The scarcest resource of all is optimism – but it’s abundant in Africa

The world is facing population collapse in the not-so-far future! This extraordinary claim is beginning to be more and more credible. Twenty or so years ago it was unfathomable. The “population bomb” was ticking, we were told. We are now sobering up. Population growth rates are falling much faster than anyone expected.

The Global North is a lost cause; fertility rates are at their historic lows. There are few signs to show that the tide can be turned. China, Russia, Hungary, Japan, and South Korea have implemented initiatives aimed at encouraging increasing birth rates. As far as one can see these have generated few results. This is not surprising. History shows that declining birth rates cannot be turned around quickly; free human beings are involved.

Even in the Global South fertility is slipping. Fertility rates in Latin America and the Caribbean had by 2019 dropped below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. By 2024, it is projected, the world's most populous country, India, will have reached the same ditch. By 2066, China may hold only half of the people it has now. The picture could not be drearier; in about 115 countries – that’s half the world –fertility is below replacement rate.

In Africa and parts of the Middle East, there are glimmers of hope. In Africa, chaotic Niger leads with a fertility rate of 6.74 children per woman, with the continent registering a continental fertility rate of 4.1 (the world’s highest). In the Middle East, Yemen, Iraq and Palestine have higher than world average fertility rates. In Central Asia, Kazakhstan and its neighbours are defying the lot of the fading Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Thailand.

Maintaining above replacement fertility will be a challenge. Even in Africa, the sexual revolution, secularisation, economics, and ideology are dampening fertility. Stephen Jay’s recent documentary claims to have discovered another cause, more subtle perhaps. His research concludes that many people want to have children -- . but they chase other dreams and “forget” to have them. Regret follows.

Regions that show higher birth rates have something in common -- their worldview, their attitude, and their conception of life. In Africa, children are a blessing. Every parent longs to be one day surrounded by many grandchildren. Fatherhood and motherhood are esteemed as the ideals of masculinity and femininity.

It is true that this rich African conception (I do not mean it is solely African) of human life is being eroded. In urban areas, for example, the younger generation, influenced by contemporary Western ideals, is less convinced about the richness of giving life. But not all has been lost. The African tribe system, a source of societal stability, is not dead. It survives, remaining effective in the person of parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents. This is where hope lies; intergenerational education.

The core of this education is the belief that life is intrinsically valuable. It is good to be alive. And therefore to give life and nurture is something noble, fulfilling and desirable.

Western society no longer subscribes to such a vision. The best example of this is (ironically) a South African philosopher, David Benatar. In his influential 2006 book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, he argues that life is so awful that non-existence is better. Over the past 50 years, he has had plenty of company, from Paul Ehrlich in the 1970s to the Extinction Rebellion movement today.

Why has the West lost its zest for life?

The French philosopher Remi Brague may have the answer. In his book The Anchors in the Heavens: The Metaphysical Infrastructure of Human Life (2019), he argues that Western joie de vivre vanished when philosophy abandoned metaphysics.

For the purposes of this article, metaphysics is a complicated word for a simple idea: that behind the appearances of the material world is an invisible meaning. Brague sets out to convince his reader that without good metaphysics, the “mere continuation of our species’ biological existence” is quite impossible.

The Greeks, notably Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, put metaphysics on a sound foundation.  But the glory days of Metaphysics were the Middle Ages. Metaphysics was, rightly, understood as the chief department of philosophy. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim philosophers all had something to say about metaphysics.

In the modern era, beginning after the Reformation, metaphysics went into decline. Descartes (1596-1650) launched a process which drove questions of meaning into the mind. Meaning in the world around us became vague, tenuous and shadowy. By the 19th Century, philosophers could not see past the material world. In the 20th century, Heidegger claimed that metaphysics had to be abandoned.

But how does the decline of metaphysics affect birth rates?

It’s simple. If life has no meaning; sex has no meaning; fertility has no meaning; children have no meaning. Desiring a family is, at best, a vanity project.

There are philosophers who are apostles of this deep pessimism. Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860) famously said “If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence, or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?”.

Does anyone have a right to give life to one who has not consciously chosen to live? If we listen to the pessimists and the nihilists we shall be calling for the extinction of the human race. In fact, Schopenhauer called for exactly that. In light of the current demographic dynamics, we cannot lightly dismiss the prospect of an irreversible failure to reproduce ourselves enough to keep our kind going.

Many people nowadays believe, with Sartre, “Man is a useless passion”.  


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Brague contends that we have to recover meaning in life. Obviously, this is a religious question, but it is also philosophical. To sustain the energy needed to reverse the decline in birth rates, we need to recuperate a metaphysics which finds meaning in the world and in our lives.

This is, Brague, argues, the Christian metaphysics of the Middle Ages. For them, Being (with a capital B) was also Good, True and Beautiful. In other words, Being has an intrinsic richness, it was not mere existence. Being is not neutral; it is Good. Life is not neutral; it is Good.

The story of how we lost metaphysics is fascinating, but long and complicated. Suffice it to say that we are living with the consequences of its loss. It’s hard to find a better example than David Benatar’s book, in which he argues that the pain of a mosquito bite outweighs all possible pleasures.

If we want to bring new life into the world and sustain human existence, we must be optimists. Only optimists will desire to have children.

These are not idle thoughts. Responsible governments around the world are tinkering with policies to nudge couples into having children. But they find that subsidies and tax breaks are failing. Fertility continues to fall. What we need is not subsidies but a reason for optimism. The future belongs to nations whose citizens are optimistic.

And you know where those nations are? In Africa. That’s why I am betting on Africa as the hope of the world.  

Francis Nyatundo is a young Kenyan, a graduate quantity surveyor. After work he moonlights as an intellectual. He enjoys philosophy, theology and classic literature. 
Image credit: Pexels 

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