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Extinction: Not a pressing concern for humanity at this time


Ross Douthat is doubling down on the notion that intentionally choosing to have less children constitutes “decadence”:

But the modern path has many possible endpoints, and it seems like an abdication of moral judgment to just practice determinism and assert that wherever a given developed country’s birthrate ends up — slightly above replacement level, slightly below, or in the depths plumbed by countries like Japan — must represent the best of all possible worlds.

After all, if children are not the only good in human life, they do seem like a fairly important one, no? Maybe even, dare one say, an essential one, at least in some quantity, if the pursuit of the wider array of human goods is to continue beyond our own life cycle? Or to put it another way, if we have moral obligations to future, as-yet-unborn generations, as almost everyone seems to agree, surely those duties have to include some obligation for somebody to bring those generations into existence in the first place — to imitate the sacrifices that our parents made, and give another generation the chances that we’ve had? And if that basic obligation exists in some form, then surely there comes a point when a culture in which it’s crowded out by other goals, other pursuits and yes, other pleasures can be aptly described as … what’s the word I’m looking for … decadent?

If I’m reading this correctly, Douthat is using the specter of the extinction of the human race in order to generate a moral imperative to have more children. I see little harm in conceding the point: were the human race facing imminent extinction, the moral calculus might plausibly look a bit different.

Fortunately, we’re in no such situation. Here’s a global population growth chart, showing three projections for population growth, high, medium and low, generated by the UN two years ago. In the high growth rate scenario, the population in 2100 is 16 billion and growing. In the middling scenario, the global population is leveling off at around 10 billion. In the low scenario, the global population will continue to grow to over 8 billion until around 2050, when it will level off and begin a decline, remaining above 6 billion in 2100. (My own read of the demographic projections is the most likely scenario lies between the low and middle projections; leveling off somewhere north of 8 billion but south of 10, with a more gentle decline than the low suggestion projects).

So, it’s safe to say that Douthat can retire his fears of decadence-induced extinction of the human race. He further argues that while in theory we could deal with the challenge of population decline in wealthy societies through greater immigration, as “humanists” we should seek to maintain those populations through children instead, because we’re so rich that we can provide better childhoods than other people.

This is spectacularly unconvincing. A broad commitment to something we might plausibly call humanism might very easily lead to the opposite conclusion: that providing an opportunity to migrate to a wealthy society for people suffering considerable oppression or mired in hopeless poverty scores at least as high on the humanism scale as having a not especially wanted additional child. I would also submit that a humanist commitment to the well-being of future generations is, first and foremost, concerned with the quality of life of those future people, rather than quantity in which those people exist. (Is Douthat a closet Parfitian?) Given our rather pathetic lack of progress to date to scale human consumption to a level that doesn’t dramatically alter the earth’s climate, a somewhat lower population at some point in the future might be worth pursuing as a necessary but not sufficient condition of ecological stability, despite the policy challenges it presents.

I’m in agreement with Douthat that a sense of obligation toward future generations is an important moral value, and a general duty to contribute to the care, cultivation, protection and education of children is a central way in which the duties associated with that value are discharged. From there, however, it does not follow that people should feel a moral obligation to have children when they are uncertain or unenthusiastic about doing so. It’s a duty that can be discharged in a variety of ways, including the support of the sort of family-friendly public policies Douthat mentions in his original column, as well as contributing of the care and support of children and parents in one’s extended family, community, and social circle. There’s no reason to conclude, with Douthat, that such an obligation can only be discharged through having (more) children of one’s own.

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  • Brandon

    Even before reading your following paragraph, I thought Douthat’s claim that the humanist moral would be “wealthy people should have more children” to be the exact opposite of what I’d conclude.

  • Dollared

    Is there a genre of “Dystopian Catholic Science Fiction?” Or is this the only example?

    • Malaclypse

      A Canticle For Leibowitz. And you should be ashamed of not knowing this.

      • Other Jon

        I’d also venture The Sparrow and The Book of the New Sun. Not dystopian in the same ways as A Canticle for Leibowitz, but I’d argue they still count.

        • ajay

          If dollared means (as I suspect) fiction where the dystopia is caused by Catholicism, then it’s “His Dark Materials”, plus pretty much anything written by a late 20th century Irishman.

