Have More Kids!
My report from Natal Con 2023. Including reflections on Tommy Boy, seatbelts, and the proliferation of polycrises.
In the movie, Big Tom observes that “In auto-parts you’re either growing or you’re dying. There ain’t no third direction.” As with auto-parts, so with population. We spent much of the last few decades worried about overpopulation. As such, when birth rates started falling many people breathed a sigh of relief. But Big Tom was right, if you're not growing you’re dying. And as it turns out, most of the world is now dying.
Given my longstanding interest in the problem, when one of my local buddies asked me if I wanted to accompany him to the first annual Natal Conference I immediately said yes. I’m all about unusual, existential risks; falling birthrates certainly belong in that category. The clearest harm is the issue of pension funding, but other issues include a decrease in innovation, extinction of communities (and possibly nations), and significant changes in family structure. Beyond these probable outcomes, there are other less likely, but scarier outcomes which include societal collapse, wars between less-developed and more-developed countries, and technological regress.
Reading this list it sounds similar to many of the other existential risks people worry about, but in another sense falling fertility is in a category all on its own.
When one considers other risks, one is struck by how little we know and how suddenly our fortunes might change:
A misaligned superintelligence could arrive at any moment. So great is this worry that many people imagined this was why the Open AI board fired Sam Altman.
We don’t know when there will be another pandemic as big as (if not bigger than) COVID.
We don’t know if there’s going to be a large-scale nuclear war. If there is one, it might arrive with very little warning.
We have no idea how bad the microplastics problem is. (It could very well be one of the big things depressing fertility.) We know microplastics are everywhere and in everything, but we don’t yet know what the long term effects of this are.
A further difficulty comes from the fact that these problems are of recent extraction:
The new age of artificial intelligence via LLMs is only a couple of years old.
Nuclear weapons didn’t exist before 1945.
Plastics have really only been around since the 50s, and even so half of all plastic production has occurred since 2000.
Compared to all of the foregoing, the problem of falling birth-rates should be easy.
We can see it coming from decades away — we already know almost exactly how many 20-30 year old Koreans there will be in 2040.
The solution should be straightforward: having kids is something we’ve been doing for literally hundreds of millions of years.
Unlike all of the problems mentioned above, where almost nothing of consequence can be done on an individual basis. Nearly everyone who has reached puberty has the tools to help reverse the fertility crisis.
Finally, we should be getting help from natural selection. To the extent that the problem is genetic, those genes should quickly go extinct and be replaced by pro-natal genes.
Taken together these points would suggest that falling birth rates should be among the easier of our problems to solve. Despite this, the vast majority of people at the conference seemed pretty pessimistic about solving it at scale. On the other hand there was tremendous optimism about solving it individually. And of course many people already had. During Razib Khan’s speech he asked people to raise their hands if they had no kids, one kid, two kids, and so forth. Dr. Pat Fagan, another speaker, was the winner as the only one present with eight kids (a couple of people had seven). But many people had not solved this problem, which is to say I ran into a surprising number of people who didn’t have any kids, nearly all of them were men (though conference attendance in general was probably 75% men) who had not found the right partner. They all wanted kids, but that desire had not yet translated into results.
That gap between desire and results represented the primary task of the conference. In his opening speech, Kevin Dolan, the conference’s main organizer, pointed out that people have far fewer children than they desire. He claimed that among people without children, 10% don’t actually want any children, 10% tried to have children but were prevented by infertility — this still leaves 80%. These are people who want kids but don’t have them, and that’s who he wanted to focus on. What can be done to enable people to have the children they say they want?
II- Yet Another Polycrisis
There were just over a hundred people at the conference. Of those, seven were from Utah, and of those, five were part of the Salt Lake City ACX/SSC meetup group. So we were very well represented. Before the conference, we had a meetup to discuss the issue and do a little bit of pregame strategizing. As part of that, we went around offering up our one idea for the best intervention. Or at least what we felt was the factor chiefly responsible for the decline in fertility. I had a very hard time with this question because there appear to be so many factors: urbanization, decline of strong pro-natalist religions, waiting to have kids, a generalized increase in infertility, porngraphy, the hypergamy of internet dating, and still other factors beyond these.
Most of the issues I just listed were the focus of one of the dozen or so talks delivered on the first day. Any that weren’t ended up as being part of one of the many conversations which took place over meals or at the parties which happened both nights. With respect to every issue that was discussed there were positive things to be said, and positive trends which could be observed. (Whether they were sufficient is a whole other matter.)
