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British journalist Madeleine Kearns joins Chelsea Follett to discuss misguided eco-anxiety and why some people feel they need to choose between parenthood and the planet.

Madeleine Kearns: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 16 Transcript

By Chelsea Follett @Chellivia

By Madeleine Kearns @madeleinekearns

The full conversation between Chelsea Follett and Madeleine Kearns can be found here. The transcript is below.

Chelsea Follett: I am pleased to introduce Madeleine Kearns as our guest on the 16th episode of The Human Progress podcast. She is a journalist from Glasgow in Scotland, a writer at National Review, and her work has appeared in many outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and others. She appears frequently on the news, giving commentary on networks like the BBC, and she somehow finds time for a musical career in addition to all of that. And she has written a fascinating, thought-provoking, somewhat disturbing piece that we’re going to be discussing today, a cover story, in a recent issue of The Spectator titled, “Baby Boomers: Is Eco-Anxiety Behind the Plummeting Birth Rate?” Maddy, welcome. How are you?

Madeleine Kearns: Thank you for having me. And thank you for that incredibly kind and generous introduction. [chuckle]

Chelsea Follett: Of course. So, let’s get right into this fascinating, and again, somewhat disturbing piece of yours. Could you start out by giving us an overview of what it’s about and what inspired you to write it?

Madeleine Kearns: Sure, so it’s about, as the title suggests, people who are using climate change as a reason for not having children, or having fewer children. And this might seem like a sort of French phenomenon, people are always coming up with eccentric ideas and justifications for different lifestyles. But the reason this is particularly concerning is that a recent Lancet poll suggests that as much as 39% of people of child-bearing age feel hesitant about having children because of climate change. And a similar poll was studied by Morgan Stanley who recognized this is as a real trend in world demographics, unlike other trends, but certainly a real one. And so makes you wonder, “What’s going on there?” And through some investigation, I found there’s two main reasons that people give for saying that the climate is a reason for not having kids. The first is, the argument that children themselves are like little carbon-making machines, and that it’s an act of climate catastrophe to bring another one of those machines into the world; And then the second argument, which is slightly more popular, I would say, than that first one, is the idea that it’s not fair on children to bring them into the planet when it’s in such a dreadful mess and they’re going to experience floods, and droughts, and famines, and that sort of thing. So yeah. So that’s the main thrust behind the movement, I think.

Chelsea Follett: So, the world has always been dangerous, as you point out. In the piece you actually open by providing some perspective of what past generations faced. Could you paint a picture of some of those risks?

Madeleine Kearns: Sure. So if you look at the very broad streak of history, it doesn’t take long to notice that things haven’t always been sunny and rosy. There’s been famines, and plagues, and wars, and actually in terms of day-to-day quality of life, our ancestors really put up with a lot more than we do. They didn’t have the benefit of pain medication during childbirth, for example, they didn’t actually expect to live into very old age in the way that many of us do, and it was perfectly common, for example, to have a sibling or a parent die by the end of your childhood. In fact, infant mortality and child mortality was very high. By current standards, it’s very tragic and unusual now for a child to not make their fifth birthday.

Madeleine Kearns: That wasn’t the case for most human beings in most of human history. So I think in some ways, because life is much more comfortable now, because we don’t normally go through our day-to-day lives expecting to be victims of sudden violent death, or some illness that would be perfectly treatable now, we’ve lost that sense of perspective, that life normally entails suffering to some extent, all of us also will, of course, expect to die [chuckle] at some point eventually. And so that sort of old wisdom of the stoicism of saying, “Well, knowing that most of us can expect to suffer and die, we’re gonna make the most of it,” is sort of gone now, and we’re focusing on worst case scenarios and a sort of monomaniacal focus on the climate and the challenges that the change of climate presents.

