The real problem in the modern world is not that there are too many babies, but too few. In the end, both economics and environmentalism depend upon people. Money and the earth are made for man, and not man for money and the earth.

The fashionable mindset among celebrities, royals, and too many ordinary people these days is that having children is controversial. The reason to have no or fewer children is put in terms of responsibility in the face of crisis. Miley Cyrus has announced that she cannot in good conscience bring a child into the world given the sad state of the environment: “Until I feel like my kid would live on an earth with fish in the water, I’m not bringing in another person to deal with that.” Great Britain’s Prince Harry, who has not given any indication he believes (or “feels”) that fish are extinct, nevertheless observed in an interview that he would nevertheless be fathering only two children at maximum because of the damage that humans are doing to the environment. And so it goes with other non-celebrities. The article in the Huffington Post from which I’ve taken these examples includes testimonies from nine other young to middle-aged people explaining why they are having no children or limiting themselves to one or two children.[1]

While there are indeed environmental problems in today’s world, as there have been in every age, this fashionable attitude is misguided. Given that the mindset goes directly against the first divine command given to man in Genesis (“Be fruitful and multiply”) and against the natural inclination to want babies, it is no stretch to suspect that the accompanying odor in the air might just be sulfur. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’s eponymous demon observes that one of the most successful tricks to separate people from God and from their own happiness is to send them running toward the wrong problem.

The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all 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.

Are Miley, Prince Harry, and the gang running the wrong way?

Peter Kareiva, director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA and Pritzker Distinguished Professor in Environment & Sustainability, wrote a very fine essay in 2015 titled “Back to school: unlearning nine environmental myths.” In it he addressed such claims as that biodiversity is decreasing everywhere, that eating locally produced food is the only sustainable practice, that we are very near to “destroying Mother Earth,” and that those who oppose strong action to combat climate change are simply stupid.[2]

Dr. Kareiva believes that there are some serious ones and that prudence dictates taking some action (not limited to market techniques) to address them. But what he has no time for is the general mythology of an environmental crisis that has engulfed us to the point to which we must cease to procreate. His points about the non-crisis (echoed and amplified in the late Swedish statistician Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness) are delivered not from a conservative or free market think tank but from a major state university faculty. It would be nice if they were better known among the population of those declaring their intention of being fruitless and not multiplying.

One of them in particular contradicts the claims of “overpopulation” that so characterize many of these non-breeders:

Since the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the rate of population growth worldwide has been steadily declining. In fact, many countries have such low reproductive rates today that they are worried about shrinking populations. This does not mean that population growth is not a problem—it just means that the human population is likely to peak within this century, and that environmentalists need to start thinking a lot less about population growth per se and more about the drivers of increasing resource use and greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s kind of a radical idea Dr. Kareiva has: it’s not the number of people today but how they use their resources.

I would go further, however. It’s not just that population will “peak” in this century. Those countries that have shrinking populations are only slightly ahead of many other countries whose populations are still growing because modern medicine insures that people live longer. In fact, as a whole, the prospect we are facing over the course of Prince Harry’s lifetime is not overpopulation but depopulation.

In a review of a new book titled Empty Planet by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, demographer Lyman Stone agrees with the authors that the global population is going to decline precipitously starting in a few decades and that “Once that decline begins, it will never end.”[3] It will have severe consequences, Stone says, including “slower economic growth, less entrepreneurship, rising inequality and calamitous government debt.”

The real problem in the modern world is not that there are too many babies, but too few. And the signs are that the emptying may be sooner than we think. A Deutsche Bank analysis earlier this year found that the number of people over 65 in the world is now higher than the number of children under five.[4] While some economists note that this turning upside down of the traditional numbers in a society has not meant an immediate decline in the economy, this is a phenomenon that can’t go on forever.

Economists often quite rightly observe that an economy is not a fixed pie. Wealth can be created and destroyed by exchange. Without people to make those exchanges, it is hard to see how growth can occur. And how much do you want to bet that in a world marked by those trends that environmental concerns get pushed to the backburner by most countries and individuals?

What is difficult about the demographic reality we face is that it isn’t entirely clear how to get people to have more children. Those who are not having them for environmental reasons are no doubt dwarfed by the number of people who simply don’t want to have them for economic reasons: children are indeed expensive in time and treasure. They require sacrifice.

Many countries with population shrinkage have tried measures from housing allowances to tax breaks to simply paying people. All to little avail.[5] Convincing people not to have children is a lot easier to do than convincing them to have them. Motivating sacrifice seems above the paygrade of planners and financial analysts.

In the end, both economics and environmentalism depend upon people. And making more people in a post-pill world is something that is hard to convince people to do for economic or environmental reasons. That’s because money and the earth are made for man, and not man for money and the earth. Man is born to worship, but must have the right worship. Worship of personal financial success and an idealized Gaia aren’t it. These confusions are destroying the conditions for a sound economy and a healthy environment.

We best put down the sacred fire extinguisher before the flood bears us all away.

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[1] Paddison, Laura. “9 People On The Ethics Of Having Kids In An Era Of Climate Crisis,” Huffington Post (August 8 2019).

[2] Kareiva, Peter. “Back to School: Unlearning Nine Environmental Myths,” Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA (October 9 2015).

[3] Stone, Lyman. ” ‘Empty Planet’ Review: A Drop in Numbers,” The Wall Street Journal (February 6 2019).

[4] Ungarino, Rebecca. “There Are More People Older Than 65 Than Younger Than 5 for the First Time – Here’s How That’s Changing the World,” Markets Insider (February 20 2019).

[5] See this 2017 report on a variety of countries. There is little hint that any of it is working: Weller, Chris. “10 Countries that Desperately Want People to Have More Sex,” Independent (5 March 2017).

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “A Flood” (1870) by John Everett Millais (1829-1896), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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