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Book Review

Open AccessPublished:November 23, 2021DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rbms.2021.11.002
      I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being optimistic and being hopeful. I would say that I’m a hopeful person, although not necessarily optimistic. Here’s how I would describe it. The pessimist would say, 'It’s going to be a terrible winter; we’re all going to die.' The optimist would say, 'Oh, it’ll be all right; I don’t think it’ll be that bad.' The hopeful person would say, 'Maybe someone will still be alive in February, so I’m going to put some potatoes in the root cellar just in case.' ... [Hope] is something we actually do with our hearts and our hands, to navigate ourselves through the difficult passages. Barbara Kingsolver
      Both as experiencer and contributor, consumer and producer, my child in their merely existing can potentially function as a conduit for everything that is good in our society, in our species, on our planet. Tom Whyman
      In Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster, Tom Whyman chronicles his disenchantment as a millennial concerned about the state of the world and how a neoliberal economy is preventing him from attaining the life he desires: holding an academic position in Philosophy and being a homeowner inside a nuclear family formation. Enmeshed in philosophical conundrums such as what can I hope for (Kant) and how shall I live (Aristotle), he draws on contemporary environmental and political issues and his personal history to muse on the 'miracle' of childbirth as a path towards redemption, a mechanism to produce (meaning), and ultimately a reason to be hopeful.
      Framed as a meditation on 'hope', the book takes over 200 pages to articulate what author Barbara Kingsolver, among many others, has already said in the above epigraph: that hope is a disposition – it is active, and it is in sore need of being cultivated. Unlike Kingsolver, who channels her hope into supporting future communities (she stores potatoes for someone who might be hungry), Whyman’s hope materializes in his individual efforts to procreate.
      Anchored around his and his wife’s privileged bionormative fertility story (a few months of temperature checking and over-the-counter vitamins before conceiving), Whyman’s message that having a baby in a time of crisis is a radical act of hope and therefore 'despite everything you should have kids' has been received by people dealing with infertility as 'deeply painful to read' (

      Stecker, J. [@ohxjulie]. (2021, April 14). As someone dealing with infertility, this was a deeply painful read...[tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/ohxjulie/status/1382313727635062785?s=20

      ). The fault here is not that his hope manifests in the steps he takes towards this goal, but how his myopic lens narrows every source it touches to configure hope as a primary justification for his desires. Hope, for Whyman, functions to prop up reproductive normativity and the hegemonic figure of the child.
      To gain perspectives from fathers concerned about the future, I asked my father and my uncle to read this book with me. Neither finished it, each determining that it contained too many problematic arguments. The pages they did read were filled with jottings in the margins, expressing repeated confusion and dismay. Infinitely Full of Hope is infinitely offensive. It is couched in a non-stop mélange of shallow interpretations of seemingly arbitrary references from Barack Obama to Buzzfeed. The book reads as a series of non-sequiturs, interspersing the author’s personal history alongside text he utilizes to rationalize his decision to have a child and prove to himself (and the generalized imagined reader) that this is 'good'. In the face of such existential threats as climate change and reproductive injustice, this book prioritizes questions like, how do I find hope and, am I a good person, to (unconvincingly) argue that having a baby can also answer the question, how can we help?
      Whyman aligns himself with autotheorists extraordinaire such as Maggie Nelson (see The Argonauts), but rather than interrogating his subject position – the cornerstone of autotheory – his rhetorical fallback is the weaponization of the self to justify his views and actions: because he desires it, so it must be right. As such, rather than reviewing the book by summarizing each chapter, in this article, I aim to bring more nuance and respect to two climate activists that Whyman misrepresents and dismisses in the course of his book: Blythe Pepino of BirthStrike and Greta Thunberg of the School Strikes for Climate. These activists feature in my scholarship on child-centered climate activism, including the school strikes organized by youth activists and the BirthStrike campaign that explicitly positioned the decision to not have children as a political response to climate change.
      1I give Whyman the benefit of the doubt that the many philosophers and interpretations of philosophical texts in this book might be contributing to that field. I am not in Philosophy and unable to assess the merits of this aspect of the book. I consider myself to be part of the broad audience Whyman intended to reach.
      I give Whyman the benefit of the doubt that the many philosophers and interpretations of philosophical texts in this book might be contributing to that field. I am not in Philosophy and unable to assess the merits of this aspect of the book. I consider myself to be part of the broad audience Whyman intended to reach.
      Discourses on climate change centered around children often fall prey to perpetuating and dictating beliefs about what a child is and what a child can be in order to actualize adult fantasies about the future. As these cases of activism both rely on and subvert commonly held beliefs about children and the climate crisis, they can help provide a more nuanced view of children. In Whyman’s book, he briefly mentions both movements and their leaders as jumping-off points to articulate his decision to biologically procreate rather than engage in activism (as if the two were mutually exclusive) and to uncritically maintain normative idealizations about children, whose categorical oppression relies on preserving their status as a symbol (e.g., of the future, of innocence, of ignorance).

