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    PloughCast 33: The Case for More Babies

    Hope in Apocalypse, Part 3

    By Peter Mommsen, Susannah Black Roberts and Lyman Stone

    July 12, 2022

    Peter and Susannah talk with Lyman Stone about falling birthrates.

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    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah talk with demographer Lyman Stone about falling birthrates and what humans need to thrive enough to have children.

    They discuss Thomas Malthus and the origin of the European demographic transition, as well as the origin of overpopulation fears, and about how those fears misunderstand the nature of human ingenuity.

    They cover the essential racism of so much “overpopulation” discourse, which even now is focused on “the wrong kind of people” having too many children. They discuss the issue of hard limits- surely there must be some point past which human population can’t grow, some actual environmental catastrophe? What then are we aiming for? How long should we plan for? Then they talk about whether the need for limits and the need for ambitious vision in human endeavor are in conflict with each other.

    Then they discuss what it takes, spiritually and culturally, for a society, for individuals, to believe that the world they are in, the family they are in, is one worth preserving.

    • I: Lyman Stone: Thomas Malthus
    • II: Lyman Stone: Abrahamic Religions and Fertility
    • III: Lyman Stone: Scarcity
    • IV: Lyman Stone: What it Takes to Turn Birthrates Around

    Recommended Reading


    Section 1: Lyman Stone: Thomas Malthus

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to The PloughCast. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief at Plough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. Today, we’ll be talking with Lyman Stone.

    Peter Mommsen: Lyman is a demographer and an author who’s written a piece for the current issue of the magazine titled The New Malthusians. We decided that our conversation with him deserved a full episode of its own. It’s full of all kinds of things that many people disagree on, but that matter a lot to the future of the world. So, welcome Lyman.

    Lyman Stone: My pleasure to be with you.

    Peter Mommsen: You have a piece in Plough’s new issue, Hope in Apocalypse, called The New Malthusians. Before we get into that, could you tell us a little bit about your work in demographics generally? Many of us follow you on Twitter, and know you for your insightful and sometimes surprising threads on a wide variety of topics. So, what are all the things that get you interested, and make you dig into data on things? It’s been everything from the pandemic to fertility rates, which we’ve read about, to a bunch of other things.

    Lyman Stone: Yeah. So yeah, I’m a demographer by trade. My real business is actually forecasting births for companies that produce products for mothers, and children, and infants. So as part of that, I’m always trying to keep abreast of what’s happening with family formation, and birth rates, and all these things. Which has me just reading broadly and deeply in these areas, while also trying to keep up with very recent developments. And as a result, I end up tweeting a lot of things obliquely related to demography. And that means that I end up spending a lot of time thinking about what really matters for understanding fertility. What really matters for understanding family formation? What is actually going to give us useful information about what’s going to happen with these things in the future?

    And so, that being the case, that provides me opportunities to reflect on a range of topics related to family and fertility. Including, for example, the relationship between climate change and population, that triggered this article, or was the topic of this article. So yeah, there are few topics that don’t touch on family formation. So it is kind of an entree into a whole range of topics.

    Peter Mommsen: A theory of everything. So let’s dive into the piece. It’s called The New Malthusians, and many people may be remembering Malthusianism, hearing about it somewhere, and Thomas Malthus. You also talk about a fellow homegrown American, a Massachusetts atheist, called Charles Knowlton, lesser known. Could you start off by introducing us to those two characters, and how you use them to set up the discussion about population trends today in the face of climate change?

    Lyman Stone: Yeah. So you’ve got these two guys in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries, Knowlton and Malthus. Malthus is an Anglican priest, who also does some political economy writing. Eventually, he becomes very well known for that. And one of his things he wrote about, hardly his only contribution, is population. He basically argues that population increases exponentially, while the means of feeding the population only increases linearly. So eventually, all human populations must ultimately grind down to an iron law of subsistence. That’s actually a term from David Ricardo, but there’s a connection between the two: This idea that basically the market, the economy, the fundamental forces of production, must press average wellbeing down to subsistence level. And so in the long run, we’re all going to be miserable. Malthus says, because of population.

    Now, other economists at the time agreed that in the long run we’re all miserable, but they disagreed about exactly why. They said, “Oh, it’s land rents,” or it’s this or that. But Malthus has said it was population. This argument is sufficiently intuitive. And it deals with forces that lay people can understand easily enough, in a non-technical way, that it really caught on. It really became something that people could grasp easily. And so it never really went away.

    Malthus’ book went through numerous additions, it was enormously popular. It was called An Essay on the Principle of Population. And he gets credit, as you know, as one of the important early economists, an important early demographer. And so, demography really gets its start in this kind of concern about, Are there too many people?

