Industrial Civilization Needs a Biological Future

Annie Spratt/Child outdoors

It’s an exciting time to be a futurist. After decades of relative stagnation, things finally seem to be happening. The rockets are launching again and are now landing on their tails, fusion energy is being taken seriously again, and many of us are paying a few dollars a month to use “AI” programs that would have been considered science fiction a decade ago.

Great dreams seem possible again. Expansion through the solar system, orbital colonies, cities on Mars, and the population growing to tens and even hundreds of billions off-world. Timelines seem to be collapsing and the speed of advancement seems to be exponentially increasing. Living adults might very well see the early stages of all this.

But despite the exciting technological advancements of the last few years, you might have noticed something disturbing: there just aren’t enough children in your social circle to even replace the current adults. Your extended family seems to shrink and winnow down with each generation. Just as we consider expanding off-world, we are losing the numbers to even expand on this planet.

You may have noticed a certain wider malaise, a deep and irrational pessimism about the future, or a feeling that life is a burden that perhaps should not be passed on to new generations. The sense is that no pot of gold exists at the end of the rainbow, so we can whittle away our lives in various forms of escapism, drugs, and electronic addictions. If things are meaningless, maybe we should minimize our sufferings and maximize our pleasures until we die.

It’s not just you, or even America. This effect is global in scale. Not a single developed nation other than Israel has enough native births to sustain its current population. Even Israel is only barely sustaining its core state-forming people. The result is rapid population aging and eventually population collapse as each new generation is, in the worst cases, only half or less the size of the prior generation.

If our populations continually become older and smaller, there is little hope for space colonies and futuristic mega-cities. The sheer energy and ambition for such long-term projects are not going to come from a shrinking late-middle-aged society of comfort. Even if it can somehow sustain itself, it is difficult to imagine such a society breaking into new frontiers, taking risks, and making the future happen. Such people do not go to populate orbital colonies.

Ironically, the greatest barrier to achieving a spectacular technological future appears to be a question of human nature and of understanding human morale and incentives. The educated, technologically-adept Western and Westernized populations who are the most critical to the project of technological civilization are currently immersed in a dysfunctional social milieu that does not want to survive into the future. It has made parenthood entirely optional even though it does not materially reward childbearing, does not confer any social prestige on parents, and actively discourages and stigmatizes larger families.

In order for humans to expand into the universe, this will have to change. A significant fraction of the intelligent, diligent, and technologically advanced population must disengage from the cultural commitments that are currently leading to their extinction. Instead, they must find a way to synthesize their technological creativity and drive to expand into new frontiers with an energetic desire for continued life and reproduction.

This will not happen with a fashionable cultural movement in which “we” as some abstract collective somehow decide to start valuing future life. It will not be achieved by marginal government tax policy or inducements. The problem is fundamental to the current Western way of life and universe of values, the various branches of which now dominate the whole world. The only way out is for a vanguard of people like you and me to achieve this synthesis in our own lives and social circles, even apart from and against the dying cultural mainstream.

These small-group initiatives can help us find a new sustainable mode of life. But eventually, that mode of life must aim to animate an entire society with sufficient economic scale and geopolitical sovereignty to sustain the project of technological expansion. A will to live, build, and reproduce must become normal again.

The Collapse of Modern Fertility

Nearly all technologically advanced nations have fertility rates well below what is needed to even replace their current populations, much less to populate the future.

China’s fertility rate is estimated to be as low as 1.28 children per woman, Singapore is at 1.1, and South Korea is at an incredibly low 0.8. Western developed nations such as the United States (1.8) or Italy (1.3) have sub-replacement rates as well. Despite their very high quality of life and social benefits, the Nordic welfare states do not have higher fertility; Denmark, the most fertile Nordic state, has a TFR of only 1.67. The rate needed to minimally replace the population is 2.1 children per woman.

