In 1824, a young American doctor, freethinker, and atheist named Charles Knowlton was imprisoned for digging up bodies and dissecting them for medical research. This experience served to encourage rather than deter him in his efforts. By 1832, he had published a book called Fruits of Philosophy, which acted as a reference guide for his patients in rural Massachusetts, with suggested treatments for ailments ranging from infertility to impotence to unwanted pregnancy. Modern scientific understandings suggest that its recommended contraception methods were unlikely to have been effective, but the key point is that they gave people clear guidance saying that they could control their own fertility. The book was declared obscene, and Knowlton did another stint in jail for the crime of distributing it. But from 1800 to 1850, birth rates in Massachusetts fell from about 5.4 children per woman to about 3.3.
Across the Atlantic, other movements were brewing. The Anglican cleric and noted economist Thomas Malthus had published the first edition of his An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. It received excellent reviews, but in those pre-internet days, it took some time for its ideas to spread. It was ultimately the greatly expanded sixth edition, published in 1826, which presented Malthus’s full argument that population growth would inevitably exhaust the physical resources of the planet, leading to misery, vice, and economic depression. This edition would be read and cited enthusiastically for generations to come, influencing the thinking of Charles Darwin and other early biologists.
But when Malthus spoke of “vice” as one of the possible forces restraining human population growth, he had a quite particular view of what he meant. Certainly he thought of war and murder as population limiters, but these he more generally categorized as “misery.” The specific vice Malthus had in mind as population-limiter was sexual licentiousness. That is to say, his worry was not only that humans would starve to death, but that, if we succeeded in avoiding starvation, it would be through vice (that is, birth control, abortion, and the spread of venereal disease) rather than virtue (abstinence). Specifically, he says: “Promiscuous intercourse, unnatural passions, violations of the marriage bed, and improper arts to conceal the consequences of irregular connexions, clearly come under the head of vice.”
Thus, for Malthus, one of his great worries was that overpopulation would lead people to use contraception and have lots of non-procreative sex. Far from being co-conspirators, Malthus and Knowlton could hardly have been more opposed to one another, philosophically speaking. Yet from these two quite different strands – a body-snatching Massachusetts atheist and enthusiast for birth control alongside a British economist and Anglican priest worried about excessive sexual indecency – was birthed a movement. That movement, curiously enough, has taken the name of the man who would have been most uncomfortable with it: Malthusianism.
Malthusianism took some time to coalesce into a meaningful ideology. Certainly Malthus’s economic ideas informed the terrible British response to the Great Hunger in Ireland, worsening the famine there (Malthus favored the restrictive “Corn Laws” which intensified the starvation conditions). Beyond that, his writings were influential in establishing the regular British census system from 1801 onwards, for the express purpose of tracking population growth. But a systematic ideology of concern for overpopulation was unimaginable in early-nineteenth-century England, where there were few practical means of preventing population growth.
No country in Europe had any sustained decline in fertility between 1800 and 1870 except for France, where the cultural changes initiated by the French Revolution led to lower birth rates. But by the 1870s, Malthusianism’s time had come. Malthus and Knowlton were both long dead, but their ideas, and especially their books, lived on. The spread of ideas about natural selection and evolution had changed public attitudes toward the question of population; it was becoming acceptable to talk, quite in the abstract of course, about who should have babies and who shouldn’t. By the 1850s and 1860s, England had a robust, secular civil society, challenging the preeminence of organized religion.
In 1876, two British secularists, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, republished Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy for a British audience. They were immediately slapped down with censorship and anti-obscenity laws. As the courtroom drama dragged on, it was covered widely in the popular press, attracting enormous readership and public attention throughout the British Empire. And wherever newspapers covered the court case, sales of Fruits of Philosophy skyrocketed, and fertility rates plummeted. Despite offering little direct scientific information about birth control, somehow the Bradlaugh-Besant trial succeeded in reducing fertility.
Recent academic research has confirmed that this association is more than coincidental: exposure to media coverage of the Bradlaugh-Besant trial probably did lower fertility. English districts where newspapers covered the case more heavily saw faster fertility declines after 1877. Anglophone settlers in Canada and South Africa saw simultaneous fertility declines not shared by their Francophone or Dutch-speaking neighbors. Recent British immigrants to America saw sharp fertility declines too, as did Australia. Wherever the Bradlaugh-Besant trial made news, fertility fell.
The driving force of this decline wasn’t the direct influence of Knowlton’s book or the content of the trial. It was about the cultural signal: it’s OK to avoid getting pregnant! It’s OK to try to avoid conception! Practically overnight, the old orthodoxy had been overthrown, and everybody was talking about this new thing: birth limitation. (Presumably people relied on behaviors that, while not foolproof, can often help avoid conception.) Meanwhile, Bradlaugh and Besant launched a new social-interest group to carry on the work they began by publishing Fruits of Philosophy. They gave their group a fateful name: the Malthusian League.