    Now on the other side of the Atlantic, we have Knowlton, who is a doctor. He is a country doctor, and he’s a free thinker. In the style of Thomas Paine. He’s part of this generation in Massachusetts that’s extremely secularized. Church attendance, at this point in Massachusetts, is lower than it is today. This is one the most secular periods and places in American history.

    And Knowlton is looking at his patients, and seeing they have lots of problems. And so basically, he writes a manual on how to deal with common problems that people in the country might deal with, if you don’t have a doctor around. He wrote his book, Fruits of Philosophy. It’s basically just, here’s remedies for common problems. And part of it covered birth limitation, and he had some advice on how to avoid having children. The advice wasn’t very scientifically sound. If you followed his advice, you were probably still going to have kids, just like if you didn’t follow his advice. But the book was banned, because it was obscene.

    So you’ve got these two strands in Massachusetts. There’s secularization leading to a change in attitudes and ideas, leading to the origination of this idea of conscious birth limitation. By the way, this happened at the same time, for the same reasons, secularization leading to the foment of new ideas, leading rapidly to the idea of birth limitation –– this happened at the same time in France. But there are separate strands here, basically just because of the linguistic barrier.

    Although, when Knowlton’s book started to circulate, people started referring to it as the French remedy, because it was known that French people did this stuff too. So, the middle of the 19th century, England has been industrialized for a while. Malthus is dead. Knowlton is dead. England is industrial, it’s wealthy, but they still are having four or five kids each, they don’t have a fertility transition. But, there’s a group of secularists, named Bradlaugh and Besant, who are the plaintiffs here, and they publish Knowlton’s book. Right? Because it’s the only birth control manual they can find.

    They get knocked down for censorship. It’s a case. It becomes a celebrity case, it’s covered in the news everywhere. Well actually, not quite everywhere, many places. And wherever it is covered, fertility immediately begins to fall.

    This is true at the level of counties within England: some newspapers covered the trial, some didn’t. So we have good random variation. This is true of Anglophone Canadians versus Francophone Canadians, Anglophone South Africans versus Dutch South Africans. It’s true of recent English immigrants into the US versus longtime American residents. Wherever people were exposed to news of this trial, their birth rates started to fall. Again, not because they actually had effective contraception, but because coverage of the trial introduced this idea that it’s OK to limit your child bearing.

    After this trial, it all shakes out. These two people, Bradlaugh and Besant, founded a new organization, which they call the Malthusian League. And that is the origin of the term as we know it now. Malthus himself would’ve hated the idea that his name was promoting birth control, because in his book he says, “One of the terrible things that will happen if we don’t control the situation is, people will start sinning by using birth control.” This is one of his adverse outcomes. And so then the Malthusian League comes along. It’s like Yeah, birth control!

    They also are sponsoring the first abortion clinic. The first permanent abortion clinic in the Western world is, I believe Stopes is the name, but it’s the Malthusian League sponsoring it. So this is the origin of a lot of this population control idea. It’s based in a deep pessimism about the ability of human ingenuity to provide for human needs.

    Peter Mommsen: What’s so fascinating about the story that you tell here is that it’s simply this idea. It’s not even any technology. There’s an argument out there, which will be particularly familiar to people who are steeped in Catholic social teaching, that it’s the advent of birth control technologies that drive down birth rates. But here, you have an example of simply the idea that we should drive down birth rates somehow, I guess, by whatever mechanism of decision making by married people, results in them having less kids – and presumably, desiring less kids? Do we know how that all happened in the past?

    Lyman Stone: Yeah. There’s some evidence of a decline in fertility desires in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, but it’s not very strong. It doesn’t actually look like there’s a huge change in desired family size. It looks like what was happening is that, people used to have more kids than they wanted to have. And the reason they did that is because a lot of them died, and they didn’t know how many would survive. And so, to get your desired surviving family size, you have to have a lot more children.

    And again, this isn’t the only time. France had their fertility transition in the eighteenth century, and it was when these ideas about secularization and birth limitations started to spread. English is not the only example of this. You can go back even further. We know, from archival and historic demographic records, that fertility rates in Mongolia, before the fertility transition, were well below natural. Right? That Mongolian women were only having about 3.5 or 4.0 children, four and a half children maybe, on average, before any kind of modern birth control. Well, why? Well, because in Mongolia, it wasn’t stigmatized to have sex outside of marriage. And that resulted in really high rates of venereal disease, and venereal disease leads to infertility. And so a social norm led to . . . I mean, there’s lots of things that can lead to low fertility.