Chelsea Follett: Right. So it’s not that the situation is necessarily more dangerous than, say, the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, which you bring up in the piece, but that the way we respond to some of these challenges maybe has changed. Maybe we’ve lost some of that historical perspective. And you also mentioned the falling rates of child mortality, and we know that that has actually helped to bring down birth rates. And you mention this in the piece. Sometimes falling birth rates are a good thing. They can be a sign of a country becoming wealthier, and as child mortality decreases, people often then choose to have smaller families. If you know that half of your children are not going to make it to adulthood, you’ll probably end up having more children to try to account for that. But as child mortality rates fall, birth rates tend to fall too as countries become wealthier. And so some of this is positive. But what’s different about eco-anxiety that you point out, is that this isn’t happening in the poor developing countries. This is happening primarily in the already wealthy countries that have the most resources to care for children and to adapt and respond to climate change. So in the case of eco-anxiety falling birth rates are not necessarily something to celebrate. Is that correct?

Madeleine Kearns: I think, yeah, that’s exactly right. I mean, obviously, as you know, it can be an indication of improved quality of life. For example, you mentioned falling child mortality is one factor. Now another is, of course, the education of women. When women enter the workforce, they tend to choose to have smaller families, and that’s something we’ve seen in developed in first world countries over the last few decades especially. That may be an indication of some things going well. It does bring, of course, challenges. The US, sorry, fertility rate is the lowest that it’s, I think, ever being on record. There’s half the amount of babies being born now than were being born in the 1950s. Now, of course, some of that is a sign of progress, but of course there’s also challenges that come from that because we’re not enjoying the same amounts of human potential and human capital that is necessary for a functioning economy, a functioning vibrant cultural life. If there’s not enough young people, there’s not enough ideas, there’s not enough innovation.

Madeleine Kearns: And this is a concern now to many countries, not just in the West. China, I mentioned in the piece, having abandoned its policy from the 1990s, the one-child policy, is now trying to encourage women to have three children and discovering that they’re not really that keen to do so actually, because the culture has changed so much and the mindset has changed so much. So you do. There’s an irony, which is that there’s the argument on one hand that we shouldn’t be having children because it’s not in human interest, when of course, what is the one thing we could do to secure the annihilation of our species? We could stop reproducing. Now, of course, we haven’t stopped entirely, we’ve just slowed down a lot, but it’s an interesting sort of juxtaposition when you consider that the solution to climate change is actually just contributing to a different problem.

Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. But you quote Morgan Stanley, you mentioned, as saying that, “Fears over climate change are actually impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trends.” So why is this anxiety so widespread?

Madeleine Kearns: Well, I think there’s probably two things going on there. I think on a sort of superficial level, you could just take that at face value and you could say, “Okay, people are giving this as their primary reason. Why is that?” And we could perhaps focus on the ways in which we educate young people about climate change, the ways in which we discuss it in the media, the sort of political rhetoric that is used to discuss it. And I used to work before monomaniacal, I think that is the right word, it’s focusing on climate change, which is real and presents serious challenges, but at the exclusion and at the expense of all sorts of other issues. I mentioned earlier, the fertility actually is one of them, but there’s many other ones as well. And not only on a sort of political level, but on a personal level as well.

Madeleine Kearns: Having children is about more than how much carbon they produce, of course. Human interaction, human connection is very important to having a fulfilling and meaningful life. Of course, you can have a fulfilling and meaningful life without having children but it’s one very worthwhile endeavor. So there’s a kind of loss of focus on those other things, I think, partly because of the way we discuss this issue. But the other thing about that Morgan Stanley thing is you could also look at this and you could say, “Okay, well, that is the reason people are giving. Is that really the real reason though?” Because there is an element I think of, this has become a very fashionable moral cause to a sort of virtue signal that you are a conscientious and responsible citizen, you show that you really care about the planet. It’s a very popular way of thinking about things if you’re moving in liberal circles and things like that.

Madeleine Kearns: Now, maybe there’s lots of reasons why you’re not having kids. Maybe some of them are quite mundane and not very interesting, like you haven’t met the right person, or you feel that you haven’t got enough money, or you’re waiting for your first home or something, but here’s this moral reason, which is very admirable to some people. So there is an element of skepticism, I think, that that I have and probably others have and looking at this and saying, “Well, that’s certainly the reason people are giving, but is it as straight forward as that? Possibly not.”

