Every dystopian story starts this way.
Don't despair. Remember what happens in the second act. It's time to get hopepunk.
I heard the saddest thing last week. I was having lunch with a work friend who was burned out and looking for a career change, and she mentioned that she and her boyfriend had decided against having children because of climate change.
“We don’t want our child to run out of water in 40 years,” she said. “My partner is a…” Here she mentioned his job title or profession, but it wasn’t baseball player or astronaut or something from my world of fakery, such as spokesman or elected official, so for all I know she could have said her boyfriend was a Professional Science Person, that is, someone who can credibly chart our ecological demise on an Excel spreadsheet. So let’s go with that. “My partner is a Professional Science Person,” she said, “and he knows.”
My heart broke, and not just because this bright, curious, and lovely young person had written off having a baby. I am to babies these days what Donald Trump was to Russian entreaties. All are welcome. If someone brings their child to work, I dissolve into a puddle of late-stage fatherhood and start handing out days off and free lunches.
But it wasn’t the lack of a hypothetical future baby with her intelligent eyes that crushed me but her assured hopelessness. She had given up all hope for the future and was prepared to argue the point. She had the evidence. We were doomed, and she was giving up because it was the right thing to do.
Every dystopian story begins this way.
There is a sort of dystopia that begins well into a drought of babies, causing (in the words of the Center for Disease Control in a 2008 report and referenced recently by Justice Samuel Alito) “the domestic supply of infants [to] become virtually nonexistent.” The Handmaid’s Tale comes to mind, as does Children of Men.
Children of Men, the 2006 Clive Owen movie, looks prescient these days. Set in 2027, Owen plays Theo Faron, a cynical ex-activist separated from his wife after they lost a child to a flu pandemic. Two decades of low fertility rates have left most countries without functioning governments. The UK has turned to authoritarianism as the country is besieged by illegal immigrants. Children of Men got a little run on Twitter when someone pointed out that Owen was in his forties when he made a movie set in 2027, which makes Faron a Millennial. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to draw parallels.
After Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade leaked and Republicans around the country started talking about getting rid of birth control, a friend joked that we were living in The Handmaid’s Tale.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to draw parallels.
“No, no,” I reassured her. “In that story, the oppression was preceded by a plague.”
Jokes about COVID-19 aside — though, really, who can get enough coronavirus humor? — we are seeing unsettling indicators about fertility rates, which in the U.S. hit an all-time low when the economy was going well. Of those who told The New York Times that they were going to have fewer or no children “than they considered ideal,” a third cited climate change.
Another study asked 10,000 young people (aged 16-25 years) in ten countries what was bugging them.
Findings: Respondents were worried about climate change (59% very or extremely worried, 84% at least moderately worried). Over 50% felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. Over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change. Respondents rated the governmental response to climate change negatively and reported greater feelings of betrayal than of reassurance. Correlations indicated that climate anxiety and distress were significantly related to perceived inadequate government response and associated feelings of betrayal.
This isn’t a linear decision-making process of (me + you) / climate change = no baby. This generation has given up hope in more than climate change. They have given up hope in us. The kids have been watching the grownups argue about property taxes and school boards and refugees while the world is literally burning. They don’t believe in us.
Even those choosing to have children are having a tough time. We are seeing worrisome trends in declining sperm counts, decreasing testosterone levels and increasing rates of testicular cancer, as well as a rise in erectile dysfunction, which could happen to anyone, you are just under a lot of stress, don’t worry about it. Also, miscarriage rates are rising while the total fertility rate worldwide has been falling steadily since 1960.
And in case you needed a cherry on top of that dystopian sundae, in 2020, more than 2 million women of childbearing age lived in what are being called maternity care deserts, or counties that had no hospital with obstetrics, no birth center and no obstetric provider.
Oh, and the military is having to airlift baby formula into Indiana.
More than 2 million women live in maternity care deserts.
True, we’ve been here before. The American birth rate fell during the Great Depression and “the somewhat less traumatic” 1970s, and then again during the Great Recession after rising for two decades. But we never had to convince people to have babies before.
Recently, amid the reconsideration of Children of Men, a writer revisited the director Alfonso Cuarón to see what he thought of the world as it was all turning out to look a lot like the movie he made. The writer seemed surprised to find Cuarón hopeful, but not in a wistful way.
“The hope is something that you create,” said the director. “You live by hoping and then you create that change. Hope is trying to change your present for a better world. It’s pretty much up to you.”
“The hope is something that you create.”
We need to stop calling dystopian movies where the good guys win dystopian. Dystopias are merely the setting, not the genre. This is the point we miss about dystopia. Every dystopian story begins with declining birth rates, epidemics, ecological ruin, and disintegration of the public sphere. But these stories do not stay there. Frodo doesn’t say, “Well, this looks bleak,” and gives up. He simply walks TF into Mordor. Offred doesn’t just accept her new circumstances as a permanent status quo. And don’t forget, as cynical as Theo Faron was, he took a bullet in the first reel of Children and kept going. The point of a dystopian story is to get past Act One.
You want to hear the most hopepunk thing of all? In doing research for this essay, I ran across this “study of the fertility of female survivors of Nazi German concentration camps” and found this pot of gold at the end of what most certainly was no rainbow: “Our review of the marital relationships of women concentration camp survivors showed that the happiest couples were those where both spouses were concentration camp survivors.”
This is how dystopias work. The people left don’t give up. They find each other and figure it out. “There would be, still, pockets of populations that will scatter around the world,” said Cuarón. “What’s at stake is the culture as we know it.”
Survival is hopepunk. And for that matter, why would you want to argue for anything other than survival? My friend’s boyfriend is undeniably right that we are headed toward ruin. But that is not an argument worth having. The United Nations issued a red alert last year. To argue that climate change is worrisome now is like suggesting that we need make sure the matches are safe from the children after the house is on fire. Even worse: To argue that we are doomed is to beg the conclusion that there is nothing to be done and that hope is lost.
“I’m absolutely pessimistic about the present, but I’m very optimistic about the future.”
We need to teach climate scientists to appreciate fiction, because that is not where the stories end. The fight in dystopian fiction is to hold onto hope against well-argued and substantiated odds. There is more reason than not to give up, but there is no hope in doing so. And what, after all, is the point of the fight in these stories? It’s not to recycle or to clean the air. They aren’t secretly sorting the trash and squirreling away Mason jars for reuse.
They are looking for, protecting, and saving babies. Clive Owen’s Faron does not die until he shows Kee how to burp the baby. As the credits roll, we hear the sound of children laughing. Babies are the most hopepunk thing of all. Have ‘em, don’t have ‘em, it’s up to you. There are lots of good reasons not to give birth. But there is one bad reason, and that’s because there you have no hope in our future.
Cynicism is easy. Hope takes courage. And these days, hopepunk is the only thing that can save us. It’s time for us to start the second act.
“Look, I’m absolutely pessimistic about the present,” Cuarón said. “But I’m very optimistic about the future.”
*Update: The CDC says birth rates ticked up last year.
Jason Stanford is the co-author of NYT-best selling Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. His bylines have appeared in the Washington Post, Time, and Texas Monthly, among others. He works at the Austin Independent School District as Chief of Communications and Community Engagement, though he would want to point out that these are his personal opinions and his alone, but you already knew that. Follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.
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