By Richard B. Gibson.
As many may have seen, the Telegraph recently featured an article on pronatalism. Simply put, pronatalism is the idea that our future – family groups, specific sectors of society, iterations of our global civilisation, or our very species – depends on people having enough children to ensure a growing population. Without sufficiently high birth rates, according to those the article features, our way of life, indeed, humanity itself, is at risk of destabilisation and destruction. So, to prevent this downfall and all its associated harms, the theory goes, we need to start having more offspring.
Such a claim is, to put it mildly, suspect. No civilisation has collapsed solely because of minimal or nonexistent population growth. Not long after the article went online, commentators and academics alike quickly pointed out some of pronatalism’s more dubious premises and troubling connotations. One choice example comes courtesy of geneticist and broadcaster Dr Adam Rutherford:
Rutherford’s reaction is understandable. The idea that our way of life is intimately tied to reproduction rates, meaning doom if not enough people have children, has strong associations with neo-nazi ideologies and the idea of the Great Replacement. The Telegraph article even acknowledges this connection but tries to distance those featured in it with such reprehensible standpoints. Similarly, it tactically sidesteps issues concerning the discrepancy between those typically calling for increased birthrates (men) and those doing the gestational hard work (women).
Instead, the piece portrays a more palatable picture of pronatalism, highlighting the theory’s growing popularity among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs while simultaneously making it seem like a position with which many readers would associate themselves. As Diana Fleischman, a pronatalist psychology professor at the University of New Mexico, is quoted as saying, “I encourage people who are responsible and smart and conscientious to have children, because they’re going to make the future better.” And who does not want the future to be better, right?
The article tries to give pronatalism an appealing sheen, claiming it is “arguably the most traditional view on earth.” However, something sinister, likely tied to the countless ways reproductive freedoms have been historically (and sadly currently) coerced and constrained, underpins the whole idea. While it alludes to theoretical and practical problems, in the end, the piece minimally engages with these, making pronatalism seem like the rational and arguably the only response to the envisioned dangers of reducing populations.
There is, however, a fundamental problem with pronatalism, which the article conveniently overlooks – it is an individualistic solution to a supposed ‘problem’ that requires systemic, global action.
The article dedicates most of its wordage to why having children is a societal, cultural, or existential good and counteracting pronatalism’s troubling associations. However, what it fails to do, in any meaningful way, is to provide an account of why people, who may otherwise want children, are not having them.
The answer to this question is bound to be multifaceted, and I doubt any book, article, or blog post could account for them all. However, the reality of economics and the threat of climate change are almost certainly two of the most influential.
Young people have had to live through successive and ongoing economic crises, which have fundamentally skewed the financial playing field in favour of those already possessing means and money. This phenomenon is not necessarily new; inequality is a material fact of life. However, the levels of disparity are currently astronomically high, with 2750 people possessing over half of the planet’s wealth. With improvements in financial outlooks looking unlikely, it is no surprise that people have fewer and fewer children. If you are struggling to pay for food, rent, and bills, you are unlikely to take on an additional expense, one averaging in total between £160,000 for couples and £200,000 for lone parents. Taking on another mouth to feed feels unwise when you barely have enough money to survive yourself.
Even those lucky few financially stable enough to make children a financial possibility may look at the unfolding environmental disaster and biodiversity collapse and decide it’s simply not a good thing to do. They may ask why anyone would bring a new life into this world only to experience it in its death spiral. Moreover, this is not an unreasonable position to take. With global temperatures continuing to rise, pollinator decimation, and imploding wild fish stocks, raising a child during the globe’s sixth mass extinction seems impractical and immoral (leading us to the philosophy of antinatalism). So it seems understandable that raising a child seems pointless in the face of all that and much more.
These material facts of today’s existence warrant no more than a fleeting mention in the Telegraph article. Yet, they are fundamental to the pronatalism discussion. Rather than concocting a pro-reproductive philosophy looking to tackle some imagined harms of population decline, time would be better spent tackling the issues preventing those who want children from having them in the first place. Do not get me wrong, I believe in the power of philosophy and discussion, but some issues require practical, not philosophical, remedies, and this is one of them.
So how do we solve these problems? If we are sold on the idea that birthrates need to increase to prevent some impending disaster, what is required? The answer to that is collective and systemic action. Individual choices will not address the dangers of climate change or redress the disastrous inequities of our global economic system. They will help, but ultimately, one’s choices pale compared to the backdrops against which those choices play out. As Derrick Jensen notes in his article, Forget Shorter Showers, “Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance.” As a result, we cannot find a way out of the current climate and economic issues via people exercising individual choices; we need collective action.
It is this fundamental fact that pronatalism misses. Saying that people need to start having more children is to place the responsibility of solving the envisioned harms of population decline on the shoulders of individuals. Moreover, alongside that singular framing comes the blame for any harm that may materialise.
Ultimately, proponents of pronatalism say we need more people to save ourselves, but, at least as framed in the article in the Telegraph, this misses the point. What is needed is not so-called ‘elites’ telling us we need to start getting busy but radical action to make having children financially viable and ethically responsible in the environmental context. Without those fundamental adjustments, no amount of cajoling to take on the responsibility of population decline will effectively achieve the outcome pronatalist want.
Author: Richard B. Gibson
Affiliation: University of Texas Medical Branch
Competing interests: None
Social media accounts of post author: @RichardBGibson