Chelsea Follett: I know, I think there is some element of virtue signaling as you imply there. But when you do have so many people, 39 percent again, saying that this is contributing to their decision, and when you have a situation where in many of the richest countries with the most resources, birth rates are at an all-time low… Many countries now have fertility rates below what the people in those countries say would be their ideal number of children. And some people are even worried about a population collapse. We’re very far from that now still, obviously, but it’s a concern that many intelligent people have. Elon Musk is one of the people who talks about this sometimes. It clearly is contributing to the decisions of some people. And it is kind of ironic because it is mostly people in the wealthiest countries, and at this time in history. What did you mean when you wrote that children born today are likely to have better lives than those in any other era?

Madeleine Kearns: Well, if we just sort of observe some of the things I referenced before, but there’s many more examples of this. Your quality of life now is so much higher than really any of our ancestors in terms of the access that you will have to education. Especially if you’re a woman. It’s easy to forget this, but it wasn’t that long ago that you were basically considered the property of your husband, and you weren’t really having much say in who you married, and you weren’t necessarily going to be educated unless you were in the aristocracy or something like that. There’s the issue of slavery. People care about slavery an awful lot. We’ve done away with that in this part of the world.

Madeleine Kearns: When I wrote that, I was really thinking about the First World, the people who are complaining about not having children. Of course, there are still many, many problems in the world, especially in the Third World, but we enjoy so many benefits. And I think we’re sort of tempted to take that for granted a lot of the time. Life expectancy is better now. I would have to say that society is on the whole fairer now. We certainly care about it being fair more now. It is strange that we aren’t able to see that when it’s so obvious. The society is also much less violent. I mean, if you were to pick a time in history to be born, I think it would be now. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in the middle ages, or even a century ago, when we, in Europe, underwent these two horrific world wars. And then the aftermath of that was people worrying that the atomic threat was going to suddenly pulverize them. So yeah, I think we’ve lost sight of how good we’ve got it.

Chelsea Follett: I would agree with you. I think that we are very fortunate to be alive now. I think that future generations will, hopefully, continuing this trend, be even luckier than you and I. And yet, as you point out in the piece, many government officials and activists would have us think that our children will inherit a post-apocalyptic desert. And you trained as a teacher in Scotland, actually, and you observed some things about how we’re educating children about the environment. What did you see?

Madeleine Kearns: Yeah. So you’re right, it’s political messaging. To be charitable, I think the idea behind it is to prompt people into action. So we’re educating children that it’s really an impending disaster, not in the way that we might say a natural disaster is a disaster. There’s a hurricane, and some people sadly die, that’s a disaster. But we mean, this is a disaster. And Greta Thunberg, who’s very popular among young people says that the world is on fire, and she means this literally. And there’s a loss of critical thinking, especially in teaching this to children, I think. Because in critical thinking, you look at something in its complexity, and you see all the moving parts. And you say, “Well, okay, this is a problem, but actually here is less of a problem. And actually that could even be a good thing.” And so the example I gave in the piece was that there was a geography exam question for Scottish school children to give the pros and cons of climate change. Because if you see climate change and you actually just think about that, it’s sort of neutral, isn’t it? The climate is changing. Some of that’s good. Some of that is bad. So the good, for example, you may be able to make the argument. In a very limited sense, to be fair, I think the cons will outweigh the pros here.

Madeleine Kearns: But in a very limited sense, you might be able to say, well, okay, there’s going to be less cold spells, less extreme cold spells, which is probably going to be good for people who live in very cold places. Of course, it’s going to get hotter for the people who already live in hot places, and that’s the big problem. But you could sort of approach it with critical reasoning, but the politicians don’t want critical reasoning. They want just completely buying the political reign, which is, “This is the problem, okay, and it’s existential,” which it isn’t. The climate scientists are clear that it’s not going to wipe out humanity. It’s going to cause a lot of damage and destruction, but it’s not going to wipe out humanity. It’s also going to affect different parts of the world, definitely, that’s just common sense. But they just want it, “Its an immediate disaster. It’s an immediate threat. We have to act now.” And that becomes sort of a pretext for their policy prescriptions and how to deal with this.

