Why We Must Think Twice Before Having Children


Why We Must Think Twice Before Having Children

Illustration: Akshita Monga

As someone not particularly invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I was eager to hop onto the Avengers: Endgame bandwagon and landed up in a cinema hall amid a crowd of dewy-eyed fans in their comic T-shirts rooting for their heroes. But that is only because I could relate with the supervillain much better than any of those superheroes hell bent on saving the universe and its population. Thanos – a derivation of the Greek Thanatos, the personification of death – has some pretty radical ideas about our fellow human beings and existence. In Infinity War, he had me at, “This universe has finite resources… if life is unchecked, life will cease to exist.” (I wish he were in charge of our environment ministry.)

Thanos made a lot of sense – although most certainly not in the “genocide is the answer” way at all. But cross your heart and tell me that you’ve never felt the pain of being crushed and stomped over in a crowded local. That you have not struggled to buy a matchbox apartment at Tuscany villa rates in a smelly city that gets by on some ephemeral, indefinable quality called “cosmopolitanism”. That you have not spent hours in traffic because there’s just too many friggin’ people driving too many cars. Tell me that you have not looked heavenwards, sighed and said, “Is desh mein kitni aabaadi hai.”

We know the world is overpopulated; it’s what was hammered into our brains in school during all those science projects. And yet, there are some seven billion of us on this planet right now, estimated to cross nine billion in the next 30 years. We know that the growth in population is directly linked to the environmental effects we feel every day we step out into the blazing heat. We know that the earth and its resources are massively strained in untenable ways.

But what we do not know is how to address the elephant in the room. Procreation.

This need to churn out an offspring is so ingrained in our life cycles, in our biological impulses, and therefore in our culture, that we hardly pause to question, doubt, or debate it. Our Facebook walls are packed to the rafters with baby pictures and posts about friends expecting more babies – to which our instinctive and polite reaction is to squeeze out a cute emoticon. What’s the option anyway? I once replied with a “Why” on one such post and got blocked for being too rude.

We’re considered vain, self-absorbed, and selfish, as if the burden of saving the world from extinction rests on our millennial shoulders.

Outliers like me – women who either choose not to have babies or envision a baby-free future – are actively judged and shamed for their inability to start a family. We’re considered vain, self-absorbed, and selfish, as if the burden of saving the world from extinction rests on our millennial shoulders. I wonder if anyone pauses to ask whether it is selfish to not give birth – or bring a new life into the world to secure our own futures, no matter what the environmental and moral costs of it?

The world which is expected to lose almost 50 per cent of all its animal species in the next 60-70 years, the world that only has enough seafood and meat to feed us for the next 30-35 years, is running out of fresh water at a rapid rate. We’ve chopped down half of our forest cover and are more or less always in a state of global war. And this race to the bottom is going to hit India hardest. By 2024, we will be the most populous country in the world. This dubious distinction is magnified when we realise that half of our rural population has no access to even sanitation facilities. Yup, we’re sitting on a ticking time bomb, birthing babies whose parents cannot afford to raise them.

But what about well-to-do, middle-class families? What of us younger, privileged Indians with our “woke” do-gooder perspectives on the environment? Those of us who drive fuel-efficient hybrids or cycle to work, who buy organic sabzi and cruelty-free clothes and cosmetics, who lecture rank strangers on the street to upcycle and carry cloth bags – what is our excuse? Why don’t we think of the cost of bringing a new life into the world? Surely we realise that our current privilege is no immunity against the overall impact of mindless population growth will have on everyone, when our cities run out of drinking water? Is it not selfish, cruel, immoral and anti-national then to bring a new innocent life into existence who will be the one to face the consequences of our mess, the one who will be left to suffer?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote: “I’d have let them kill me in the womb, so as not to come out into the world at all.”

That’s a thought that has found resonance in the “childless marriage”, “child-free by choice” and the “anti-natalist” movements. David Benatar is a “compassionate anti-natalist”, as described by a New Yorker essay titled “The Case for Not Being Born.” Benatar believes “human life is cosmically meaningless” and that “unpleasantness and suffering are too deeply written into the structure of sentient life to be eliminated.” The essay attempts to make a case that the “best experiences in life – love, beauty, discovery, and so on – make up for the bad ones”. But Benatar’s response is, “For an existing person, the presence of bad things is bad and the presence of good things is good… But compare that with a scenario in which that person never existed – then, the absence of the bad would be good, but the absence of the good wouldn’t be bad, because there’d be nobody to be deprived of those good things. This asymmetry completely stacks the deck against existence, because it suggests that all the unpleasantness and all the misery and all the suffering could be over, without any real cost.”

Is this perhaps what future generations – should there be any – expect from us too?

Consider Earth to be a sinking ship, the immersion of which is accelerated by more and more people jumping on board. What do we seek by reproducing? Thriving as a race? Brilliant as we might be, humans are still the worst thing to have happened to Earth. Sir David Attenborough, in fact, thinks of humans as a plague upon Earth – and when Sir David Attenborough tells you something, you listen. We are like that uncool guest at a house party who brings along a whole bunch of uninvited friends, who together take over the entire party, finish all the food and drinks, break all the crockery, and leave a pile of rubbish for the host to clean up.

Maybe it’s time to take up some of the responsibility for the clean-up. Maybe it’s time to think about actual birth control. Let’s just enjoy the party while it lasts and leave it quietly when it’s over.