Does the Human Species Have the Right to a Future?

By Sam Ryan

“There is no reason to have children that isn’t selfish,” a friend once claimed.

It was a jarring statement. Becoming a parent completes the cycle from dependent child, to independent adult, to selfless teacher and guardian.

Still, it’s tough to find a reason for having children that is purely altruistic. Common reasons include: to start a family with a partner, find fulfilment in creating and raising a human, give your parents grandkids, have someone to care for you in old age, avoid “only child syndrome“, save a marriage, fit in on Facebook, learn empathy in order to be an effective Prime Minister, or because it’s just what society expects of us at a certain age.

Perhaps the least selfish were those who heeded Peter Costello’s classic economic request to have “one for the country”, which sits uneasily in a world in which futurists, philosophers, transhumanists and environmentalists debate breeding control to manage overpopulation. (Of course, the issue of choice is not one that women always have full control over, particularly in the developing world.)

The desire to procreate is also heightened by the thought of our own mortality. We want to live on through our children. Legacy is hard-wired into our survival instinct.

Because a legacy requires someone left to remember us, the notion of complete human extinction can be a little unsettling, and perhaps this is why we pour so much time, money, and effort into indefinitely prolonging not just the lives of individuals, but also the human race.

While millions of children die of preventable causes each year, billions of dollars are invested in exploring space, with a key goal to find an alternative home to the one we’re destroying. Humans, as a species, seem to assume the right to a future, even if it comes at our own expense.

Watching Christopher Nolan’s human survival space epic, Interstellar, the most difficult thing to accept wasn’t Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut, but the necessity of freezing human embryos to continue the human race elsewhere, should we die out in an environmental apocalypse.

What is the dramatic urgency about saving the non-existent? What is the point, aside from ego?

Sure, it’s just a movie, but in reality we are spending a lot of money exploring the intergalactic property market, as Stephen Hawking says we must:

“It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden agrees, saying last year: “If this species is to survive indefinitely, we need to become a multi-planet species.”

But what exactly are the dangers facing us as a species? With continual wars, nuclear weapons, human-induced climate change, resource depletion, millions of children dying each year from preventable causes, we are creating a bleak future for generations who will certainly remember us. What good is it spreading the load when one of the greatest dangers to the human species is actually ourselves?

“If we can let go of this need to live on perpetually, focus on the problems facing humanity now, and work on leaving the environment in as good a shape as we found it, the legacy will take care of itself”

Groups like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement suggest the best thing we can now do is stop breeding and slowly bow out, allowing the biosphere to return to good health. While they’re realistic about the chances of this idea catching on, and don’t quite take themselves as seriously as the name suggests, what could be seen as somewhat noble martyrdom may also be seen as the other extreme of drastic action to flee our problems rather than deal with them.

Martin Rees, who gives humans a 50 per cent chance of surviving this century, is the fight to Stephen Hawking’s flight, saying, “The problems of the Earth must be solved here on the Earth and we must not divert attention from that necessity.”

We cannot escape ourselves, even in space.

“Our Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, but this one is special,” he said in a Ted Talk last year.

“It’s the first when one species – ours – has the planet’s future in its hands. Over nearly all earth’s history, threats have come from nature, disease, earthquakes, asteroids and so forth. But from now on, the worst dangers come from us.”

Meanwhile, American researchers are working on ways to allow people to live as long as 1000 years, which sounds almost as exhausting as it is selfish, adding horrendously as it would to overpopulation.

Perhaps the solution is as simple as accepting what Melbourne band Graveyard Train have been singing for a few years with unshackled joy: “one day all will be gone”. I think it’s actually a positive sentiment – appreciate what we have, enjoy it, take care of each other in this absurd, miraculous existence.

That is not to say that future generations don’t have rights; anyone visiting this website would agree that every child is born with inherent rights. We should strive to leave them a world at least as healthy as we found it. If we can let go of this need to live on perpetually, focus on the problems facing humanity now, and work on leaving the environment in as good shape as we found it, the legacy will take care of itself, however long the species has until an asteroid pounds into Earth and wipes out life.

And, as the selfish act of having children can indeed shift perspective to an outward view of the world the child will grow up in, some people do become more selfless. It is not a pre-requisite for empathy by any means, but it’s not an entirely bad idea – just don’t have too many.

Sam Ryan is a freelance writer, communications professional and former Right Now editor. Follow him on Twitter @sjrwords.

Feature image: Adam Baker/ Flickr