Children are NOT the future.

Should we motivate concern for climate action through the wellbeing of our decedents? I argue that it is time for change.

Michael Mann was promoting his new book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars last night with a lecture at the University of Wisconsin. I attended and live-tweeted it on my twitter account @WxPhilosopher for any of you who missed it. For the most part Mann’s talk followed what has become the standard climate talk format: here’s some science we’re sure of, here’s why models are helpful, this is how the topic was politicized, we’re all doomed unless we act fast. Possibly even more cliché than the format itself is the trope with which such talks, including Mann’s, usually close: Consider the legacy of our children, and how climate change could affect them. Let’s ensure they are better off, and leave them a world in which they can flourish. I’ll call this the child trope.

I hate the child trope, and I find my own hatred of it somewhat strange. Of course, I want preserve the planet’s ability to support life, and I want humanity to flourish. So why do I have these negative emotions toward it? After hearing Mann evoke the trope, I sat down to rationalize my emotional position. I realized that I find the trope not very compelling, but also that it possibly reinforces what I think are dangerous presuppositions. I’ve listed a few of the reasons below.

Please, by all means, comment on this post. I might be a little pessimistic, and I want to know if this trope actually is effective in demographics other than those in which I reside.

How the trope works:

Think of the children!

I take it that the child trope is one way of personalizing the harm that climate change will cause even though climate change works on long timescales. Because it isn’t us that will be hurt most by the affects of climate change, but our progeny, and because we are the cause of climate change, the child trope is relied on to make currently existing individuals feel responsible for what happens in the future. The trope creates this feeling of responsibility for yet un-actualized people through two social norms: 1) needing to provide for blood relatives, especially children and 2) the culturally accepted desire for parents to want their children to have a better life then they (the parents) had.

Reasons to question the trope:

It fails to address the link between population and consumption. The trope presupposes that the audience is going to have children. However, population growth and consumption are linked, and consumption is one problem that needs to be addressed to mitigate and adapt to climate change. One way to address consumption is to manage population, and this means seriously questioning the social norms supporting unfettered procreation. It is hard to seriously discuss decisions to procreate if what motivates our responsible action on climate is the product of that procreation.

UPDATE 4/19/14 2 PM Eastern: As some commenters have pointed out, the link between population and consumption is a complicated one. I did not mean to imply in the original post that it was a direct relationship (more people = more consumption). Please see my response to Nathan in the comments for a bit more considered response.

Whose kids? I’ve seen this trope evoked most frequently with a majority white middle/upper class North American, college audience. There is good reason to think that children of this audience will be fine in the future – they have the advantages of being privileged and in developed countries rich enough to take adaptation seriously. They may even find ways to profit from climate change. Children in less privileged countries (especially the sea-side ones) are likely to be hurt more seriously, and much sooner (as in, they already are suffering climate change related affects). These are the people we should care about. But the child trope doesn’t motivate us to do so, because it is predicated on concern for blood relatives.

Wanting more and better (partially) got us into this mess. For much of this century, the “better life for our children” meant the acquisition of wealth and goods, and led to a bigger, faster, and cheaper mentality. This drive towards easy consumption helped create the climate problem. I believe that in order to address climate, we need to learn to be content with only what we need (or at least a lot less), and create efficiencies in providing those needs. Insofar as this trope relies on an unquestioned desire for a better life for offspring, this trope doesn’t steer us towards sustainable living.

The trope doesn’t seem to be effective. Is there any evidence that this trope is at all effective? The trope has been part of the climate discussion since I can remember, and action has been slow. Can’t we do better?  It was interesting to hear Michael Mann say that we need to make climate change relevant to daily life, and then evoke the child trope. Let’s hire a good marketing firm.

Why are non-actualized future individuals assumed to motivate action better than actual existing individuals? The trope presupposes a kind of selfishness: we are motivated primarily by our own interest, in this case, the wellbeing of our future decedents. I think evoking this trope helps to perpetuate this selfishness especially the effects of climate change are becoming visible. The most vulnerable humans are already being harmed, and the biosphere is already experiencing negative effects. Why are we still talking about abstract non-actualized future individuals? If we aren’t willing to go beyond self interest to help those we have never met who will suffer because of our collective actions, then the effects of climate change will be disastrous. We need to work to develop this kind of global awareness.

There is an economic counter argument. A common retort to proposed action on climate change is that it is too costly. The US and other privileged countries benefitted the most from burning the fossil fuels that largely created the climate change problem. One might think that puts privileged nations on the hook for the cost of cleaning it up.  Paying for clean up may diminish the economic standing of these countries, and as a consequence, children in those countries might be worse off. What this shows is that the status of our children doesn’t directly relate to our moral obligations – those who created the problem have a responsibility to fix the problem regardless of the wellbeing of our children. The trope misses this point.

