In New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's eyes, the recent backlash against sexual harassment in Hollywood and elsewhere could exacerbate falling U.S. fertility rates, or the crisis he calls the “baby bust.” His pro-natal warning bell of a population implosion echoes some hard-to-describe fear, like being in a room when everyone else is slowly leaving—a sense of impending loneliness and loss of connection, or better yet, relations. And that fear fits well into the question he leaves the reader with: What then will follow, and be rebuilt in the ashes?
The beginning of the answer may lie in a different and less speculative crisis that threatens to literally leave us in ashes, the climate change that now both NATO and the Pentagon view as a significant threat. The most effective way for the average person to mitigate that threat, in terms of projected emissions, is by having fewer children. That's to say nothing of the broader benefits of having fewer people competing for scarce resources in the less hospitable environment of the future, especially if we now invested more in each of those people to make them more resilient. But how could the baby bust crisis itself be a beneficial thing?
First, we have to remember that falling fertility rates are part of a larger and longer-term trend begun in the 20th century of better family planning and smaller families, a trend that arguably was the most important driver of social and economic development, to say nothing of environmental protection, the world has ever seen. That trend of reduction is still unfolding, and the right stopping point remains an open question. The answer depends on our aim: Is to build sustainable democracies small enough for each person's voice to actually matter, and made up of people raised in conditions meant to maximize their chance to thrive in a life of social self-rule on a biodiverse planet? Or is it simply the unsustainable maximizing of gross domestic product by throwing as many new bodies into the matrix as possible, irrespective of democracy and personal development?
Second, why do we have to think about fecundity in terms of quantity? The very idea of a baby bust treats infants as economic inputs. Is that how we see them? In smaller families parents can invest more time and resources in each child; that’s an increase in the quality of relations, as opposed to the quantity. If we care about kids, and took a child-centered view of family planning, why wouldn't we want to maximize our investment in each child, economic growth be damned? Why not pursue co-parenting models where many can parent, teach, care for and love, just a few children? Wouldn't that also be more consistent with democracy, or the creation of small and decentralized political units of highly capable people, small enough so that no member's role in decision-making would diluted to meaninglessness? Think of it this way: If one wanted to build the most functional town hall one could, it wouldn't look much like the ideal Black Friday shopping mall. Economic growth and participatory self-rule compete against each other.
What then will be rebuilt, if not the economic empires we are accustomed to? Perhaps humans are evolving, and moving away from a chest-thumping mantra of unsustainable nationalist growth, spawned on the archetype of the pushy, bigger-is-better male from which Douthat's concerns about baby-making derive. Perhaps we are moving towards smaller, sustainable, and participatory democracies where we care more about each other, and the quality of our relations, including our relationship with the nonhuman world. But wouldn't that endanger the foolish nation-states that let that happen, only to be swallowed up by the power and growth-minded countries that didn't? Yes, unless it happened universally (consistent with the trend above), from within each state.
It's hard not to see parents adapting their family-size choices in ways that demonstrably protect their kids' future as anything but evolution, and perhaps also a political evolution towards human rights and democracy, or the cooperative self-rule of free and equal people. Smaller families may represent the opportunity to move towards "constituting" new polities though the love of doing what's best for children and the future, rather than the constitutions of the past that collected diverse and smaller communities into nation-states largely through force. That may be doubly so if Douhat is right, and the emerging broader prohibition on sexual oppression is a harbinger of something like it, but much greater in scale. In any case, the trend towards smaller families may not be something to reverse but instead, and especially given the threat of climate change, to accelerate through creative policies, like fair-start family planning incentives. Would doing so threaten human rights? Quite the opposite, if we can re-imagine family-planning as including the rights of future children to a fair start in life and that democracies that would create, as well as the compelling obligation on the community to help parents provide it.