I suppose, live up to my own expectations for myself 😳). This will be the great joy and struggle of my and my wife’s life over the coming years.
One reason to be hopeful for him, and all of us, is the pace of change. It seems glacial. But once deep changes begin, they sweep away the past, like a dam giving way to the water behind it. That seems to be the moment we’re in now. Old ways and industries are entrenched. New ways and different ideas haven’t fully arrived. But if I was going to bet on the future, it would be on the social and economic forces building toward big changes and serious climate action. Slower than I’d like, yes, but faster than I have any right to expect.
There’s a second reason I’m hopeful. Science, as German physicist Max Planck once said, progresses one funeral at a time (His full thought: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”) The advance of new generations turns what feels impossible today into a memory on the way toward something better. Planck could just as easily have been talking about any manner of endeavor, from the US Senate (where only one senator is under 40 and the average age is 62.9) to the politics of energy.
So I might reframe Planck’s thought like this: Progress happens one birth at a time, a few decades delayed. I’m looking forward to the day when Vaughan, and his generation, have the chance to reshape the world in their image. Until then, here’s a sneak preview.
Welcome to the world, kid.
I’ll see you all in a month when Hothouse is back with a slate of issues about everything from high-speed rail to humor.
Love and hope,