      Misrepresenting a movement

      BirthStrike (2018–2020) was a UK-based campaign founded by Blythe Pepino centering on her decision to strike from having children to incite political action against the climate crisis. Whyman articulates climate change as a force as powerful as 'the second coming of the Messiah' (2021: 11) and argues for pro-natalism, asking, 'given the way things are going – how could someone not create new life?' (2021: 17, original emphasis). Whyman places Pepino into a false schematic of anti- versus pro-natalism, as the primary example of what he calls an 'ontic anti-natalist', defined as one who believes that contingent facts about the world justify the decision to stop creating it (2021: 15). Pepino does not define herself as anti-natalist, yet Whyman places this straw man label upon her to contrast it with his own divergent reproductive path.
      BirthStrikers expressed concern about children’s health and safety in a world destabilized by climate change and about petrol-dependent lifestyles that turn child-rearing in the affluent West into a site of carbon-heavy consumption and extractive and unjust relations. After inadequately engaging these concerns, Whyman veers into a tale about how his wife used to nanny and that being around children made them realize their desire to become parents. Whyman asks, 'how can you just sort of stop trying to achieve something that you’ve desperately wanted for so long?' (2021: 62, original emphasis). His answer is that you can’t. For him it is unfathomable to shift his object of desire. Pepino’s answer to this question is more nuanced. While she and her romantic partner deeply desire to have children, they are moving through forms of grief to re-channel their energy into climate activism. Pepino is withholding her uterine and parenting labour to take power; she is demanding safer working conditions and safer living conditions for the children she might bear.
      To see BithStrike as a call for people to stop procreating is akin to seeing a teachers strike as against schools or a nurses strike as against hospitals. Read this way, Pepino is calling attention to the interwovenness of workplaces and life-places, and the importance of uterine labor to capitalist systems. In Pepino’s decision to strike from having children, she is threatening to remove the vital labor necessary for society to continue in order to incite needed changes to make her desired future possible.
      Whyman misreads her response as a call on others to stop procreating to lower their carbon footprints. In fact, after routinely being misrepresented, in 2020 BirthStrike shut down to avoid being conflated with discourses (like this book) that judge and/or control other people’s reproductive paths.
      A less superficial engagement with this campaign might have led Whyman to confront related concerns about how to parent in the context of the climate crisis. Instead, Whyman states that these concerns pale in comparison to the miraculous power of his unborn child (experienced via ultrasound). He writes, 'yes, our children might suffer – but I suffer in all sorts of small ways every day … that doesn’t remotely mean that I regret being alive' (2021: 17, original emphasis). Implying that his experiences of suffering and joy can be universalized seems not only insensitive, but also far-fetched as he also recalls reading in cafés, eating pastries, and listening to Neutral Milk Hotel – a band I am listening to as I write this, in honour of the privileged teenage years both he and I enjoyed. Whyman’s first-person considerations flatten the scales of the crisis and obfuscate his position within it, occluding the immense suffering and death induced by the climate crisis. By constructing an inaccurate and over-simplistic binary in which his pronatalism stands on the 'good' side of the scales and Pepino’s putative anti-natalism occupies the 'bad' side, he misses the most fundamental provocation in Pepino’s work (and one that would surely captivate someone with an interest in moral philosophy): irrespective of biological procreation, how are we going to make the changes necessary to address children’s suffering now and in the future?

