Note to Malthus: Life is Good

I recently returned from three weeks on the road to find a stack of mail on my doorstep. Amongst the bills and magazines, I found a charming invitation to a Sunday brunch being hosted by a family I had known for several years. They had recently welcomed three new babies to the (extended) family, and were holding a brunch to celebrate.

The invitation pictured the three smiling mothers (my best friend from college, along with her sister and sister-in-law), all holding their (ludicrously adorable) infants. The brunch was the very next morning, eight hundred miles away, so I knew I wouldn’t be there. Nevertheless, the invitation was a heartwarming reminder that not everything in the world is broken.

Quite a few things are, though. We recently got news that America’s birth rate has fallen to the lowest it has ever been. That’s been a recurring headline over the past ten years, which is ominous. Fertile women are now having less than half as many babies annually (59.8 births per 1,000 women) as they were in 1957 (122.9 per 1,000 women). How low can we go, Americans?

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Amazingly, some are still worried that we might have too many babies. Quite recently, NPR came out with a story on Travis Rieder, an academic at James Madison University who has made it his mission to talk young people out of having kids. Why? It’s the usual reason. We must save the planet from the scourge of sentient humans! Reduce your carbon footprint by ensuring that your genes die with you!

I have to note that if Professor Rieder were really anxious to reduce his carbon footprint … well, never mind. Even idiot “scholars” are, of course, beloved of God.

This is still the kind of story that makes you want to cry. We hear from women who confess that they’ve always wanted babies, but aren’t sure whether educated people like them can really justify the selfishness of enabling the human race to continue. We see older mothers telling their children, “I hope you never have kids.”

Hopefully many or most will disregard this advice and have babies anyway. Still, it almost every such nutty theory manages to claim at least a few victims. At least a handful of people will probably die alone, instead of spending their elderly years surrounded by smiling grandchildren, all because of the ravings of Travis Rieder, who persuaded them that this was the right thing to do.

One has to wonder sometimes: What, in the minds of people like this, is the point of living? Let’s suppose (though I don’t believe it) that the climate really were in such a bad way that human life would soon be unsustainable. Wouldn’t it still be better to go on marrying, forming families, loving our kids, and embracing life for as long as we possibly could? It’s hard to believe that we may really have reached the point where some people could look at that precious picture of my friends with their babies and think, “Not worth the carbon dioxide they exhale.” What do you care about, if that’s your perspective on human life?

Crackpot theories like Rieder’s could only take root in societies where people are already losing interest in life. When people have already consented to re-envision themselves primarily as consumers (of coffee, mass media, pornography, etc) it will be far easier to persuade them that there is no particular benefit to adding to that number.

Malthusian theories of scarcity have been haunting progressive thinking for decades now, and that’s not hard to understand when we consider the ethos of modern life. When life is centered around loving human relationships, babies seem precious and good and worth significant sacrifice. When life is centered around stuff, babies look like extra competition for the goods. (In fact, it’s far from clear that additional humans really do detract from our prosperity, since a healthy labor force tends to make for a healthy economy. Even the environment might benefit in the long run from energetic, youthful societies that are motivated to explore new conservation strategies, as aging societies tend not to do. Intuitively, though, consumption-oriented people tend to see newcomers as a drain.)

It’s always interesting to me how babies born into large families are welcomed with joy, even by older siblings. Sibling-less children find it difficult to adapt to a new baby, but a family of six is far less conflicted about the addition of a seventh. Meanwhile, Rieder’s disciples agonize over whether they can justify having even one, and I have heard professional couples voice similar sentiments in more plebeian terms as they wonder whether the time is right, whether they can afford the best schools, whether their boss will disapprove and so forth. It throws a new light on Our Lord’s words about haves and have-nots, even though we can also see that involuntary childlessness is a burden that some carry with incredible grace.

It’s possible to go too far with our demographic triumphalism. Religious conservatives have been outbreeding their liberal counterparts for a long time now, and yet, we don’t seem very close to re-establishing Christendom. Even so, I feel thankful to be part of a sub-culture where people send invitations to three-new-baby brunches, instead of dithering over the ravings of Malthusian crackpots. When human beings are viewed primarily as lovers, and beloved creations of God, life tends to go on. When they’re seen primarily as carbon footprints, and consumers of scarce resources, people are surprisingly ready to accept that This Is The End, and even that they should help pull the curtain by sterilizing their own bodies and lives.

Congratulations to all the new parents! For those who are wondering whether it’s worth it, or whether it’s ethical, or whether “this is the right time,” my advice is to turn off your hyper-active brain, and turn on some mood music. Life is good. Those who embrace it rarely find themselves regretting the choice.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Bridges Family” was painted by John Constable in 1804.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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