Future peoples can’t be better off! Derek Parfit brought philosophical attention to the non-identity problem, which has interesting consequences when applied to climate change. Here’s the quick argument from one of his papers: 1) Identity biologically depends, very sensitively, on the timing of conception. 2) Energy policy interventions will shift future human behavior, which will in turn change times of conception, 3) Changing the time of conception will result in different persons being born than would have without policy intervention. 4) This means that future individuals can’t be better off, because the actions that will result in a better environment will bring about different individuals.

Parfit actually thinks this argument doesn’t hold much weight; he says we should continue to talk as if individuals will be better off. However I’ve always found it compelling, precisely because it brings to the fore of the climate discussion an important point: What we do now has consequences in the future that we don’t even think about. It’s time to start thinking about those consequences.


  • Isaac Record
    Isaac Record Reply

    Hi Greg,

    Provocative post, thanks!

    I’m not sure “it isn’t effective” is a particularly strong argument against the child trope. From all appearances, strong scientific consensus and public campaigns to educate the public are also not that effective, but I don’t think that means we should give up those efforts. I will agree that this form of argument may not work for everyone. But that’s okay. Consequences for progeny should be just one in a vast arsenal of reasons to care about climate change–and, best I can tell, that’s what it is.

    Furthermore, for some people, myself included, the child trope does hold some force. I want my children, and my children’s children, to have the chance to flourish. If there is an action I can take to improve the odds of that flourishing, and the costs don’t seem too high, I’ll probably give it a try. (And if I can encourage powerful people to make choices that will benefit my progeny, I’ll probably start there!)

    I also don’t think Parfit’s non-identity problem works here. Suppose that in one future, we “fix” the climate and my progeny flourish. In another future, climate goes off the rails and my progeny suffer–but they’re also different people than in the first scenario. I prefer the first world. I don’t love my alternate-future children any less.

    Furthermore, the child trope generalizes beyond one’s own children. Suppose I don’t plan to have children. That doesn’t mean I don’t care what happens to humanity after I die. I’d prefer humanity to flourish. Otherwise, there won’t be anyone left to remember me.

    • Greg Lusk
      Greg Lusk Reply

      Thanks for commenting Isaac, and some good comments at that. I actually don’t think we disagree as much as it might first seem. Part of what I was addressing in the post was that the rhetorical form this trope takes can be problematic. If the trope’s rhetoric encouraged generalizing beyond one’s own descendants (i.e. “let’s take actions to ensure humanity can flourish in the future”) I would have less of a problem. That’s simply because that alternate rhetorical form seems to encourage a serious discussion about what the future of humanity should look like in order to flourish. The child trope, however, takes a rhetorical form that seems to close off some of these discussions because of the assumptions on which it rests.

      When you say Parfit’s argument doesn’t work here…what do you mean? It is surely correct that your children won’t, in a strict sense, be any better off. That’s as far as his argument goes, and that addresses one aspect of the trope. You can prefer one possible future world to another – but that’s a different kind of argument. Though I like switching the rhetoric to possible worlds; talking about what kinds of future worlds we may create opens up room for the critical conversations I think need to be had.

      • Isaac Record
        Isaac Record Reply

        Hi Greg, thanks for the reply!

        Parfit’s argument turns on the fact that my progeny in case A will be different than they would be in case B because the very changes that distinguish A from B will also affect when and how (or if) I have children, and this is enough to guarantee that they would be genetically distinct individuals. But this fact in no way prohibits me from comparing the contribution that environments A or B would make to their likely future well-being or propensity to flourish. If we can predict, from behind the veil of genetic ignorance, that my progeny are likely flourish in case A and suffer in case B, then I prefer case A.

        • Greg Lusk
          Greg Lusk Reply

          Agreed. We just can’t say that A is better off than they would have been, which is typically part of the rhetoric (but I realize that I dropped that aspect from the description of the trope itself, which makes that section seem not as relevant as it should). So point well taken!

  • Mike Thicke
    Mike Thicke Reply

    Greg, we all know that the real reason the “think of the children” cliché doesn’t compel you is that you hate children.

