AMAC Exclusive – By David Lewis Schaefer
In an article in November’s issue of the journal First Things, theologian and pastor Kevin DeYoung describes as possibly “the most significant thing happening in the world” something that is not happening: people aren’t having children. He observes that the “paradigmatic affliction of the Old Testament” – a woman’s barrenness – has seemingly become “the great desire of nations.” In many developed nations, the sudden antipathy toward having children seems to have a curious if unlikely culprit: the radical environmental movement.
In his piece, DeYoung points to the decline in the total fertility rates (TFR), which have reached sub-replacement levels in virtually every European nation, with numerous major countries like Greece, Spain, and Poland having TFRs of only 1.50, and Italy’s only 1.22, with France alone approximating the replacement level of 2.03. (Since not all children will survive to maturity and thus be able to reproduce, just keeping the population level stable requires that on average, each man and woman will average just over two children.) TFRs in East Asia, he observes, are even lower, with Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan averaging about 1.0. South Korea’s TFR is 0.81, and Japan’s – despite various government pro-natalist policies – is still about 1.7. Finally, although China abandoned its notorious one-child policy (which often led to forced abortions) in 2016 in favor of a two-child policy in 2016 and a three-child policy in 2021, its population shrank in the latter year by over one percent – the first such shrinkage since the (government-induced) Great Famine of 1959-61.
While the United States was long thought to be the exception to the rule of declining populations in the industrialized world, having had a TFR of 2.1 as recently as 2007, DeYoung adds, since that year the U.S. birthrate is reported to have shrunk by 20 percent, to as low as 1.6. Consequently, as Jonathan Last (cited by DeYoung) warned in his 2013 book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, the world can expect a roster of “Very Bad Things,” including an aging population, shrinking workforce, reduced innovation, and (in DeYoung’s words) “a general disquiet as more and more people get older and sicker with fewer people to care for them” – or pay for their care.
Not all observers, of course, share DeYoung’s and Last’s pessimism. By now, no informed person takes seriously Paul Ehrlich’s prediction in his acclaimed, Nobel-Prize-winning 1968 book The Population Bomb that owing to population growth, the human race would soon experience mass starvation, as the earth’s resources were rapidly depleted. On the contrary, especially thanks to innovations in agricultural productivity, the earth proved capable of sustaining a growing population at substantially higher levels of nutrition in countries like India.
The latest and increasingly influential excuse for promoting unjustified fears of population growth, however, and even aspiring for a permanent decline in human numbers, is the supposed devastation that the world’s population already causes to the environment through climate change and pollution, alongside resource depletion. Hence journalism professor (and recipient of a Macarthur Foundation “genius grant”) Alan Wiseman invited us in his award-winning 2007 book The World Without Us to envision how rapidly the earth might regain its health if only the human race were to disappear – and the infrastructure we had constructed withered away, thus restoring nature to its pristine condition.
The path that Wiseman (among others) outlined has now been carried to its furthest (nonviolent) extreme by the Voluntary Human Extinction movement, described in a November 25 New York Times profile of its founder, Les Knight, as “a loose consortium of people who believe that the best thing humans can do to help the Earth is to stop having children.” Their official motto is the wish, “may we live long and die out,” otherwise expressed in a slogan that Knight “hangs at various conventions and street fairs: ‘Thank you for not breeding.’” While other putative experts cited in the Times story, such as Stephanie Feldstein, “director of population and sustainability at the Center for Biological Diversity,” share Knight’s concern about the deleterious effects of overpopulation on wildlife populations and natural resource supplies, the Times writes that “it is rare to find anyone who publicly goes as far as Mr. Knight, who never had children and got a vasectomy in 1973 at the age of 25.” Knight opposes “what he calls reproductive fascism, or lack of ‘the freedom not to have children,’” although the source of restriction on that freedom remains conspicuously unspecified. He further judges that “despite our many achievements, humans are a net detriment to the Earth.” “Considering what we did to this planet,” he maintains, “we’re not a good species.”