From 1877 to 1930, fertility rates plummeted across Europe and in European-settled places like Australia and the United States. From about seven children per woman after the War of 1812, fertility rates in America had fallen to just 2.2 children per woman by the 1930s. In the longer-settled parts of the United States like Massachusetts, fertility rates fell below the replacement rate of around 2.1 children per woman.
This decline was mostly driven by improvements in education, a shift away from agriculture, increased urbanization, and reductions in child mortality. Malthusian ideology cannot have caused it all. But the exact timing of the decline was, in many places, set off by specific cultural forces, including Malthusian fearmongering over population. And by the 1920s, the Malthusian League had partnered with Marie Stopes to open a permanent family planning clinic in London – the first such clinic in the world.
But then a strange thing happened. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, fertility rates rose around the world. Researchers continue to debate what caused the Baby Boom, but the most likely explanation is a mixture of economic recovery from the Great Depression alongside wartime deployments and dislocations. Throughout the developed world, in countries that had previously been at or near “Malthusian” fertility rates, births spiked. Meanwhile, death rates in developing countries were beginning to decline, and the population of the Global South began to rise. While colonial governments made inhumane efforts to contain local populations, they ultimately failed. Newly independent states adopted a range of policies, some pronatal, some not, but by the 1970s, most of the world’s developing countries had adopted explicitly antinatal stances. Indeed, globally, a consensus seemed to have formed: there were too many humans. It was going to cause a disaster. Human population was a ticking time bomb. Malthus’s predictions may have been wrong in the nineteenth century, but they were due to come true in the twentieth.
The most famous of these dire forecasts was Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, published in 1968. Building on the old Malthusian tropes, the book suggested that ongoing population growth would cause widespread famine within a few decades. Instead, thanks to scientific and agricultural innovation, famine has been in decline for decades, even as the global population has more than doubled.
But while such forecasts have proved wrong from one century to the next, the idea persists that individual human lives should not be created because the earth cannot bear them. Today, fears about climate change and the role overpopulation may play in driving future ecological catastrophe motivates some people to avoid having kids. A recent survey conducted by the New York Times found that a third of fertility-age women say climate-change fears are among the reasons why they have not had children yet. Meanwhile, groups like Birthstrike encourage women to take what might be called the “Lysistrata option”: boycott having a child until climate policy improves.
These movements are, by and large, just a modern incarnation of the same old Malthusianism. They are not a new cultural force, and there is no reason to be concerned that they represent any new pessimism about human life.
A global consensus seemed to have formed: there were too many humans. It was going to cause a disaster. Human population was a ticking time bomb.
But there is a newer, and more concerning, kind of Malthusianism as well. For example, in a 2019 livestream to her followers, Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez asked rhetorically whether it would be responsible for people to have children, given how climate change would alter those children’s lives. This argument may sound similar to conventional Malthusianism, but it’s actually radically different: it does not argue that overpopulation is bad for society, but that the future world will be so bad that the life of a child born today may not be worth living. Western society has typically had strong taboos against suicide, and tends to value optimism and hopefulness, and thus this kind of nihilism has tended to be culturally rare. But it is becoming more common. For example, antinatalist philosopher David Benatar has been profiled in the New Yorker and has given his take – the “case for not being born” – in many other publications as well.
These arguments are reaching the public. In five surveys I conducted of American women ages eighteen to forty-four totaling over eight thousand respondents, I find that about one in twenty agree that “it would be better for most people if they had never been born.” Whenever I write about fertility, someone inevitably responds on Twitter with some variation of, “But do you realize how bad the world is? Who would want to be born into this?” The source of the badness varies. Sometimes it is climate change. Sometimes it is Republicans. Sometimes it’s immigrants and sometimes it’s socialists. People of all stripes have their reasons for why it would be better never to be born, but the striking thing is how free more and more Americans seem to feel to express that life is fundamentally bad, that on the grand scale of being, nonexistence is better than existence. This is a very real cultural change; it shows movement toward our becoming a society of despair.
Responding adequately to antinatalist despair can be challenging. Conservatives tried to silence the Malthusians and in so doing only gave them even more publicity. But while the effect of the old Malthusianism was to enable people to bring down their fertility to more nearly approximate the desire most people have for two or three children, the new Malthusianism is at odds with widely shared family goals.
A wide variety of surveys, with many different question structures, has repeatedly shown that in the United States, and indeed in virtually the entire rest of the developed world, most women want two or three children – about one more than they are actually having, on average. Antinatalist scolds are pushing an ideology and a lifestyle that not very many actually want. But the upshot is that they drain societal support for pronatalist solutions that would encourage people to attain their desired family size. It takes only a few very loud and active objectors to poison the well against the kinds of policy change that could make family life more attainable for more people.
