Fertility Rates, The Environment, Misogyny and the Fate of the Human Race
When I was in college, we got into an argument in my philosophy class about celibacy. Specifically, about the clash between a morality built around lifelong celibacy, which a paper we’d just read had argued for, and Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which we’d discussed a few weeks earlier. The Categorical Imperative goeth thusly:
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
It’s basically a fancy version of the Golden Rule. Act in a way that, if everyone acted that way, the world would function.
The collision between those two ideas resulted in several of us, including me, arguing that a philosophy that pushed celibacy as an ideal was fundamentally immoral. Because, using the Categorical Imperative, such a philosophy countenanced the extinction of the human race. And an extinct race cannot be moral.1 The teaching assistant countered that it was a spring and we were horny teenagers so we couldn’t understand the piquancy of the writer’s insights.
I’m not exaggerating that, by the way. It’s literally what he said.
I thought of this recently during a bit of foofaraw about the decline in birth rates. 2020 saw a sharp decline in fertility rates, which were already at historic lows. This is being blamed on the pandemic, although most people who blame the pandemic for it haven’t explained how a COVID-related drop in fertility showed up in less than nine months. We won’t know the impact of COVID until a) we’ve finished 2021, when most babies conceived in quarantine will be delivered; and b) we’re years down the road so we can see what, if any, effect COVID infections have on reproductive health.2
But the long-term decline in fertility rates has resulted in a growing concern among certain people. Developed countries are at fertility rates that are well below replacement level (approximately 2.1 children per woman). An aging and declining population makes it difficult to sustain a society and almost impossible to sustain growing retirement obligations.
I am definitely among those who find this to be something worth worrying about. There are many aspects of it — social, economic and moral — which I’ll get into below. I keep circling back to the mathematics: a shrinking population is a dying population. But let’s walk a bit.
Overpopulation, Global Warming and the Baby Bust
A lot of commentators have responded to the decline in fertility rates not with concern but with celebration. The drop in fertility, they claim, is a good thing, actually. Good for the planet, good for the human race, good for our future. We already have too many people, they say, and so a decline is the best thing that could happen to us.3
The supposed benefits of a declining human population have changed a bit. The standard line of “we can’t feed so many people” that population alarmists have been harping for decades still remains. But these days it is also linked to global warming. A declining human population will, supposedly, address both issues.
I don’t buy these arguments at all. Since the publication of The Population Bomb, which kicked off our ongoing wave of population concern, the overpopulation alarmists have had a track record of being amazingly, confidently and stunning wrong in their predictions. Fifty years ago, when the overpopulation hysteria really got going, the problem was supposed to be food. It wasn’t. The predicted mass food shortages of the 80s never materialized and we are currently feeding more people using less land than ever. before. First world agricultural technology, if universally deployed, could feed twice as many people as currently inhabit the planet. We don’t need to eat bugs. We don’t need to eat each other. All we need to do is use the technology we have and maybe even improve upon it.
Since the Soylent Green scenarios failed to happen, the overpopulation alarmists have turned to a different boogeyman: global warming. They cite estimates that every child born adds 58 tons of CO2 per year. But while global warming is a real concern, I don’t buy this either. Carbon emissions have been shrinking in the developed world for several years now while population has continued to grow (mainly thanks to longer lifespans and immigration). Moreover, carbon intensity — the amount of greenhouse gases produced per economic output — has been plunging. We are using less carbon-intense fuels, we are using more alternative energy and we are using more efficient technology. The argument that we needed population to decline so that we wouldn’t starve crashed and burned because of the Green Revolution. The argument that we need population to decline because of global warming will crash and burn with the same ferocity if we make a critical breakthrough on, say, nuclear fusion.
A related argument is that global warming is going to turn the Earth into such a hellscape that it would be cruel to bring children into that. I find that argument fundamentally wanting. Being born in bad circumstances might be preferable to not being born at all. Literally tens of billions of people have lived through far worse than the late 21st century is going to be. But I also find it wanting scientifically. Global warming is going to be bad. But it’s unlikely to result in an apocalypse unless we have wildly underestimated the temperature sensitivity of the planet. It is hard enough to predict the climate. Arguing that people should avoid having children because of third-order predictions about economics and society is madness. If you’re worried about the future, doing something about it today is going to be more useful than some kid’s hypothetical greenhouse gas emissions twenty years from now.4
I’m reminded of the argument a couple of weeks ago about whether we should cut back on meat to stave off global warming. I mean… it might make a difference. But the single largest contributor to global warming right now is not Americans having babies. Or eating meat. Or caring for their pets. It’s China belching fumes from coal plants like it’s going out of style. One seventh of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to their coal industry alone. And their swelling greenhouse gas emissions have continued unabated despite China having a notoriously brutal one-child policy which now has their population in decline and has created a generational crisis in that there are not enough children to support the elderly and not enough women — because of selective abortion — to provide partners for all the young men. Talking about kids or meat or pets in this scenario isn’t exactly re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic but it’s at least re-arranging the cushions in the lifeboats.
