David Brooks proposes this question:
"What would happen if a freak solar event sterilized the people on the half of the earth that happened to be facing the sun?"
His answer predicts the breakdown of civilization on the sterile half of the planet, due to a "cataclysmic spiritual crisis," involving the lack of a legacy, the desolation of a future without children. Brooks maintains, "We don't live individualistic lives," and that much of our current happiness results from thinking about the success of future generations.
What Brooks misses is that for many people, being childless is a perfectly happy existence--in fact, far happier than dealing with the myriad problems of parenting. As for our long-term historical legacy, I think Brooks overestimates the importance of such thoughts for the average person. People are motivated by immediate, individual gratification--the long-term consequences be damned. This attitude is prevalent in much of our actions regarding the environment.
The environment would be a great beneficiary of this thought-experiment. While we can strive to reduce our footprint, and in individual steps contribute less to destroying our planet, by far the biggest savings in environmental terms would result from population stability. In other words, if you change your incandescent lights to fluorescent, this saves a little energy. If you decide not to have a third child, this saves a great deal more.
Everywhere, in everything we do, we are faced by the crush of people--parking spaces virtually impossible to find, lines at the ATM, lines to get on the subway, lines to get in line on the freeway. Parts of this planet are virtually choking on the masses of people trying to eek out an existence. How like a breath of fresh air it would be to find the lines at the supermarket a little shorter, to find the lines at the DMV manageable.
Brooks envisions Mad Max-style apocalypse. I think another vision is of a population much better suited for our lifestyles.


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