          • Other Jon

            I took it as more “dystopia from a Catholic perspective” so you get things like Leibowitz which are unambiguously dystopian but in a Catholic world, as opposed to stories like The Sparrow, part of which takes place on an alien world that ends up being a dystopia for the Jesuit mission that landed there.

            I’d have a hard time fitting His Dark Materials in this genre if for no other reason than that the Magisterium isn’t precisely analogous to the Catholic Church – it has the same origins and much of the same structure, but the history of Christianity in that world is so different from ours (Pope John Calvin?) that it doesn’t make sense to me to think of it as particularly Catholic.

            • The Dark Avenger

              James Blish wrote a trilogy dealing with the issue of evil from a Catholic POV:

              A Case of Conscience
              , Black Easter, and The Day After Judgement.

              • herr doktor bimler

                James Blish wrote a trilogy dealing with the issue of evil from a Catholic POV:

                Blish somewhere described Black Easter and The Day After Judgement as a single two-part book, and reckoned that “Dr Mirabilis” was the third book of the trilogy.

            • sharculese

              Is His Dark Materials even dystopian, for that matter? I mean, Lyra’s world is steampunk, and remarkably honest about Victoriana for a steampunk world, but I don’t really see how that makes it dystopian.

              Unless the point is that the entire multi-verse is dystopian, in which case the Magisterium seems a lot less important, since it’s just one reflection of the infinite nature of God’s tyranny.

              • Other Jon

                I think you’re pretty much right. There are some pretty awful things about Lyra’s world, but it has a more-or-less stable and well-functioning society, and the bad things that happen aren’t a necessary function of the world itself so much as the actions of a few people in it.

                Now that other world in The Subtle Knife, on the other hand…

                • ajay

                  Fair point. The nasty bits are the Catholic bits, though – suppression of free enquiry, being nasty to witches, mutilating children.

      • dollared

        Ouch. Yup. My only excuse is that I grew out of science fiction during the Ford year. I was stuck on the Nine Billion Names of God

        • Malaclypse

          My only excuse is that I grew out of science fiction during the Ford year.

          No excuse. Canticle was published in 1960.

          The discussion of why it was necessary to let irradiated babies die, slowly and in pain, rather than allow euthanasia sticks with me, decades later. It really is one of those books that goes beyond the genre it arises from. While there are science fiction books that I like better, I’m not sure there are very many that are better.

          • sharculese

            Welp, I really didn’t need to have “Reread Canticle” pushed to the top of my priorities list, but it’s too late for that now.

      • DrDick

        Which I read in high school.

      • herr doktor bimler

        Amis, “The Alteration”.

    • Spud

      Make Room, Make Room by Harry Harrison would be the granddad of the genre. It was the basis for Soylent Green.

      The book dealt with worldwide overpopulation based on the Catholic Church’s “every sperm is sacred” policy. The film’s producers added the “its people” angle.

      • Malaclypse

        I don’t recall any Catholic themes at all in Harrison. My impression was the overpopulation was just human stupidity.

    • Silverberg’s The World Inside.

    • herr doktor bimler
      • herr doktor bimler

        Also too, Love In the Ruins.

        • Pestilence

          Not Love Between the Ruins?

          • Halloween Jack

            Love With the Ruins.

  • I feel that Douthat is really talking about race suicide while being afraid to use the words. After all, the real issue for him is white people making this choice and what that means to the future of the nation.

    Theodore Roosevelt would recognize and approve of these arguments.

    • STH

      Yep. He’s not writing for the National Review here, so he has to tone down the usual rhetoric.

    • Jeffrey Beaumont

      Right this is what I was thinking. He really means white babies. It stems from the whole decline in Europe thing. Also it is a perfectly predictable and timely reaction to the re-election of a black president despite the white-male vote.

    • bradP

      Yeah, you can be pretty sure he is not as concerned with the existence of the human race as he is with the composition of the human race.

      • Ranylt

        Yup. I chose not to have kids. At 42, I’ve had to deal with my share of disapproval over the years, for that “selfish” choice. The discussion always comes down to “white babies”–or would, if these folk took my bait once I counter with the “6 billion and counting” fact. It’s the best way of stopping that judgmental interference cold, at least in my neck of the woods.

