Many were pleasantly surprised last year when The New York Times ran an article admitting that Paul Ehrlich’s “Population Bomb” never exploded. Despite prophecies of entire nations starving to death during the 1980s and the Stanford biologist’s confident prediction that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come,” mankind not only endured, but more than doubled in population—all while reducing worldwide poverty and hunger to historic lows.
But one of the hallmarks of the Left’s effort to extend government control over every aspect of life is The Crisis™, a looming, existential threat as predictable as the inciting incident in an airport paperback, and as reverently confessed as the eschatology of a religious sect. So a new doomsday prophecy was bound to take the place of Ehrlich’s dud bomb. Climate change/global warming/any-weather-reported-by-CNN has filled that role. Now, unsurprisingly, it’s being used to justify a comeback of Ehrlich’s pet project: population control.
The New Crisis™
Back in the 1960s, overpopulation alarmists called for “a system of incentives and penalties” to discourage childbearing, “by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.” These included “responsibility prizes” for deliberately barren marriages, a tax on parents who chose to bear more than enough children to replace themselves, and even a so-called “blacklist of people, companies, and organizations impeding population control.”
An article last week from NPR resurrected all of these ideas in one form or another, with a title that gets straight to the point: “Should We Be Having Kids in the Age of Climate Change?” The implied answer, of course, is “no.”
Author Jennifer Ludden approvingly quotes Johns Hopkins University philosopher and bioethicist Travis Rieder, an advocate for what he calls the “small family ethic.” At a recent talk at James Madison University, Rieder challenged “the assumptions of a society that sees having children as good, throws parties for expecting parents, and in which parents then pressure their kids to ‘give them grandchildren.’”
Why? Because “dangerous climate change” is coming. “Very, very soon.” You know, just like global cooling, overpopulation, mass starvation, resource depletion, and mass extinction were coming “very, very soon.” Let’s not forget Al Gore’s famous “doomsday clock,” which accurately predicted the current climate apocalypse uneventfully expired in January, bringing none of the catastrophes or irreversible climatic threats to civilization the former vice president foretold. Evidently, the planet didn’t get the memo that this year was the environmentalist equivalent of the rapture, and paid no more attention to Gore than God did to Harold Camping.
As David French remarked in National Review, “There’s a veritable online cottage industry cataloguing hysterical, failed predictions of environmentalist catastrophe.” Notwithstanding the wolf’s puzzling absence, the boy continues to cry.
“By midcentury,” NPR warns, “the average global temperature is projected to rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius, the point scientists and world leaders agree would trigger cataclysmic consequences.” Just four degrees of warming, explains Rieder, would leave Earth “largely uninhabitable for humans.” Not one given to hyperbole, he adds, “It’s gonna be post-apocalyptic movie time.”
None of this means that such wild-eyed predictions could never turn out to be true. But as Robert Tracinski pointed out here at The Federalist, alarmists would have to reach a threshold of evidence before world governments should be obligated to craft expensive policy responses, and so far, the evidence marshaled for the latest Crisis™ hasn’t come close.
Why Is the Answer Always Fewer Humans?
Oddly enough, the solution climate alarmists propose is the same as it’s always been: Turn over control of vast swaths of the economy to the government, outlaw the most productive and successful technologies at our disposal, and—of course—enact population control. “Maybe,” Rieder suggests to JMU students, “we should protect our kids by not having them.”
As NPR rolls out Rieder’s policy suggestions, you can almost smell the mothballs from Ehrlich’s closet. They include a propaganda campaign, “carrot-on-a-stick” incentives for the thrice-accursed fecund poor, and (of course) a schedule of penalties for having children. “Think of it like a carbon tax, on kids,” he says.
One student asks whether such a plan runs the risk of contracepting the child who might solve world hunger and overpopulation. Rieder answers that the chances of that happening are slim (as opposed to the chances that one more baby is going to break the planet’s back), but adds that it’s just not good ethics to treat children as a possible means to an end.
“It’s not the childless who must justify their lifestyle,” he concludes. “It’s the rest of us.”
