Humans have almost entirely destroyed Earth’s formerly diverse and life-supporting ecosystems in exchange for cheap food, comfortable housing, and entertainment. As human populations continue to rise, so does the scale of ecological devastation. Overpopulation, then, is often cited as the primary cause of environmental degradation on the planet. To achieve sustainability, we must solve the population problem.
Having children is, therefore, an almost inconceivable proposition for someone dedicated to restoring and healing the Earth. There are too many people already! This perspective is not wrong. The way that civilized humans have been securing their livelihoods (agriculture) for the last 10,000 years is fundamentally unsustainable. The annual grains required to power these civilizations require ecosystem eradication and soil degradation, not to mention slavery and social injustice. Today the situation is made worse with the availability of relatively inexpensive and powerful fossil fuels which we have been able to substitute for the ecosystem services necessary to survive, thereby delaying the inevitable collapse that all agricultural-based civilizations must face as they destroy their ecological resource base. With the global domination of agricultural civilizations and their rapidly growing populations on the planet, the scale of destruction now encompasses literally the entire living planet. The end result of 7+ billion civilized agriculturalists is widespread desertification, the collapse of global ecosystems, and the end to nearly all life on this great Earth – the sixth mass extinction. And indeed, we are rapidly heading to that direction.
So why in the heck have we purposefully chosen to bring another human life into this overpopulated, apocalypse-bound world?
Because I have hope. I am hopeful that we can figure out a better way to live on this planet. Hopeful that we can prove wrong the narrative that humans exert a fundamentally negative force on this planet. Hopeful that we can abandon our planet-destroying agricultural systems and replace them with regenerative ecosystems that feed, house, clothe, and power prosperous and resilient human communities while also supporting a widespread diversity of thriving plant and animal communities. I recognize the naivety of this hope. Sometimes (especially when I read the newspaper) I think that it’s too late. We’ve past the tipping point and widespread planetary destruction is not only inevitable, but well underway. The prospect of hopelessness is palpable. Before I make my main point here, allow me to take a slight detour to an unexpected place – The Bible.
The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt a long time. They had been taken captive and were forced laborers in Egypt’s labor camps, responsible for mining and working stone into the great cities and monuments of the Pharaohs. After the dramatic series of plagues convinced the Pharaoh to release the Israelites from their slavery, Moses led the famous exodus of out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and towards what God had promised was waiting “A promised land of milk and honey.” I’m assuming that God meant raw, unpasteurized milk and raw, unfiltered honey, which then truly would be a wonderful place.
There was a small desert for this mobile nation, several hundred thousand strong, to cross on their way to the Promised Land, and it was there that a curious thing happened. God, after working so many miracles on their behalf to precipitate their escape, decided not to let them into the promised land. Instead, they were made to wander in that desert for forty years. Forty years is a long time to wander, especially in a desert wilderness. Finally, at the end of these four decades, God worked with Joshua, a young punk, not Moses, to let His people into the promised land. God said that none of the elders that had lived in Egypt would be allowed into the promised land, including Moses. That they all had to die before the Israelites could inherit this land, and that took forty years.
Why was God so insistent that the old generation not be allowed to enter the promised land? That only the children of that generation would have the privilege? Slavery destroys body, soul, spirit, and culture. The slave mindset is toxic and dangerous in a free society. That the Israelites were steeped in the slave’s mindset was apparent immediately after they crossed the Red Sea. God had split the Red Sea in half so they could cross over on dry ground. Immediately after reaching the other side, the Israelites started complaining because that they were hungry, and begged to go back to Egypt where they may have been slaves, but at least had access to food!
My point in telling this story is that I think that transformational, systemic change cannot happen overnight, and indeed takes a generation. I think that, although we are not now forced into bondage by some malevolent dictator, we do in modern society, live in a sort of voluntary state of slavery. We’re slaves to convenience, comfort, screens, and security. Even as our planet is in the midst of the most rapid climate change and extinction event in Earth’s history, we’re busy making sure we get a big enough paycheck to pay off our cell phone bill, mortgage, credit cards, with hopefully enough left over for a vacation to be able to forget the soul-crushing reality of bondage.
I have worked hard to escape the slave state . I have made the explicit decision to live in financial poverty on the land, denying myself the comforts, conveniences, and financial security I once had living in town and working for the University. It’s pretty scary, but we’re still here! But no matter what I do, I still have a slave’s mind. I find my thoughts get easily sucked into a mindset of scarcity and competition – the agricultural mindset so responsible for our separation and subsequent planetary destruction (see The Ascent of Humanity). Although I’ve made giant strides in this regard, my default state of mind is still that of the slave. I can consciously override this state (meditation helps a lot), but I can not change the default settings. God would not have let me into the promised land.
But for my children, on the other hand, the future is not so determined. My goal is to provide a context for my children that does not result in obligatory programming of the slave mindset. My hope is that they grow up to see the world in a much different way than I did. That they grow up feeling intimately embedded in the living, breathing world around them, not like a separate disembodied individual, competing for scarce resources with other separate individuals (how my brain sees the world by default). That they grow up feeling capable, confident, and empowered to build a New World and a New Way of Being Human. A way that is driven by love, compassion, gratitude, liberty, cooperation, and mutual entanglement, instead of fear, anger, hopelessness, competition, and separateness.
The only way I can maintain a real and palpable hope for a better future is to actively build that future, not just for myself and my generation, but for the next generations. Sometimes I worry that we are bringing a child into a world near its pinnacle of destruction and suffering. How could I be so cruel and careless? But the alternative – to not have children because of my fear of that future – seems to require giving up all hope. And that decision would be motivated by the same fear mentality that we are actively seeking to overcome. Now if we still lived in a city and were still good little slaves, reliant on an unsustainable system for all of our livelihood, things might be different. I would not want to bring a child into that world. We are still reliant on The System for lots of stuff, but we are now in a place where we are providing most of our livelihood from the land, and if shit hits the fan, life will suck for a while, but we won’t get eaten by zombies.
The work we need to do now to renew the Earth requires an immense amount of passion, patience, dedication, and motivation. Investing in the next generation and knowing that it’s up to me to give that generation a better starting place than I or any of my ancestors for the last 10,000 years have had is about the best motivation I can muster. The work is certainly worth doing regardless of whether or not we have kids. But having kids sure does make it real. I know that I myself will never see a sane and sustainable human society embedded interdependently in functional local ecosystems – but my kids and grandkids might. If I work hard, make sacrifices, consciously override my slave mindset, and plant lots of trees, my kids just might have a shot.
Out here among the mighty oaks, chickadees, roses, and bumble bees, the world is still a beautiful place. And from here, and from other places like it, I hope to help spread this beauty outwards to start reclaiming the places that humans have made so toxic and inhabitable (all agricultural lands – 45% of the planet’s surface). This is our job. And it won’t be easy. It will take an immense effort to pay off the 10,000 year old planet-wide debt our cultures have accrued with Mother Earth. But I know it’s possible. Sitting under the oaks one day last July, Maureen had a vision of a young child with curly hair running down the hill and a song came to her, a lullaby. That evening we sang that song together. A week later, we knew we had conceived and started in earnest building a tiny cabin for our growing family. In a couple weeks from now, this child will be born in our little cabin in the back of the valley underneath the blossoming oaks and the singing warblers. As this child grows, so will our hope and motivation to reclaim and restore our dying planet with the beauty and love that was our original inheritance.