The striking thing is how free Americans seem to feel in expressing that life is fundamentally bad, that on the grand scale of being, nonexistence is better than existence.
More to the point, the basic premise of the new Malthusianism is just as wrong as the old one’s. A child born today has no reason to expect a life of apocalyptic dystopia. While forecasts vary, the most pessimistic scenarios I could find, such as a 2021 report by the Swiss Re Institute, suggest an economic contraction of about 20 percent. That could be a significant loss to quality of life, but would only leave humanity as poor as in the late 1990s. More centrist models suggest economic growth may continue throughout the twenty-first century, even with significant warming. There will be problems, but life will go on, provided we want it to.
And yet something is missing from this rebuttal to the new Malthusians. Arguments about fertility preferences and GDP are dry and technocratic; to get to the heart of what is wrong, not simply erroneous, in the antinatalist view, we have to look deeper. We must ask a more serious question.
If a child born into a world with 20 percent lower income will lead a life that is not worth living, what must be said of the poor alive today, or at any point in history? Should those people not have been born? Are their lives of inferior value? A small but significant share of people answer these questions by saying: yes, the lives of the poor are not worth living. This brings us back around to the bad old Malthusianism, the population-control movement with its racist and eugenic applications. The only life not worth living is the life of this idea, which continues to resurface throughout history and deserves to be put down once and for all.
Indeed, while hardships are always greatest for the poorest, population control, as ever, lays its hand most heavily on the weak: it is Uighurs in China facing genocide today, not the Han. In Peru, Quechua-speakers were subjected to forced sterilizations, not the urban elite. In the United States, Puerto Ricans have been targeted for antinatal intervention within recent memory. Around the world, poorer women report desiring the most children, and thus any effort at population control inevitably involves making the most dramatic, and coercive, interventions in the lives of those with the smallest political voice. The problem of poverty is not that the poor are too multitudinous, but that the multitudes are kept poor, not least by systems of political inequality. The idea that birth limitation will alleviate the lives of the poor is yet another bootstrap myth: a Yemeni woman who has one child fewer still lives in a country torn apart by war, without access to education, and without enough food. The world facing her may be fearsome, but its greatest problems have little to do with the headcount.
Yes, humanity is broken, suffering, and destructive – yet it is worth carrying on. Humanity is indeed flawed; it never quite gets things right; it creates new problems for itself all the time – yet it is worth preserving. We can do this with any number of policy changes. But the main way we ensure that humanity endures is by having children. We can determine to pass on the light of life as it was passed to us. We can respond with a clear confession in deeds as well as words: human life is worth it.
This is not to say that everyone must have some given number of children, or any at all. There are any number of medical or situational reasons why people may forgo childbearing. My point is simply that the argument made by today’s new Malthusians, that life is at the point of becoming unbearable, is factually and morally wrong, even as it becomes increasingly prevalent.
Often it is couched in climate terms. But often it is explained in others: the culture has become too hostile, politics too intractable, or the economy too unfavorable to families. The arguments vary, but ultimately, the response is the same. It is the response of Qoheleth to all those who despair: there is nothing new under the sun; enjoy your spouse, your children, and the world as it is. Yes, it is fleeting: all things given us are so.
There have been hostile cultures before. The Hebrews in Egypt defied their oppressors, and by fertility became too numerous to control. There have been intractable politics before, and yet the Jews in the Babylonian Captivity built homes, got married, and started families in an expression of faith that God would keep his promises. There have been bad economies before, and yet through the Dark Ages, the lights of Christendom did not go out, and in innumerable peasants’ homes and country churches of Europe, the catechesis of life conquering death continued. Their example is the counter to despair.
There have been bad economies before, and yet through the Dark Ages, the lights of Christendom did not go out, and in peasants’ homes and country churches, the catechesis of life conquering death continued.
Perhaps the definitive modern Christian writing on despair, and thus on a Christian’s reasons for hopefulness, is Søren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death (1849), a book-length meditation on that occasion where, confronted with the serious disease of his friend Lazarus, Jesus said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” Kierkegaard’s preface suggests that Christian teaching “must bear some resemblance to the address which a physician makes beside the sick-bed.” He goes on to say that the true sickness of which Jesus was speaking was not Lazarus’ illness, but the despair that afflicts so many human hearts, and, in that instance, the despair of those who had no faith that Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead. This hopelessness, says Kierkegaard, is truly the sickness unto death: to abandon the hope of life, because you believe that things simply cannot get better. Faith, the antidote, asserts – sometimes with reason but sometimes without – that it can be done: life can be lived.
The difficulties that face a child born in 2022 will not be trivial. In addition to climate change, shifting geopolitics, technological change, and demographic shifts, to name just a few, there will be difficulties we cannot foresee or imagine. Children born today are certain to drink from a cup of suffering in some way, as have all others before them. But against these challenges, there is the hope of life itself.