      Grounding Whyman’s hope

      Whyman claims that hope manifests in the steps he takes towards obtaining the object of his desire (see 2021: 35). For Whyman, his child is just that: an object. Whereas Pepino hopes to use activism to confront the climate crisis, Whyman hopes for a child and assumes that will lead to a better world. Throughout the book, he tosses out comments like, 'a critical mass of new children coming into the world could help improve things' (2021: 20), but he does not specify how or for whom 'things' will be improved. Whyman seems to be hoping for hope, which he believes he can acquire from his child (and children more generally). As posited by Rebekah Sheldon (2016), in the face of environmental catastrophe, children have come to represent a safe passage into the future through the promise of another generation.
      For Whyman, finding hope in the child is inextricable from his desire to be a father. This book is not merely pro-natalist, but pro-Family. In particular, it is the historically and culturally specific idealized Euro-western bourgeois family – entrenched in white property relations and gendered expectations and norms – which he assumes is not only desirable, but inevitable. Whyman superficially references scholar Sophie Lewis (2019) to signal that he has read critiques of this family formation but claims he wouldn’t move away from it because of his desires to be a father in a 'private home where I am the supportive (and exclusive) partner of their mother' (2021: 106). In discounting Lewis and other scholarly critiques, he frames his desire as antidote to the fact that this family formation is (and has been) a primary means of control, a major apparatus for seizing and using property to ensure generational (white) wealth accumulation. Rather than taking responsibility for his complicity in these schemas, he seems to be projecting onto his child what he wants to become: innocent, redeemed, and free from a past. Of his future child he writes, 'I can forget myself in them: transcend every small bitterness I have ever been subject to' (2021: 108).
      As childhood studies scholars have noted, fantasies such as Whyman’s hinge on an idealization of the child as tied to 'human control over the future' (Baker, 2001, p.64), a redemptive (and Romantic) association with nature (Cannella & Viruru, 2004; Taylor, 2011), and raced and gendered ideals of innocence and goodness (Stockton, 2009). Indeed, childhood, as an always-incomplete state (Castañeda, 2000), is imbued with a plasticity that – as Katz (2008, p. 7) explains – 'opens it as a tremendously fertile figuration upon which all manner of things, ideas, affective relations, and fantasies are projected.' For Whyman, his future child, and the universalized notion of all future children that he presents, afford him pages upon which to espouse what Edelman (2004) has theorized as 'reproductive futurism' – the normative fantasy of futurity that organizes communal relations. Reproductive futurism temporalizes desire – a void or absence one hopes to fill by attaining a future fantasy around which identity often congeals. This heteronormative romance produces (or has the possibility of producing) offspring, and therefore a future. Whyman’s personal story is used to justify a view of heteronormative reproduction as a means to attain self-realization.
      Whyman’s future child is not only a conduit to attain hope and meaning, but a symbol of what Whyman hopes for: a child that continues the world as he wants it to be. For example, Whyman is compelled to maintain the gender binary for his future child. In chapter 3, Whyman narrates the moment when the ultrasound technician asks if they want to know the sex of their baby. His response – 'I’ve never understood why anyone wouldn’t want to know' (2021: 113, original emphasis) – is presented offhandedly.
      To read another first-time parent’s answer to the question 'what are you having?' check out Kyl Myers Raising Them: Our Adventure in Gender Creative Parenting (2020, Topple/Little A Publishing).
      He goes on to describe how he hopes his child will perform their gender, upholding a predetermined vision of his child which undermines that child’s future agency. His deep investment in gender binaries furthers this hegemonic idea of the future child he puts forth, a child pre-marked (either boy or girl) and able to preserve the raced, classed, and gendered expectations that shape what it means to be a child, a father, and a family.

      Moving from 'The Child' to 'Youth', 'Ideal' to 'Real'

      Towards the end of the book, Whyman references Greta Thunberg in her now-famous speech at the World Economic Forum: 'I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to feel the fear I fear every day. And then I want you to act.' (Thunberg cited in Whyman, 2021: 160). Whyman uses Thunberg’s language to leverage a discussion about pessimism and 'good' and 'bad' kinds of hope. Whyman (2021) aligns himself with Thunberg, positing that the hope they possess is good because it 'hinges on the possibility of transformation' (2021: 164). Yet Whyman’s ill-judged comparison of himself to Thunberg collapses when he expresses hopelessness about climate activism, unconstructively criticizing the youth climate movement’s daylong strikes, positing that the protests lack power and that the youth climate movement’s goals are unattainable.
      He anchors this doubt to his own childhood memories, saying 'the only ones actually capable of organizing a walk out would be too cynical sensible [sic] to fully stake their futures on protest' (2021: 187, original emphasis). Whyman’s view of 'capable' is defined as high-achieving students, and he remembers these children as too tied up in the dominant order to dedicate themselves to activism. This unproductive view of who can (and cannot) succeed in both educational systems and activism erases Thunberg and all the other remarkable youth who did successfully organize. Whyman refers to their 'whole dream' as 'fanciful' (i.e., childish), in opposition to his desires for an adulthood grounded in carbon-intensive, propertied relations that maintain the environmental injustices youth activists are working to transform. Ironically, the youth climate movement is belittled in a section titled 'Solidarity'. At the end of a book whose general premise is that children (in the abstract) can change the world, this antagonistic response to actual children trying to transform the world is baffling.