    Beyond that, I suspect that there is actually research out there addressing whether this is an effective strategy. One article I came across is Kempton, “Lay Perspectives on Climate Change” ( Kempton did an ethnographic study of 14 randomish New Jersey residents in 1991. 12 of the 14 spontaneously cited descendents as a reason to care about the environment:

    As several earlier quotations suggested, one’s descendants loom large in thinking about environmental issues. This was, in fact, the strongest value basis to emerge in the interviews. Although none of our questions asked about children, all but two informants mentioned children as a justification for environmental protection.

    I suspect that further searching might turn up more robust and recent information.

    • Greg Lusk
      Greg Lusk Reply

      Good suggestion Mike. I should try to substantiate the tropes effectiveness either way. It’ll make a good followup post.

  • Nathan Reply

    Nice post Greg, but in response to one of your points- the link between population and consumption is a complicated one, right? The people who consume the most per capita are not the people with the highest birthrate. Im convinced thay the most effective and uncontroversial way to manage population is to empower women by providing access to resources, education, and birth control. But addressing the high per capita consumption by Americans, for example, is a slightly different problem.

    As my own studies will focus more on climate change in my post doc I’ve been reading more and I gather that presenting people with more information about climate change is not an effective way to motivate them to do anything or think differently, and I now agree with you that appealing to unborn children is clearly not the ticket- I’m in the lookout for strategies to communicate science and ultimately influence behavoir/policy effectivly.

    • Greg Lusk
      Greg Lusk Reply

      It’s good to hear from you Nathan! You’re right the link between population and consumption is a complicated one, and you’re right that the people who consume the most per capita are not the people with the highest birthrates. However, the people whose children would consume the most carbon are the people listening to these talks. This fact is seldom pointed out when the trope is evoked, and it is precisely within this audience where the population discussion needs to take place.

  • Creed Calhoun Reply

    You state: “even though climate change works on long timescales. ” First off the estimates on climate change get revised almost monthly to indicate that what we may indeed be facing is exoponential change caused by various feedback loops like the immense amount of methane being released by the the thawing permafrost. Wake up to the science on this. So basically right off the bat you sate something that is BS. Also, sure some people have no heart and could care less about the future generations. This is perfectly in line with the selfish me first attitiude of let me get mine and screw everyone else. Future generations may not be better off in a world controlled by the wealthiest 1%, this is ebvidenced by the vast income inequality which by the way is what leads cicvizations to collapse. Sure future generations may have less but to condemn them to a world of instable climate and dying trees and species is of course selfishness and near sightedness at its most extreme.

    • Greg Lusk
      Greg Lusk Reply

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on the blog. Comments are always appreciated. I agree that we are already seeing the effects of climate change, and the expectations of when future effects are likely to present themselves get revised frequently. You are right to suggest the trope, however, presupposes that we will not see the effects of climate change.

      However that doesn’t mean climate change has worked on short timescales. There is general consensus that the effects of current emissions will take between 25-50 years to manifest themselves in higher global mean surface temperature. This is principally because large temperature absorbers (sinks), like the ocean, will take up some of this heat, and then take time to mix it throughout the ocean. The ocean will eventually warm because of this absorbed heat, but only after mixing. Eventually global mean surface temperature will rise, but the timescale will be almost a generation. This means that we haven’t yet felt the full effect of the fossil fuels we have already burned. Other natural processes that are relevant to climate work on even longer timescales. It would have been more accurate to say that climate change works on multiple timescales of different lengths, with many important processes working on long timescales.

  • Allan Olley Reply

    Should we help children, as Stephen Colbert has said “No, my problem is not the children themselves. They may be cute, but they are here to replace us. Need proof? Ever catch one walking around in your shoes? That’s a chilling moment, like finding an empty body snatcher pod in the basement. ‘But children are our future!’ Yes, but does that not also mean that we are their past? I don’t understand why we’re helping them. You don’t see union factory workers throwing a benefit for robots.” 🙂

    Just on the Parfit idea, depending on what metric you are using and what definition of children/people you are using future people can be better off. If by “I want my children to be better off” I mean judge a scenario where I have more children with longer lifespans and more disposable income (or other measure) to be better than a scenario where I have less children with less money and lifespan (same proviso), then it does not matter that in Scenario 1 and Scenario 2 “my children” designate different individual human beings (neither does it matter that the children may not care about the metrics I do etc.), they can designate two variables I can compare, now I just need to know some conditions that increase or decrease the probabilities of the two scenarios and I can say I am maximizing one or the other. It sort of depends how we are operationalizing what we mean or feel by thinking about our future children.

