I love to read stories that take place in an accessible future time. What I mean is, a story that takes place in 2500 is too far off for me to really conceptualize…but a story that takes place 10 to 50 years in the future? That can give me something to hope for within my lifetime.

I recognize that it’s difficult for authors to write so close to their time. We humans have a habit of missing the really worldview-defining inventions that actually develop (there are quite a few scifi novels and movies whose plots would not exist had the author anticipated the advent of the cellphone), but also of predicting worldviews that are truly far off. And so, especially when we look at the predictions made by the people of yesteryear, we can look back in time at parallel universes to our own and realize that our reality is nearly always less ambitious than how people thought things would turn out.

Future Predictions of the Past: Video phone
Eh...I guess this is close enough to Skype or FaceTime

Sometimes, writers can get things wrong without getting them hilariously so…but in the discrepancy between wrong and right, their works truly do raise more What Ifs. Recently, I finished reading the 1968 classic (and 1969 Hugo Award-winning) Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner, and I must say that this novel definitely represents a believable prediction of 2010 (!). As the TVTropes collective described SoZ:

It’s set in the year 2010, when the population of Earth has reached 7 billion. The Soviet Union is defunct as a superpower, but China is rapidly industrializing and increasing in power. Giant corporations have large enough economies to control entire countries. In-vitro fertilization and genetic mapping are becoming a reality. A computer the size of a large book is more powerful than the most massive supercomputers of the Sixties. Personalized digital avatars of yourself feature in everyday entertainment. Religious denominations are rapidly polarizing on moral issues like abortion. And ordinary people suddenly snap and go on killing sprees in schools, workplaces, and malls.

Sound familiar? Did we mention this book was written in 1968?

On the other hand, New York is encased in a giant dome, Puerto Rico and part of the Philippines are U.S. states, eugenics legislation has passed in 48 states, and the West has cured its addiction to oil.

Note that while TVTropes wrote off Puerto Rico being a US state as being one of the novel’s misses, here we are in 2012.

The interesting thing about SoZ is that it describes a parallel world where 7 billion humans on our pale blue dot hurtling in space means that the planet it bursting at the seams. Even though I recognize that we certainly do have news stories of people running amok, I do not see 7 billion as overcapacity. Nevertheless, for plenty of folks raised with neo-Malthusian sentiments, it seems obvious that humans are on a trajectory to overpopulation with the attendant problems of resource shortfall that come with the territory.

Demographic Crisis

Demographers do speak of a demographic crisis threatening many of the world’s nations, but interestingly, the demographic crisis of which they speak is something considerably different: low fertility. Russia’s measures to stave off the crisis, the probable decline (rather than mere decrease in growth) in population for Japan, and pensions crises in Europe and America are all common news topics for this demographic crisis.

The recent Weekly Standard article A Nation of Singles discusses many of the underlying reasons of this demographic shift, connecting it with the disassociation of sex from marriage and childbearing:

…How did we get to an America where half of the adult population isn’t married and somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of the population don’t get married for the first time until they’re approaching retirement? It’s a complicated story involving, among other factors, the rise of almost-universal higher education, the delay of marriage, urbanization, the invention of no-fault divorce, the legitimization of cohabitation, the increasing cost of raising children, and the creation of a government entitlement system to do for the elderly childless what grown children did for their parents through the millennia.

But all of these causes are particular. Looming beneath them are two deep shifts. The first is the waning of religion in American life. As Joel Kotkin notes in a recent report titled “The Rise of Post-Familialism,” one of the commonalities between all of the major world religions is that they elevate family and kinship to a central place in human existence. Secularism tends toward agnosticism about the family. This distinction has real-world consequences. Take any cohort of Americans​—​by race, income, education​—​and then sort them by religious belief. The more devout they are, the higher their rates of marriage and the more children they have.

The second shift is the dismantling of the iron triangle of sex, marriage, and childbearing. Beginning in roughly 1970, the mastery of contraception decoupled sex from babymaking. And with that link broken, the connections between sex and marriage​—​and finally between marriage and childrearing​—​were severed, too.

