Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:
I saw the tears of the oppressed—
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead,
who had already died,
are happier than the living,
who are still alive.
But better than both
is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
that is done under the sun.
And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
For two centuries, overpopulation has haunted the imagination of the modern world. According to Thomas Malthus, writing in 1798, human population growth would always surpass agricultural production, meaning “gigantic inevitable famine” would “with one mighty blow level the population with the food of the world.”
Later, eugenicists like Margaret Sanger in the 1920s fretted over the wrong people reproducing too much, creating what she called “human weeds,” a “dead weight of human waste” to inherit the earth. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich predicted that in the 1970s, “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death” because of the “population bomb.” These days, environmentalists worry that too many people will overload the natural world’s resources and destroy the planet with excessive consumption and pollution, leading to catastrophic global warming.
A strain of anti-humanism has always run through population paranoia, a notion that human beings are a problem rather than a resource. But as Jonathan Last documents in his new book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, it is not overpopulation that threatens the well-being of the human race, it is under-population. As Last writes, “Throughout recorded human history, declining populations havealways been followed by Very Bad Things.” Particularly for our modern, high-tech, capitalist world of consumers who buy, entrepreneurs who create wealth and jobs, and workers whose taxes fund social welfare entitlements, people are an even more critical resource.
Last, a senior writer for the Weekly Standard and father of three, provides a reader-friendly but thorough analysis of the demographic crisis afflicting the West and the “Very Bad Things” that will follow population decline. Clearly argued and entertainingly written, Last covers the how and why of our refusal to reproduce, and the consequences that will follow.
The facts of population decline are dramatic. Women must average a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 children apiece for populations to remain stable. But across the developed world, and increasingly everywhere else, fertility is quickly declining below this number: “All First World countries are already below the 2.1 line,” Last writes, and the rates of decline among Third World countries “are, in most cases, even steeper than in the First World.”
Japan and Italy, for example, have a 1.4 TFR, a “mathematical tipping point” at which the population will decline by 50 percent in 45 years. As for the rest of Europe, by 2050 only three countries in the E.U., which today has an average rate of 1.5 TFR, will not be experiencing population declines. Those countries are France, Luxembourg, and Ireland.
Immigration from the Third World will not provide a long-term solution, as fertility rates are declining there as well. The average fertility rate for Latin America was six children per woman in the 1960s; by 2005, it had dropped to 2.5. At that rate of decline, within a few decades, Latin American countries will likely have a fertility rate lower than that of the United States.
Compared to Singapore’s 1.1 TFR, or Germany’s 1.36, the U.S.’s 2.0 (an average of varying rates ranging from 1.93 to 2.18) looks pretty good. But, in Last analysis, the negative trends do not bode well for the future. The large numbers of Hispanic immigrants reached 50.5 million in 2010, compared to 22.3 million in 1990, a doubling of their population in 20 years. Hispanic women are outpacing the U.S. fertility rate with their 2.35 TFR. But that number represents a decline from 2.96 in 1990, plunging nearly 10 percent just between 2007 and 2009.
Last warns, “Our population profile is so dependent on Hispanic fertility that if this group continues falling toward the national average––and everything about American history suggests that it will––then our 1.93 fertility rate will take a nosedive.” The United States should not count on a population surge via Mexico, where 60 percent of the Hispanic immigrants into this country come from. Mexico’s fertility rate has fallen from 6.72 in 1970 to 2.07 in 2009, a trend that points to further decline. In addition, labor shortages in Latin America will likely lead to diminished emigration.
The dire economic and social effects of plummeting birthrates remind us that marriage and childbirth are not just private lifestyle choices. A country with fewer children becomes, on average, increasingly older. Cities and towns begin to empty, while the cost of caring for retirees and elderly sick people skyrockets. Old people spend less and invest less, shrinking capital pools for the new businesses that create new jobs. Entrepreneurs do not come from among the aged: countries with a higher median age have a lower percentage of entrepreneurs.
Most important, a shrinking labor force means fewer workers contributing the payroll taxes that finance old-age care. The Social Security program is already beginning to be impacted by the decline in the worker-to-retiree ratio. In 1940, there were 160 workers for each retiree. By 2010, there were just 2.9. Once some 80 million Baby Boomers retire, the number will plummet to 2.1. This means taxes will have to increase and benefits be cut substantially to keep the program solvent. Medicare is similarly threatened by declining fertility. Both programs will cost more but have fewer workers footing the bill.
