empty nest

For nearly half a century, the back-to-the-land bimonthly out of Topeka, Kansas has offered advice on raising your own food, building energy-efficient homes, and living more like our pioneering ancestors. Ads for heirloom seeds, yurts, and herbal remedies share the pages with instructions about composting, folk art, and breadmaking. If you have some room in your back yard, and you want to save a few bucks growing vegetables, or raising chickens, this is the magazine for you. 

Apart from a brief yuppie phase during the nineteen-eighties, it has remained comfortably off-the-grid when it comes to sociopolitics. Living self-sustainably is, after all, an ideal pursued by both Amish and hippie communes, utopian socialists and right-wing survivalists. Food is food, and shelter shelter; depending on others for the basics of life is deeply unsettling to the human spirit, especially as modes of production become more and more impersonal. Of course, “green living” has never been more chic and profitable than it is today, but Mother Earth retains for the most part the rustic tenor of yore. The edgiest it gets is to suggest you ride a bike to work, but primarily because it saves you money.

In the February/March 2014 issue, however, an article appeared that is about as out-of-place as a blight on its iconic oak tree emblem. “Making a Green Choice: Childfree Living” offers its author’s reflections “on the pros and cons of choosing not to bear children.” But the article is mislabeled: instead of acknowleding counter arguments, it simply represents denying oneself parenthood as the supreme sacrifice in the fight against climate change and other forms of ecological disaster. Also, it is a double-dip (at least) for its author, Lisa Hymas, who first posted a version of it on the neo-environmentalist website Grist.org, where she serves as an editor. Its position can, however, be found in Hymas’s articles in numerous other outlets, including the Huffington Post and The Guardian online.

“Making a Green Choice” makes having children an ecological decision, and suggests that those who truly wish to save the planet should think twice about having them. Hedged with relativism on one side and solipsism on the other, the author attempts to frame it all very personally, even pleading that “[s]ome of my best friends are parents,” and that she claims “no moral or ethical high ground.” It is with questionable sincerity, though, that Hymas urges would-be parents to “[g]o forth and raise happy, healthy kids [who] become productive members of society and who faithfully pay their Social Security taxes.” (An adaptation of the Biblical crescite et multiplacimini probably isn’t the best way to assure readers of one’s neutrality, especially when it is typically used by non-Christians to compare mothers of large families to brood mares.)

Hymas goes on to suggest that people who have children are overwhelmingly supported, both socially and financially, by their societies, and that her article is actually for “the childfree by choice and child-free-curious [my italics] who don’t get a lot of encouragement in our society.” Don’t tell me, Hymas concludes in her opening, that I would feel differently if I actually had children.

The article builds itself from here, choosing a handful of arbitrary statistics as its bricks, and gluing them together with smarm. Children are expensive, it says; you’ll have more money for yourself without them. Children take up a lot of time and energy; take them off the list and you’ll also have more time for yourself. If these incentives sound too ignoble for you, however, and you’re worried that people may see through your decision to remain childless as a selfish thing, the author has the perfect pretext (never mind that this shame is for excessive self-indulgence, which having children more than abates). Here it is. By not having children you are actually saving the world:

“A person who cares about preserving a livable environment has lots of options for doing his or her bit, and you’ve heard all about them: Live in an energy-efficient home. Grow your own food, and buy the rest local and organic. […] But even in aggregate, all of these moves don’t come close to the impact of not bringing new human beings—particularly new U.S. citizens—into the world. Here’s a simple truth: For an average person like me, a childfree life is the single most meaningful contribution I can make to a cleaner, greener world.”

And that’s all the article does in the end—peddle a fashionable excuse for a premeditated position. During the Cold War, someone like Hymas might have argued that not having children was saving the world by not providing the armies of the future with more potential nukers. More can be teased out of it than this, of course, including its specific targeting of Western families and the implicit endorsement of demographic hara-kiri.

Lisa Hymas did not engineer these viruses, however—the article shows no conscious recognition that it carries them, or where it contracted them—and both lie at the heart of many self-hating progressivist screeds much more impressive than this. Were “Making a Green Choice” well argued, it would still, like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, end up only as a devastatingly inhumane application of reason. Swift, though, was kidding.

As a piece of writing, it is neither intelligent nor original. Its anti-human environmentalism is attractive to publishers not because it makes a convincing case, but  because it manages to slip inflammatory sentiments beneath the doorsill of political correctness. Notwithstanding its use of “choice” in an article about childbearing, the piece is perfect example of what bloggers call clickbait, hooking its audience with outrageousness in the same way as the old joke about yelling “Sex!” before making an announcement.

Even to call “Making a Green Choice” an “article” is overly generous, since, despite the demise of print media, the word still carries some implications of quality. However, just as someone can be called an actor simply for appearing in a film, this is an article only in the sense that it has been published. It reads much more like an angry, lonely rant beneath a Facebook post on the joys of being a stay-at-home mother—the same sort of thing blogger-troll Amy Glass managed to exploit with her recent tirade “I Look Down On Young Women With Husbands and Kids.”

For this reason, the appearance of “Making a Green Choice” in a print magazine – especially in Mother Earth News, which has always been about tradition – seems an accident of our shifting public forums. Hailing from the blogosphere, such articles as this might also be seen as a reminder of how reckless and impulsive online commentary can become. Its ideas have, so to speak, no gestation period, and often reinforce the idea that social media is making us into sociopaths.

Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com/

Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar currently living on a mountainside near Vancouver, British Columbia. In 2018 he published his first book, the Unsung, a literary epic fantasy. He holds...