    We have extensive evidence of low fertility in a lot of Chinese societies from 1000 years ago. And we know that it was because of a practice of a serial polygamy. That you would have, an elite man might have six or seven wives, but he would only actually procreate with one at a time. And so this meant that each woman actually had very low fertility, even if the man had a large number of offspring. So there are a lot of different ideas and norms that can spread through societies that can suppress birth rates throughout history.

    Section 2: Lyman Stone: Abrahamic Religions and Fertility

    Peter Mommsen: And since we’re talking about it, could you unravel a little, the link between secularization and these dropping birth rates, or the desire for dropping birth rates? How is that intuitive?

    Lyman Stone: Yeah. So pretty much everybody knows that in general, more religious people have more children. This is true for every Abrahamic faith. There’s debate about if this is true in Buddhism and Hinduism. There’s some evidence that within Buddhism, more devout individuals may not have more children. But in general, particularly in the Abrahamic faiths, more religious means more babies.

    So why is this? Well, sometimes it’s specific beliefs. Right? Some religions have specific beliefs telling you, you should have children. Catholicism is a great example of that. Although actually, in the immediate post reformation period, Protestants tended to larger families than Catholics. It’s not really until the 1700s that Catholic . . .

    Peter Mommsen: That Luther procreating and setting a good example, or?

    Lyman Stone: Basically yeah, there aren’t nuns. Right? Now over time, dynamics change, Protestantism associates with this kind of mercantile elite, where new norms are spreading. But generally, why does religion tend to have this effect? Sometimes it’s specific beliefs about family size or children, but often, it’s not that. Sometimes we see that just religious people in general just seem to have more children, aside from specific beliefs. So what could it be?

    Well, one argument is that, it’s about a sense of community. Having children is costly. In every society, through every epoch of human history, having children is costly. Takes effort. It’s personally risky, for the mother in particular. It is difficult to raise a child. It’s very costly. So why would you do it? And the answer is, one answer is, well, you don’t want to do it, but you want to have sex. And so you do it accidentally, but this is a nonsense answer.

    People have known throughout history, plenty of ways to achieve sexual satisfaction without resulting in children. This is kind of a ridiculous answer. So why have children, if not just a byproduct of satisfaction?

    And the answer is, because you think that your personal identity, your personal status, your personal standing, your personal whatever, sense of wellbeing, is wrapped up in a community that will outlive you. That is, that you think you have a stake in future generations and in past generations. So if you strongly identify with some community that’s multi-generational, could be through religion, or it could be something else, it could be ethnic, then you’re very likely to have high fertility.

    There’s actually a good example of this, that which is not religious. And that is Roma communities. Throughout Europe, Eastern Europe, especially, Roma tend to have very high fertility, even controlling for education level, and in any other socioeconomic data. This Roma, for listeners who don’t know, is the ethnic group that historically would’ve been referred to as Gypsies, although that term is seen as a pejorative now. And they have very large families. Why? Well, because Roma cultivate a very strong sense of identity within the community. Many Roma people feel that the growth, and survival, and perpetuation of that community, is very important to them.

    Within Israel, more religious Jews have more children. But even secular Jews in Israel have far more children than most people in other rich countries, and even than Jews in other countries. Why? Because Jews in Israel strongly identify with the community of Israel, and believe that it’s under threat, and it needs to be perpetuated.

    Section 3: Lyman Stone: Scarcity

    Peter Mommsen: Let’s get back to Thomas Malthus, who’s presumably a pious benevolent Anglican clergyman. We can only assume somewhat.

    Lyman Stone: He was kind of pious.

    Peter Mommsen: Except when it came to the corn laws. So his ideas, even in his own day, had some pretty real world effects.

    Lyman Stone: They did. So if you believe that eventually we’re all going to starve anyway, you can’t really change this. Right? Population’s going to grow. We’re going to run out of food. This is just how it’s going to be. Then efforts to alleviate famine are almost inhumane. Right? Because if you alleviate famine, now there’ll just be more people to suffer in the future. Right?

    Malthus’ idea is, basically, you got to clear the ground occasionally. And it’s worth noting that this idea and related ideas, were pretty common among British colonial elites. And they show up explicitly in documents, for example, related to the management of the British Raj in India. That is that, we know, for an archival fact, that a lot of British colonial elites in India actively believed this argument. And so, this is why there would be famines in India, while the British were exporting wheat or rice. Right? And it’s because they just thought this is good for the Indians. We need to starve out a few of them to keep things down.

    India had tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people, die of famine during British rule. There’s not been a famine in India since independence. Why? Because it was never about a food shortage. It was about a set of beliefs and attitudes. And it was this idea that, well, we’re going to run out of resources. It’s this Malthusian idea that population’s going to increase too much anyway, so we’ve got to control population. And if they won’t cut off having so many babies, then we’re going to have to deal with it on the other side. The positive check, it’s called.