Despite this thoroughly misanthropic outlook, Knight is described by the Times as a “gentle” fellow – indeed, conservative talk-show host Tucker Carlson, while criticizing him for espousing the “sickest” beliefs, found him to be “one of the cheeriest guests” the show had ever hosted. While the number of Knight’s followers isn’t known, his group is said to have taken off in popularity once he created a website, the text of which “has been translated into some 30 languages” and which “remains a haven to many.” To indicate Knight’s gentle manner, the Times interviewer describes how he paused “to appreciate” the spectacle of “two juicy garden spiders taking in the sun” on their webs. As an adherent of “deep ecology, which challenges assumptions of human dominance and argues that other species are just as significant” as we are, Knight laments that while “people mention music and art and literature and the great things that we have done – it’s funny they don’t ever mention the bad things,” adding, “I don’t think the whales will miss our songs.”
Whether we share Carlson’s judgment that Knight’s beliefs are sick, they are certainly confused. Is the perspective of whales the proper one from which to judge human musical achievements? Are spider webs – regardless of their complexity – comparable in their impressiveness to the greatest architectural achievements of human beings? And since one of the sources cited on Knight’s website is the 19th-century philosopher of pessimism Arthur Schopenhauer, it’s worth asking: can Knight cite a philosopher – a seeker of knowledge about the universe through reliance on reason – among any nonhuman species? Isn’t Knight himself implicitly adopting a supra-human, divine perspective, comparable to that of God when He first gazes on his completed creation – only to find one major flaw in the created world, the existence of human beings (including himself)?
But let us leave the intellectual confusions of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement to another day. What must more urgently concern us are the moral consequences of the anti-natalist movement, which have extended so far as to cause many young adults to question whether they should have children at all, lest they contribute to the earth’s supposed climate crisis, species extinction, etc.
We need not wonder here whether it is desirable for families to include large numbers of children rather than, say, two or three. DeYoung complains, with some justification, that “contemporary American life does not make raising lots of children” as he and his wife have done “easy.” What is in question at the deepest level is how people’s outlook on life changes when it is no longer oriented to having children at all– or is typically focused on having just a single child, who will impose the least possible cost, in time and money, on his parents.
Although human beings are in a sense, as Aristotle maintains, naturally political (that is, we need to live in political communities, and are equipped by nature with the capacity to organize and maintain them) we are not simply political animals, in the sense that our interests entirely harmonize with those of other members of our community, as do those of social animals like bees or ants. After all, no worker bee has ever been known to call for an uprising among his fellows by uttering the slogan “worker bees of the hive unite, we have nothing to lose but our queen!” We need to be socialized by our environment to care for the well-being of our fellows. And the most fundamental way in which this socialization occurs, Aristotle indicates, is through the family, which is grounded in sentiments that are truly natural or innate, in a way that feeling for our fellow citizens, let alone for the human race as a whole, is not.
Readers of Charles Dickens will recall the comic figure of Mrs. Jellyby (from Bleak House), who is so concerned with the well-being of the natives of a far-off land that she has no time to care for her own children. But while today’s anti-natalists, unlike Mrs. Jellyby, may not have children at all, their ostensible global concerns, like hers, may really reflect a kind of self-centeredness, or even self-idolization, of a sort exemplified by Les Knight and his followers – rather than being of any real benefit to other people.
In addition, it is a fundamental fact of human life, and something essential to the well-being and survival of a political community, that having children is the most likely means of enlisting people’s concern in the future of their country, as well as of the world. This is not of course to deny that childless people may become stalwart citizens and human benefactors. It is, however, to maintain that no human activity is as likely as childrearing to extend most people’s concerns both in breadth (to the good of others) and in length (into the future) – instead of losing themselves in the sort of mindless materialism or “consumerism” that offends Knight, or, at the other extreme, in the radically unnatural self-deification that he exemplifies.
The “presentist” attitude that childlessness encourages, and particularly characterizes fashionable adults in countries like Italy, may help explain the reluctance of electorates in most European nations, and even in Taiwan and South Korea (both threatened by powerful enemies) – as well as the societal elites on whom America’s Democratic Party depends for funding as well as votes – to support defense expenditures adequate to meet their countries’ needs, as opposed to social expenditures or lower taxes: as the influential liberal (but childless) twentieth-century economist John Maynard Keynes famously put it, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” That’s not how parents and grandparents typically think.
David Lewis Schaefer is a Professor of Political Science at College of the Holy Cross.