Finally, foreign policy will increasingly be impacted by the global decline in fertility. Those who fear China as a future superpower threat to our interests should remember that by 2050, China’s population will be declining by 20 million every five years, and one out of four people will be over the age of 65. China’s public pension system covers only 365 million people and is unfunded by 150 percent of GDP. What we need to prepare for “is not a shooting war with an expansionist China,” Last writes, “but a declining superpower with a rapidly contracting economic base and an unstable political structure. It’s not clear which scenario is more worrisome.”
The author of the above is associated with the Hoover Institution for those who don't just go and follow links. If the prospect of demographic decline is that every nation in what we now know as the First World is going to stop breeding and die off then that's a handy transition into a feature in The New Yorker about an anti-natalist, someone who argues that nobody should birth children because on the whole it's better to have never been born than to live with the inevitable suffering that life brings with it. Someone like David Benatar may simply be like the author of Ecclesiastes.
David Benatar may be the world’s most pessimistic philosopher. An “anti-natalist,” he believes that life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion. “While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place,” he writes, in a 2006 book called “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.” In Benatar’s view, reproducing is intrinsically cruel and irresponsible—not just because a horrible fate can befall anyone, but because life itself is “permeated by badness.” In part for this reason, he thinks that the world would be a better place if sentient life disappeared altogether.
For a work of academic philosophy, “Better Never to Have Been” has found an unusually wide audience. It has 3.9 stars on GoodReads, where one reviewer calls it “required reading for folks who believe that procreation is justified.” A few years ago, Nic Pizzolatto, the screenwriter behind “True Detective,” read the book and made Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey’s character, a nihilistic anti-natalist. (“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” Cohle says.) When Pizzolatto mentioned the book to the press, Benatar, who sees his own views as more thoughtful and humane than Cohle’s, emerged from an otherwise reclusive life to clarify them in interviews. Now he has published “The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions,” a refinement, expansion, and contextualization of his anti-natalist thinking. The book begins with an epigraph from T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”—“Humankind cannot bear very much reality”—and promises to provide “grim” answers to questions such as “Do our lives have meaning?,” and “Would it be better if we could live forever?”
The knee-jerk response to observations like these is, “If life is so bad, why don’t you just kill yourself?” Benatar devotes a forty-three-page chapter to proving that death only exacerbates our problems. “Life is bad, but so is death,” he concludes. “Of course, life is not bad in every way. Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vise—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament.” It’s better, he argues, not to enter into the predicament in the first place. People sometimes ask themselves whether life is worth living. Benatar thinks that it’s better to ask sub-questions: Is life worth continuing? (Yes, because death is bad.) Is life worth starting? (No.)
Benatar is far from the only anti-natalist. Books such as Sarah Perry’s “Every Cradle Is a Grave” and Thomas Ligotti’s “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race” have also found audiences. There are many “misanthropic anti-natalists”: the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, for example, has thousands of members who believe that, for environmental reasons, human beings should cease to exist. For misanthropic anti-natalists, the problem isn’t life—it’s us. Benatar, by contrast, is a “compassionate anti-natalist.” His thinking parallels that of the philosopher Thomas Metzinger, who studies consciousness and artificial intelligence; Metzinger espouses digital anti-natalism, arguing that it would be wrong to create artificially conscious computer programs because doing so would increase the amount of suffering in the world. The same argument could apply to human beings.
Like a boxer who has practiced his counters, Benatar has anticipated a range of objections. Many people suggest that the best experiences in life—love, beauty, discovery, and so on—make up for the bad ones. To this, Benatar replies that pain is worse than pleasure is good. Pain lasts longer: “There’s such a thing as chronic pain, but there’s no such thing as chronic pleasure,” he said. It’s also more powerful: would you trade five minutes of the worst pain imaginable for five minutes of the greatest pleasure? Moreover, there’s an abstract sense in which missing out on good experiences isn’t as bad as having bad ones. “For an existing person, the presence of bad things is bad and the presence of good things is good,” Benatar explained. “But compare that with a scenario in which that person never existed—then, the absence of the bad would be good, but the absence of the good wouldn’t be bad, because there’d be nobody to be deprived of those good things.” This asymmetry “completely stacks the deck against existence,” he continued, because it suggests that “all the unpleasantness and all the misery and all the suffering could be over, without any real cost.”