    Peter Mommsen: Now, of course these ideas have not, despite the horrors that they’ve wrought in countries like India, they’ve not been banished from the polite public sphere. Population worries are every bit as popular now as they’ve ever been. I recall being taken on my school trip to the UN, back in the late 80s or so, and getting a long lecture from some UN bureaucrat about, We’re all going to die of starvation by the time that you’re in your upper years. The Population Bomb, the book by Paul Ehrlich, I think you mentioned, from 1968, reprises many of Malthus’ ideas. Is that simply a continuation of this whole line of thought?

    Lyman Stone: Yeah, this is the same thing going on. And you can see it in different things, it’s food, or it’s oil, or it’s whatever, pick your thing. It’s coal. There’s always something we’re about to run out of, and we’re all going to die, and it’s never true. It’s based on a conceptual, a fundamental misunderstanding, of how humans work. Right? The simple truth is, when we need something, we go looking for it. There was no Covid vaccine before Covid. There is a Covid vaccine now. In fact, there’s like twenty of them.

    That’s how humanity works. When we’re starving, we go look for food. Now, right now, we are not producing a fraction of the potential amount of food that the world could produce. If we all became vegetarians, and we used the most efficient farming techniques everywhere, feeding 50 or 100 billion people is child’s play. Right? We’re nowhere close to how much food we could produce. We’re not even scratching the surface.

    The amount of energy that’s available on earth from solar, from tidal, from geothermal, the amount that we could capture if we were collecting energy in space, we’re not scratching the surface of the amount of resources that are available to us if we want it. We just have to want it enough.

    So what’s going on with all these Malthusian ideas, these shortage ideas, is that they’re basically just that, the idea of shortage is really intuitive. The human brain is hardwired – we could say, evolutionarily hardwired – to be afraid of shortage. To stockpile. To plan for hard times. To deal with the ever-present threat of running out. That’s really, really intuitive to us. We see that the curving line, and the straight line, and they’re going to intersect, and we just, we know what’s going to happen.

    Peter Mommsen: When Y2K comes along, you could almost notice people just thrilled for a chance to stockpile those beans.

    Lyman Stone: Yeah. Yeah. It’s like this hack in our head. We are the people who survived famine, our ancestors. Right? And so we are adapted for this, which is why diets like intermittent fasting are really effective. Right? Because they optimize on a response that is deeply ingrained in us.

    But ingenuity doesn’t work like that. The space of time in which humans could invent solutions to newly emergent problems is like a couple of hundred years. We have not adapted to this. We have not made a cognitive shift to account for the fact that we do actually live in a different world now.

    And so, this idea that we don’t have to be governed by the shortage and famine mentality, that we can in fact, live under a mentality of freedom, and ingenuity, and innovation, is just, there’s just a mental block there. It’s just not how our brains naturally respond. And so, you really have to crush down your natural impulse there. Right? There’s kind of a grasping old Adam that just wants to pile up rice in the basement.

    And you have to just accept that, first of all, in famine, that won’t work, because someone will take it from you. The best defense in a famine is not a food stockpile, but good friends and allies and bullets. And secondly, that the way to prevent a famine is not stockpiling food, or curbing population, but constant innovation.

    Peter Mommsen: I was just going to say, Susannah, Lyman, and I will have fun mocking your Anglican co-religionist, Thomas Malthus. Is there any defense you want to offer at this point?

    Susannah Black Roberts: I have no defense to make with Thomas Malthus, he can go fly a kite. I do have a question about, so one of the things that I really appreciated about your piece was that, you focused on the fundamental existential or spiritual meaning of having children. That this is something that’s not just something that you might choose to do, it’s something that is a fundamental expression of hope in your own life. A sense that your own life is good. That you’re part of an intergenerational project that’s good. And that human existence is something that’s an adventure that we’re exploring together, that’s worth carrying on.

    And the massive despair that you’re hearing, from some of the people that you talk to, it’s extraordinarily unrealistic in a lot of ways. Like you had mentioned, the kind of death rate of children in pre-modern times is a reason that people tended to have larger families than they really wanted, because they wanted to eventually, have at least a minimum number of children.

    It’s bizarre to think about women today saying, “I can’t bear to bring a child into this world, when there’s such a high probability that they’ll have a terrible life.” When you’re looking at something like in, I think, 1720 or something, 50 percent of kids died before their fifth birthday. We’re better than that. Or if we’re not, then what is it that you’re saying is bad? There’s something about life that people seem to be saying is bad, that does not have to do with being alive. It has to do with experiencing themselves as not having meaning in their life.