Madeleine Kearns: And again, to use Greta Thunberg, because I think she is representative of a certain type of radical that does have outsized influence in all this, is that what she really is saying is that the way to fix this problem is just sort of tear everything down, stop everything immediately. And again, like I said, it’s this sort of monomaniacal focus because, well, you could do that, but there’s a lot more to keeping a society functioning and healthy than just responding to climate concerns, not least because, if you cripple the economies of the First World, how are they going to be able to help and lend aid to parts of the Third World that are dependent on that aid in order to respond to these various droughts and famines and so on. So it is concerning that this sort of political agenda is piggy-backing on to what should be a serious discussion. So I think, especially the focus on the young who are leading the way here, is a little concerning, I would say.

Chelsea Follett: Right, I hope that this is… And I think you’re right that it is intended to spur people to action, this framing of a serious issue in apocalyptic terms, but what is happening in education seems to actually be causing a sense of hopelessness or despair, in some cases. Would you agree with that?

Madeleine Kearns: Absolutely. Again, the activist line seems to be, “We don’t want people to hope, we want them to panic.” Because now I understand that the concern about, “We don’t want people to get complacent, or to be indifferent.” You don’t want people in the first world to think, “Ah, this doesn’t really affect me, so I’m just going to carry on as normal.” I understand you want to avoid that, but I can’t really think of an example in history, where panicking and dogmatic thinking and zero tolerance for anybody with a different idea was preferable to critical reasoning, keeping a kind of calm and steady mindset and behaving like a grown up.

Madeleine Kearns: I can’t really think of an example where the former was preferable, but it seems to be what a certain contingent of activists are written for, and they are obviously, as we began this discussion with having effect, they’re making people very anxious and obsessed with this one issue in a way that is at least to some extent, influencing the personal and lifestyle choices of people in a not entirely positive way, because I think that having children is necessary to keep the whole human project going, so it doesn’t seem to be very productive to pursue that, but that is what they’re doing.

Chelsea Follett: I would agree with that. And you point out that this is more of the activists in some cases, or people presenting the scientific evidence in a politicized way. But the actual scientific predictions from organizations like the IPCC… no serious scientist thinks that a runaway greenhouse gas effect is going to turn Earth into Venus. No serious scientist thinks that the next generation is going to inherit an uninhabitable desert planet. So what are the actual effects of climate change likely to be for the next generation?

Madeleine Kearns: Well, it’s very unpopular to point this out, but if you live in the first world with the exception of low lying cities like New Orleans or Venice in Italy or something like that, most people aren’t actually not going to notice much of a difference that’s sort of the unpopular truth of the matter. Now, those people are very fortunate because there are people who will be seriously affected, like subsistence farmers in the third world, for whom this is actually an existential threat. Because if you can’t get your crops, you can’t feed your family. But us in the first world are unlikely to notice and our children are unlikely to notice. So a good example of this actually is the rising sea levels, so I can’t remember which left wing publication it was that ran a piece, saying that… It was like that scene from The Day After Tomorrow, where Statue of Liberty came up to a neck in water.

Madeleine Kearns: And sort of suggesting that this went round the internet and there was a suggestion that this was going to happen in the next sort of 20 to 50 years. And that’s just not true. The sea levels have risen about half a meter since the 1800s. And they will probably rise another half meter in the next 100 years, and that does cause big problems, especially for these low lying places and people living there may have to move, which could be very inconvenient, but for the rest of us, we’re just sort of get on with our lives and obviously make changes and adjustments and adapt as human beings been doing from the beginning of their existence, adapting to… In their long-term interests. But when you point this out, I’ve found and not to be self referential. On the BBC yesterday debating this, and I found that when you point these things out, you’re immediately typecast as somebody who thinks, oh it’s not that big of a deal.

