Apocalypse babies

On the anxieties of motherhood during the Anthropocene


WHEN MY SONwas three, he was obsessed with dinosaurs. This was to be expected. For reasons I haven’t ever understood, prehistoric lizards are one of the first introductions our children have to science, so liking them is practically a prerequisite for going to school. A friend of mine was delighted when he heard about it. “After dinosaurs comes space! If he’s into science, he will definitely be into space!” He was right. Our collection of plastic dinosaurs was still littering the carpet when our kid discovered the wonders of the solar system, singing the Planet Song on repeat, attempting to stargaze in a smoggy purple Karachi sky, Google Sky Map in his hand. He dreamt of being an intrepid astronaut, with teddy bear after teddy bear stationed beside him as lieutenant while he navigated the universe from our living room. 

“In Karachi, angry posts abound about the sea of garbage through which we drive to get to work, or the constant fear of fecal matter or brain-eating amoeba in our overpriced tanker water.”

My aunt, observing this fascination for the Milky Way, said it reminded her of her grandfather, who would scold children too taken with impractical places like outer space. “Is ki nazrain neechay karo!” The soil is what really matters—especially if your job on earth is farming the land. But space and its mysteries called out to my child, much as it had to the generation before him. We watched Interstellar and shook our heads at the backward citizenry who wouldn’t let a handsome Matthew McConaughey colonise other planets for the survival of the species. Somehow, the revelatory dust storms in the movie didn’t feel like much of a sign. But that was before. Before we decided to raise children in end times.

Adults treat it as something vague and abstract; a bogeyman to be conjured and dismissed at will. Children’s anxiety, not yet conditioned by the relentless positivity culture of millennials and Gen Xers, is all-pervasive, constant. One of my students told me he had a “survival kit.”  He said it in an offhand, jokey way, but the existence of a Plan A, B and C for the end of the world is more common than most would believe. Another student, falling asleep in my class, mumbled an apology. She had been awake since the crack of dawn, she said, “practicing survival skills.” Cooking, cleaning, laundry—but also learning how to grow her own food. Admirable skills for any 18-year-old to want to master, but the impetus behind them is more insidious than anything I ever thought about as an adolescent. Adults transfer hope for their futures alongside our own poorly developed panic that Something Terrible is always on the horizon. Wildfire. Drought. Poisonous smog.

I found myself in a clinic with a child psychologist a few weeks into my son starting kindergarten. “He’s anxious all the time,” I tell her. “The other night, he cried about climate change.” She takes notes, nodding. Generalised anxiety disorder, perhaps. She tells me to bring him in for a psychoeducational assessment. We talk about asynchronous development in gifted children. We talk about sand and clay and sensory diets and boundaries. We don’t talk about climate change. We are, after all, rational adults.

“One day you grow up, leaving behind awareness of environmental degradation like a discarded binder in a locker.”

Our general sense that all is not well exists in a culture where Good Vibes Only T shirts dominate, alongside positivity memes in acceptable styles (lacking the tacky visual markers of the stuff our phuppis share on WhatsApp: roses, Peanuts characters, curlicues along pink borders). One must be woke, but one must also appear to be constantly in the pursuit of happiness and self-actualisation. Certainty of any kind is in bad taste. Our posts on social media must be wry and nuanced. We constantly make references to being grateful and #blessed, even as we post the right news stories with the right amount of despair about the right emergencies. In Karachi, which sometimes feels like it is imploding in slow motion, angry posts abound about the sea of garbage through which we drive to get to work, or the fact that everyone we know suffers from respiratory problems, or the constant fear of faecal matter or brain-eating amoeba in our overpriced tanker water. For the most part, they are sandwiched between defensive acknowledgements that Karachi is still the best city in the world. For the most part, they self-correct with a sentimental nod towards a romanticised version of home. 

Home. homehomehomehomehome. Burning.

WHEN I WASsix years old, I wanted to be a conservationist. Then I wanted to be a farmer. Then a vet. Then “someone like Jane Goodall.” Then an environmental scientist. Eventually, I became a teacher, my obsession with saving the planet watered down by lack of aptitude and opportunities in science. Giving up on saving the world was like a coming of age for children of the nineties. You start out learning about global warming and the greenhouse effect in school, nobody talks about it outside of school, and one day, you grow up, leaving behind awareness of environmental degradation like a discarded binder in a locker. Our common read the summer before we started college was a book about climate change. It was supposed to be riveting, but I struggled to finish it. It had a lot of statistics about polar ice caps, but beyond the well-intentioned setting of the book, beyond the pride of living in a “green” dorm, beyond the reminders to carry your own shopping bags or compost your food, even super progressive Massachusetts didn’t impress upon me that THE WORLD IS ENDING.