The mere fact of the conference’s existence was one of those positive trends, particularly the broad range of intellectual diversity that was present. But I think that underneath the scattered positive news, and all of the attendees who were individually fecund, most people felt as I did: There were just too many factors operating at a societal level to hope that the problem of low fertility will be solved quickly if at all. As long as you were focused narrowly on a single topic there was some room for optimism. “Well this might work.” But any attempt to truly encompass all of the potential factors which must be addressed — which was easy to do because you’d just listened to a half dozen different talks — seemed ultimately doomed.
From my own perspective, that may have been the conference’s big weakness: there wasn’t much discussion of why there are so many obstacles to fertility happening right now. Why it’s not just one crisis, but a myriad of crises. Is there some thread common to all of these problems that we might be able to pull on? To a certain extent it’s understandable that there wasn’t much of this. Grand narratives of powerful forces operating in the background have a tendency to sound like unhinged conspiracy theories. And if they somehow avoid that, then you often end up describing forces which are so big as to be entirely intractable.
This was the case with the first talk which was given remotely by Raw Egg Nationalist. It was all about plastics. This came the closest to offering a single explanation for everything, and as I have mentioned in previous posts (most recently in my review of A Poison Like No Other) plastics have broad-ranging impacts on hormones which includes depressing fertility. Once again it was a situation where there’s room for optimism individually. You can do a lot to mitigate the amount of microplastic you come in contact with, though it requires you to orient your life around it in a way that’s at least as burdensome as being vegan, and maybe more. But there’s not much room for optimism at the societal level, the problem is just far too massive.
In some respects the bigger problems seem easier to solve than the smaller ones.
Let me give an example. One of the talks concerned the harms to fertility caused by no-fault divorce. The speaker put forth a very compelling case that the costs of marriage were borne at different stages by each of the partners. It’s most costly for women at the beginning when they’re bearing children. It’s most costly for men later on when their wealth is at its peak, and their attractiveness and fertility is still high — they can often end up with someone younger if they abandon their first spouse. In such a situation you really need a contract that takes more than a person’s whim to dissolve. This would seem like an example of something a pro-natal movement could conceivably reverse. It's a very recent change: California was the first state to pass a law allowing no-fault divorce in 1969, and New York (the last state) passed its law in 2010. How hard could it be to reverse that? Could pro-natalists not get enough support in one state to give it a try? Perhaps, but the odds seem pretty long. The logistics would be very difficult and the opposition would be fierce. And even if the law was changed, people have been circumventing it for decades (which is why NY could go until 2010 without changing it).
On the other hand, you can imagine some amazing innovation that solves the plastics problem. Some plastic-eating, man-made bacteria that cleans it all up. Thus the illusion that big problems might be easier to solve than small ones. You don’t have to imagine the logistics of passing a real law that makes real changes. You can handwave the whole thing with a big place holder saying “future tech”. Perhaps that’s exactly what will happen but I suspect that at all levels, despite how obvious the problem is, despite how far away we can see it coming, despite the power of our imagination, despite all the things in our favor, both small and large changes will continue to be difficult.
III- What Has Been Tried
There was one story from my past which came up a lot in various conversations. I think it helps illustrate many of the potential difficulties around this topic.
When I was a kid my parents used to toss three or four of us (I’m the oldest of seven) in the back of a Ford Courier mini-pickup truck (with shell) and that’s how the family got around. Whoever was the youngest sat up front between Mom and Dad — or on Mom’s lap — but there were no seatbelts or car seats.
A Ford Courier similar to ours: Same color, but the shell was more basic, and ours had lines of rust just in front of the seam between the doors and the side panels. This allowed the side panels to detach almost like wings when I rear-ended someone at high speed, totaling the car a few weeks before my senior year. I was ogling a jogger rather than paying attention to the road.
Compare this to my experience twenty years later as we were preparing to have our third child. A third child meant a third car seat. What’s more, you can’t fit three car seats in a four door sedan. So in order to have a third child you need a van or an SUV, which is typically pretty expensive. Should you decide to have seven kids (as my parents did), there’s scarcely a car made that will fit all nine of you, and those that do are even more expensive.
Beyond just having to buy a more expensive model of car, cars in general are significantly more expensive than they were back then as well. As such, even if you’re just doing the bare minimum, that is complying with the law, children are significantly more expensive than they were even just a few decades ago. This is obviously one more thing to add to the list of impediments to fertility.