Madeleine Kearns: And it’s not that, it’s just that it’s being realistic about how it affects different… Again, it’s like critical reasoning thing how it affects different people differently. Human beings have limited energy and time and resources, and life would be pretty exhausting if in addition to all the things that you have to worry about, you also have to worry about other people’s problems exactly how they directly affect them. So the big concern right now for the first world is, as we talked about earlier, this aging population, this fertility crisis, which is going to… If we don’t correct it it’s going to cause big, big problems in the future because all the great minds that are solving, among other things, the climate issue will not be borrowing. And so those people are many of them are a product of the baby-boom, postwar increasing in family size, in the birth rate, has produced a generation of very, very bright people with some great ideas about how to solve policy problems. And unfortunately, we’re not gonna have the same human capital to draw on.

Chelsea Follett: Right, that relates to a very important point that you make in the piece about how the obsession with Doomsday might grab headlines but it’s wasted energy that does nothing to solve the issues we might face from climate change. And I think that’s a very important point. Instead of advancing nuclear energy, instead of focusing on solutions, some people essentially advocate species suicide or giving up. And it’s a surrender, it’s defeatism and it’s not very constructive.

Madeleine Kearns: Yeah, it’s not very constructive, and I think it is now sort of expected, like if you’re to be a serious responsible citizen, you’ve got to signal that you’ve bought into this Doomsday scenario, and any hint of… Guys, it doesn’t really quite work like that. Or actually, I’m not sure that’s the best way to go about things, being slightly hopeful, or even saying that it’s one among many issues that we’ve got to contend with, it is treated as a sort of climate denialism or ignorance or unwillingness to engage. And I think that’s just a terrible shame because they are wasting energy and they are not very happy in the process. I can’t help noticing it, I was reading a report just earlier about sort of people polled saying that 70% of Americans, I’m not sure I actually believe this but, say that they’re anxious about the climate. And it just doesn’t seem like a terribly good use of time to be honest.

Chelsea Follett: It is fascinating that the people who seem the most intensely worried to the point where they are afraid to have children tend to be in the wealthiest countries, where as you point out they will probably see the fewest actual effects from climate change. Whereas people in sub-Saharan Africa, or in poor communities, or in coastal communities in poor countries, don’t seem to have this same level of eco-anxiety. Why do you think that is?

Madeleine Kearns: Well, I think it’s what we’ve discussed before, which is it’s the way that we talk about the issue. But I also just think there is truth in that if you have… If you have real problems, if you’re worried about being able to feed your family, if you really live paycheck to paycheck or vegetable to vegetable, you don’t really have time to sort of look at other parts of the world, or scour the internet, or go to rallies and protests. You’re sort of just forced to sort of get on with your day-to-day living. I’m not saying that that’s a good thing, I don’t think it’s good that people have hardly anything, so that they’re just to sort of living in the moment. It would be better if they sort of chose to live in the moment because they’d realize that was a healthier mindset. But there is a kind of irony that some people just don’t really have enough going on that they have to sort of project themselves years into the future, generations into the future, to sort of sit around and contemplate absolute worst case scenarios. It strikes me that there’s a kind of principle of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is used to treat people who have anxiety and depression and that sort of thing, where it says, “You’re not supposed to catastrophize because it’s very, very bad for your mental health.”

Madeleine Kearns: You’re supposed to sort of live in the moment and really just worry about today or tomorrow. This is sort of the basis of ancient wisdoms and religions as well, is that they don’t take on the weight of the world on your shoulders because it’s hard enough to worry about your immediate circle of friends and family and other assets. So I think some of these people; students, young people, they want a cause, they want something to feel passionate about, and they maybe don’t have this… Well, they certainly don’t have the same kind of problems that the people in the third world have that prevents them from sort of even entertaining these thoughts.

Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. And all of our ancestors, of course at one point, lived much the way people in the poorest places in the world today live in. Actually they were even worse off, there was no electricity and so forth, and at one point in the piece you do say, “To maintain some perspective, consider how brutal life must have been for our ancestors.” How brutal was it?