This fall in fertility results in drastic population aging, which occurs well before the total population becomes alarmingly reduced. Current forecasts predict super-aging in much of the developed world, with massive proportions of the total population being of retirement age. Regarding aging, the United States is actually the best-off among developed countries. But even in the U.S., seniors will be 22 percent of the population by 2050. Places like Japan, Germany, Italy, and Spain are predicted to have over 30 percent of their total populations over the age of 65 by the year 2050.

And even more than the absolute decline, the particular shape of the decline is extremely alarming. When American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau is graphed, we see that fertility forms a U-shape. Fertility is about replacement among the very poor, falls below replacement at incomes of above $50,000 per year, and steadily declines thereafter until reaching its nadir in the upper-middle class at household incomes of between $150,000 and $199,000.

The most solidly and securely middle-class or upper-middle-class families have the very lowest number of children. But families in this bracket are key to the project of industrial civilization; we could stereotype them as conventional, educated, hard-working people. They are the rank-and-file engineers and managers of modernity. Thus the decline is specifically concentrated in the most educated and productive sectors of society, the core “moderns.”

The very people who would build the future are the ones disappearing. And societies around the world are aging to the point where they simply will not have the excess resources or sheer vitality to do much of anything except try to keep the old comfortable. The world is becoming a retirement planet.

A Question of Values

Why are the most affluent societies that have ever existed on Earth unable to perform the most basic possible task of maintaining their numbers? The explanation is simple and you already know it. Humans seek status and wealth, and current Western or Westernized societies do not confer either one for having children.

Outside of ideal settings, the decision to have children faces both subtle and explicit forms of social opposition. A woman who marries young and has five children instead of going to college has “missed out.” A couple that raises a large family in an apartment or small home, using bunk beds and shared rooms, has a “bad quality of life.” Not many older parents are excited at the thought of “early” grandchildren if the parents aren’t financially independent.

Those who still have children young can tell stories about negative comments from friends and relatives, as well as pressure to limit family size. And truly larger families of four or more often receive stares in public and negative comments from complete strangers. By and large, children cost money and often reduce one’s social status.

Polls support this rather pessimistic assessment of the dominant values around children. In a recent Wall Street Journal survey, respondents were asked a series of questions designed to elicit their life priorities. Rather shockingly, children came near the absolute bottom of the list.

When asked “How important are each of the values to you personally,” 94 percent of respondents stated that “hard work” was very or somewhat important, 90 percent put “money” in this category, 91 percent for “self-fulfillment” and 80 percent for “community involvement.” However, only 65 percent stated that “having children” was very or somewhat important. Having children accompanied “belief in God” (65 percent) and “religion” (60 percent) as the least important values in the survey. An incredible 78 percent of respondents indicated that they were “not confident” that “life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us.”

Another study approached the same values question through the lens of what current parents want for their own children. Results were similar, with respondents showing much more concern with the careers and earnings of their children than with having grandchildren. Approximately 90 percent stated that “it’s extremely or very important to them that their children be financially independent when they are adults.” 90 percent also stated that “it’s equally important that their children have jobs or careers they enjoy.”

And again, marriage and children came in at the absolute bottom of priorities. Only 20 percent stated that they placed a lot of importance on their children eventually becoming parents and only 21 percent placed a lot of importance on their children getting married. In addition to the generally low priority placed on both children and grandchildren, recent studies suggest that approximately 22 percent of American adults do not wish to ever have children under any circumstances.

Another strong indication that the fall in fertility is at its core a matter of values and priorities, not wealth or other material factors, is provided by the much higher fertility shown by certain religious groups living within the developed world. These groups, which maintain replacement fertility and higher, are essentially outliers who create their own pro-natalist subcultures. In their social worlds, early marriage is normal, large families are prestigious, and childlessness is a misfortune.

Simply practicing any religion, with weekly attendance at services, raises fertility to about replacement level. Women who attend services weekly have a TFR of 2.1, while women who report never attending church have an extremely low TFR of only 1.3. So even within the same economic and social setting, having an active religious practice provides a change in values and social environment which raises fertility from a very low level to replacement.

Among relatively large religious groups, Mormons report the largest family size, at 2.8 children, followed by Muslims at 2.76 children per woman. Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic Christians all fall around 2.1, which is at least replacement-level fertility.

