The Big Idea: Calder Szewczak
Want a kid? Okay, but it’s gonna cost you. And before you say, “Yes, I know, I’ve seen college tuition these days,” read Calder Szewczak’s big idea for The Offset. The cost is something else entirely, here.
Having children might be one of the most cruel things a human can do.
No one consents to being born. It’s a simple fact, but one we don’t talk about all that much. Probably because the conversation is too fraught, too easily hijacked. Reproduction always takes place within a matrix of numerous power imbalances; those of class, race and gender, those instilled by heteronorms and biological norms. In turn, these are filtered through circumstance: accident, abuse, regret, hope. As soon as you lose sight of the contextualising nature of these factors—of the fact that reproduction doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it’s all too easy to find yourself debating who you think deserves full autonomy over their reproductive rights and who does not. The conversation can too easily slide into misogyny (bad) and eugenics (also bad).
So let’s tread carefully, then, and stick to the initial point: that being a biological parent is to enact a very unique sort of power dichotomy that is far from ideal.
Suffering has always been part of existence; disease, destruction and despair the unavoidable side-effects of being alive in the world. Sophocles knew it when he wrote: “What foolishness it is to desire more life, after one has tasted / A bit of it and seen the world; for each day, after each endless day, / Piles up ever more misery into a mound.”
What foolishness it is to introduce children into this world of suffering. We have always known this, yet we have always continued to procreate, making more and more people to undergo the trauma of life. Perhaps it’s because we’re all hopeless optimists, believing matters will improve, or perhaps it’s just because misery really does love company. Either way, the ethics are skewed.
We speak of life as a gift—that to be alive is something to be grateful for—which brings to mind the words of Germaine Greer: “The compelled mother loves her child as the caged bird sings. The song does not justify the cage nor the love the enforcement.” As much may be said of the experience of being alive. Whatever small joys may be derived from living do not themselves justify the creation of life.
In the modern era, of course, with all its medical and technological advances, you might be forgiven for thinking that the good can outweigh the bad, that—given the right circumstances—a child might be guaranteed far more years of stability and happiness than those of precarity and pain. But if that were ever true, it isn’t now. The climate crisis has changed everything.
The children of the next generation are already grappling desperately with how their forebears have all but destroyed the planet on which they must, somehow, find a way to live. Young as they are, they don’t have the comfort of knowing, like their parents and elders do, that (if they’re lucky) they might still die before things get really, really bad. What will these children’s lives be like with global temperatures notching ever upwards? How will they survive? Will they survive? What untold catastrophes will they endure along the way?
Given the likelihood of suffering to come, might it not genuinely have been better for them not to have been born in the first place?
And (whisper it) might that not have been better for everyone else, as well? Because children are part of the problem. More accurately, children of wealthy, developed countries are part of the problem. It’s no secret that having fewer children is by far and above the most impactful way to cut your carbon footprint. Switch to a plant-based diet? That will save you 0.82 tonnes of CO2 per year. Cut out a single transatlantic flight? 1.6 tonnes. Eschew your car in favour of public transport? 2.4 tonnes. But have one fewer child? 7.8 tonnes.
Whichever way you run the numbers, there’s only one conclusion: people are a net loss for the planet. The fewer of us, the better.
Funny, isn’t it, that it all essentially comes back to women’s reproductive rights? That familiar battleground. One could be forgiven for being a little suspicious; suspicious of how responsibility is being apportioned, suspicious of the bottom line being drawn. 7.8 tonnes for a child, but how many tonnes for an oil refinery? Or an eleven-minute passenger flight to the thermosphere?
It is this—the intersection of environmental activism with reproductive rights—that provides the central concern of The Offset. Core to the book is anti-natalism, the ethical view that one ought not to create new people. Although the concept has gained traction in recent years (you may have come across the man who sued his parents for bringing him into the world or various women who have gone on birth strike) it is still not widely discussed and has been rarely examined in fiction, to the point where the world’s foremost anti-natalist David Benatar has said that our book “may be a literary first in giving central place to anti-natalism”.
In creating our anti-natalist society, we knew there were many real-world examples to draw on; horrifying methods, such as one-child policies and forced sterilisation, that have been used at various points across the world to cap fertility rates. But none of these were in keeping with the spirit of anti-natalism, which typically sees individuals freely making a commitment to never reproduce. Accordingly, in our fictional world, any rule of anti-natalism would have to be self-enforcing rather than imposed, something adhered to as a way of life or a cultural practice. The point was not a world where people were prevented from having children per se, just one where few would want to.
So what if every birth had a cost? What if bringing a child into the world meant your own life was forfeit?
There was an appealing balance to that: a life for a life. One in, one out.
Of course, if we were positing a world in which every child still had two biological parents, then there was the small matter of working out which parent would die. For all that we were constructing a dystopian world, we were nevertheless set on creating one that put queerness first. We had already decided upon our main characters: Alix and Jac, a lesbian couple who used ovum-to-ovum technology to have their child, Miri. But we knew that if we mishandled the mechanism of selection, we would still risk reinforcing the heteronormative.
The solution was straightforward. The decision would be given to the children of our dystopia, each of whom, on their eighteenth birthday, would have to pick one of their biological parents to die as a carbon offset for their own life.
And so the mechanism became a reckoning, a way to hand back power to the children (and so, too, the burden). It felt like something that parents and offspring alike could believe in as a resetting of the scales, a righting of a wrong, a restoration of balance. Something, in short, that would be cruel enough to match the cruelty of having been brought into existence in the first place. Of course, few anti-natalists would approve of such a drastic measure—their intent is to reduce suffering, not to increase it. But that is, perhaps, the point: that any attempt to clamp down upon and control reproduction can only ever increase suffering. The critical issue is not how many of us there are, but how we live—specifically, in developed countries. Our only hope is that, in speaking frankly about what it means to create life within the context of the climate crisis, we can, with renewed vigour, once more turn our attention to restoring the world for the next generation.