I was five years old when the world first ended. That was in 2000, the year that a United Nations official predicted 11 years before that entire nations would be wiped out by rising sea levels. Since then, I have survived the Arctic melting on at least six separate occasions (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018), to say nothing of the geopolitical chaos that followed the oil shortages of 2015. As of last year, my troubles have been worsened by the complete submersion of the Maldives, which has narrowed my holiday options.
This week, as I ventured into London to shop for a woolly jumper and flippers ahead of next year’s ‘Siberianisation’ of England and disappearance of the Arctic, I was surprised to be confronted with a street full of lively campers with placards. Above the Extinction Rebellion protesters I encountered the words ‘Tell the truth’ and an image of a skull emblazoned on a large pink banner. A young woman patiently explained to those gathered that the planet was headed for catastrophe. Again, I thought? I asked her for an exact date so I could add it to the calendar I keep tacked to the wall of my bunker. Frustratingly, she wasn’t quite sure.
Twitter was also alive with a deluge of images of ER protesters engaging in all manner of mischief and singsong, but only one video really got my attention: a young father crying about the world he believes his two infants will inherit.
It’s tempting to mock such a theatrical display – to point out that these kids are likely to prove just as sturdy in the face of predicated apocalypses as their father – but we shouldn’t. Though not often as loudly declared, the fear this man expressed is widespread.
Several young protesters told me that they are unsure about having kids, whether because of the environmental need for population reduction or because of the harshness of the world they believe those children would face.
In Canada, the #NoFutureNoChildren campaign has provoked over 5,000 students and teenagers to pledge not to have children until their government “will ensure a safe future for them.” Emma Lim, the 18-year-old founder of the movement explains that she was “terrified” by the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The teenager goes on to cite future “economic instability, of food scarcity and extreme weather” as reasons not to bring children into the world:
‘I am giving up my chance of having a family because I will only have children if I know I can keep them safe. It breaks my heart, but I created this pledge because I know I am not alone. I am not the only young person giving up lifelong dreams because they are unsure of what the future will hold. We’ve read the science, and now we’re pleading with our government.’
Lim is right about one thing; she is not alone. Such concern about the future has been a feature of discussions amongst my peers since my mid-teens and continues to plague the minds of many people I know (I’m 24). A German friend assures me the phenomenon isn’t limited to the Anglosphere; several of her friends in their mid-twenties have recently expressed worry about the morality of childbearing.
This despair among millennials and Generation Z is no laughing matter. Yet it should hardly come as a surprise. Giving a megaphone to the most extreme (and wrong) climate predictions may have proved a convenient tool for activists and politicians to get attention, but what of the generations who have now grown up with authority figures telling them that they face imminent Armageddon, and that adults don’t care?
At school, teachers eagerly subjected my class to films such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which predicted water levels rising by twenty feet “in the near future” and The Age of Stupid, which showed London completely submerged by sea-water – and Sydney on fire – by the year 2055.
Such widely-lauded predictions are almost never accompanied by comparatively well-publicised controversy when deadlines pass. Instead we move onto the next outlandish prediction. The result is a fast-moving conveyer-belt of doom.
We used to teach children to be calm, collected and optimistic. Not any longer. Nowadays, catastrophising is being encouraged at an institutional level by teachers, journalists and politicians eager to hop on the bandwagon.
Greta Thunberg’s now-infamous UN speech provides a particularly uncomfortable example of this phenomenon. A 16-year-old girl is crying as she proclaims the death of her dreams and her childhood in the face of mass extinction. A room full of the world’s most senior grown-ups applauds her distress.
Is there a better way to discuss global warming? I will leave that question open for readers to consider. Meanwhile, I’ll be in my bunker.
James McSweeney is a London-based freelance writer and videographer