Madeleine Kearns: Well, I mean it was so brutal. You just… Death could really come at any point for you and for your children. I think childbirth must have felt like a bit of a Russian roulette to be honest. It was very common for complications to happen. In fact I’m struck by that quite a lot, like your friends start having children or you just hear stories from your family of, “Oh, that was a really complicated pregnancy, or that was a really complicated birth.” and the medical technology that we have now to make sure that, for the most part, it’s the best possible care you could get in this part of the world. There was none of that, and there was very little in the way of pain medication, and there was very little in the way of travel, people really lived very parochial lives and contained within their local community, and there’s just all sorts of technologies and comforts that we just take for granted now. I think life… It was, it was brutal and it was short, and people knew that it was brutal and short because people were dropping like flies all around them. During the 1300s, the Bubonic plague wiped out a third of the population of Europe. And those weren’t all old people either.

Madeleine Kearns: Well, they would have been old people by our standards anyway, because people weren’t living until old age, but it was just sort of accepted. It was just accepted that that was inevitable for at least some people and eventually inevitable for everybody. You sort of thought about death quite a lot I think, in a way that was probably helpful at least in giving perspective. I think something that has really come out of the pandemic has been the revelation to a lot people, is how terrified we are of death. I think there’s lots of reasons for that, but part of it is that we’ve sort of been able to distract ourselves and comfort ourselves into not really thinking about it. So when you’re suddenly forced to think about it, it’s terrifying. And an example of that would just actually be if you think about the ways in which people used to treat the dead. So they would keep the bodies themselves, they would prepare their loved one’s body themselves. There would be a religious ritual, a burial, and that would all kind of happen in the space of a few days.

Madeleine Kearns: Whereas now somebody dies, they’re sort of whisked away, they’re put in make-up and made to sort of appear like they did when they were alive, and then we all talk about. How wonderful their life was. Which is a good thing, I’m all for celebrating people’s lives, but we don’t really address that they’re dead, because we don’t like thinking about death. And so there’s also that side of things, which is that the climate change is sort of a symbolic reminder that things are… Life is quite precarious, and suffering is involved, and we don’t really have total control on how things work out. Of course, we never have, but we’ve managed to think that we have for quite a long time, and we’re not enjoying the wake-up call.

Chelsea Follett: Right. And in some cases, we have, of course, objectively made progress. I think that’s a great insight about maternal mortality rates going down. There was a time when it was as dangerous for a woman to be pregnant as it is for her to have breast cancer today. It was a terrible situation. In my own life, with my first pregnancy, that turned into an emergency C-section that was necessary to save my daughter’s life. And for my second child, it was a much simpler situation, but I still very much appreciated the pain medication. So I have children, obviously—just talking about that—and I cannot imagine my life without them. They’re the joy of my life. And so to me, to think about people who want children, and forgo having a family, entirely or in part because of misplaced, unfounded fears is just deeply sad. It’s actually tragic and… How do you think we can help people to overcome this crippling, debilitating eco-anxiety that is, in some cases, preventing them from getting to experience a family, if that’s something that they want?

Madeleine Kearns: Yeah, I think… I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean, I think we just have to sort of remind people that there’s more to life than avoiding suffering. I mean, I always think around this time of year, I don’t know how early is too early to start watching Christmas movies, but one of my all time favorites is, It’s a Wonderful Life. And I’m sure you know that the story of It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s a man who is considering killing himself because of terrible circumstances in his professional life. And he’s somebody… One of the other characters says to him, “Well, that’d be terrible for your family if you’ll just jump,” and he says, “Oh, you know, you’re right. It’d be better if I had never been born.” And then the rest of the movie, he’s getting the chance to see the world as if he had never been born. And of course, it’s a subtle but self-evident truth, when you just think about it, just give it a moment to think about it, how every human life touches the lives of those around them in really profound ways, in really influential ways. So in this scenario, he had saved his brother’s life when he was a boy, and then his brother had gone on to save his fellow soldier’s life when he was away at war, and he had obviously changed his wife’s life by marrying her, and then his children obviously existed because he was there.