Smaller groups with an even more powerful pro-natal attitude have even more children; Ultra-orthodox Jews have birthrates of up to 7 children per woman, even in the middle of major Western cities. The Amish also show the dramatic effects of a pro-natal subculture. While rural women, in general, have a TFR of around 2.08, Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking women without a phone have an incredible rate of 7.14. This is a fertility rate higher than Niger while living in the United States.

Taking everything together, it appears that most Americans drastically prioritize the related values of career, money, and personal fulfillment above having both children and grandchildren. It is popular to cast the issue as a result of various economic hardships, but this is absurd since we can observe a wide variety of religious groups who prioritize the family and are quite able to raise large families in the American economy. They can do so because they actually want to and it gives status within their relevant communities.

National-level data also refutes the common explanations that the fall in fertility is due to high housing prices, lack of jobs, immigrant pressure, lack of benefits, or various other specific cultural or racial factors. China, Italy, the United States, and Finland have little in common with each other except for a high level of material development and low birth rates. If anything, a higher standard of living and a safer, more stable, and homogenous society appears to make the problem worse, as shown by Finland, Singapore, and South Korea.

Immigration Is Not a Solution

To date, the default proposed solution to the population situation appears to be mass immigration, but this is untenable for multiple reasons.

Immigrants generally do not retain any heightened fertility once assimilated into Western society. As soon as they are actually transformed into assimilated and working citizens, they begin to dwindle away themselves. Immigrant fertility seems to fall even faster than for native-born Americans: “In 2008, immigrant women had a TFR of 2.75 children; by 2019 it had fallen to 2.02—a 0.73-child decline. For native-born women, it declined from 2.07 to 1.69—a 0.38-child decline.”

The propensity of immigrant fertility to converge with that of natives requires a continual flow of new first-generation, non-Westernized immigrants. By their very nature, these migrants are not prepared to simply take their places as workers in an industrialized economy. The most developed countries obtain immigrants specifically from the very least developed, least Westernized, and least literate societies on Earth since countries rapidly cease producing excess population once they modernize.

For instance, in the early twentieth century, the U.S. accepted mass immigration from Italy. In 1900, Italy had a TFR of 4.6, similar to modern-day Mozambique. Today Italy is fully modern and has a fertility rate of 1.3. Italy can’t maintain its own current population, much less export immigrants.

As development and Westernization continue, low fertility continually trickles down. For instance, Iran’s current TFR is estimated to be as low as 1.6 children per woman. Cuba also has a sub-replacement rate of 1.6. Caribbean nations like Trinidad and Tobago are around 1.7, while El Salvador is at 1.8. Even major immigrant source countries such as Mexico (1.9) or India (2.05) are below replacement and falling.

In the next 50 years, the only sources of mass immigration will be those nations that still retain a total fertility rate markedly above replacement. Outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, the list is short and includes Afghanistan (3.9), Yemen (3.5), Iraq (3.5), Pakistan (3.5), Tajikistan (3.4), Palestine (3.4), and Egypt (2.9). In Africa, the list includes nations such as Niger (6.6), Somalia (5.7), DR Congo (5.5), Mali (5.5), Chad (5.4), and Angola (5.2).

It is reckless to assume that industrial civilization in its current form can be maintained indefinitely simply by the mass importation of new workers from some of the world’s least developed countries, while its founding populations are allowed to endlessly dwindle. There is also no guarantee that such developing countries will actually continue to produce large numbers of emigrants indefinitely. The pattern to date has been that modernization has spread faster and farther than anyone predicted and has shown the ability to reduce birth rates in the most unlikely places.

An Industrial Natalism

We have a deep paradox. Like the ancient god Saturn, who devoured his own offspring, industrial modernity as we know it shows an extraordinary propensity to consume those most central to its own functioning. Modernity eats its own children, both native and adopted, both in its original lands and everywhere it spreads. It has become a self-limiting process.

