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Climate Change and Privileged Despair


Climate Change and Privileged Despair

Betsy Hartmann

Doomsday panic is as American as apple pie, though the precise recipe depends on the era. Today climate change is a primary focus of apocalyptic fears. No doubt hotter temperatures, warming oceans, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and the likelihood of more intense droughts and storms signal hard times ahead for people and the planet. But while the situation clearly calls for urgent action on climate change, there are real drawbacks to pushing the panic button.


I think the most environmentally destructive entities are individuals in the Western middle class (and upper classes of course) regardless of their intent. If we live in the consumer world at a middle class level we can’t help but impart a large environmental footprint. I include myself in this group. The fewer “privileged” victims the better. The least environmentally destructive people are the people in poverty. A redistribution of wealth would probably help lower our total impact but I imagine the only way to “save us all” is a massive total decrease in material wealth (massive decrease in consumption) It is virtually impossible for me to imagine how this could be done orderly and if it did happen how the living conditions would be. It was -18F two nights ago where I live… the amount energy required to keep a million people even sort of comfortable, say a shelter temperature of 45F is an completely abstract thought for most of us.


Maybe I’m a little nutty, but I understand these women’s concern. In the 70’s I decided not to have kids because I couldn’t see away out of nuclear war.


Wow. People who look ahead, add two and two and see that given the pretty much complete absence of action on climate change–and a host of other crises–we are creating a ravaged world, and express angst about it, question whether it’s fair to bring children into such a world–are being over-privileged whiners? I live in what looks to me like ground zero of America’s (lack of) response to this crisis, where the Marcellus and Utica shale gas plays come together. Our politicians are busy scheming multiple giant pipelines to take away the gas, and an entire complex of cracker plants to split the natural gas liquids into their components chemicals, from which to produce plastics and other chemicals…in another series of plants, all along the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Huntington, with multiple crossings under the river…also fracking directly under the river. So, along with kissing goodbye any chance to prevent the severe climate change already baked into the cake from becoming catastrophic climate change, we have severe local impacts from multiple sources of water and air pollution, noise and light pollution, heavy traffic in a rural area…and our politicians and media are all exultantly celebrating…the odds of stopping this look near zero. The fact that this bothers me a great deal makes me an overprivileged whiner, I guess, since I’m not cheerily chirping about how we can work together to mitigate the brutal impacts. All I can say is–I’ll never waste a minute reading anything written by this asshole again.


My wife choose to not have children because of what climate will bring forth. The humanity does not need more people. She is vegetarian, recycles, avoids dead carbon emissions, and gives me hope.


Oh this should be good.

“For one, it begs the question of who are the real victims of climate change. When climate-related disasters strike, the impacts usually fall along class lines. The poorer you are, the more vulnerable you are to losing your life, health, home, and/or livelihood.”

Just because brown and poor people would likely be more devastated by climate disasters does not make these women self-absorbed for not wanting to subject their children to somewhat less lethal disasters. And there’s nothing here to suggest that not having these more affluent white kids would make the disasters worse for anybody (there seems to be ample evidence that eliminating their carbon footprint entirely would more likely reduce their severity) so I see no basis for calling this reproduction abstention counterproductive.

“Similarly, if energy or food prices rise, or water becomes scarce, those on the bottom of the income pyramid typically fare the worst. Well-resourced American families do not face comparable risks.”

Yeah, because well-resourced families are consuming more than their share of those resources which are so scarce at the bottom. So how is not adding to the elevated levels of resource consumption at the upper levels counterproductive or harmful to anyone?

“To think they do is to indulge oneself in a sort of privileged victimhood.”

To blanket characterize the decision not to reproduce as an indulgence in a sort of privileged victimhood, is fatuous to the point of offensiveness for all those women who understand the serious situation we face and who have decided to forego reproduction in order not to contribute to it. Even for those who elect not to bring children into a world solely out of consideration of the grim world their children would have to face and the poor prospects for their quality of life, they are not making that decision out of self-indulgence. And I don’t see how exercising their reproductive autonomy is being played as any sort of victim card. And there still hasn’t been any support for the notion that any of this is counterproductive.