The ten years between high school and becoming a parent were the hottest ever recorded. Deadly, dramatic, devastating natural disasters ravaged the world. The Arctic experienced 1 degree Celsius of warming over this decade, just a little more than the global average. 2 degrees Celsius is what scientists believe to be the tipping point—the point of no return, after which survival on the planet will be impossible. We’re all set to reach that target by the time my children are middle-aged. I knew this news, was vaguely aware of it, felt guilty whenever I accepted a plastic bag at a store or bought something I didn’t need. I read about food justice and its relationship to environmental damage, and how climate change disproportionately affected the poor. I worried, but I didn’t panic. Climate change did not yet underpin my moral or ethical life, it existed in an intellectual, political realm, divorced from real life decisions. It lived in the same pocket in which I kept war in the middle east or the realities of late stage capitalism. It made me angry, but I wasn’t always feeling in the pocket. I drew from the anger as and when needed; in conversations over drinks with friends, in feeling good about carrying my cloth bags everywhere, in reminding my students to be energy conscious.

“The project of raising other humans gives rise to a love bigger than what any other relationship can contain, because it is by necessity a love that has to carry forward generations.”

In 2020, I am a full generation removed from my students. The 18-year-olds this year may be the smartest I have ever taught, by all conventional measures. At least 80 per cent of them admit to suffering from debilitating anxiety, if not chronically, then periodically. They can talk about just any social issue, cleverly contextualising it, connecting it to theory, discussing possible solutions. They are also probably the most likely to say they feel angry about the larger state of the world. The luxury of wanting to be one thing after another and then eventually abandoning dream careers in favour of a more practical choice was not afforded to them. They went straight to the final part, and have very little faith in the idea of structural change. More than a few of them find my love for Bernie Sanders silly, even childish, even if they sometimes enjoy my political rants. “Bernie is the only one with a real plan to tackle climate change, and he needs to be in a position of power,” I repeat, like a bot hired by the Sanders campaign. They shake their heads. “Ms Elahi, nothing can tackle climate change. We all just have to hope we don’t die because of it. And we probably shouldn’t have kids!”

The question of whether or not it is moral or ethical to choose to reproduce when all facts point towards a rapidly deteriorating planet was not one our parents had to grapple with. Anti-natalism is on the rise, and while most millennials will quote the economy as the main reason they aren’t able to have the children they may otherwise desire, a growing number will cite climate change as the greatest deterrent. A friend of mine confessed that she always wanted a second child, but felt too guilty knowing that when we are gone, we will be leaving behind a world where dying in a flood or wildfire or due to water scarcity will be almost assured for tens of millions. All parents need to believe their children will survive against all odds. We need to. The project of raising other humans, of sacrificing our bodies, sleep, health, time and finances, demands a dauntless faith. It gives rise to a love bigger than what any other relationship can contain, because it is by necessity a love that has to carry forward generations. But that conversation with my friend unsettled me. What if my fantasies of having a bigger family some distant day when we could afford it were fundamentally unethical?

Silly. The only children you regret are the ones you don’t have, an older cousin tells me. Of course, that’s true. It’s not as if I would have a baby and then wish it away. But the decisiveness of her statement belies another sort of generation gap. It reminds me of my pocket full of politics—by virtue of being surrounded by teenagers year after year even as I get older, my pocket is permanently torn open. Others reach into it and take their hands back out, engaging this way and that way but with the ability to say “Silly” with such finality it makes me long for a sense of certainty I wish I also had. 

One of my favourite quotes when I was in school was by Arundhati Roy, with the reminder: “Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.” And yet, I look away, and yet, I forget.

MY SON BOUNDED out of his nursery classroom, waving a paper plate painted to look like Earth. He watched a documentary for Earth Day and was excited about it. I made a mental note to tell my aunt he had succeeded in looking down instead of up. Over dinner, he said he knew what “apopcalypse” would look like. He had heard the word apocalypse in a cartoon and I had told him it meant the end of the world. Now, he said, apop-calypse was coming because the earth was dying. I stared at him, wondering if my child was some kind of prophet, before he continued, “We saw in the movie today that the earth is DYING. And you said apop-calypse means world ending. So, that’s what apop-calypse looks like. All the ice is melting and birds are flying away and things can’t grow and there are storms and stuff. Like in The Lorax.” 