Some people argue that talk of pain and pleasure misses the point: even if life isn’t good, it’s meaningful. Benatar replies that, in fact, human life is cosmically meaningless: we exist in an indifferent universe, perhaps even a “multiverse,” and are subject to blind and purposeless natural forces. In the absence of cosmic meaning, only “terrestrial” meaning remains—and, he writes, there’s “something circular about arguing that the purpose of humanity’s existence is that individual humans should help one another.” Benatar also rejects the argument that struggle and suffering, in themselves, can lend meaning to existence. “I don’t believe that suffering gives meaning,” Benatar said. “I think that people try to find meaning in suffering because the suffering is otherwise so gratuitous and unbearable.” It’s true, he said, that “Nelson Mandela generated meaning through the way he responded to suffering—but that’s not to defend the conditions in which he lived.”
He doesn’t imagine that anti-natalism could ever be widely adopted: “It runs counter to too many biological drives.” Still, for him, it’s a source of hope. “The madness of the world as a whole—what can you or I do about that?” he said, while we walked. “But every couple, or every person, can decide not to have a child. That’s an immense amount of suffering that’s avoided, which is all to the good.” When friends have children, he must watch his words. “I’m torn,” he said. Having a child is “pretty horrible, given the predicament in which it will find itself”; on the other hand, “optimism makes life more bearable.” Some years ago, when a fellow-philosopher told him that she was pregnant, his response was muted. Come on, she insisted—you have to be happy for me. Benatar consulted his conscience, then said, “I am happy—for you.”
On the whole there's nothing here that wasn't summarized in four verses in Ecclesiastes quite a few centuries ago by an author who warned us there was nothing new under the sun and if something did seem new it already existed from ages long ago. It's not too hard to wonder why an author of an anti-natalist profile in The New Yorker didn't lead with a suitable quote from Ecclesiastes, though.
Now having excerpted so much one of the things that was interesting to read in Martin Shield's book The End of Wisdom, a monograph on Ecclesiastes, was that he pointed out that as traditional as it is to ascribe the book to Solomon "son of David" came to refer to a lot of descendants of the Davidic line and that while many things described in Ecclesiastes were associated with Solomon that's not automatically given. If Solomonic authorship were really the point about the book the resolute lack of identification of the author with Solomon doesn't necessarily imply the traditional association.
But Shields had another, more compelling proposal about the book, which was to point out that the traditional interpretation of Ecclesiastes being a literary process of repentance doesn't seem to hold up under an exegetical analysis of the text. If this was a Solomon returning to the Lord why were there no references to the Mosaic law? Why were even allusions to the creation account of Gen 1-3 mainly by way of sidelong doubts that humans have souls or natures that even distinguish them from animals?
Shields' proposal, which is like anything proposed in scholarly work about Ecclesiastes, bound to be controversial is that the epilogue of Ecclesiastes was written by someone else and that a short prologue and epilogue bracket out the book of Ecclesiastes as a kind of, for want of a better analogy here, a Pentagon papers about the dangers of the Israelite wisdom movement and where it ends. Qoholet in this interpretation never came back to love or serve the Lord and this could mean, if Solomonic ascription is a given, that there's no evidence Solomon ever turned back to follow Yahweh even at the very end of his life. Or, if the Israelite king "did" return there's no indication within the majority of Ecclesiastes that the king did so from the text itself independent of traditional interpretations of it.
There's pretty much no way to square Ecclesiastes 4:1-4 with the Cultural Mandate and all the stuff about "be fruitful and multiply" if Qoholet is so certain that better than anything is to have never been born and that everyone is motivated by envy of one's neighbor.
In theory I could write more about Martin Shields' book but I don't feel like doing so just now. There are a few tagged posts on the subject, though, so if you want to indirectly read Shields' case that the nature of the Hebrew construction in Ecclesiastes that could be read as "had been king" invites a possibility that the author of Ecclesiastes was a king who at some point abdicated is interesting but it's been years since I've read the monograph.
Overall the proposal that we should not assume the author of Ecclesiastes ever came back to a godly position seems worth considering, even if there could be compelling arguments against it. Shields' book was pretty helpful, particularly the overview of the generally dim view of the sages as a caste of elites advising often corrupt royal families as depicted just about everyone in the Old Testament literature except for the wisdom literature. If all the wisdom of the sages didn't keep the Israelite and Judean kings from sinning so much that God's people got cast into exile why would the sages necessarily help the rest of us?
Where all of this might be applicable to anti-natalist concerns, they've got nothing much to worry about. It looks like a demographic implosion in the First World is taking care of itself as something that's going to happen already.