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Nunc Dimittis

Deep Blue Air

On high windows


Like the late L. Brent Bozell, I tend to regard any talk of demography with suspicion, if not hostility. There seems to me something almost uniquely wicked about viewing the human race as an undifferentiated mass of statistics, to say nothing of reducing childbirth to a figure with a decimal following it. Nor am I especially sympathetic to so-called “natalist” politics that treat birth rates as a kind of full employment problem, the solving of which requires us to invest our (as it were) reproductive capital wisely in the interest of gross domestic fecundity.

Still, it is impossible to overstate the significance of recent projections suggesting that by the end of the present century the population of most “developed” countries will be halved. At any earlier point in the history of our species, such drastic reductions in the size of a community could only have been the result of some enormous and largely unforeseen catastrophe: war, famine, pestilence, or, most likely, some combination of the three. Instead, it appears to be the case that we are the first people seeking voluntary extinction.

Why is this the case? The most obvious answer is that young people in wealthy countries are too selfish to have children, that the work of raising them would distract us from our real vocations as consumers. The Dow must increase, we must decrease.

There is probably something to this. But if the young are not becoming acquainted with what poor Papa Montini wanted them to discover about the birds and the bees, it is in part because their elders kept them out of the meadow. How was it fenced off?

I blame the “success sequence.” There is a very old and very nasty trick that takes a descriptive account of the habits of whatever coterie appears to be in charge and makes of them a prescription. It is barely an exaggeration to say that most modern “thought” has come to us by this dubious method. (This is especially true in political economy.)

The success sequence has made aversion to risk a first-order good. It tells us that the agoraphobia of the professional classes should be the default condition of our species, and that it is better to reduce the marital act to a sterile parody than to risk such evils as “low educational attainment.”

One would like to pass over in silence the argument that young people are consciously refusing to have children because they are worried about the future. But I am afraid there is something to it. Undergirding our (seemingly) limitless abundance are sclerotic political institutions that cannot address even the most obvious problems—e.g., the provision of basic medical services—and a deranged conception of economic life in which even the maintenance of our present state of well-being requires an endless series of disruptions and the exploitation of the world’s poor. There is a vague sense that this cannot go on. One of the most popular programs on Disney’s television network is called “Zombies.” Millions of twenty-somethings spent the last decade reading novels and watching films about teenagers like themselves murdering one another for the amusement of a live television audience. Why should we expect any of them to have children of their own, much less to do so with the understanding that they are partaking of one of life’s basic goods? We long for the end.

Does everyone? From my own high windows it is certainly possible to imagine Philip Larkin’s “deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” But when I close my eyes I see a young woman in Nigeria, cradling an infant in her arms—that extraordinary gesture which, more so than any other, speaks to the universality of our human experience.

See her now. Her eyes are calm, as if in possession of the answer to an unposed riddle. Look beyond the foreground and see millions, perhaps billions like her. What secret have they guessed? Perhaps only the longed-for extinction of our own way of life will reveal it.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp.

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