My father looked annoyed. “What a thing to teach kids, about the death of the planet! First they need to learn to love the planet, to wonder at it, then they can think about it dying!” Again, that pocket at work. But yet—I couldn’t decide who I agreed with. My son’s vision of a not-so-distant future was scientifically accurate perhaps, but my father was also right. Why save what you can’t love?

“In the absence of a massive push to center humane policies, to hold children, women and caretakers of all kinds as life givers, the glittering appeal of tacky neoliberal ideas will always win.”

I went down a rabbit hole of books, podcasts and Ted talks, trying to understand why we have children, why we want children, why we have any hope for our children, when all evidence points to terrible and apop-calyptic things. I found a talk by Wajahat Ali, a Ted fellow who calls babies a representation of “humanity’s best, boldest, most beautiful infinite possibilities.” His talk wasn’t all sentimental, though—it was based mostly on human development economics, particularly the importance of fighting underpopulation in developed countries, which are reeling from the effects of a shrinking labour class. If those who can afford to raise children, those who have access to resources for the foreseeable future, opt out of doing so out of concern for the planet, what is the point? What is the point of being here, of being united in our concern for the species and our home, if even our ethical choices are contingent on our privilege? The rich can comfortably shrug and say they are doing the planet a favour, but if we all collectively opt out of the project of raising children, we will as a society run out of reasons to care about the planet beyond the hundred or so years we live on it. We will also leave the poorest and most vulnerable doing our most difficult jobs, while raising the majority of our children, and simultaneously disparage them for their “choice” of reproducing in a dying planet.

As I teach history and write modules about political theory, it is precisely this dubious privilege of being able to point fingers at others which strikes me as a recurring theme in all discussions of social change since the 1780s. Modernity itself has been questioned and disparaged a great deal since the previous century, so much so that it is now fashionable to talk about it. But the alternatives always seem hopelessly romantic and impractical: Gandhian ideals of spinning the cloth and living in agrarian communes. In the absence of a massive push to centre humane policies, to hold children, women and caretakers of all kinds as life givers, rather than relegating them as the weakest links to be pushed to the margins of society,  the glittering appeal of tacky neoliberal ideas will always win. Even if it kills the planet. Even if it kills us all, eventually. 

MY FAMILY WHATSAPPgroup pings throughout the day. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, talking—and inevitably, arguing—across time zones. I value the opinions of people in this group and trust their judgement. I don’t think we have ever united on a political position, or shared a meme without at least one person being vehemently offended by it. Today, we are locked in a debate about the value of giving up beef and dairy for the sake of the environment. The 90s and 2000s kids are united in their guilt at not having done it yet. The doctors are unsure it’s wise to give up certain sources of nutrition entirely. The professors talk about environmental impact versus food justice. We talk about the politicisation of climate change, about how people ignore issues around soil quality, which disproportionately affect the global south, in favour of issues around carbon emissions, which are largely caused by industrialised countries. The conversation ends when I direct an irritated side eye emoji to all the “adults” in the group (I am in my thirties, but I am also Pakistani, so in a group with my parents I will never be an adult). “You all never had to worry about the things we have to worry about,” I accused. I felt guilty later. I am the one trying to justify large families on an overpopulated planet, after all.

My shame at considering three or more children was starting to dissipate as I read study after study about children and climate change. My own kids, now five and three, surprise and delight me in ways both expected and not. As I write this, home from work due to a deadly gas leak in Karachi, the significance is not lost on me. The children wanted to know why school was closed, and I told them the air was dirty. 

“Altruism alone, at least for the planet, doesn’t translate into action, only the dark side of love—terror—does.”

“Factory makes pollution!” my  three-year-old authoritatively says, parroting something her brother had told her.

“I know…consumerism, right mama? Like when you buy too much stuff. Like in The Lorax book. They buy stuff and factories make more stuff and pollution comes out,” replies my son.

I’m momentarily floored. We have had these conversations, but the connections are explicitly his own. 

Snuggled in bed with them, reading Greta and The Giants, a parable about Greta Thunberg’s mission to save the world, I realised how deeply true it is that only our love for our children can save us, can spur us to real action. Beyond that, there is no reason to hope, to look forward, to worry about how dangerously close we are to total environmental destruction, teetering closer towards that 2 degree Celsius mark with each passing year. Altruism alone, at least for the planet, doesn’t translate into action, only the dark side of love—terror—does. Apop-calypse may be coming, but with our children, we are more likely to gaze into the Milky Way even as we bury ourselves deep in the soil. ■

SARAH ELAHIis a teacher and writer interested in history, education and the politics of everyday life.
Header illustration by ZEHRA NAWAB.

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