Human fertility is falling in every nation in the world, and the human population is projected to peak in the year 2040. By mid-century, most “advanced” economies will be beset by an inverted demographic pyramid based on age, wherein the young will be outnumbered by the elderly, sometimes by a factor of 4-to-1. In other times and places, this would be considered calamitous, but in the modern West, this is considered an achievement to be celebrated. Western culture’s misanthropic traditions of the past 50 years, to sterilize and divest ourselves of our reproductive faculties, has, in truth, sought with alacrity the goal of fewer human beings in toto. Now it merely seems that we will finally receive what we have asked for.
Some professional famous people, like Mr. Elon Musk, have decried this state of affairs and noted the obvious ill effects that total population decline (coupled with longer lifespans) will have on the world’s economies. This is a point that needs to be raised, particularly because people have been sold a bill of goods in regards to the regime’s line on human reproduction. But having less children has not been a net benefit for society, and as a matter of fact, our dearth of children (as well as our lack of investment in the ones we already have) will positively impoverish our world.
Four old people per one healthy, young worker is an abstraction, so perhaps you would prefer more concrete illustrations. Imagine warehouses of the old and infirm, with no living family to care for them, consigned to slowly waste away on what meager means the government can afford to provide, cared for and necessarily neglected by an overstretched hospital and care staff of impoverished (primarily) immigrant nurses. Or a complete and total end to the consumer economy and the useful trades like manufacturing, construction, infrastructure, and other skilled occupations as those industries trend towards an older and older work forces. And a crushing tax burdens, such that those who do work will see little reward for their efforts, certainly not enough to support a family of their own.
The latter point is the most troubling, as it will create a feedback loop that will constantly depress fertility. This is to say nothing of the utter disintegration of families or chemical and environmental factors contributing to overall birthrate decline. Contrary to what the Bill Gates of the world will tell us, none of these examples are “sustainable” in any meaningful sense. It is a recipe for civil unrest, poverty, and totalitarianism as governments around the world hijack their economies and the lives of private citizens in an effort to fix the damage they themselves inflicted with their negligence or impositions.
All of these are the latest illustrations of what we know to be the truth, that this new death cult the world finds itself enthralled to will only bring misery. Yet, rather than dwell on these facts, let us consider, instead, what God and the teleology of our own personhood is pointing us towards.
The Gift and Necessity of Fertility
In some sense it is fitting that I write this during Advent, when all of Christendom is pregnant in waiting for the Christ-child. Pregnancy and fertility are central messages, not only of Advent, but of the Christian religion. In the case of the Blessed Virgin, her pregnancy is not only the means by which she participates in Salvific History, but also an image of God’s grace active in the church. For, just as the mother is acted upon from outside by the husband and thus conceives and is transformed within herself, giving rise to new life, so the Bride of Christ is entered into by the Bridegroom and in a qualified and analogical sense made pregnant with the potential of salvation.
In literary history, as well, writers have always associated eros with true fecundity, and even pagans can understand the evil of frustrating this natural end of human sexuality. I think, for example, of Ovid’s rendition of Pygmalion. In love with his statue of womanhood, his eroticism is sterile and masturbatory. It is only when Venus transforms the sculpture into a real woman that Pygmalion’s disordered desire for beauty becomes reordered and reintegrated.
This pagan ideal of eros as a great good, is preserved in the English literary tradition as well. A particular example I might point to is a fantastic country-home poem “To Penshurst” by Ben Johnson, a pastoral in the style of Horace which contains such lines as:
But all come in, the farmer and the clown,
And no one empty-handed, to salute
Thy lord and lady, though they have no suit.
Some bring a capon, some a rural cake,
Some nuts, some apples; some that think they make.
The better cheeses bring them, or else send.
By their ripe daughters, whom they would commend.
This way to husbands, and whose baskets bear.
An emblem of themselves in plum or pear.
These, Penshurst, are thy praise, and yet not all.
Thy lady’s noble, fruitful, chaste withal.
His children thy great lord may call his own,
A fortune in this age but rarely known.
They are, and have been, taught religion;
thence Their gentler spirits have sucked innocence.
Each morn and even they are taught to pray,
With the whole household, and may, every day,
Read in their virtuous parents’ noble parts,
The mysteries of manners, arms, and arts.
I encourage readers to glance through the poem in its entirety, but I highlighted its major motif in these excerpts: i.e. that human fertility, closely tied with the fertility of the land, coupled with innocence and virtue are “a fortune in this age rarely known.” If it were a fortune in Johnson’s day, how much more in our own?
Walking Away from a Fortune
Indeed, that is what we are leaving on the table: a fortune. Human fertility is a bountiful gift which God has seen fit to give to us, and we are leaving it on the shelves. The gift which Mary knew, the gift which Ovid’s Venus and the serfs and lords of Johnson’s Penshurst well-apprehended has been placed away on the clearance shelf “this holiday season.”
But there is a maxim, or perhaps more of a tautology, that we of a more traditional bent would be wise to keep in mind: the future belongs to those who show up for it. Or more bluntly, the future belongs to those who exist.
This essay was originally published at the Hidebound Press, which is the publishing arm of the Hidebound Convivium YouTube channel, and has been republished with the permission of the site's owner.
Photo Credit- americanart.si.edu: the post's artwork is of German artist Fritz von Udhe's The Walk to Bethlehem. It portrays Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem for the birth of Christ, and it seemed a fitting pic as Advent is winding dowm. It shows the holy family wandering through a desolate and empty land, much like the Church and its teachings are in the world, but not of the world of a demographic winter.