Frankly, a lot of this talk smacks of the misanthropy that has lurked in environmentalist circles for a very long time. “Humans are bad; therefore less humans are good” has been a running theme since The Population Bomb slithered into public consciousness. The book drips with distaste for human beings and the belief that a mass “die-off” would be the best thing that could happen. I’ve linked Ronald Bailey above. I have my disagreements with Bailey — I think he’s too optimistic, to be honest. But he’s spent thirty years documenting environmentalists hoping for the collapse of civilization, the mass die-off of the human race and a return to a “pure” primitive existence. One of my favorite demonstrations of this, going back to P.J. O’Rourke’s book, was the environmentalists who reacted to the brief promise of cold fusion not with celebration but with dismay that we might get out of global warming without having to make everyone poor.
I don’t find the arguments that fertility decline is great to be warranted at all scientifically. But I also think some of them reflect an opposition to fertility in general. And that ties into cultural ideas.
Are Babies Sexist?
Putting aside the scientific concerns, the really odd thing about this debate is the cultural clash it tends to instill. Part of that — quiverful types bemoaning the collapse of big families — is expected. But there has also been a backlash against the fertility rate concerns among progressives, who see concerns about fertility rates as intrinsically sexist and even racist.
A recent example flared into the public eye when one of our former writers — Elizabeth Bruenig — wrote a fairly innocuous column about her decision to have children at age 25.5 People have gotten mad, accusing her of being everything from a fundamentalist Christian to a “tradwife” (you can listen to her addressing the nontroversy at the end of this podcast). Amanda Marcotte — who has kinda made being wrong her thing — accused her of pandering to the fantasies of pathetic men. Because…men fantasize about giving up the single life at a young age? Not sure what that’s about.
The argument that concerns about declining fertility are intrinsically sexist crosses me as misguided. First of all, recent research indicates that one of the answers to our declining fertility may be more gender equality. According to this theory, fertility rates initially decline as women get more control over their lives. But once you reach a certain amount of equity, women feel free to have more children. There’s a very good argument that addressing declining fertility rates will advance progressive interests, not stymie them.
But there’s also this: women are having fewer children than they want. The average woman wants 2.7 children and is having 1.8. The reasons for this discrepancy are complex and multi-faceted. Some women simply never find a man they consider a suitable father. Some women want children but want their career more. Some women get started later in life so end up having fewer children than they’d planned. There’s an entire book to be written (and several have been) about this subject. But my point is that when women in a prosperous society want more children than they are having, that suggests that this discussion is more nuanced than a bunch of men thinking they should be barefoot, pregnant and in the… well, these days, the computer room? But, you know, still barefoot and pregnant.6
There have also been attempts to link legitimate concerns about declining fertility with white supremacy. The logic is that some racist morons have embraced the so-called “replacement theory”: that white people are slowly being replaced by brown and black people and this is bad. So if you are concerned about declining fertility, you also believe in replacement theory. Those of you who are familiar with how internet arguments tend to go will recognize the pattern:
1) Hitler liked art
2) You like art
3) You are Hitler.
The race argument doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny either. Yes, white fertility rates are below replacement level in the US. You know who else’s are? Black people. And Hispanics. Asian fertility rates are even lower than white people’s. The only ethnic group whose fertility rate is over replacement level is… Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders. I mean, I don’t watch Tucker Carlson, but I don’t seem to remember replacement theory being about masses of Hawaiians over-running the mainland.
I simply find it absurd to argue that wanting people to have more children and wanting policy that encourages more children is necessarily sexist, racist or bigoted. Such encouragements can be twisted by bigots to bad purposes, sure. But bigots will twist literally any issue to support their worldview. Neither the concern itself nor the proposed solutions are necessarily bigoted.
Empty Rooms, Empty Cities
Most commentators have shied away from the social or emotional aspects of shrinking families, preferring to couch their concerns in demographics and economics. And while most of my post is about those things, I don’t have a problem with people saying that people are good, families are good, and more people is a good thing. I don’t have a problem with people saying children are a blessing and we should try to make it easier for people to enjoy that blessing.7 A few years ago, I was in Italy, which has seen fertility rates drop to 1.3 per woman, a level that simply can not sustain their welfare state. But what crossed me in Italy was not the demographics or the economics; it was the feel. Italy felt, frankly, like a dying country. Compared even to the US, there were very few children to be seen. And compared to a country with a fertility rate above replacement level, like Israel, it felt like a ghost town
I’m not a particularly clucky person when it comes to kids. I’m glad I had them and I enjoy being a parent. But I’m not about to run around brow-beating people who don’t want kids. And there are other writers here who far more qualified than I am to get into the emotional nuances of family decisions. But in the end, I keep returning to that discrepancy between the number of children women want and the number they are having. The desire for children has always been strong in our species. We would have gone extinct otherwise. One of the striking things I was once told by an archeologist was how often ancient ruins contain fertility charms, totems or prayers; the desire for children one can’t have has been a running them through human history.8 But I can’t imagine we’ve ever been to this point, where millions of women are wanting millions of children and not having them for various reasons. That is an immense amount of sadness in the world. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to rectify that. Whether we can or should do something about it is a different debate, of course. But looking at that and thinking, “something’s not right” crosses me as entirely reasonable, even setting aside the economic, social and scientific issues.