      Meaning making beyond (re)production

      The current landscape has left Whyman (and his wife) worrying they have 'nothing to show for their lives' (2021: 29). Their child offers him something he can produce, a pathway to live out his fantasy of being a husband and father, obscuring all the complex ways Whyman could (also) have made sense of his life. In one section he complains about depression and a persistent cough in a damp apartment. But, rather than a tale about mold and our porous bodies or housing conditions in times of economic uncertainty, he continues to dwell in the gulf between his fantasies and actual life. Whyman offers a view of the world where meaning-making and self-worth are contingent on biological progeny, and where children, both real and imagined, can act as a mechanism to preserve and maintain the world order he desires. For all the lip service Whyman pays to radical praxis, this book works to manifest an unsustainable and unjust story that harms actual children.
      Fantasy futures are closely tied to romanticized understandings of childhood. Whyman seems to understand this as he acknowledges both the power of biological procreation as well as the power of literature to actualize a desired world. As such, producing children is not the only avenue Whyman offers towards meaning: books can also outlive you. In the middle of the text, he writes about mid-20th-century novelist Jean Rhys’ autobiographical trilogy. He concludes that Rhys is less tragic than her characters because she was able to produce literary works that would live beyond her. Yet, the complex problems of the 21st century require more than a reclamation of producerist fantasies. They require activists like Pepino, Thunberg and many others doing all they can to see the problematic systems that arrange our lives and to demand a more just and livable world. Whyman brags that he wrote the book outside of peer-review, a badge of his non-elitist stance. I wish instead that people with other perspectives and fields of expertise had collaborated on this creation and pushed him to dig deeper. Writing a book, much like raising a child, takes a lot of labour. Reading this one makes it clear that no one should be tasked to do it alone.

      Uncited references

      • Bernstein R.
      Racial innocence: Performing American childhood from slavery to civil rights.
      ,
      • Duane A.
      Suffering childhood in early America: Violence, race, and the making of the child victim.
      ,

      Kingsolver, Barbara (2016) Excerpt from a conversation with Stephen L. Fisher and Barbara Kingsolver recorded at Emory & Henry College Literary Festival, September 30, 2011. Published in the Iron Mountain Review, Volume XXVIII, Spring 2012, retrieved from https://www.chipublib.org/blogs/post/an-interview-with-barbara-kingsolver-on-community-and-hope/.

      ,
      • Meiners E.
      For the children? Protecting innocence in a carceral state.
      ,
      • Weintrobe S.
      Links between grievance, complaint and different forms of entitlement.
      .

      Declaration of Competing Interest

      The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.

      References

        • Bernstein R.
        Racial innocence: Performing American childhood from slavery to civil rights.
        New York University Press, 2011
        • Duane A.
        Suffering childhood in early America: Violence, race, and the making of the child victim.
        University of Georgia Press, 2010
      1. Kingsolver, Barbara (2016) Excerpt from a conversation with Stephen L. Fisher and Barbara Kingsolver recorded at Emory & Henry College Literary Festival, September 30, 2011. Published in the Iron Mountain Review, Volume XXVIII, Spring 2012, retrieved from https://www.chipublib.org/blogs/post/an-interview-with-barbara-kingsolver-on-community-and-hope/.

        • Meiners E.
        For the children? Protecting innocence in a carceral state.
        University of Minnesota Press, 2016
      2. Stecker, J. [@ohxjulie]. (2021, April 14). As someone dealing with infertility, this was a deeply painful read...[tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/ohxjulie/status/1382313727635062785?s=20

        • Weintrobe S.
        Links between grievance, complaint and different forms of entitlement.
        The International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 2003; 85: 83-96https://doi.org/10.1516/GCAC-YX9W-GPA9-1K34