    And one of the ways that I like to think about this, one of the little mental hacks that I think it’s fun to do, just to reset your perception of human beings is, imagine that you’re an alien, or in whatever that bar is in Star Wars, where they show up and it’s like a sort of sleazy . . . what’s the bar that I’m . . .

    Lyman Stone: The Mos Eisley cantina.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thank you. The Mos Eisley cantina. I’ve had this conversation several times, I can never remember what it is. Imagine being in the Mos Eisley cantina, and you’re surrounded by all these interesting aliens, but you come across one other human. That human’s going to be the most precious thing that you’ve ever run into. Like, this sense of human beings as fundamentally precious and interesting, and like you. As opposed to a sense of there being fundamentally too many of us and us being too much for the environment, and being essentially bad for the world, I think is something that we need to retune our minds to.

    But there is a question that I have about something that I’ve noticed in your general approach to these things. The club of Rome was the Paul Ehrlich body, that took up this mantle of population control in the ’70s. And there was a counter organization to that, called the Club for Growth, which was very much focused on things like Norman Borlaug’s, Green Revolution. The golden rice that Norman Borlaug developed in, I think the ’70s, did actually go a long way towards preventing the kind of mass starvation that people were expecting. And that’s a technical solution.

    And I wonder about – there’s a kind of thing that it seems to me that humans need. We tend to be a little bit Wendell Berryish at Plough, in a way that I think you’re not. Because I think you think that it’s romantic and fundamentally kind of like cultivating a scarcity mindset.

    But for me, at least introspecting, it seems to me that human beings need to feel as though they’re in a world that has, in some ways, scarce resources, in some way, infinitely abundant resources. God gives us good things in abundance. But in another way, we do need the world to be pushing back on us. And we need that sense of limitation, in order to feel like we’re actually having an effect on the world. A world of infinite abundance, without any effort on our part, or without any ingenuity on our part – maybe that will work in the new Heavens and the new Earth, although I tend to think that they’ll require ingenuity as well. But it certainly doesn’t work here. So I feel like we need scarcity, but we also need not to fall into that scarcity mindset.

    Lyman Stone: I do love my fellow cranky Kentuckian. When I was young, I thought that I would be a poet. And so I mailed him a poem of mine, and he said, “This is almost a poem.” That was his reply. So I went into economics instead.

    But I think we have to distinguish between what is good for a human, and what is good for humans. I think what is good for a human is to live a limited life. To be content with your own small place in the world. To, in some sense, yeah – almost like a scarcity mindset, to look at the things you have, and say this is enough, and not to have unlimited ambition.

    At the same time, I think that what humans need is the opposite of that. That is, we in fact need people of extraordinary ambition. Perhaps we don’t want to be them, but we do need them. And this is the classic problem, frankly, that confronts Berry, and is going to confront any Anabaptist community in the world. It’s the problem of pacifism. Right? That’s clearly an ethically good way of life. And also, it depends on non pacifists protecting it. So, I think yeah, it is this whole like, “Oh, well, we’re just going to keep solving all the problems forever and keep innovating forever.” There is a kind of hubris to this. Right? There’s a kind of, “How excellent is man, how noble his reason!” Like eh, that’s not quite right. You know, man is fallen.

    But, the alternative to that, is the institutionalization of a more, and I say this fondly, of a more parochial mindset. And again, I’m from Kentucky: being parochial is a compliment. Right? The more backwards, the better. But the institutionalization of that idea just leads to mass death. Ideas that are beautiful on the small scale are terrible on the great scale. They actually become monsters. The way you treat your spouse, constantly urging them onto goodness, telling them, speaking the truth to them, all this: If the government treated you that way, if the government treated everyone that way, it would be horrible. Right? Within the confines of small intimate relationships, there are things you can do that you can’t do at scale. Right?

    And so, we need both. Right? We need people to create small lives for themselves, to create human scaled lives for themselves. But that requires a superstructure of vastly greater efficiency, to make it functional and humane. So I think it depends on the level we’re talking about. And I think, yes, we often have a discomfort saying that there’s a distinction between the individual and the collective. But at the end of the day, we are not supposed to murder, but the state exists to bear the sword. I can’t just go and take money from my neighbor, but I should render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, because Caesar does have the right to take money from me. You know? There actually are, biblically speaking, different vocations for different institutions and persons, which create different duties, responsibilities, obligations, and ultimately, moral prerogatives.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m feeling Lutheranism coming at me out of the screen here. It’s like very powerful Lutheranism.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. So we’ll do the Anabaptist-Lutheran thing properly, on course, because that is one way to characterize it. No, I’m going to restrain myself. But I want to get back to the hubris. You mentioned the hubris of thinking that human ingenuity is infinite. Because one could read your essay, Lyman, and say, “Well, what’s the end point?” Right? “I’m a climate change activist. I see global temperatures predictably rising, and rising, and rising. And you tell me that with technology, we’ll be able to blunt this perhaps, for maybe several generations, maybe for thousands of years.” Who knows? But at some point, isn’t Malthus right? Population. Especially if we’re religious or Elon Musk, we will continue to have an exponentially rising population. And at some point, don’t we run out? Is there ever a point at which Malthus becomes right?