It’s also one that governments would seem well-positioned to tackle. Most people are understandably doubtful that the government could implement a program to solve infertility or decrease urbanization, but they’re great at giving out money. Indeed, mitigating the expense of having and raising children is where most of the effort has been placed. Numerous countries offer pro-natal financial incentives, some of which are quite elaborate. As an example Hungary offers numerous incentives from loans, to additional childcare, to cash, to being exempted from taxes. While it’s unfair to say that these measures have had no effect, the effect has not been huge. Hungary has seen their TFR go from a low of 1.23 in 2011 to 1.6 in 2023, but that’s still well below replacement.
My (paternal) grandparents had ten kids for lots of different reasons.
My parents had seven kids for mostly similar reasons, though a few were different.
I had four kids for another mix of reasons. From this giant selection of reasons to have more kids it’s not immediately apparent which of them map to the programs being conducted by the Hungarian government or any of the other governments. Which is to say none of us had kids because it meant money in our pocket. And I’m not sure any of us were actually prevented from having kids by a lack of money. I suppose I might have had more kids if someone had offered me a lot of money back then. Looking back, I wish I had had more kids, but I’m not sure if any of the incentives I’ve seen would have tipped things at the time.
As I mentioned there are a lot of things which are depressing fertility. If you expand the list to include everything that might be decreasing fertility, the list is truly gigantic. I haven’t attempted to cover all of them or even everything that happened at the conference. (If that’s really what you’re interested in I would recommend Dolan’s after-action report which appeared on his podcast.) But I thought it was worth ending things with a collection of observations. Some of these are weird, others are interesting, others are observations of what didn’t happen at the conference. In fact, let’s start there:
As near as I can remember the topic of immigration never came up. I’m not sure if that’s because the TFR of immigrants quickly converges on the TFR of the host nation, so there’s no point in discussing them. Or if immigration is its own complicated issue with lots of culture war overlap and no one wanted to get into that.
There was less of a culture war vibe than I expected. Certainly the conference leaned heavily towards the right, and in fact there had been an attempt to get the conference canceled. And I’m sure someone on the far-left would have been appalled by a lot of the stuff that was discussed, but I found everyone to be very reasonable and congenial. As a more concrete example I don’t think the topic of abortion came up at all.
The big division was between the traditionalists and the techies. Those who feel that some form of religion is the best way to encourage fertility and those who feel that IVF, embryo freezing, and surrogacy is. As you might imagine I’m in the former camp, and I agree with something Dolan said, “It’s easier for traditionalists to adopt technology than it is for techies to create a religion.”
Nevertheless some techies are trying to do just that. You may remember my book review of The Pragmatist’s Guide to Crafting a Religion. Its authors Simone and Malcolm Collins were both there, and very involved. I had occasion to ask Simone what she thought the key was to passing on their strong pro-natalist culture/religion to their children. She mentioned their family foundation which would give money to those of their descendents that produced the most children. I have no doubt that there are many others involved and that “religion” will be designed to be as enticing as possible. So if anyone can succeed they will, but at its core her answer seems very similar to the governmental incentives of dubious efficacy we’ve already talked about.
Speaking of religion there was, shockingly, a heavy Mormon component, and much discussion of the Mormon fertility rate which up until recently was quite high. There was quite a bit of disagreement over what it was now, with most people admitting that it was below replacement if you counted everyone, but probably around or just above replacement if you only counted people who are active within the church. In his presentation, Razib Khan claimed it was 2.4 which was the highest number I saw.
There were quite a few interesting people there. The presentation on no-fault divorce was given by Brit Benjamin, the ex-wife of Patri Friedman, grandson of Milton, and son of David. (I was never quite clear how her own divorce related to her presentation.) And I spent some time talking to Michael Anton best known as the author of The Flight 93 Election. Most of that time was him berating me for not immediately getting a Caddy Shack reference. But as I’ve already explained, Tommy Boy is the canonical movie in this space.
In the final analysis I was encouraged by the number of people taking the problem seriously, as well as the number of different ideologies who considered it to be a problem. The conference was a congenial assemblage of people from both right and left; people who are deeply religious and people who are avowed atheists; people who believe in a transhuman future and people who are trying to duplicate the Amish.
It’s a hard problem, perhaps an intractable one, absent a very large change. But whichever society figures it out can look forward to a great future, and those who don’t figure it out may have no future at all.