Whether it’s a good thing to bring more children into this world is one of the most basic and important questions any human can ask. It speaks to how we view every new person’s wholesale contribution to our collective future. The question is essential, not only to people who adhere to historic faiths in which God’s first command is to “Go forth and multiply,” but also to evolutionary naturalists who believe the name of the game of life is successfully handing off one’s DNA to the next generation.
One’s answer to this question typically falls along predictable ideological lines, coming down to one’s view on the fragility of the natural environment against the prospects of human progress and the basic virtue and value of life.
On Apr. 25, two fashionable magazines on the left — Vogue and The Atlantic — published two opposing responses to this question. Dramatically, Vogue asked, “Is Having a Baby in 2021 Pure Environmental Vandalism?” Ultimately, as is readily inferable from the title, they believe the answer to this otherwise silly question should be obvious “for the scientifically engaged person.”
The Atlantic, on the other hand, asserts the opposite, making a bold case that governments should pay parents to have more kids. Their reasoning? “A country that does not publicly fund national defense won’t have much of it. A society that doesn’t support parents will have fewer children.” Contrary to Vogue, The Atlantic article sees more children as a good thing — certainly a curious new development on today’s left.
Their image choice for their pro-child piece seems regressively retro as well for anyone who takes the new gender rhetoric at its word, and The Atlantic certainly does. Pink and blue diaper pins? How very binary.
But such things slip through when the gatekeepers of the new gender orthodoxy fail to pay close enough attention to keeping their evolving story straight.
So what does each magazine have to say in their competing cases? Vogue’s author lays her wholly predictable cards on the table: “Before I got pregnant, I worried feverishly about the strain on the earth’s resources that another Western child would add.” Feverishly? And are Eastern children naturally easier on the earth? She doesn’t adequately address why the Western origin of her child is so particularly pernicious. But as we will see, she is wrong.
The author doesn’t show herself to be the “scientifically-engaged person” she claims to be as she lays out her case for why it is OK for her to produce children, but not the rest of us. Why? Well, because she cares more. She is, you see, “someone who is attempting to raise a child with an awareness of ecological inequality.”
She tells us we should all be terrified to bring a child into the world because we only have “just another 60 harvests left before our overworked soil gives out.” If true, this is a genuine reason to panic. The assertion, however, amounts to rubbish after consulting the large body of data on global food production.
Contrary to grim Malthusian predictions, the United Nations explains humanity now produces far more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet. Furthermore, the proportion of the world that doesn’t have enough to eat has dropped by half in just the last two decades. Indeed, today, hunger isn’t a function of production, but distribution.
Back in 2012, the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture explained “we already grow enough food for 10 billion people.” This is a 25 percent bounty over our current global population. Given world population is projected to top out at just 9.73 billion people by the end of this century according to a groundbreaking Gates Foundation-funded study published in The Lancet last summer, this is a surplus we will never need.
What about our supposedly “overworked soil”? Human ingenuity is allowing us to produce more food than we need on increasingly less land. Some of the best and most straightforward data on the measurable health of our planet come from the careful scholars at Our World in Data and the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford.
Their meticulously charted data show the proportion of land used for all agriculture (crops and grazing) per person across the globe has plummeted dramatically over the last 100 years. In sum, we are growing more with less — a phenomenon true across all continents.
Vogue also warns us that children are inadvisable because “we are running out of fresh water.” False. Our World in Data scholars show the number of people around the world with improved access to clean drinking water actually increased 68 percent from 1990 to 2015, even as the global population expanded. More than 290,000 people have gained access to improved drinking water every single day across the globe over the last 25 years — a figure that is still increasing.
Vogue’s author also gets it exactly wrong when she contrasts the health of the environment and life expectancy in developed and developing worlds:
The way our food is farmed, the amount we buy, the way we dispose of our waste – all are far worse for the planet than those living in less consumerist and less economically developed societies.
She has this exactly backward, and dramatically so. Living longer, healthier lives is most people’s goal. Simply put, humans live longer in developing nations specifically because they are living more successfully with their environment. Again, Our World in Data has it right here, in vivid color.
Remarkably, the environment is kinder to humans in the developing world as well. In non-industrial societies, where cooking over wood or coal-burning fires is often a regular part of daily life, air pollution deaths are more than 100 times higher than their developed, industrial counterparts.
As the world develops, such cooking declines and more people survive and live longer as growth and technology are helping people breathe easier. Additionally, ozone pollution and smog have declined rapidly throughout the world, even in high-income, heavy manufacturing Asian Pacific regions.
A major 2019 study in the journal Global Environmental Change drawing from “one of the most complete natural disaster loss databases” reveals “a clear decreasing in both human and economic vulnerability” to “the 7 most common climate-related hazards” by up to 80 to 90 percent over the last four decades. These hazards include all forms of flooding, drought, and deaths related to extreme wind, cold, or heat. The trend lines are dramatic, and the most dramatic improvements are in developed countries.
Our World in Data demonstrates a similar finding, explaining, “this decline is even more impressive when we consider the rate of population growth this period” revealing a greater than a 10-fold decline in nature-related human deaths worldwide over the last century.
Precisely because humans continue to increasingly adapt to the earth through human creativity and ingenuity, the earth is becoming a much safer place. So no, more people are clearly not making the earth a more inhospitable place. In 2018, Paul Romer won the Nobel Prize in Economics for demonstrating this very fact.
This brings us to the article from The Atlantic. Their author, possessing a better grasp of the data on the power of human creativity and ingenuity, admits, “the importance of a stable or growing population to human economies is easy to overlook.” She highlights an academic economics paper published in 1994 in The American Economic Review entitled “Children as Public Goods,” explaining the author still holds this as true because investing in more children is an “investment in demographic infrastructure.”
In stark contrast to Vogue, The Atlantic correctly recognizes that most children end up contributing more to society than is spent on them. To a critical fault, Thomas Malthus and his later acolytes only saw humans as consuming stomachs and ignored their productive hands and minds. This is precisely why they have demonstrably been proven wrong by the facts revealed by Our World in Data.
The Atlantic explains that nations have a vested interest in more children because “Children grow up to become adults and pay taxes that exceed the value of what’s been spent on them.” They correctly add:
A generation that doesn’t reproduce itself risks overburdening a dwindling workforce with the requirements of the elderly. Fewer children means fewer buyers for the houses and stocks that the elderly invested in to build a retirement nest egg, a smaller tax base to pay for their pensions and outsize hospital bills, and fewer people around to undertake their care.
Although there is much to debate on actual public policy, they contend governments should increasingly pay moms and dads to have more children. Both President Biden and Republican Sen. Josh Hawley are currently proposing separate policies to do exactly that.
Although such endeavors have had decidedly mixed results, many European nations have tried increasing human fertility through tax and policy incentives over the last few decades — and not because these politicians think babies are cute.
The next generation of French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese workers, inventors, educators, employers, and taxpayers aren’t just going to show up on their own. They have to either be created by present French, Italian, Spanish Japanese, or Chinese parents or brought in from other countries and cultures. As such, governments have a reasonable and healthy motivation to preserve their distinct culture with home-grown babies.
In the final analysis, it’s a delightful surprise to see a publication like The Atlantic end this article by recognizing “parenting is not a hobby — it’s an indispensable part of a properly functioning economy, and our present system works only if people continue to do it.”
One can hope that these two articles, published on the same day, mark a growing divide among on left on the importance of having children. One side of the argument certainly has the support of careful and compelling scientific data. The other just has hysteria.