At the same time that technological evolution seems poised for a quantum leap, the very same system that produced these marvels appears to be burning up its crucial human capital like fuel in a furnace. Industrial society is evolving to a state where its original populations are super-aged, shrinking, and mostly extinct. Those who remain are increasingly only concerned with importing and managing labor from the remaining underdeveloped reservations, in an attempt to keep the lights on a bit longer and assure some degree of comfort.

No matter how this decay plays out, humanity itself will go on. There are groups both inside and outside the West who are already ideologically resistant to the most unsustainable aspects of modernization. But this suggests a long-term selection effect: by default, the groups most fully committed to and compatible with the project of technological civilization rapidly dwindle, while those groups who reject it continually increase their share of the population. As these resistant groups become dominant, the industrial modernity that drives the demographic decline will itself cease to be dominant. Both its triumphs and ills will fade into history.

The default outcome is one where modernity simply burns itself out. Some people may welcome this. They may wish to see it all end and return to the endless cycle of sun and muscle-powered agricultural civilization, or some other post-industrial decay state. Or they may not care at all about anything that happens after their own death.

But some of us want to see the continuation of technical modernity as something truly new in history. There is some greater destiny in the possibility of technological civilization reaching its full potential, which seems a worthy mission for an intense whole-of-society effort. There are wonderful—or at least, interesting—possibilities before us that have never before had a chance to play out. We want to see where this future can go, and even more importantly we want our children to participate in it and contribute to it as well.

For decades, we have been absolutely deluged by prophecies of doom and dystopia. From the nuclear threat of the Cold War and the “Population Bomb” of the 1970s, to claims that “Peak Oil,” climate change, and artificial intelligence will render the future a living hell, there has been a constant drumbeat of pessimistic visions of the future. These forecasts regarding material disaster are typically exaggerated, understate the system’s ability for an adaptive response, and have been consistently proven wrong in retrospect.

But what is notable is what they imply about our relationship with the future. They assert that the default future is some accelerationist apocalypse or dystopia, and the only way to get a good world is to avoid building, avoid reproducing, and avoid too much vitality. Our agency in these views is only in ceasing to act. It’s no wonder that the decades and demographics dominated by these kinds of visions have also been those that have seen a collapse in fertility.

But the reality is the opposite of these pessimistic views of human agency: it is the default future where no one bothers to build, reproduce, or fight that is the pessimistic decay back into post-civilized misery. It is the great dream of expansionary technological civilization that requires us to go out of our way and make sacrifices, change our lifestyles, and develop a will.

Human beings have a biological instinct for sex and even for parenting, but seemingly not for reproduction as such. Because sex can and has been de-linked from reproduction, and child substitutes like dogs can provide an outlet for the parenting instinct, within an advanced civilization the question of reproduction is ultimately an ideological one. The imperative to continue to live and build must become a living practice, motivated by strong ideological and religious commitments, for a significant fraction of the core demographics of industrial civilization. Otherwise, that civilization as we know it will cease.

Psychologists sometimes dub the base population of modern Westernized societies the “WEIRDs:” Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic. Broadly speaking, it is the WEIRDs who are sustaining civilization. But they are also bearing the brunt of its demographic extinction pressure. For technological civilization to continue its great mission, these WEIRDs must change behavior to become sustainably fertile, and even assertive and expansionary again.

Fortunately, WEIRD society is not uniform. It contains many patches that already resist the pressure against reproduction by creating a social fabric to support offspring and family life. The same data set that showed fertility bottoming out in the upper middle class also showed a much different effect at the far right hand of the income distribution.

It turns out that the few households with incomes of over a million dollars a year, the financial upper class, have a TFR of at least 2.3. This is higher than any other income group. They are more likely than their middle-class counterparts to have women leave the workforce and hire substitutes for familial support structures, like nannies and tutors. The trend includes prominent members of the American political elite: Gavin Newsom, governor of California, has four children with his wife, while Nancy Pelosi has five with her husband.

