In most of the United States, residential neighborhoods are speed-limited to 20 or 25mph, and why not? There are a lot of corners, a lot of cars that obstruct a view of anyone that might step out into the road, and the streets tend to be fairly narrow. Now-a-days, on the other hand, it isn’t uncommon for the de-facto speed limit on these streets to be upwards of 40mph unless a cop is present. Not so long ago, this wasn’t the case. Once upon a time, if one sped on a residential street, one could expect to develop a reputation, accumulate an impressive driving record, and pay a lot of money to the local government for the privilege. Neighbors would notice, and they’d call the police and ask for beefed up patrols or a speed trap.
It is, perhaps, appropriate that, as I write this, I have just arrived in the suburbs after several days of wandering the woods. When I arrived here I walked the neighborhood—a solidly middle-class, middle-income area—and discovered something...odd. It’s a feeling I’ve had before, walking other suburban neighborhoods when visiting friends and family members. If ever you’ve been on a forest hike and you suddenly stumble into an area where another human, or a dog, or a predator has recently been you’ll know the feeling well:
“It’s too quiet.”
Once upon a time, not all that long ago, children filled the streets of the suburbs, of residential urban neighborhoods, of the agricultural and rural zones surrounding the cities and on out into the wilderness. The streets that were so filled were speed-limited to 20 or 25mph for one reason: nobody wants a dead child in the middle of the road. Such things stoke neighborhood feuds and lower property values.
In the United States, those of us who grew up through this transition from “streets choked with kids” to “no kids to be seen” barely noticed it, for a few reasons.
First, most obviously, we were the kids. When you’re the last to leave a building, you turn off the lights. If you arrived in the middle of the party, you’d have no expectation that it’s gonna go on forever, so it doesn’t seem odd to you that when you leave, the building is empty.
Second, we were raised by maniacs with a thin grip on reality. This may take a bit of explaining for those of you who didn’t live through it:
The parents of the 1980s and 1990s were Baby Boomers, and they were (until recently) the most panicky and gullible generation in American History. It’s hard to blame them. They grew up sheltered, coddled, emotionally stultified, and materially spoiled to an extent then-unheard-of in human history.
They were raised by PTSD-ridden survivors of World War 2 in atomized nuclear families (an invention of Cold-War propaganda), without nearby relatives to intervene in dysfunctional relationships or to provide outside mentorship.
This atomized family life occurred in the aftermath of a deliberate gutting of American social life (the decline of Fraternal Orders, neighborhood associations, and mutual benefit and benevolent societies whose financial functions were being rapidly subsumed by the State), creating the demand for new forms of social ordering to rise and fill the void. These new forms were disconnected from the filial and familial bonds that had historically characterized social institutions—and thus often attracted predators of various sorts, who shepherded the Boomers through their rather historically anomalous childhoods.
This all occurred under the most suffocating and paranoid propaganda campaign ever undertaken in the West up to that point (one that both rewrote American history to the point of turning it into a lie, encouraged personal isolation and heavy emotional repression in the name of the “common good,” and that kept the whole population terrified of immanent nuclear war in order to maintain domestic discipline and suppress dissent against the various components Pax Americana), which was enforced by a mental health establishment that thought nothing of medicating, gaslighting, and literally lobotomizing people who wouldn’t toe the line.
Is it any wonder that this generation fell for every conspiracy theory that could be cooked up to fleece them? Is it any wonder that, once they had children they got paranoid?
Or that, as parents, they freaked out about the same sex/drugs/rock’n’roll culture that they enjoyed and championed in their youth?
Or that they believed that the risk for child-abduction in the 80s was both new and ubiquitous?
Or that they believed that there was a Satanist behind every bush and that one in four young girls are being raped in occult rituals so that their babies might be sacrificed at a Black Mass?
Or that these were far from the dumbest thing they all collectively fell for?
Gen X and the Millennials grew up watching this insanity, and the State power that followed it. When a child claims (or is claimed by others) to be abused, the State comes in and runs through a bureaucratic checklist, frequently resulting in long-term fracturing of families, sending children into a child-care system where they are more likely to be abused than if they stayed with relatives or friends, all while the State was willing and able to violate every point of law and civil liberties at the merest rumor of abuse, domestic violence, drug use, or sexual or religious deviance.
Kids who grow up watching the machinations of the State married to the neighborhood gossip circuit are a lot less likely to want kids of their own, at least until much much later. And people that become parents later in life tend to be more neurotic as parents, resulting in fewer and more fearful children.
Third, there was no room at the table for any of the following generations. There were so many Boomers, who stayed in power for so long, that neither their first batch of children (Gen X) nor their second batch (Gen Y a.k.a. “Millennials”) found purchase in the job market anywhere near as early in life as the Boomers did. They had a harder time starting businesses (due to the laws created by the Boomers to protect themselves from competition and discomfort). They had to submit to more onerous interference in their personal lives than the Boomers (up to and including audits of their social media accounts, private political attitudes, and familial relationships) in order to establish careers. They spent most of their adulthood fighting in the longest war in American history and/or submitting to the most invasive surveillance state in world history (and that’s saying something). People in such a situation don’t have many children, and tend to be too fearful as parents to let their children actually grow up.
Fourth, and most importantly, urban people don’t have children. The forces that encourage urbanization (industrialization, consumerism, education) have two major population-reducing effects.
First, educated women want fewer children than uneducated women, and when they know how to control their own fertility and ensure the survival-to-adulthood of a smaller brood of children, they do exactly that: have fewer children and invest more into each of them.