Madeleine Kearns: And so there’s this huge potential for meaning and connection and love and all those things that really make life worthwhile, and sort of compensate for the fact that life can be very difficult, and there’s lots of suffering and things like that. And I think that the kind of tragedy is that… And this is politics, politics is effective in negative framings. That’s why people tend to run negative opposition ads because it’s more effective than talking about their positive things.

Madeleine Kearns: As human beings, we’re sort of wired to notice things going wrong. It’s partly a survival instinct, of course, but we’re very sensitive to it, and so we easily miss those other subtler bonds and human connections that really do give life meaning and purpose. And I think we need to make the case for parenthood and for family life in a way that obviously responds to the current age and the fact that women now want to be in the workforce and have every right to be there, and come up with ways to encourage that choice on a policy level. But I actually think, to be honest, it’s much more about the culture than it is about policy prescriptions. I don’t really think that people make decisions on family size based on politics. I think that really, it’s this cultural sense that is affected by politics.

Madeleine Kearns: So with the climate change issue, there’s a sense of fear and dread and hopelessness and confusion about what the meaning of any of this is anyway. And that’s coming from this political agenda but that is… It’s that emotional state that I think really drives people’s decisions one way or another. And the tragedy at the moment is it’s driving it in a negative way, along with other influences, of course.

Chelsea Follett: So what you seemed to be saying is that family support policies don’t make that much of an impact on people’s decision-making process when it comes to this, but—maybe not the environmental policies, but the fear, the fearmongering around some environmental issues is having a big impact. Is that fair to say?

Madeleine Kearns: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right.

Chelsea Follett: And I would agree with that. I don’t think that policy can influence this nearly as much as culture. You see in the countries with the most government support for being a parent, in Scandinavia and so forth, that they have very low birth rates, below the replacement rate. In the wealthiest countries in the world with the most resources, people have the fewest children. And so this doesn’t seem to be a question of needing more resources or support, but something cultural. And if you believe that the earth is literally about to become uninhabitable in your children’s lifetime, that is going to have a huge effect on your decision-making process. And even though that’s not what the scientific consensus says about climate change—which will be a huge problem, will cause many, many issues, but will not make the earth uninhabitable—somehow the messaging on this has ended up in apocalyptic terms. How can we restore a proper perspective?

Madeleine Kearns: I wanna say I think that… So the difference between, I think, people who are conservative and people who are more on the left is that the conservative approach to tackling problems such as these is really just to start with yourself. And so, I don’t think that…

Chelsea Follett: I think that’s the libertarian approach too.

Madeleine Kearns: Yeah. People don’t really… It’s sort of depressing, especially when you work in the opinion business, but people rarely change their minds. They sort of make up their minds and then they stick to it, and they will run over anyone who disagree as well. Not quite back stream, but I think just… If more people who are slightly of more sensible mind on this sort of stuff just sort of go on with living a happy, contented life and being very open about that, then at least the people in their immediate circle would notice that and think, “Huh, okay, well… ” What am I talking… Whereas, I think what happens is you get these terrible sort of feedback loops where if your friends are saying that they’re not gonna have kids because of the climate change, then you start thinking, “What are we thinking? Maybe we should do that too.” And there’s that sort of contagion, social contagion, which I think is why it’s important to speak about these issues and have conversations like the one we’re having, where we just say… When you really step back and you look at this objectively in the full picture, it just isn’t really a very sensible or productive approach, and it’s also depriving yourself of a really important part of life.

Madeleine Kearns: I also… Something you mentioned earlier made me think of this, is you were talking about the people making the decision to forgo parenthood, and that is presuming that they’re going to have no issues, which statistically most people don’t have issues if they’re trying to get pregnant, but a significant portion of people do actually, a significant minority, especially if you wait well into your 30s. And I think there’s a little bit, dare I say, of entitlement where people say, “Well, I’m gonna put this off until I feel that I can really bring this,” and it’s like, “Well, good luck.” But if you approach it more like, “This is a very natural next step in my life,” and, I don’t know, open to it earlier, and you might be less likely to incur personal disappointment in that area as well. I think there’s a slight overemphasis on that choice. I mean, of course, it is a choice to try to become pregnant or not, but you’re choosing to try, and that’s something that I think we’ve lost sight of as well.

