For tens of thousands of years, the greatest dangers that lurked for humanity, and those over which humanity had control, were social in nature. A rift within a particular community greatly reduced its members’ chances of survival. Concomitantly, the transgressions considered the most serious were interpersonal in nature. It’s not surprising that the Yom Kippur “On sin” (Al Chet) prayer contains a request for forgiveness for sins we’ve committed by bribe-taking or a bribe-giving, by false denial and lying, by taking or giving interest and by usury, by tale-bearing, by swearing in vain, by baseless hatred.
The world has changed enormously. We have more control over our fate, and the principal dangers that confront humanity differ from those that threatened previous generations. But they are also far more severe.
The seas are becoming acidic, their levels are rising dangerously, the air is filled with polluting gases, the rain forests are dwindling and every day hundreds of species of animals become extinct – while at the same time new viruses are flourishing and become hardier. All this is happening at a dizzying pace; indeed, horrible news is reported nonstop. Unprecedented waves of migration are expected in the foreseeable future, together with murderous conflagrations over dwindling resources and diminishing habitable areas. The technology that is supposed to help us cope with the danger is itself becoming a threat to our continued existence. The house is on fire, but instead of extinguishing the flames we are looking for a more powerful air conditioner, which only fans them.
Humanity is on the brink of catastrophe. Experts estimate the probability of some one billion people dying, or more, in the coming decades is at least one in four. The grave sins of our time are those that contribute to this dreadful danger.
From time immemorial, many sins have been connected with taking something without permission: theft, of course, and also murder – taking another’s life – or rape, exploitation of another’s body. The sins of our era include those transgressions too, but also the taking of something more hidden from the eye: the planet’s resources.
In 2021, humanity used up its allotment of annually renewing resources – such as water, land, fish and forests – by July. Israel, the startup nation, was especially expeditious and accomplished that feat by mid-April. Since then, we have, simply, been plundering from the generations to come and from the other inhabitants of the globe.
There are the arch-villains – the industrialists of murder, whose product is the mass death of animals; the gas and oil tycoons, who deliberately blur the damage they are wreaking; and bootlickers like denialist scientists, smarmy lawyers, corrupt politicians. The guilt of all of them is clear and terrible. If humanity has a future, history will end up judging them harshly. However, even though the power of their collective impact is greater by far than that of one individual, the motives for their actions are not all that different from those that underlie mundane personal sins. The CEO of an energy conglomerate, like the person who insists on grilling meat over an open fire, is motivated by selfishness bolstered by denial or repression aimed at enabling self-justification. The evil of the folks in the suits is not much less banal than that of the guy in Bermuda shorts leaning over the grill.
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Or, for that matter, of the parents with a seven-seat vehicle for their family. Studies show that the one private act that is fueling the environmental crisis more than all others, in terms of its relative repercussions, is the creation of a multi-child family. Each additional person is another mouth to be fed (the food industry is responsible for more than one-third of all the emissions that are accelerating global warming, beyond the harm to biological diversity and the maritime pollution it causes); another body to clothe (the clothing industry – 10 percent of all emissions); another potential tourist (8 percent); and so forth. And of course, the new individual will go on to bear children who will have to be clothed, fed and so on.
Political change to block the activity of ruinous corporations is essential. However, Yom Kippur was always a day of personal soul-searching, and in the current era it invites us to make a personal change in our habits of consumption and lives. Given the present state of emergency and looming catastrophe, the establishment of a large family is the most harmful thing that most of us do in life, without really being aware of it.
Some people maintain that we are already past the point of no return and are hurtling toward catastrophe. If so, it is obvious that bringing children into an apocalypse-doomed world is an act of unfairness toward them. And if there is still a chance to save humanity, clearly every action that diminishes that prospect is a sin.
The point here is not to torment parents. Every person who has been born is already here, they are an integral, desirable and essential part of humanity and of the world of fauna. These thoughts are aimed at those who are thinking about expanding their family; few of them are probably taking into account the ecological factor. Each additional child increases the dangers to the existence of those who are already here, and whom it is our duty to protect.
The decision to not have children for environmental reasons is commendable, but possibly fraught with despair and it cannot be a general moral imperative. We are animals and the reproductive instinct is embedded in us. Humanity also needs renewal, more generations, infants and children. However, it is not possible to sustain many. Every reduction in the number of children is welcome, but if we look at reality unflinchingly, we will know that having more than one child per couple is greedy and inconsiderate. Statistical models expect that, due to our lengthening lifespan, even if from this moment on no couple in the world will have more than one child – the number of human beings on the planet will not decrease by the end of the century. Be fruitful – yes; and multiply – no more. We have overwhelmed the earth.
And what will become of the only child? Many researchers have examined this exact question. A meta analysis of more than 100 studies showed that lone children function like children with siblings, and even better. No basis was found for the stereotypical conception that an only child is lonely, selfish and unstable, or that there are significant personality differences between them and children who grow up with siblings.
Hold on, the greedy economist will say: If we all have just one child, the population will age, like in Japan, and there will be no one left to work. Well, it’s better for humanity to be able age than to die out. And as to employment, the new developments in robotics and artificial intelligence should, if anything, stir concern that there may be no work even for this one child.
It’s heartbreaking. The thing that imbues most people with the deepest sense of meaning, which fills people with happiness and satisfaction, is also the thing that is most harmful to the planet. How depressing! But indeed our entire situation is depressing, truly appalling.
Still, these words are written from love and with hope. The world is abundant and wondrous. Life is beautiful and good. I hope that, as my parents made me, I too will be privileged to give life to another person, my child.
Hope and love sometimes precisely dictate restraint. A large family usually engenders much happiness – crowded, joyful gatherings of many siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews. That was my childhood landscape, and I am thankful for it. But we simply can’t go on like that. And, after all, this is the essence of sin in all cultures: something we want very much, which would be wonderful if we could have, but that we must forgo, for a good reason. It’s exactly because we love being parents and love children that we must give birth to fewer of them. So that they too will have a world into which they will be able to bring their child.