        • DrDick

          Indeed. With finite, and rapidly diminishing, resources and an expanding world population, having fewer children is the more moral and responsible choice. For American workers, it is also a more immediate and direct net gain, as it drives down competition and raises their value. For the record, I quit after one son almost 40 years ago.

      • Buzz Windrip

        This was my reaction. Not believing in science makes cloning fat old white guys problematic. Righties need to get serious about some “legitimate” humpity-bumpity. Banging Senate pages ain’t gonna get it done.

    • cpinva

      so when are the douthats going to announce that they’re expecting? they aren’t? well, that seems might selfish of them. geez, i’d the mrs. would be being pumped full of fertility drugs and extra eggs, to increase the possibility of a multiple birth event, if they really cared.

      • commie atheist

        According to TBogg, they have one child after 5 years of marriage:

        Since Ross is more Catholic than the Pope, and twice as sanctimonious, we’ll have to assume that birth control has not been put in play in the Douthat Sexy Boudoir Of Many Positions, Both Of Them Missionary, meaning that Ross Douthat is the Motherfucking Rhythm-method Master but now it is time for him to skip a beat [insert your own joke here] for America.

        So hop on it, Ross Douthat! Just explain to your wife that the math and the internet demands it.

        • sharculese

          I don’t find it hard to believe that the genius behind “chunky Reese Witherspoon” really just does not care for sex.

          Which is fine, you’re not required to like sex, even if that is a minority position, but it would be a lot better if he would admit that instead of dressing it up in mountains of sanctimonious garbage.

        • spencer

          One kid in five years isn’t gonna do shit to stop the coming tidal wave of dark babies the coming population crash.

          Sorry, Ross. Get back in there and do your duty. The future of the white race humanity hangs in the balance.

      • LCForevah

        Douchehat’s hypocrisy is tremendous in its scope. It doesn’t occur to him that this is an article he cannot write without children of his own to show. How long have they been married, two, three years? There should be two or three children at least by now.

        Unless there are fertility problems he hasn’t talked about yet, they are practicing birth control-very uncatholic,according to the hierarchy.

        I find his need to tell others how to be completely perverted. RCC accounts for 22% of the American population and they should all learn how to keep their religion out of the public sphere–that’s Douchey and the bishops.

    • Jameson Quinn

      Not quite that simple. Just as he can read The Bible without embracing biblical genocide, he’s managed to assimilate white-supremacist arguments without the white supremacism. He is the truest apologist; a sorry excuse for a human.

    • Marek


    • Josh G.

      That’s really the only way to read this. Douthat’s arguments are complete non sequiturs unless you realize that when he talks about women not having enough children, he’s really talking about white women not having enough white children.

      • sam


    • ema

      It’s not race, it’s, you know, level of development (emphasis mine):

      [I]t seems like an abdication of moral judgment to just practice determinism and assert that wherever a given developed country’s birthrate ends up … must represent the best of all possible worlds.

    • DrDick

      That was my immediate take as well.

    • Halloween Jack

      I’m surprised that anyone is interpreting his statements any other way.

  • Joseph Slater

    Good piece, but mid-last paragraph, shouldn’t that be, “From there, however, it does NOT follow. . . .”?

    • djw

      Blarg. Fixed. Thanks.

  • Murc

    I will take Douthat’s concerns about our societal obligations to have children seriously when he begins to subscribe to a political philosophy and a political party that recognizes society has obligations to it’s citizens and not just the other way around.

    Until then, you know that hole, the one he puts pie in? He can shut it.

  • somethingblue

    If producing offspring is such a big obligation, it seems to me that the upper management of Douthat’s religion might start chipping in a bit more. Instead of devoting themselves to “other goals, other pursuits and yes, other pleasures …”

  • bradP

    If I’m reading this correctly, Douthat is using the specter of the extinction of the human race in order to generate a moral imperative to have more children. I see little harm in conceding the point: were the human race facing imminent extinction, the moral calculus might plausibly look a bit different.

    If the human race faces imminent extinction, it does alter the moral calculus: we would no longer be morally obligated to consider future generations.

    His argument is so, so, SO stupid:

    Or to put it another way, if we have moral obligations to future, as-yet-unborn generations, as almost everyone seems to agree, surely those duties have to include some obligation for somebody to bring those generations into existence in the first place

    I’m obligated to stop at stop signs, so I had better get to driving!