If you’re confused about how the man who’s just advocated criminalizing reproduction can quibble about ethics, you’re not alone. But neither is Rieder alone in his convictions. NPR highlights another anti-children group calling itself “Conceivable Future,” which really ought to be called “Inconceivable Future.” To paraphrase a line from “The Princess Bride,” I do not think that word means what they think it means.
A single-minded nonprofit started by Josephine Ferorelli and Meghan Kallman, its charter states simply that “the climate crisis is a reproductive crisis.” Its founders, dolled up in all their you’ve-probably-never-heard-of-us intellectual millennial glory, scoff at those who think the environmental movement’s track record of failed predictions ought to cast the slightest suspicion on their message.
“[People say] things like, ‘Oh, I thought we were gonna blow ourselves up in a nuclear war, but it didn’t happen. And therefore, just be quiet and have some babies, and…everything will be alright.” Research on who, exactly, hurt these ladies as children is still in progress.
Climate change, insists Ferorelli, isn’t just an intellectual or environmental problem. It’s also “a heart problem.” In other words, having children is a sin. One expects their solution involves going forward to an altar and asking Thomas Malthus into your heart.
NPR is quick to add that these ladies aren’t telling anyone what to do. But this begs the question of what, exactly, the purpose of their group is. Ludden describes a New Hampshire Conceivable Future club meeting at which a sweet, 67-year-old mother absolves herself from the guilt of having kids by telling those kids through tears, “I hope you never have children.”
She got the real message, whatever Kallman and Ferorelli say.
Fire Extinguishers In a Flood
All this ignores the possibility that not having children carries real demographic and societal consequences. As it turns out, that’s precisely the case. If there’s a looming crisis for the West, if not for the world, it’s a population winter that will leave economies in ruin, young people under crushing generational debt, and entire cultures destabilized and dangerous.
These scenarios are more probable than ever, with a new Centers for Disease Control report showing American fertility rates at their lowest ebb in history. In just the last nine years, birthrates in this country have fallen by 10 percent, dipping below the replacement rate (the number of children women must have on average to keep pace with deaths). Only immigration, a figure that’s fluctuated wildly in recent years, has kept the United States from joining Japan and most of Europe as a shrinking, graying nation.
Writing at “The Week,” Pascal-Emmanual Gobry calls America’s anemic birthrate a “national emergency.” “The fewer young, productive people you have to pay for entitlements for old, unproductive people,” he explains, “the steeper the bill for the entire society becomes.”
This is especially true in countries like ours, where a constant influx of new contributors sustains Social Security and Medicare. As that base shrinks, the burden on each working-age citizen grows. “Many hands make light work,” as the saying has it. As of 2016, America is not producing enough new hands to support grandpa.
This merciless math, Gobry warns, is already “strangling Europe’s economies.” If not for immigration, ours would be in the same conundrum. But there are other looming costs of a stagnant or shrinking population. Waiting longer to have children as many Westerners are not only means smaller families in the long run, but a sharp increase in birth defects and congenital diseases like cleft palates, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome.
“The research,” says Dr. Avi Reichenberg, a psychiatrist at King’s College, London, “shows that the proportion of children of older fathers or mothers who have psychiatric or neurological disorders is higher than in children of parents of average age.”
Environmentalists who’ve made and discarded a dozen other doomsday predictions warn us that having children will lead to ecological Armageddon (this time, for sure). But we don’t have to speculate about the cost of not having children, or of delaying them until late in life. It’s playing out right now, before our eyes.
It was once taken for granted, writes Gobry, that a healthy society was a fertile society. A nation’s readiness to pour itself into the next generation was “a signal that people [were] willing to commit to the most enduring responsibility on Earth,” and thus, deserved to inherit the Earth.
Today, an entire segment of the population is convinced that their greatest service to mankind and Mother Earth is not to have babies. They’ve been suckered by a movement that’s spent half a century discrediting itself, and now they’re playing out C. S. Lewis’ satirical image of people “running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.”
There is certainly a crisis today, but it’s not the one the Left has trademarked. As long as Americans are convinced that having fewer babies is the solution, the time bomb will continue ticking. This one won’t be a dud.