The Big Idea: Calder Szewczak
Posted on September 14, 2021 Posted by John Scalzi 12 Comments
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.
The Offset: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
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“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?“
One certainly could be! Especially since you just sorta…move immediately along? “Alright, did a quick handwave at the catastrophic environmental impacts of unfettered capitalism, back on the ‘stop having kids’ train!”
Considering that the whole concept of an individual’s carbon footprint was initially widely propagated by BP0, itself one of the greatest single sources of environmental destruction in human history, I think it might be worthwhile to interrogate the concept and your conclusions a little more. If the options are “rein in the corporations and governments that are either perpetrating or allowing most of the damage to the environment” or “try to enforce limits on human reproduction”, I feel like option A might be the better choice. Especially since efforts to limit human reproduction like this have resulted in atrocities literally every time anyone has tried it, something else you sorta handwave at and then fly by.
According to the “Pew research” data, the majority of the planet believes in magic or if you prefer organized religion, pick a flavor. So change, reform, more handwaving, it does provide the author with a platform so they can express themselves in their concerns. Yes I will probably read the book, no I did not have children, I projected I would probably be in conflict with the general population and the “state”, Women having rights to their reproductive options is still a radical thought for practical purposes in majority of the current political entities. They may hold up half the sky but that doesn’t mean they’re “not” being gaslighted.
I kind of feel like I just had a conversation with Werner Herzog.
So what if every birth had a cost?
Because right now, in the real world, birth doesn’t have any cost at all, certainly not in terms of physical risk to the person giving birth, long-term health effects, or direct financial and opportunity costs?
Lampshading misogyny, eugenics, and racism disguised as ‘environmental concern’ doesn’t really erase it. The concept of the book would have been a lot more interesting without the creeping suspicion that it was intended as a polemic.
Interesting. Personally I believe humans are a blight, but nevertheless created two of them. It’s my observation that people who don’t have children, like people who don’t experience suffering or meaningless labour, don’t fully mature. They don’t know what it is to love something more than you love yourself or indeed the entire world. Maybe that’s a good thing… for me as a mother, I would gladly sacrifice everything on the planet if my son could live again. Pit parental love and animal instinct against carbon tonnage, and parents will consider the world well lost.
The fictional world being depicted is literally described as a dystopia so I’m not sure who the commenters are arguing with here.
I’m curious how the book will handle the inevitable conflicts that would arise from asking the child which parent they would prefer to kill.
This idea of resenting my existence resonates pretty strongly with where my mind was a couple years ago and for most of my 54 years prior to that. It still does somewhat.
But my resentment seems to be losing steam the more I realize the unlikelihood that I was actually brought forth from “nothing” or that I will ever return to “nothing”.
I’d like to think that could be true, but the more I consider it the more I think it isn’t even possible to discuss the idea of “nothing” without blundering into some kind of tautological oxymoron or something.
I mean how much hubris is required for me to assume that I’m not just an emergent manifestation of the great and everlasting universal gobstopper?
This book intro reads like a trite summary of a whole lot of seriously harmful power dynamics.
It would have been a lot more interesting if the poorest children got to decide which fossil fuel CEO parents got killed.
“It’s my observation that people who don’t have children, like people who don’t experience suffering or meaningless labour, don’t fully mature.”
Cue bizarre and irrational fetishization of suffering.
Loonie-tunes spiritual masochism has absolutely nothing to do with “maturity”. It’s a toxic misconception associated with certain religious sects who view suffering and drudgery as some sort of test of moral fortitude. I don’t want to tell you what to believe in, but please consider others before you start peddling this sort of tripe.
Thanos looks compassionate next to this guy. Not only are half of the parents killed, but they make the children choose.
To me, it’s hard to tell, given the long justification, whether this is presented as a dystopia or as a rational course of action. Part of the environmental movement is genocidal and that is not a good thing.
Um, saying “if you give birth to a child, you or your partner will die” is hardly the kind of voluntary choice you say anti-natalism should involve. Won’t be buying this book.
“They don’t know what it is to love something more than you love yourself or indeed the entire world. ” Yes, some of us do.
There are parents that are not mature. Having kids doesn’t make a person mature. No, I don’t have kids and don’t want them. Never did. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know what love is or that I can’t love anything.