‘Be fruitful and multiply’ is not religious bumph. It’s how civilizations survive
Demography nerds assiduously follow the data popping up about fast-ageing societies, their loss of dynamism and prospects of population collapse. With each successive generation significantly smaller than the last, we know where we’re headed. While population collapse is an environmentalist’s dream, it is an unfolding nightmare for humanity at large. The world’s economic engine, the Global North, is already shrinking.
That’s not gloom and doom, folks, just the facts.
This puzzles the pundits to no end. The web is alight with nonstop prattle about urbanization, birth control, economics and myriad other material factors. These are but symptoms of a deeper malaise. When a society doesn’t reproduce in the long term, it comes down to social and personal priorities. Those priorities reflect fundamental values that will not change short of a religious revival or spiritual rebirth.
Demography is an incredibly interesting field of study, and I’ve just stumbled across an essay on the subject that blew me away. It is by futurist Adam Van Buskirk, who is not only aware of the demographic conundrum, but also understands how it has come about and where it is going. I highly recommend his most thought-provoking essay, “Industrial Civilization Needs a Biological Future,” that recently appeared in Palladium.
As a futurist, Van Buskirk is enthusiastic about high-tech stuff, and laments that low fertility will eventually impede (and even halt) technological progress. True enough, but that is well down the list of why not having enough children is problematic. I’d gladly give up the gadgets if it meant reviving the family.
Van Buskirk wants to save “industrial civilization.” At this point I’ll settle for saving civilization period, industrial or not.
You can say much in 5100 words and Van Buskirk does not disappoint. His trenchant insights on Modernity are most unusual coming from a techno-geek:
[I]ndustrial modernity as we know it shows an extraordinary propensity to consume those most central to its own functioning. Modernity eats its own children, both native and adopted, both in its original lands and everywhere it spreads…
At the same time that technological evolution seems poised for a quantum leap, the very same system that produced these marvels appears to be burning up its crucial human capital like fuel in a furnace. Industrial society is evolving to a state where its original populations are super-aged, shrinking, and mostly extinct. Those who remain are increasingly only concerned with importing and managing labor from the remaining underdeveloped reservations, in an attempt to keep the lights on a bit longer and assure some degree of comfort.
Later he addresses demography’s $64,000 question:
Why are the most affluent societies that have ever existed on Earth unable to perform the most basic possible task of maintaining their numbers? The explanation is simple and you already know it. Humans seek status and wealth, and current Western or Westernized societies do not confer either one for having children.
This is perhaps the starkest exposition I have seen about globalism-on-steroids and where it is taking us. It’s a biological Ponzi scheme of sorts: When we run out of monetized human beings – something for which no amount of artificial intelligence can compensate – a day of reckoning will be upon us.
Are we in for a Brave New World scenario? If you’ve read Huxley’s novel, remember “Bokanovsky’s Process” and the “Central London Hatching and Conditioning Center.”
While Von Buskirk lays bare the consequences of our nascent brave new world, he also understands something that eludes most gadget-happy techno-nerds, and that is the critical role of religious faith:
Simply practicing any religion, with weekly attendance at services, raises fertility to about replacement level. Women who attend services weekly have a TFR of 2.1, while women who report never attending church have an extremely low TFR of only 1.3.
Among relatively large religious groups, Mormons report the largest family size, at 2.8 children, followed by Muslims at 2.76 children per woman. Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic Christians all fall around 2.1, which is at least replacement-level fertility.
There are also smaller high-fertility religious groups, such as the Amish and Haredi Jews, who average about seven children per family.
Over time people of faith could become numerically dominant. At that point, according to Van Buskirk, “the industrial modernity that drives the demographic decline will itself cease to be dominant.” So we’re headed for a world of robust families without high-tech? If that is the way forward for survival of the species, so be it. Didn’t the Good Book have something to say about “The meek shall inherit the earth?”
He also expresses an interesting view about reproduction:
Human beings have a biological instinct for sex and even for parenting, but seemingly not for reproduction as such. Because sex can and has been de-linked from reproduction, and child substitutes like dogs can provide an outlet for the parenting instinct, within an advanced civilization the question of reproduction is ultimately an ideological one. [Emphasis added]
Now I disagree that there is no “biological instinct” for reproduction. The whole of creation revolves around the reproductive instinct. I remember as a young’un when ruttin’ season began. That’s when the bucks (male deer) go on the rut and mark their turf, scraping the bark off trees with their antlers. That drive to reproduce comes naturally. But in the Modern Era, homo sapiens, brimming with a surfeit of Age of Reason “wisdom,” can tinker with Mother Nature but not master it. That critical distinction is lost on those addicted to the toxic elixir of hubris, mammon worship and technological progress.
And this business of “child substitutes like dogs” befuddles the heck out of me. I’m an inveterate “dogs welcome, people tolerated” type, and prefer canine company to that of any number of people folk. But I’ve never confused my canine affinity with parental instinct. However, there are enough folks who do, so much so that even Pope Francis saw fit to weigh in:
The other day, I was talking about the demographic winter that we have today … many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one — but they have two dogs, two cats.
Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children. Yes, it’s funny, I understand, but it is the reality, and this denial of fatherhood and motherhood diminishes us, takes away humanity.
And there is something else the Pontiff likely knows that Mr. Van Buskirk points out: “[W]ithin an advanced civilization the question of reproduction is ultimately an ideological one.” Sadly, he is correct. Ideology has supplanted belief in the transcendent. This is the fruit of modernity’s master-of-the-universe syndrome. Every religious tradition anywhere includes some variant of the Biblical “Be fruitful and multiply.” Funny how that came about. No, it is not the result of some right-wing conspiracy. It is something larger than ourselves.
Genuinely precipitous population decline has yet to kick in but is coming soon. Per Hemingway, so many things happen “gradually, then suddenly.” Any respectable futurist should understand that.
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