Where is this trend line headed? In a word, higher. There are no indicators to suggest when and where it will level off. Divorce rates have stabilized, but rates of cohabitation have continued to rise, leading many demographers to suspect that living together may be crowding out matrimony as a mode of family formation. And increasing levels of education continue to push the average age at first marriage higher.

Fertility rates play a role, too. Nearly one in five American women now forgo having children altogether, and without babies, marriage is less of a necessity. People’s attitudes have followed the fertility rate. The Pew Research Center frequently surveys Americans about their thoughts on what makes a successful marriage. Between the 1990 survey and the 2007 survey, there were big increases in the percentages of people who said that sharing political or religious beliefs was “important to a good marriage.” In 2007, there was a 21 percent increase in people who said it was important for a marriage that the couple have “good housing.” Thirty-seven percent fewer people said that having children was important. The other indicator to decline in importance from 1990 to 2007? “Faithfulness.”

Most of the people I know who have shared this article on Facebook have done so with a question: how can we reverse these trends? The thing is that we cannot “roll back” certain things — we can’t roll back higher education (although the push for everyone to go to universities has its own problems) — and in particular, greater educational and professional access for women — without considerably more social upheaval than it took us to get to this point. The issue is that most people like the changes that have gotten us to this point.

But, some people raise, perhaps we can change some of the other cultural factors.

While some see in the opposition to gay marriage only religious bigotry (and I do admit there is a lot of that), I cannot shake the sentiments that there are some folks who really just want to preserve a kind of pro-natal culture that doesn’t get spoken up for credibly all that much anymore. James Goldberg’s penultimate and ultimate posts in his series on gay marriage address these concerns. But, to try to summarize what he (and others — I’m going to definitely be bringing in other ideas with this summary) has said:

Marriage at least at some point was the binding of generations vertically. As such, marriage, sex, and childbearing were linked. Over time, due to many causes, this link has diminished to the point that many people — even many religious folks — see marriage as being a binding of a two (or more?) people within one generation.

When folks thinking of marriage in the old way oppose something like, say, gay marriage, they aren’t opposing gay marriage as a cause for the split of these links…rather, they point out that gay marriage is only plausible as a consequence of the split, and if you don’t agree with the split, then you have cause not to agree with gay marriage. (e.g., if marriage is primarily about two adults loving each other, then why should it matter whether that it is a man or a woman or two men or two women? The pro-natal argument would disagree that marriage is primarily about two adults loving each other.)

Thinking of the children?

The Children

A lot of people have issue with conservative/traditionalist religions’ approaches to marriage and childbearing (consider: the LDS church’s views and approaches to single and gay members, evangelical views of abortion, or the Catholic church’s views on contraception generally), but in light of the likely demographic crisis being more a matter of population decline rather than incline, it seems that these traditional values might offer us something here.

We enter a brave new world where humanity might go out with a whimper, not a bang. If we’re afraid of a world where we snuff ourselves out not because of mutually assured nuclear destruction, nor because of exhausting our resources through overpopulation, but rather because we do not reproduce enough to maintain our way of life, then the stickling points of many religions certainly provides good buffers for that:

  • Early marriage and marriage as ideal for all: The delay of marriage leads to many people deciding it’s not worth it at all, but if you have a culture that not only prioritizes the need for marriage, but the need for an early one, you shortcut this.
  • Early childbearing: The delay of childbearing may put many couples who would want to have children in a race against the clock as far as female infertility goes. Early childbearing may strain other pursuits, but the kids will be accounted for.
  • Motherhood prioritized: Expounding upon the “other pursuits” mentioned above, a culture that can properly socialize its members to prioritize motherhood as the most valuable pursuit for women can reduce the sting of deferred or dismissed professional or educational advancement.

Those are just a few items, and they were tough just for me to write. So, that leads to my questions for anyone who’s kept along with me this far:

  1. Have you ever individually felt restricted by these (or other) cultural and religious goals relating to family and childbearing?
  2. Do you recognize the tension between individual wants and needs vs societal  or demographic wants and needs?
  3. Is decreased population growth (or even population decline) really a problem requiring us to change our ways?

Ultimately, though, I wonder what the sociological science fiction novel about the world’s response to population decline would look like. I mean, is it basically just The Handmaid’s Tale?