But they are still insufficient. They have not innovated a distinct form of life that actually solves the contradiction of industrial fertility in a way accessible to the middle-class backbone of civilization. Instead, they seem to simply be buying their way out of its problems. Still, the high fertility proves at least an ideological willingness to live, which could be scaled up if the lifestyle could be made accessible. Despite being too few in number to directly affect the demographic crisis, they may have tremendous value in shaping the aspirations of the larger public.

Other high fertility groups take the route of being more culturally autonomous, usually by being intensely religious, like Mormons, Orthodox Jews, or traditional Catholics. These groups likewise belong to technological civilization in terms of their material contribution and careers. They do not practice the hard separatism of the Amish. However, they do maintain a softer separatism in the form of ideological and cultural sovereignty from the WEIRD mainstream.

The key lesson of these groups is that it is surprisingly easy to break away from specifically the dysfunctional ideological and social elements of mainstream society while maintaining participation in a modernized economy. You don’t need to flee into some eighteenth-century museum existence to survive modernity. You just need to maintain social institutions and ideology that make a high-fertility life both accessible and desirable. Right now, this only requires ideological sovereignty from the mainstream. In a healthier mainstream, it might not even require that.

This is doable because a healthy social fabric is not overly centralized. It is made up of many different spaces and institutions, self-governed according to the needs of their participants. It is not difficult to establish ties between groups of people working on some important practice, be it childrearing, deep technical work, material support, or transcendent religious experience.

The cultural mainstream exists mostly as a predatory tax on healthy social fabric, rather than a valuable service. The difficulty is in maintaining sufficient separation from the mainstream to avoid its pathological ideologies. Most of the cost seems to be in simply defending from the aggression of the dysfunctional mainstream. There are some economies of scale in the costs of this ideological sovereignty, which are provided by the religious frameworks, but in practice, they seem to be affordable.

Likewise, reorienting the WEIRD population away from the dysfunctional mainstream would first require that they be re-conceived beyond their utility to and dependence on the mainstream system of labor mobilization. Currently, that is not the case. The respectable WEIRD middle and upper-middle class is recognized, self-identified, and judged by their universities, prestigious jobs and affiliations, individual autonomy within the mainstream economic system, and financial success. Since these are the things they aspire to and compete for, and since these things all conflict at least partially with healthy social fabric and reproduction, it is no wonder that the WEIRDs are being demographically wiped out.

Religious groups have a healthier demographic prognosis because they have some other standard of success that does not compete as harshly with healthy social fabric and reproduction. To survive, the WEIRD backbone of civilization also needs a standard of respectability that is not tied so closely to over-investment in mainstream institutions. However, they must still maintain a high standard of real quality and ability to contribute to technological civilization, so simple abandonment of those aspirations doesn’t work either.

The current resume stack embodies mobilization and utility to the system, but beneath it are also the real traits, behaviors, and culture which make those who succeed at these metrics so valuable. Education originally stood not for degrees but for a culture of deep literacy and engagement with the cutting edge of human knowledge, and degrees are proxies for the relatively high intelligence, diligence, and creativity needed to contribute to civilization. Financial success is a proxy for the ability to effectively produce value and manage capital investments. Affiliations with impressive institutions are a proxy for the ability to do impressive work. These traits could all be more directly and efficiently rewarded with respect, and judged in whole families rather than just individuals.

Additionally, the Western middle classes, especially in America, have displayed high agency in institutional participation. Historically, it is this group that joined clubs, churches, PTAs, HOAs, committees, and political parties in the millions. This is the important virtue that is only half-heartedly proxied by the “democratic” aspect of WEIRD. The death of American “lodge democracy” is one of the most widely-discussed cultural consequences of its middle-class decline. But go to a rock climbing gym, a hackerspace, a company, or a city church today, and it is still this population that makes up them.

The hard part of social fabric is making sure it serves these people and their biological interests. You don’t want scattered projects for half-hearted participants, but a coordinated vanguard of biologically healthy industrial culture.

