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A Fertility Reckoning
Those who consume too much alcohol or other recreational drugs often make excuses. Like “I’m no worse than many others”, “I still manage to get to work most days”, or “Let’s wait til my problem gets worse, like I can no longer walk”, or “They’ll soon make a version without bad side effects”. Such folks can benefit from associates pushing them to a reckoning, by making it clear that their life seems at risk. While the values that drive their drug habits may be authentic and honestly fulfilling, such values are nonetheless in conflict with something else they also value deeply, namely staying alive.
Our dominant world culture today seems in need of a similar reckoning regarding fertility. For 250 years we’ve seen a consistent worldwide pattern of falling fertility, on track to soon fall below and then long stay below replacement level. (Innovation will then halt.) Its main causes are tied to deeply held modern values that have been pushing us in this direction for most of this time across most of the world. These include valuing birth control, city life, schooling, intensive parenting, “finding ourselves” before marriage, preferring careers and friends to family, and also disliking religion, arranged marriages and traditional gender roles.
Though these values seem authentic and honestly fulfilling, we must face the hard fact that they seem to be in substantial conflict with their persistence over centuries. It’s not so much that humanity might go extinct, though that is a real concern, but that the most likely identifiable scenario by which fertility will rise again is via the growth of currently-small insular high-fertility subgroups like the Amish and Orthodox Jews. Similar to how Christians came to dominate the Roman Empire. These groups reject many of the dominant world culture’s cherished values, including innovation and open debate.
Yes many offer excuses. Like “We might make high-energy high-fertility long lives soon”, “We might develop human level AI or ems soon”, “As population is still rising, it is too early to worry”, “Let’s try smaller incentives for longer”, or “The future is impossible to predict, so why worry?”. But these seem no more persuasive to me than typical drug addict excuses. People have worried about this issue for quite a long time, and ships of culture can’t turn on a dime. The longer that civilization has gotten used to an era of declining population, the harder it will be to motivate big efforts to break out of that mode.
The key issue in such a reckoning is this: which of our usual cherished values that hinder fertility shall we consider compromising or at least substantially moderating in order to ensure the continuation of something like our dominant world culture? It seems to me that an attractive robust approach is to have governments pay lots for kids (at no cost or risk to them!) and then let those who respond to these incentives tell us which compromises seem most attractive. But alas we seem to need pretty big value changes, and thus a pretty big reckoning, for voters to even be willing to consider such large payments.
So, let the reckoning begin.