    Lyman Stone: Yeah. So eventually, we have the heat death of the universe. Right? So we have to work back from there. First of all, if what you want, if your standard for something being good is that it is indefinitely sustainable, then goodness does not exist. Obviously I believe that there will be the second coming before that, but just speaking, purely secularly. Right? Sustainability’s a ridiculous standard. Right? Because nothing is sustainable. All flesh fades. Everything ends. There will be an end to the universe. It will just get cold and stop.

    So right at the beginning, we have to stipulate that, this isn’t a reasonable standard to begin with. So what we really mean is, we want it to be sustainable on some finite time span. So how long is that time span? How long do we care about making sure that things are still good? Right? And I would be comfortable saying, we want to make it through a reasonable interglacial period. Right? I know that sounds like this is kind of arbitrary, but there are massive climate swings that we don’t control. I would like to make it through an entire interglacial period without another-

    Peter Mommsen: Another 100,000 years or so.

    Lyman Stone: Yeah. I would like to have not rendered earth uninhabitable in that period. So, if we’re talking a 100,000 years, how much do we need to do? Well, rather under the radar, the most recent couple climate change forecasts, have actually been coming down. We’re improving. You know why? Because alternative energy is getting really cheap. Electric cars are being rolled out really fast. All this stuff is happening at a breakneck pace. So first of all, I would just say, just empirically, we’re going to beat this thing. Our great grandchildren are not going to worry about this. That’s the first thing I’d say.

    And secondly is, there will always be some new problem. And this is why I don’t worry too much about a future where there’s no work to be done. There will always be work to be done. There will always be a problem. There will always be something for humans to solve. And where does it end? I don’t know, nuclear war? We’ll always find a way to destroy ourselves. But it’s not going to end with Earth destroying us. You know? If humanity’s going to be destroyed, it will either be the finger of God, or man against himself.

    Peter Mommsen: I don’t disagree with that. What I wanted to move to next is, just the strength of the Malthusian ideas, as they’re still out here. And one thing that’s encapsulated that to me, is an article from the German magazine Spiegel, that I read a couple years ago. I just pulled it up again, because it is everything that Thomas Malthus seemed to be saying 200 years ago.

    Let me just read you the headline. This is from four German journalists, good progressive secular journalists, entitled “Four Billion More: What to Do About Massive Population Growth.” “The populations in the poorest countries on earth are doubling every few decades. That necessarily leads to conflict over scarce resources, such as land, food, and work, and to more migration to Europe” – minor parenthesis – “but there are solutions!” it concludes, and it takes us through Lagos.

    Lyman Stone : Final solutions.

    Peter Mommsen: Oh, there are solutions. We’re toured around Lagos, Ghana, Niger, where people have ten children per woman. A warning from Paris, this hell zone is going to desertify. And there’ll be a massive immigration to France of people from this hell. But in Nigeria, Boko Haram is breeding off of this high child per woman situation.

    But then, we get the end of the article, to Berlin. The subhed is “Empowering Women to Save the World.” And what’s happening in Berlin? There’s some good people here helping women in Africa to have fewer kids. Happy news, there is no clear prescription for countries facing demographic explosion. But if we follow the lead of these good people working in Berlin, there will be comprehensive sex education campaigns and family planning programs. We’ll create prosperity for those kids that are brought into the world. And there’s huge upsides that we can already see happening in secularizing parts of Africa.

    I just continue to find this article just unbelievably, transparently colonialist, I think, is the nicest word you could come up with.

    Lyman Stone: We’ll be solving Africa’s problems.

    Peter Mommsen: How do you account for the acceptability of that type of rhetoric?

    Lyman Stone: Yeah. You’d think that people would learn that, “Here, we’re going to solve Africa’s problem for it, by making sure there are less Africans” – you’d think people would realize what that is. Particularly when we say, “Oh, family planning programs.” OK. So like some of that is handing out birth control. OK. Some of it is facilitating abortions. Which to be clear, is not the prudential check that Malthus talked about. That is the “positive check.” That’s death. So that’s not really improvement.