Look, I’m not here to tell anyone what life choices to make. If people don’t want kids, they’re not obligated to have them. It’s a perfectly reasonable life choice. But if people want kids, not having them because they are worried about overpopulation or global warming is allowing one’s life choices to be governed by hysterics, misanthropes and ideological axe grinders.9 This is not a way to run a culture.
What To Do
Now this is the point at which I’m supposed to suggest some sort of policy that would fix all this. But I’m sorry… I got nothing. Bruenig, who is to the Left of me, argues in her column that we need better support for families from government in the form of daycare and so on. And while that might help, it’s worth noting that many countries with much more robust safety nets and family support have lower fertility rates than we do. Republicans, being Republicans, think tax credits are the answer. And again, I’m sure that might help but I feel like the benefits, like that of increased subsidies for daycare, would be small. We should do these things. But let’s not kid ourselves and think free daycare or tax credits will get every woman to have the 2.7 children she wants rather than the 1.8 she’s having.
At this point, you might be saying, “Mike, that’s all fine, but you have kids so that’s why you support pro-natalist policies.” It might be a fair comp except: 1) I have supported such policies before I had kids and when it looked my chance of having kids was basically zero; 2) by the time anything is done on this subject, my kids will be adults; 3) and? The world must be peopled. Who do you think is going to support all the childless people in their frail dotage? Who do you think will be paying into Social Security and Medicare? Who will be creating the value in retirees’ stock portfolios? The entire reason countries are concerned about this issue is because they are going to have massive hordes of old people needing someone to support them. An economic pyramid scheme doesn’t work if it’s upside down. Babies or immigrants: you need one or the other and preferably both.
My pet theory is that a big help would be breaking the traditional “male” career line. For the last century, the ideal career was that you graduated high school or college, got a job, worked your way relentlessly up the ladder and kept working without ceasing until you dropped dead at your desk. And if you had a family, that was someone else’s responsibility. But as women have entered the work force and two-income and single-parent families have become more common, that’s become less and less tenable. We need more room for people to take a few years off to have a family. We need more room for people to get their career going when they’re in their 30s or older. Many years ago, I was in a hiring meeting and a very good candidate was dismissed because they were a few years older than the other candidates. “If they were any good,” one person said, “they’d already have this kind of job.” It enraged me. You never know what might have delayed someone’s career path. What mattered is that they were good and they were qualified.
What I’m getting at here is that I don’t think the solution lies in a government policy. That may help at the edges. But ultimately, we need to change as a society. And that’s not something that can be done from the top down. It’s something that has to change from the bottom up.
So ultimately, I think that the declining fertility rate is something to be concerned about. I disagree that concerns about it necessarily reflect bigotry or misogyny. But our power to do anything about it is extremely limited. Declining and aging populations may just be something we have to deal with, like it or not.
However, to conclude this topic on a ray of hope: maybe it’s pollyannaish of me, but I think that fertility rates are going to recover at some point, with or without government action.10 Maybe it will take some new technological innovation (such as the youth therapy in my novel). Maybe it will be some unexpected social change. Maybe it will be because people will, as a whole, realize that forgoing family for money is a poor exchange. But a species voluntarily limiting itself like this is not natural. And something that can not continue generally won’t.
- Of course, Kant himself never married, so …
- Several organization that study fertility are predicting an even bigger drop-off in 2021. But I think a year of COVID has taught us that prediction is hard, especially about the future.
- The expert cited by the Guardian article linked above says that 25 years ago, we worried about the population reaching 24 billion. I have no idea where this comes from. P.J. O’Rourke, when debunking overpopulation hysteria in his excellent 1994 book All the Trouble in the World pointed out that the projections for 2020 were 8.2 billion. 25 years later, this ended up being 600 million too high. Al Gore predicted 14 billion using numbers apparently pulled from his gluteus maximus. This was a wild overestimate and was seen so at the time.
- They also need to make up their mind. You can’t simultaneously claim that future generations will emit greenhouse gases at today’s level and that they will live in a Mad Max post-apocalyptic wasteland.
- Some of the less dumb critics have pointed out that 25 is close to the average age at which women have children. These people have apparently not read Bruenig’s article, where she talks about this. She is an educated woman in a profession where many people don’t have kids at all. For someone with a Master’s degree, like Bruenig, the average age for having a first child is 30 and climbing. In the world in which she lives, her decision was unusual.
- Although these days, barefoot probably means prosperity because you have a job you can work from home.
- Although my ‘children as blessing’ bona fides might take some serious hits around bedtime.
- And a big part of the Bible and other ancient narratives.
- Not having them because someone is “waiting for the right time” sounds good — and it often is good. As long as they realize there is no right time, just less wrong ones. My useless advice to people who wants kids to to have them when things are relatively stable and muddle through like everyone else has done for 100,000 years.
- Will and I have occasionally discussed whether the desire for kids is genetic and we are going through a period, thanks to birth control and prosperity, in which we are effectively selecting for those genes.