    On a more substantive issue when we talk about “our children” are we talking about our own descendants exclusively or does it conjure up something like “all the children yet to be born”. I don’t have a high expectation of having children and yet the phrase has some resonance to me, but to me it elicits the idea of children as a group who are both in great need of defense and as one of total innocence undeserving of evil and so applies as much or more to poor children most subject to the ravages that climate change may bring. I think its an open question of rhetorical psychology whether appealing to the “our children” elicits a broad or a narrow compassionate imagining from audiences, it may depend on the audience.

    On population growth I would point out there is very little of this norm of unfettered procreation to oppose, globally birth rates are falling in many rich countries they are below replacement rate. Now obviously it would have advantages to increase this trend, but things like educating and empowering women might well also increase resource consumption/pollution production on its own.

    The idea of giving up on wanting our children (or whatever) from having more and better out of life reminds me of Jebediah Springfield who founded gave a call for people to join his settlement with “Who will come and live a life devoted to chastity, abstinence, and a flavorless mush I call rootmarm?”

    If it is not a question of grim necessity (change or die), I am not sure people will recognize abstract compassion or moral duty as a good enough reason to have a worse life (or inflict such a life on their children) and that presenting it as a zero sum gain (either I lose or the people far away in poor countries lose) will lead to selfishness not compassion. Luckily I don’t think “better off” equates with “use more resources/produces more pollution”. So I think the hope for getting people to change their behaviour is to find a way that life can be better off (or at least no worse) but use far fewer resources. This does not seem impossible to me after all Epictetus said “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” Or less ideally recognize there are many enjoyable and enriching activities and things that do not require intensive use of resources. This needs a lot more fleshing out to be meaningful but I suspect it may be the only way forward ultimately. On a more modest level there are a variety of rich nations with a variety of carbon intensities per $ of GDP and that represents concrete realistic room to carbon emissions without making people’s lives any worse economically so that suggests some useful first steps on a long road.

  • dan delurey Reply

    While it is true that the specific descendants of people elsewhere in the world may be impacted much more adversely than mine, it does not mean that mine will see no impact. You seem to be ignoring that. Just looking at the U.S., I know of no area of the country that will be impact-free under the consensus climate impact scenarios. The impacts will be different in magnitude and type, but there will be impacts.

    I for one do not want my specific descendants to be impacted.

    If you want to see more about things that might be impacted, look at

    As for population, recent reports in the NYT and the Washington Post show that the rate of population growth is dropping, with a replacement rate of below 3.0 for most of the world, other than Sub-Sahara Africa and a few other countries. People around the world are realizing that a lower birth rate is a way to improve standards of living. Obviously, the issue is per capita energy use as well as the type of energy used – not population itself.

    • Greg Lusk
      Greg Lusk Reply

      Yes, I am ignoring that your children (and those of the audience members at most of the talks I visit) will see an impact. I think there are good reasons to ignore this. First, as a global problem, we all will experience impacts of some sort, and we all already are, to some degree or another. The strength of the trope I took to be severe impacts, nor minor or moderate ones (if lesser impacts were motivating, then the relatively minor present day impacts would be motivating enough without evoking the trope). Second, based on the assumption that more-than-minor impacts are motivating, most of the children of audience members in the talks I attend won’t experience the severe impact of climate change, at least if our current projections are correct. Due to the long timescales, the socio-economic position of audience members almost ensures this. Severe impacts will happen, and many people will likely suffer severe harm, but the likelihood of it being a child of an audience member is low.

      You are right, that the population rate of growth is declining, but the US still added 2.25 million people (according to the Washington Times) in 2013 who are, by virtue of living in the US, intensive carbon users. I hope you’re right that people are realizing that smaller populations result in a better quality of living. A declining population would help mitigation efforts.

  • Bill Henderson Reply

    Except Greg, there are time lags averaging 40 years between burning fossil fuels and when these emissions start trapping extra heat and changing climate so that while we greatly benefit from production and use the consequences of our actions today will fall on innocents in the future and the predicted consequences – with latent positive feedbacks like melting permafrost and drying Amazon – are not just extreme weather but civilization and even humanity threatening dislocation. Responsibility is the key word.

    Children as an ineffective trope is a joke because in our captured governance effective mitigation is clearly not possible; the less our vote or opinion matter the more we are wrongfooted about how we might swing public opinion.

    But there are laws prohibiting one group from causing damage to another (esp children) in their quest for wealth. Search out the Children’s Trust case in the States (James Hansen’s focus). One positive verdict in this legal, evidence-based, process anywhere will trigger court challenges even in sleepy Canada where us and the Biz-Guys are happily expanding fossil fuel production in implicatory denial and the verdict will force gov’ts everywhere to keep fossil fuels in the ground until they can be used without emissions.