Chelsea Follett: I think that’s a… There’s a good point there that some people who may be waiting to try to start a family until the climate policies they would prefer are in place could be doing their future selves a disservice if at that point in time it’s actually too late for them to be able to have children. I don’t think that there’s, to the sorrow of the Left, a simple government solution to an issue like the birth rate being below what people, what women themselves say they want. But hopefully journalism such as your piece will help to provide people with more perspective. What kind of impact have you seen the piece have?

Madeleine Kearns: Well, actually, it’s been encouraging that it’s had quite a lot of engagement. I don’t know. It’s always hard to tell with Twitter because I don’t know if you only see one side of the aisle or something and… But I think a lot of people are, I would say the sort of metropolitan liberal bubble, are surprised by these polls, that that many people would be saying that they wouldn’t wanna have kids for that reason. That’s a really strange idea. And yeah, my sense is that this is really a sort of middle class liberal metropolitan phenomenon, but that’s not the damn point because those are the people who, like say, are likely to have children, who also fit that category, and those are the people who end up running the world [chuckle] so…

Chelsea Follett: And who end up often becoming scientists, researchers, climate scientists, and who could end up coming up with solutions to some of these issues. Providing that human capital, as you were saying.

Madeleine Kearns: Yeah, exactly. So that I was considering, but yeah, I think people are taken aback, people who are perhaps not of the activist mindset when it comes to climate change taken aback that it would be having that much of an effect. And otherwise, a few as you felt, I’ve had readers say that they feel sad that that’s the case, that people feel so anxious as to do something as irrational as choose not to have children for this reason. It is irrational, it doesn’t actually make sense. It doesn’t make sense for either of the two arguments I outlined at the beginning, that it’s bad for the planet, or that it wouldn’t be fair to the child. If you really believe that second argument is true, you might as well just be an antinatalist and think as a very small number of people do that life is so terrible that it’s better if you’d never been born and you would definitely have to apply that to most of human history and most places in the world today that are not as lucky as the first world. So, yeah.

Chelsea Follett: Right. The Benatar argument. But again, as you point out, throughout most of history, when things are much worse, people did not have this fear of having children as they do today. You ended the piece on a positive note though, even though overall this is a very concerning issue that you’re bringing to light. You write that those of us living in the first world today are the luckiest people to have ever lived, and the odds are that the generation to come after us will be luckier still. These children people are afraid to have on the theory that their lives will be miserable, that they will inherit a desert, in many ways, are probably luckier than our generation. Could you expand on that?

Madeleine Kearns: Sure. I just think it’s just true, isn’t it that technology and medicine, and everything that helps education, everything that helps quality of life is on an upward trend? And of course, there’s some things, as the conservatives there’s some things that just don’t change, a human nature doesn’t change. I don’t think we’re going to become more moral, for example. But certainly, the things that make life more pleasant and more enjoyable, which is what most of our contemporaries care about, is life being pleasant and enjoyable. Their argument on the climate change front is that the earth would be uninhabitable, and it would be just so miserable because there would be these fires and floods, and whatnot. The opposite is true. The opposite is true by all indications, it’s great just now relative to previous names in history, and it’s only going to get better. And I think that remembering that is really a reason to feel very grateful. I think you’re just going to be happier if you can manage to have that sense of perspective.

Chelsea Follett: Hopefully, people will continue to share your wonderful work of journalism here and your other work on this topic, and the work of others working in the same vein to help create more of this sense of perspective and to help people see that if they want to have children, fear over climate change should not be holding them back. Thank you so much, Maddy, for joining me on this episode. I really enjoyed this conversation.

Madeleine Kearns: Thank you so much.

Chelsea Follett: And congratulations on a wonderful cover story there in The Spectator.

Madeleine Kearns: Thanks so much, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

Chelsea Follett is the managing editor of HumanProgress.org and a policy analyst in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.

Madeleine Kearns is a staff writer at National Review and a contributor to The Spectator.

 

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