    The reality is, humans will always be happy to make other people suffer to solve their problems. That’s just humanity. As long as we continue to see population as a problem to be solved, it will naturally lead to us looking for the kinds of solutions that humans look for. Which means, we will look for ways to make other people suffer. And when population policy is implemented to restrict fertility in a country, it’s not random who suffers, either. In China, it’s not elite urban Han people suffering. No, it’s Uighurs.

    In Peru, when they implemented a family planning program funded by the United States in the 1990s, it wasn’t random urban educated people being sterilized. It was Quechuan women being kidnapped and sterilized against their will.

    In the United States, it was within living memory that we were experimenting on Puerto Rican women. It’s not random who suffers from these things.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Fannie Lou Hamer, who I wrote a mini-biography of for Plough, and who is one of Plough’s presiding people I would say, had what was called a Mississippi appendectomy. Which is an involuntary hysterectomy. Which was something that was commonly done to black women just before the Civil Rights era.

    Lyman Stone: It’s not random who this happens to. When I go to, when I talk to my fellow demographers, they’ll say, “Of course we oppose coercive and violent birth control programs. We want to respect everyone’s reproductive rights.” And I say, “OK, show me a country that had one of these programs that didn’t forcibly sterilize anyone.” And they’ll say, “Oh, this country.”, and then I’ll Google it. And in five minutes, I’ll have found a court case of a forcible sterilization. There’s not an example of a country doing this, and not committing crimes against humanity.

    You can even look at Europe. Denmark in the 1950s and ’60s wanted to “help Greenland modernize.” And they successfully reduced fertility from six children per woman to two, in about ten years. And they would go into villages, and they would offer them IUDs. And they’d say, “You can remove this anytime in the future, it’s not permanent.” And they’d offer the IUDs, and they’d pay people to accept them, give them some benefits to accept them. And then they would leave, and they would just never come back to remove them. And they wouldn’t tell the women how to remove them. And then they’d say, “Oh, we’re making a new town for you. You can move into this new town. We’ll have medical services. There’ll be a clinic there all the time to help you, but you got to leave your old town as your traditional way of life. You got to move into these apartment buildings we’ve made for you, where the drains cannot handle fish blubber.” I could go on.

    The Greenland situation is like, it’s insane. The result of it was, they tried to declare independence, and now, Greenland is moving towards independence, and hates the Danes, and all this stuff. But the point is, there’s no example of a country in some really humane and right-consistent way trying to rapidly reduce their fertility.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We can all, I hope, we can easily see that coercive sterilization of other people is bad. It’s not just bad, there’s something deeply evil about it, that goes beyond ordinary evil. But the claim that you make is really, that when we do this to ourselves voluntarily, when we’re deciding, for reasons that seem good to us at the moment, not to have children, there’s something equally ugly there going on, that’s directed almost against ourselves. And that if we see the external directed thing as deeply sinister, we ought to be able to see the internally directed thing is sinister, as well.

    Lyman Stone: Yeah. When we see somebody saying, “Well, I’m not going to have children because having a child is bad for the world.” It’s like, OK, I disagree. I think that’s wrong. I think it’s, there is an evil force at work making you think that. But in some sense, your motive is good. Right? You’re trying to help people by not having a baby. OK. But when someone says, “I don’t want to have children because that child’s life will be so miserable because their life won’t be worth living” – To me, that’s a whole different beast. Which is why in the whole article, I said, this is a new kind of Malthusian. Well, it’s really not a Malthusianism. Right? Because it’s no longer about a shortage, it’s about quality of life.

    And I think – What’s going on there? How can you think this, when life is objectively so much better than in the past? Right? Because it’s objectively better. Right? We’ve had “progress.” So if you’re listening, you can’t see how skeptical my face is when I just said those words. But I think what’s going on is that humans, what we do is, we don’t worry about how bad things were. We worry about how much worse things could get. What I mean is, the worst thing to us is losing potential gains. That is, the potential benefits of a prosperous modern life are so big. You could live such a long, healthy, pleasurable life. Sacrificing that: Wow, that’s a huge sacrifice. Whereas 300 years ago, what are you sacrificing? Your life is nasty, brutish and short.

    I don’t want to simplify it too much. I do think that sometimes we’re too critical. We jump to see the past as this dark place, when there’s more complexity to that. But life expectancy was short. Lots of people did die. There was a lot of pain and suffering, that now we can alleviate that. Now, in some sense, what you give up by having children actually, has really grown. You’re giving up a lot. And so, because having a child involves giving up more, it really makes you think more about all the quality of life stuff around having children. You think about how much you’re giving up, and then someone tells you the world is going to be even worse in the future. You think, well, gosh, they’ll have to give up. The whole chain of continuing life just seems to be a whole lot of giving up.