  • Keaaukane

    Does Douthat have any kids? His wiki page just says he’s married. Are these columns just love notes to his wife, begging to get laid/ and or have children?

    • i just spent 5 minutes trying to find out if douthat had kids or not, and i didn’t find any information one way or the other (which leads me to think not, but isn’t definitive).

      i mean, well, ok, words fails me….

    • somethingblue

      He has at least one.

      • fair enough, and in a way, thank goodness, because words really did fail me if he were that much of a hypocrite.

        i wish the child the best of luck!

  • Bitter Scribe

    If Douthat is so solicitous of future generations, he could start by telling his political allies to stop obstructing measures that would preserve the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the climate they have to live in.

    • commie atheist

      He’s all about the quantity, quality be damned. Every sperm is sacred, ya know.

      • Kurzleg

        And if a sperm is wasted?

        • Marek

          God gets quite irate!

          • DrDick

            God must be really pissed off at Douchehat’s father.

        • Bill Murray

          it should have stuck to its task rather than go out drinking with the rest of the unlucky sperms club

  • David W.

    I’m reminded of the anti-abortion billboards I see in the upper midwest, and how for thirty years I have yet to find one featuring a cute baby that isn’t white. So it’s clear to me that the “somebody” Douthat is talking about is white, and probably needs dairy products.

    • Kurzleg

      I’ve seen some in the Mpls area.

    • There have been a couple around Milwaukee that feature babies of duskier hues. But at least half the time, these are of the “Planned Parenthood is causing the Black Holocaust!” genre.

      • commie atheist

        Great minds and all that…

      • JL

        Yeah, that was my thought. I’m a clinic escort and I’ve definitely seen “black holocaust” posters featuring cute black babies here (with accompanying rhetoric).

    • commie atheist

      To be fair, when it politically expedient, those folks can be quite colorblind.

  • MosesZD

    In case it’s not obvious, but this isn’t about what it purports to be about. Coming from the white-privilege, closet-racist background I do, I damn well understand that his little rants are about the decline of WHITE people. Douhat, as does every other closet white supremacist, knows that non-white ethnic groups in much of the world are still growing at quite the pace, but that the ethnic-European first-world groups are in decline.

    This also drives much of the anti-abortion movement. Sure, there are some true believers.

    But if you tape the protesters and cross-reference them with the ethnicity of the clients coming in… There’s a tremendous, by orders of magnitude, difference when a white girl and a black girl come into the clinic.

    The white girl will get the full-court press. The black girl will only get the ‘true believers’ as it were while the closet racists will ‘take a coffee break’ or whatever they do to hide the racist BS.

    Of course, there is always denial of this. However, it is well understood. As the former DHS analyst Daryl Johnson put it (when discussing domestic terrorism):

    DARYL JOHNSON: There’s definitely links between white supremacists and the anti-abortion issue. That is one of the causes that they rally around and use as a recruitment tool to bring people into the movement. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s strictly neo-Nazi. It could be also the Christian Identity movement, it could be skinheads, it could the Ku Klux Klan.

    It’s there. It’s real. It’s not a joke. I’ve seen it first hand.

  • Karate Bearfighter

    Look, you can use your fancy UN “projections” and “estimates” if you want; Ross Douthat believes what he sees with his own two eyes on his own television set. The whiteboard said 41,435 after New Caprica, and the trend was clearly downwards. Get procreating, people!

    • Spud

      Does this mean we should shoot Ross Douthat into space?

      • Malaclypse

        Ark B. Enough said.

  • The Bobs

    Perhaps Douthat should think about resource depletion and the second law of thermodynamics.

    Nature beat the second law, we’re not even trying.

  • mpowell

    Well, he’s a total jackass, but that’s nothing new. He hardly adds anything in this 2nd article. I want to make a point that I didn’t see mentioned much the first time around. Douthat makes the implicit claim that people are lazy (decadent) and this is why they’ve stopped having kids. Of course, many people have pointed out that the decline in birth rate is related to women gaining control over their own fertility. I wanted to add to this that the people who used to decide how many kids to have, namely men, are also the ones who were previously less impacted by it. There is absolutely nothing lazy about the current generation. It’s just that previous generations didn’t do as much work taking care of their kids (which was most certainly worse for the kids development) and the people making the decisions about how many kids were not impacted by it. Because men don’t get pregnant and certainly didn’t used to be responsible for childrearing!

