Healthy Living

The Most Helpful Human?

Thus far, none of my children has children. The oldest is just 28, and given the modern span of adolescence and the prevailing social norms, that makes the situation far from unusual, and maybe not even interesting.

What is interesting, however, is that my children are openly dubious about having children. Because they are children of relative privilege (and by global and historical standards, rather great privilege), they have rarefied access to information. They know what’s going on.

That very privilege, then, proves to be both cause and effect; action, reaction, and reasons for reticence. Privilege is the reason they know about the toll of privilege.

What they have grown up knowing is that we, those privileged to live in a culture of modern comforts, exert an outsized injurious influence on the world around us. Our privileged access to information is an invitation to seek the causes of resource depletion and climate change, the mass extinctions of other species in tandem with the proliferation of our own. Privilege is the prod to seek the enemy of our better destiny, and privilege is the reason we find that enemy is us.

Preferentially, privilege is the culprit. But by privilege, I don’t mean anything we would tend to think of as luxury or indulgence. I mean a faucet that reliably emits water; a flush toilet. I certainly mean a car, and recourse to an airport- to say nothing of smart phones, cellular service, and Internet access.

This is not the stuff of Bacchanals. These are just basics of modern living, quotidian, conventional, and all but universal.

But they are very much the problem. Those of us living in the house of modern comforts consume orders of magnitude more water per person per day than those subsisting at the margin of those comforts. Our carbon footprint is massively greater.

And while many members of our extended family are destined to remain uncomfortable, those with burgeoning choices, in China for instance, invariably want what we’re having. So the global cost of privilege, affluence, and their most basic attendant comforts –from babies born in hygienic hospitals, to sanitary bathwater- is already beyond planetary tolerance, yet rising.

Renouncing the basic privileges of modern living, as individual or household, is more hollow gesture than meaningful solution. Doing so in cultural context merely looks eccentric. Relocating to a place where less privilege prevails merely adds hunger and thirst where these are least reliably accommodated as is. Change must happen here to matter, and it must happen at scale.

Which brings us back to my children, insulated against hunger and thirst as are most reading this- and the children they may choose not to have. Of course, they could figure among those who simply prefer not to have children, no matter the implications for the planet. That would be a perfectly reasonable choice, and theirs to make; it’s just not what this is about.

This is about preferring to have children, but subordinating that preference to the planet’s imperatives. That conviction might yield to the fervent preferences of significant others, or other significant motivations, if even just biology. Perhaps my children will come to think, even as I do, that children with all the right motivations are the best hope for us all.

But my children are aware and thoughtful, and for now their ruminations take them to a place in equal measure defensible, and disturbing.

How disquieting as a parent to look out through the eyes of what should be optimistic youth and see with greater clarity the crises we have wrought. How disquieting to know my children’s perception of the human most helpful to whatever higher calling we may own is one not added to the already excessive and voracious global horde of us. Looking out at the world we have bequeathed them, my children are inclined to think that the most helpful thing yet another human can do for this planet and its native treasure- is to stay out of it.

Selfishly, I am somewhat inclined to wish for grandchildren in spite of it all. A better wish, I suppose, is for my generation to rise to the challenge of our children’s misgivings- and make room for future humans who can have this planet, without eating it, too.


Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Immediate Past-President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine

Senior Medical Advisor,