“This attitude also obscures the raw racial calculus of reproductive survival. Of all developed nations, the U.S. has by far the worst infant and maternal mortality rates.”

So how is deciding not to have children going to make that any worse?

“These in turn are highly skewed by race.”

So how are white women not having children going to cause more non-white women to experience more infant and maternal mortality?

“The reasons are no mystery. Lack of access to reproductive healthcare and healthcare more generally, untreated chronic medical conditions, and the systemic effects of racism and inequality combine to condemn far too many women of color and their children to an unconscionably early death.”

Still waiting to see how white middle class women not reproducing is going to make any of this worse.

“Viewed against this background, middle-class white angst over birthing a baby in an era of climate change seems an unnecessary luxury.”

There is a very high probability that the offspring of white middle class women will not only add to the overall human population carbon footprint, they will contribute a larger carbon footprint than the average person on this planet. If white middle class women decide they do not want to make the climate crisis worse by adding the carbon footprint of unnecessary offspring on an already-overpopulated planet, it is senseless to the point of being perverse to describe that decision as an unnecessary luxury–especially if the thinking here is that these women’s children will not feel the brunt of the damage they do, so these women really needn’t worry their pretty heads about how bad the climate crisis will be for everyone else. That seems to me a heck of a lot more self-absorbed than what these women are doing.

“Why is it so much easier to imagine a nightmarish world where children don’t belong than a more hopeful future of clean, renewable energy, universal healthcare, human rights, and social, economic, and environmental justice?”

Because one of those is the world we are clearly racing towards at breakneck speed, and the other is a dream world which seems increasingly out of reach. And so long as current trends persist with no indication of changing course, it is entirely reasonable to make projections about the future based on those trends, and to decide what one can do about it personally accordingly.

And I saw not one scrap of support in the whole article for the notion that what these women are doing is counterproductive with respect to climate change. It’s counterproductive in the sense that a smaller population will tend to produce less, but that population will also consume less, so by that meaning, their decision would only be counterproductive to the degree it is also counterconsumptive. So even then it would remain to be shown how it is doing anyone any harm.


God bless you Betsy Hartmann, but your article deserves a deep and hard skewering and Trog has done a comprehensive job of it.

This is, in fact, the present. What you call the future is already upon us.

And, this is a sane response to the future that is upon us:


Now here’s an idea. How about instead you have kids and simply consume less or innovate technology so that we can survive in a world with high consumption?

Obviously you are free to make the decision of having children of your own. However, there is zero evidence that having a child will in fact lead to an increase the rate of warming or climatic events. There are too many unrelated variables and choices that could be made by a family to merit the conclusion that more kids = more climate or certain death from climatic disaster. This article uses little evidence actually prove its objective.


The decisions of the parents are not going to be binding on the offspring. If anything, we have ample examples of whole generations turning their backs on the examples and values of their parents. And if one wished to invest the time, money, and energy into acquiring the education needed to push the frontiers of technological innovation, maybe having a bunch of kids sucking up all those resources might not be the best way to pursue that. Japan and China certainly seem to be doing okay on the technical innovation front without having high reproduction rates. Anyway, with billions of humans already on the planet, it’s not like we’re going to be experiencing a shortage of humans anytime soon.

“there is zero evidence that having a child will in fact lead to an increase the rate of warming or climatic events.”

Sure. Such projections, including those for climate change itself, are probabilistic in nature, and based on current information and trends, both of which can change. There is no way to produce evidence for a certain future, but it is normally good enough to make plans based on what seems likely.

“There are too many unrelated variables and choices that could be made by a family to merit the conclusion that more kids = more climate or certain death from climatic disaster.”