    Douthat’s version of a non-decadent society is where privileged men get to force women to work and suffer for the benefit of the society. Fucking awesome.

  • Random

    Of course, Douhat believes that its your obligation to have lots of children because he believes God commanded it. It really is that simple. Any other rationale that he gives in defense of this policy prescription was derived after the fact. His entire career is in fact motivated by his belief that it is his personal mission from God to promote those commandments. As a result, every single one of his columns is the same strained, post-fact rationalization, every single time.

    • greylocks

      My interpretation also. He’s a conservative Catholic, and this is right-wing Catholic doctrine wrapped up in an incoherent rationale.

      Which is typical wingnut M.O. — instead of having the stones to just say what you really think, pretend to have some greater good in mind and hope the rest of are stupid enough to not see through it.

    • sharculese

      I’m not sure this is true. Douthat is an adult convert. It’s more likely, at least to me, that he chose this worldview because it reflected things that he already wanted to believe, and “God said it” is just the rationale.

  • Jameson Quinn

    I personally regard my decision NOT to have a second child as one of the most moral ones of my life, and clearly the greatest sacrifice I have made in a life not without sacrifices (vegetarian, exiled from homeland, earning far less than I could have been).

  • Jameson Quinn

    Separately: there are certainly reasons to consider extinction threats to be “pressing”. Even a 0.1% threat is equivalent to millions dead. And while I do not believe that runaway climate change, grey goo, or the AI apocalypse pose threats above 5%, there are enough smart people who put these risks over 0.1% that I’m not willing to discount them entirely. So: “Voluntary extinction: not a pressing concern” would be more accurate.

  • AuRevoirGopher

    Does all this mean that nuns are decadent?

    • DrDick

      The whole freaking Catholic Church is an abomination.

    • Halloween Jack

      Nuns may be, in Douchehat’s worldview. He’s awfully protective of the male hierarchy, though, to the point of blaming the sex abuxe scandal on DFHs.

  • AcademicLurker

    “Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?”

    I couldn’t help thinking of this quote when reading Douthat’s piece.

    • Keaaukane

      I don’t recognize the quote, but I’ll take a guess. Atlas Shrugged?

      • AcademicLurker

        The Great Gatsby

        The speaker is Tom Buchanan:

        “Well, it’s a fine book and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

    • Karen

      My favorite line in all of Fitzgerald, and insufficiently studied. (for the non-lit-crit-geeks, Tom Buchanan is the bad guy in the novel. This was one of many ways F Scott showed Buchanan’s loutishness.)

      • AcademicLurker

        I especially love how timeless that passage is. It could have been spoken yesterday with just a slight update.

        “Have you read The Bell Curve by these fellows Herrnstein and Murray? It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

        • Eric

          My father uttered that very line over dinner.

          • Jay Schiavone

            What was he eating? Human flesh?

  • herr doktor bimler

    if the pursuit of the wider array of human goods

    “Human Goods” sounds like a slogan for a butcher’s window display. “A Modest Proposal” comes to mind.

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  • MikeN

    On the Catholic dystopia thing, “The Eleventh Commandment”, a 1962 sf novel by Lester del Rey.

    A secret agent from a human colony on Mars is sent down to find out why the Catholic Church, which now rules the entire Earth, is insisting everyone continues to breed without control, even though the planet is horribly overcrowded and everyone lives in extreme poverty.

    The kicker is that it turns out there was an atomic war, and the Church wisely/secretly insists on this choice to ensure humanity isn’t swamped by dangerous mutations.


    • herr doktor bimler

      James Blish was mentioned earlier, but not “A Dusk of Idols”, in which a planet is ‘deliberately maintained in a state of genocidal savagery’. I reckon that counts as a Catholic dystopia.

      • Jay Schiavone

        Throw in child molestation and it becomes Catholic utopia.

        • The Dark Avenger

          The title of the Blish story is from the title of one of Nietzche’s last books before he went mad.

  • allan

    Who is this Ross Douchebag? How many kids does he have anyway? Oh, he doesn’t have any kids.

    • Vance Maverick

      That’s what I assumed too, but he does have one.

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  • Krissy

    Humanity is facing an imminent extinction because of climate change but with more people it will only happen faster.

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