Second, these forces also turn children from an economic asset into a luxury good, and luxury goods are not something to be parented, they are something to be curated—not for the sake of the children, or the continuation of a family legacy, but as a marker of the social achievement of the parents. This isn’t to say that such parents don’t love their kids, it’s to say that they love them more like a well-trained dog, or a nicely turned-out boat, or even an impressive social companion than they do like “the extension of my life and family into the futures which I will not see, and upon whose generosity my comfort and esteem in old age will depend.”
A world where children are an afterthought of civilization, rather than its engine. This is an inversion of how civilization, and human life, has functioned since the beginning of humanity.
In the short term this works spectacularly well. It makes society more productive, as more adults in their prime creative and producing years have more free time to get better and better at what they do. Standards of living and quality of entertainment rises, and rises fast, as does available credit and economic prosperity. Social services can be funded more and more, and charities experience a glut of money inflow from all the super-productive adults who want to lower their tax burden.
And then, one day, it all stops. First, there aren’t enough children to keep the school system afloat. Then there aren’t enough teenagers and twenty-somethings to buy the output of the hyper-productive older people. Then there aren’t enough thirty-somethings transitioning into leadership roles to keep the high productivity going, and there aren’t enough forty-and-fifty-something doctors and nurses to cope with a world where a third-to-half of the population needs geriatric care.
And then, when those geriatrics finally retire, there aren’t enough tax revenues, or investments, to pay for much of anything, including the salaries of the vast bureaucratic class that’s grown up in response to the demands of the childless and near-childless who need external, socialized means of support to fill in the gaps where clan and neighborhood and family and families-of-choice once filled the role.
While the first three reasons-people-stopped-breeding in this essay are peculiar to the United States and the WEIRD nations, urbanization happened world wide, and this trend followed with it. During this same period, the material comfort of the long peace –along with Big Data and mass communications and mass education—have successfully reduced the kind of unpleasant contact with reality that might calibrate our expectations of what is possible—and, in so doing, it has led to the great delusion that everything is controllable, if only we place that control in the hands of the right people.
Seems silly when I say it that way, right?
When was the last time you heard someone say “Why can’t we seem to eliminate racism?” or “We should be able to keep Bad People™ with Wrong Ideas™ away from places where they can hurt/influence Good People™ with Right Ideas™” or “How can the richest country in the world have so many homeless people in it?” or “If only we followed XX’s advice, the pandemic would be over by now?”
The world is, and always has been, filled with “Wicked Problems,” so-called because they are problems with no solution that isn’t potentially as bad as, or worse than, the problem itself (assuming there’s any potential solution at all). But a people who are unfamiliar with Wicked Problems will continue to attempt to solve them by throwing more and more money, State Power, and personal concern at them until, finally, something breaks under the strain. Drugs, racism, political conflict, distribution of opportunity and of wealth, security and freedom and the trade offs between them during times of war and disease, and the battle between the sexes are all Wicked Problems in which there can, in principle, be no permanent solution. The best we can hope for are temporary and fleeting compromises and alliances made in specific historical contexts.
A world without children is its own Wicked Problem. While there have been many experiments to incentivize childbearing in the past and currently ongoing across the world, and while religiosity does seem to make some difference, there is no proven replicable way to raise a birth rate that doesn’t either strip social and cultural independence from women or strip the comforts of modern life from a population—but there is also no known way to maintain a modern civilization with modern ideas of commerce and governance on the back of an aging and declining population.
Of course, one might imagine some not-altogether-horrible solutions.
For example, one might envision an arrangement whereby the cities absorbed surplus people from the rural and agricultural regions which dependably have a high(er) birthrate. Something like this arrangement worked for a while after the industrial revolution, right up until the city slickers outnumbered the rural folk.
Unfortunately, urban and rural folk hate each other. The values needed to get by an do well in one context are positively disadvantageous in the other, so the people that live in each situation are forever separated by opposing moral visions. When the rural outnumber the city slickers, they do everything they can (including using State power) to keep the metropolitan morality of the cities confined to the cities themselves, and to extend the Small-Town way of doing things into the Big City, where such things generally do not work. This creates a very inconvenient, irritating environment for the urbanite to navigate, especially when it comes to politics and culture wars.
On the other hand, when the city slickers outnumber the country folk, urbanites do their best to outlaw rural living, full stop. Environmental laws, zoning regulations, animal welfare provisions, child labor restrictions, gun laws, speech codes, and all sorts of other restrictions which often make sense when people are packed tight together in cities tend to cripple the human ability to function and do business once you get just an hour or two out of town, where cops are few and far between, where large animal predators still roam, where you need old tractors and trucks just to make it through daily life, and where money is always tight so you simply can’t come into compliance when some urban yahoo decides that “something has to change.”
In other words, rural way of thinking goes like this:
Urbanites are privileged, perverted, lazy busybodies with an artificial sense of morality and delusions of grandeur, who will end civilization with their Utopian craziness and keep plunging us into one war after another where our children are the ones who will have to die (since the city folk aren’t having many children anyway).
On the other hand, urbanites think along these lines:
Rural folk are backwards, cousin-fucking hicks whose version of being “close to the land” is a kind of ecologically-unsustainable looting, and whose distance from civilization and from the surveillance that keeps us all safe make them an ideal breeding ground for extremists who might endanger our whole way of life—and they breed, too, so there might someday be more of them than us.
And let’s not even get into what both groups think of suburbanites.
The hatred isn’t always that loud, of course, but something like those attitudes forms the foundation of how the culture wars are conducted. It’s a reserve of suspicion and resentment that’s always present and ready for exploitation by every two-bit demagogue, con artist, politician, and revivalist who wants to make a splash.
But, if we dig below that hard-pan of hatred, we are left with one inescapable fact that forms one of the hard limits of reality:
Like all other things in nature, it turns out that the concept of “sustainability” applies to people, too. And a world without children cannot indefinitely maintain high degree of centralization—nor can it grow.