Imagine you could choose a moment to be born, and you were offered three options: a century ago, half a century ago, or right now. Let’s assume that, behind your veil of ignorance, you don’t know in advance where on earth you’ll end up. Which era would you choose? Of course the thought experiment is not entirely fair, because we already know how the last century unfolded. But still, which time looks like the most auspicious and hopeful one to draw your first breath on this beautiful planet: 1923, 1973, or 2023?
If you were to ask the tens of thousands of activists that are protesting on the streets, gluing themselves to highways, blocking roads and staging die-ins – I doubt that ‘2023’ would be the most frequently picked answer. According to the founder of Extinction Rebellion, climate change will lead to the “slaughter, death, and starvation of 6 billion people this century”. According to Just Stop Oil, the climate group behind many disruptive actions making news headlines, any further exploration of oil and gas will amount to “genocide” and the “starvation and the slaughter of billions”, and will “condemn humanity to oblivion”. Four in ten Americans (39%) believe the odds that global warming will lead to human extinction are 50% or higher. Not surprisingly, among childless adults, a quarter cite climate change as part of their motivation. Because what’s the point of having children if you can’t give them a liveable future? As one young woman put it: “I feel like I can’t in good conscience bring a child into this world and force them to try and survive what may be apocalyptic conditions.”
Before we consider the future of our climate, let’s get some perspective. Here’s a not unimportant consideration should you consider to have a baby: what are its chances of dying? Fifty years ago, in 1973, the global child mortality rate was three and a half times higher than today (three times even in the U.S.), and in 1923 almost nine times higher. The distant past was even worse. For all of human history up until the Industrial Revolution, at least 3 in 10 children died before reaching their 5th birthday. In the past half century extreme poverty has also been slashed, for the first time in history: while 9 out of 10 people were extremely poor before the Industrial Revolution, today the proportions are inverted: less than 1 out of 10 fall below the absolute poverty level. In almost every respect, the world is a much better place to be born right now than at any previous time in history.
So far so good. But of course all of this leaves open the possibility that our hard-won progress will soon be swept away by catastrophic global warming. Progress is not something that is mandated by the law of nature, after all, and there is no guarantee that it will continue indefinitely in the future. And yet, as I hope to convince you, such a catastrophe is extremely unlikely. In fact, it is doubtful whether any of our recent victories over poverty and child mortality will be lost again, let alone slide back to the levels of 1973 or 1923.
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