From Culture to State

While social fabric is the proper domain of action right now, this does not mean that the answer is building a post-WEIRD fertility ghetto to escape mainstream society. Technological civilization depends on its demographic base not just growing again, but becoming self-assertive and politically conscious. The demographic recovery and transition to a socially sustainable technological civilization will begin with a core vanguard, but it will have to incrementally expand in influence to the point of hegemony.

Industrial society has been trapped in anti-reproductive ideology before. Counterintuitively, much of the last 150 years have been spent concerned that reproduction is actually too high. Victorian Malthusians and overpopulation doomsayers have been more standard figures than industrial natalists of any kind. But this changed in the first half of the twentieth century, as governments around the developed world promoted the nuclear family in wartime and postwar construction.

Every major ideology in the early twentieth century embarked on similar projects: liberal America, Imperial Japan, Soviet Russia, the Third Reich, and democratic West Germany all glorified family life as desirable, joyful, and virtuous. The married family with several biological children was the aspirational norm reflected in the media, in the school curriculum, and so forth. All these industrial societies saw fertility rates increase for about a generation or two, an overall trend that lasted until the 1960s. The political will evaporated as political-economic conditions changed and anti-reproductive ideologies began to dominate as industrial decay set in.

Securing the possibility of technological civilization means embracing an explicitly self-assertive political agenda on behalf of the post-WEIRD industrial backbone population. Industrial society is centralized and complex, which means that ultimately such trade-offs are matters of state.

For example, rather than redistributing wealth from young to old, social welfare programs based on these interests would have to transfer wealth, respectability, and power towards young families with the traits to support advanced civilization, helping them to economically and socially compete against the childless or older persons who tend to have more disposable income. Ultimately, this also secures the long-term interests of technological civilization, since reproduction of its core demographics is the only means by which it can have a healthy future.

A demographic renaissance of the WEIRDs also translates into completely different reference points for what a fulfilling life entails. The popular narratives and assumptions about childbearing and family life that undergird anti-reproductive norms are mostly false. The ordinary risks of childbirth are quite navigable and the actual costs of children—instead of those of parental conspicuous consumption to keep up with current standards of respectability—are quite low. It is far easier to combine children with other pursuits in one’s energetic twenties than in the late thirties or beyond.

But most people do not make these decisions based on theory or argument. They do so because their friends and relatives and role models are also happily raising children around them. It doesn’t actually take a village to raise a child, but a village of people all raising children works wonders for morale and the assumptions about what is worth pursuing. Social fabric goes a long way to making it possible for many more of us to live in this way, but state power is ultimately necessary for this logic to be reflected in tax codes, political economy, education and inheritance laws, and so on.

By directly raising future generations, you tend to stop thinking in terms of abstract disembodied progress. No one has ever been motivated to do great things merely for some chronological future that will come automatically. When the pilgrims reached the New World, they did not come for “the future”—their goal was to raise their children to build their shining city on a hill.

The twentieth century repressed such bio-historical consciousness and has paid the price in stagnation and decline. In the nuclear family as currently imagined in America, the work of parenting in youth and middle age gives way to a pleasurable, high-consumption retirement, a well-earned “reward” for a life of hard work. But this only reinforces a trade-off between family life and consumer rewards.

You can only complete the synthesis between industrial culture and biological life by rejecting these trade-offs. The most important thing you can do for the future is to cultivate an active and ongoing sense of material duty towards your own children and grandchildren, as well as the next generations around you, and shape them to contribute to the larger project of technological civilization. The only future that you can improve is the one embodied in the future generations of your own people.

The consciousness necessary for civilization necessarily places the highest value on children and youth. You glorify your continued physical existence and growth into the most distant future, especially for the sake of the larger achievement your civilization represents. The most concrete and pressing threat to this future is simply the widespread and intensifying loss of the will and social structures needed to actually perpetuate industrial populations, especially in the most productive and advanced nations.

The time to change course is being rapidly burned up as we speak, but those of you who break free of the downward spiral to build a new synthesis of industry and family will become the future of technological civilization.

Adam Van Buskirk lives and writes in rural New Mexico. You can follow him at @AHVanBuskirk.