    And so, I think that’s what’s going on. And I think that, that’s kind of the curse of wealth. Right? This is, we have found the eye of the needle. Right? You have so much that you dare not share it with another person.

    Section 4: Lyman Stone: What It Takes to Turn Birthrates Around

    Peter Mommsen: I’d like to, from this, return to your earlier point, about how religious people have more kids, because of the sense of intergenerational community. Or members of cohesive ethnic groups do. Because I’m trying to think of what are the . . . if there were basically, mental, intellectual changes that drove down birth rates, for instance, at the end of the nineteenth century, even without effective methods of contraception, is there any way of reverse engineering that now?

    You’ve written obviously about pro-natalist policies in different countries, but those don’t really seem to push the number of children born around all that much. Right?

    Lyman Stone: Yeah. Pronatal policy can do a bit, but yeah, it doesn’t create a radical change. It may be worth doing, but it doesn’t radically alter things. When we look at high fertility, high income communities, they have some things in common. And what I mean by high fertility, high income communities, is groups of people that still have a lot of babies, but they are in societies that have long life expectancies, modern amenities, stuff like that.

    What these groups all have in common is intense within group solidarity. We’re talking about Mormons, we’re talking about Hasidic Jews anywhere, Israeli Jews in general. We’re talking about frankly, any conservative Anabaptist sect.

    And actually, I have a paper I’m working on right now, the more socially closed off an Anabaptist sect is, the higher its fertility. Even though all the groups have the same theology around children and contraception and stuff. Except for the very liberal ones, they’re a little different on contraception things. But you’ve got the same theology here, but wildly different birth rates. And it’s basically just a measure of social closure.

    Another example is the country of Georgia. The patriarch of the Georgia Orthodox Church wanted the birth rate to be higher. So he declared he would personally baptize any third or higher child born to a married Georgian Orthodox couple. The birth rate rose from 1.5 to 2.3 in eighteen months, entirely among married parents, overwhelmingly third or higher children. It has remained near replacement or above, for fifteen years now. There were a lot of reasons for this, it is not necessarily duplicable everywhere, but it was related to the role that the Georgian Orthodox Church, and the patriarch himself had, in linking people to a Georgian identity, a sense of community with the nation. It is community solidarity. It is, like I said, feeling a sense of identity with a community that stretches beyond your own lifespan, that motivates the costly choice of fertility.

    So how do you create identification with that? Well, one way is, you make sure your children do not accidentally pick up identification with something else. So quite frankly, one of the ways that you make sure fertility rate is high is, you ensure that whatever loyalties and identities your children pick up, are overwhelmingly long term multi-generational communities.

    So no sports. I’m joking, but not really. Sports and TV are probably big problems. And there’s good evidence that, whenever radio or TV towers are set up, fertility tends to fall in the area around them. And it’s not because radio waves are shooting people’s organs. Right? It’s because Netflix and chill tends to lead to Netflix and not so much chill. There are competing identities. So if you want to boost fertility, don’t create competing identities, or don’t allow your children to acquire those identities.

    If you’re a country like South Korea, and your fertility rate is 0.8 per woman, maybe you need to think about what identities you’ve created for people to affiliate with. Maybe the fact that your culture is increasingly built around boy and girl bands where all the individuals are forced to be single and childless as long as they’re famous, is a problem. So yeah, that’s the kind of stuff you have to think about: What are the identities that people are picking up? And are those identities actually, do they actually situate childbearing in a productive and honorable position?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I guess I’m going to have to start looking at my Mets habit through a different lens. Thanks a lot Lyman. This has given us a lot to think of, and this is a conversation I hope we can continue again sometime. This is really great. People, you should read Lyman’s article, and follow him on Twitter. You’ll learn a lot, as I continue to do. Thanks so much for taking time for this, Lyman. We really appreciate it.

    Lyman Stone: My pleasure. You all have a nice day.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for a lot more content like this, check out, for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe. $32 a year will get you the print magazine. Or for $99 a year, you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: Join us next week as we talk with Kim Comer about the Bruderhof community in Austria, a Catholic-Anabaptist reconciliation movement, and reconciliation in general, and Anika Prather about classics, classical education, and race in America.

    Contributed By PeterMommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By SusannahBlack Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black is a senior editor of Plough.

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    Contributed By LymanStone Lyman Stone

    Lyman Stone is a researcher focused on family, childbearing, and how social and economic changes impact population. He is the Director of Research of the consulting firm Demographic Intelligence, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a senior fellow at Cardus.

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