    • Greg Lusk
      Greg Lusk Reply

      Thanks for the comment Bill! I’m aware of the time lags (it is what motivates the trope in the first place), and I also want to make it very clear that I AGREE with you in saying that responsibility is a key to much of our actions. I am just questioning if that responsibility should be motivated by arguments that attempt to personalize the situation by threatening harm to my (or your) decedents.

      I am curious about your connection between the trope and effective mitigation. If there is no hope for effective mitigation via gov’t, is the thought that a kind of grassroots collective action is our best chance at mitigation? Or a legal battle (a la Our Children’s Trust)?

      The Our Children’s Trust case is an interesting one, and something I should look more into. Thanks for brining it up. I do want to clarify that I’m not anti-children. I think this case highlights nicely that existing children are being harmed by climate change (in fact, they are the most vulnerable, especially in less privileged countries), and we don’t need to look to un-actualized future decedents for motivation to mitigate.

      • Bill Henderson Reply

        Through legal forcing of gov’ts to restrict fossil fuel production, like asbestos Greg. There is no climate solution in present political BAU – know your Sutton/Spratt, too slow and path dependent? or see Naomi Klein in today’s The Nation – but win one case establishing harm done (see Dan Zegart article on legal means in same The Nation special) and then stabilize the patent for systemic change forced by restricted fossil fuels and needed change is easily possible.

        But going back to kids and responsibility, with time lags it is our kids who will suffer the consequences of our actions today – yes, people/children are already suffering climate consequences today but we can’t go back decades or just blame – but we can stop using fossil fuels today. You don’t like the personalization or it feels wrong to you, but that is working hard to ignore the bigger picture, esp for us Canucks and our cynical expand fossil fuel production to keep the economy’s head above water.

        • Greg Lusk
          Greg Lusk Reply

          Thanks again for the comments! I hope such legal action can find a way to be successful. I have my doubts it can be without serious political change (a resistance to rewriting laws and such), but I’ll take a look at the resources you suggest.

          I don’t mind personalizing the problem, but I object doing it through the child trope. I agree that we can and should reduce our fossil fuel use immediately. But why do we need to think of the children? The baby boom generation in the US/Canada gave us an economy that requires unsustainable constant growth, a political system that favored the rich, and an infrastructure that relied on fossil fuels. Together these factors make dealing with climate change a seemingly insurmountable problem, and one that is already having a negative impact. That generation is culpable and should act immediately to remedy the situation. Generations that followed are culpable because they are/were complicit in allowing that economy, that political system, and that infrastructure to grow and entrench itself. We are all responsible (I think you and I agree on that much) – but not because we owe it to our children.

  • Brian Reindel Reply

    Hey, I linked to your post through Grist. It’s an interesting point, and I think it’s the same problem as the “adopt an african child” campaigns. The problem is not entirely with the message but with the messenger. Nevermind that most Americans really don’t–and maybe CAN’T–authentically care about what’s happening in Africa. Sure, some people will get roped in by the pathos of flies buzzing around a starving child, but most people will just comment on the fact that the white dude standing next to her in the TV spot is obviously well fed and “If HE can’t skip a few meals, why should I?” Similarly: Al Gore. After he presented “An Inconvenient Truth,” all these people started crying “HYPOCRITE!” commenting on his giant house and his heated swimming pool. The problem, I think, is with educated, well-off white dudes standing on stage and telling people what to feel. As important as graphs and charts are, raw data is, by nature, backwards-looking. The general public doesn’t need to feel any more guilt for the things they’ve done. Guilt is a horrible motivator. They need an inspiring vision for the future. As Simon Sinek (another white man who gets paid to stand on stage and tell you what to think) said, good leaders have two things: A vision of the world which does not exist, and a way to communicate that vision.

    • Greg Lusk
      Greg Lusk Reply

      Hi Brian! Thanks for commenting and I hope you come back to the blog in the future. We do need an inspiring vision for the future. I’ve thought about where that might come from – science fiction perhaps? I think it’s a good place for people trained in the humanities to contribute to the cause. Though, I do also feel that convincing others that the should feel responsible for the negative impacts that are occurring would also be constructive (though one hopes guilt can be minimized in that process).

  • Carrie Freeman, PhD Reply

    I think this concern over always appealing to the next generation of human kids makes sense. I would also add that it is because it reinforces our anthropocentric focus, rather than acknowledging that we owe other species the right to live on this planet and that they matter too. It is our constant focus on human self-interest that has lead to our destruction and exploitation of ecosystems and other species in the first place. We need more humility about our place in the world.

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