It may be that we’re already too late to avert disaster, in which case, adding to the population may not make a difference in the ultimate outcome (perhaps only the timing) but even if that’s the case, why create people just so they can go through that ordeal? If may be that we are in an indeterminate position, where it is not too late, and the concerted actions of individuals–including not throwing more people into the almost-swamping lifeboat–might be enough to make the difference–or buy enough time to make the difference. The worst case scenario in deciding not to have kids for reasons of not adding to the heavy population burden on this planet would be that technology comes through and saves the day, solves all the problems and ushers in a utopian age which the kids they might have had will never experience. But (1) whenever anyone tries to do the right thing, there is no guarantee that it will work out. It not working out is just a hazard that always comes with trying to do the right thing, and it is not a reason not to try. (2) Keeping the foot on the accelerator while headed for a cliff might work out fine if they complete the technology bridge to utopia in time, but maybe it would be more sensible to ease off the gas until they actually complete the bridge. And (3) rising affluence and a better standard of living tends to result in a decrease in the reproduction rate, so there was always a high likelihood that some would-be kids would miss out on utopia if even if we did fix everything. But having all the kids possible who might miss out on utopia is also one of the surest ways to destroy utopia.

“This article uses little evidence actually prove its objective.”

I would say the thesis of this article was completely unsupported.


I briefly looked up a few of the author’s back articles and she has a position on over population that seems, to me anyways, crazy. She has written a couple of articles about the over blown concern of over population (common dreams article from 2011)as well as a book that must be along the same lines (I haven’t read it) …betsyhartmann reproductive-rights-and-wrongs/.

I think she may view the idea of “over population” as a patriarchal construct to control reproductive rights. I would question this as I think human over population is objectively and obviously real and devastating to the ecology of Earth. I haven’t done a deep look into her writing so I could be entirely mistaken. It kind of bothers me that Common Dreams will run articles like this and then selectively not run articles of Chris Hedges critical of the Liberal Left.


Thank you, Ms. Hartmann for the much-needed reality check!


Regarding “the phenomenon of young American women…so freaked out by climate change that they’re considering whether or not to have children,” it must be a rather common and recurrent idea - more typically a ‘stage’ of thinking about having children than an endpoint; also, an idea related in kind, if not degree, to likewise common feelings about the ‘kind of world we want our children to grow up in.’

Somewhat at random - since I imagine the motif has been written about in cultural studies somewhere - from Dylan’s “Masters of War,” written in the early 1960’s during the Cold War and the arms race:

“You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world”


Ms. Hartmann writes:
“But rather than confront the ongoing disaster of militarism, it’s easier to absolve ourselves of political and moral responsibility by making climate change the main bogeyman.”

This is an absurd statement. I get where you are trying to go but it doesn’t work. I wish all we had to do was confront militarism. We are talking about losing most, if not all life on this planet.
In any case militarism is directly related to the killing of the biosphere via capitalism (see Chris Hedges latest piece, “The Bankruptcy of the American Left” Betsy Hartmann).

To bring a child into this world knowing we are in the sixth extinction with yes, ramped up wars and militarism (which will only increase due to dwindling “resources” due to AGW) is the epitome of cruelty.

Human induced extinctions and global warming will be the great leveler—there will be no more “privilege” if that is any consolation to you Betsy.

We are deep in the AGW rabbit hole with perhaps no way out:


Hartmann seems to reason that if climate harms fall more rapidly and, at first, heavily on some groups than on others – which they will – then the harms must in the long run be bearable or survivable for those on whom they fall more slowly and, at first, lightly. This is fallacious: first-class passengers on a sinking ship without lifeboats are privileged, but their privileges may not include survival. Given that the ability to sustain civilization at all is in question (see http://scientistswarning.forestry.oregonstate.edu/sites/sw/files/Warning_article_with_supp_11-13-17.pdf ), the sinking ship analogy is reasonable and Hartmann’s view seems to me out of touch. More lefter-than-thou scolding.