Robin Hanson has a recent post on problems of declining fertility. One thing he does not mention and perhaps should is pessimism about the future as a cause of, or excuse for, not having children. It appears in our culture in a variety of forms:
Overestimating Climate Change
As regular readers know, I believe that the current scientific orthodoxy on climate change overestimates expected cost, that we do not actually know whether climate change will make us on net better or worse off. Most people writing about climate change disagree, so it is not surprising that the average American or European regards climate change as bad.
Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
What is surprising is how bad. If you go by expert opinion, William Nordhaus or the body of the IPCC report, the cost for humans of climate change over the rest of this century will be equivalent to the cost for humans of a reduction in world GNP of a few percent, reducing the increase in GNP per capita to something like 285% instead of the 300% it would be without climate change.1
That is not the impression one gets from the popular literature or the public conversation, both of which are full of people writing as if climate change has had large negative effects already, is going to have much larger effects in the next few decades, catastrophic effects, threatening our civilization if not the survival of our species, in the longer term. Examples:
The claimants, aged between 11 and 24, accuse the nations – including all 27 European Union member states, along with the UK, Norway, Turkey, Switzerland and Russia — of failing to do enough to combat the climate crisis, and thus threatening their right to live a safe, happy and healthy life. Specifically, they argue that extreme heat and wildfire risks force them to stay inside, make sleep and exercise difficult and trigger mental distress. (Bloomberg)3
Climate change: rich world’s inaction is dooming us all to be boiled frogs
· At a time when environmental, economic and political disasters are plaguing the planet, global leaders all seem either distracted or totally absent (Andrew Sheng)
Climate Change ‘Biggest Threat Modern Humans Have Ever Faced’, World-Renowned Naturalist Tells Security Council, Calls for Greater Global Cooperation (UN)
Defense Secretary Calls Climate Change an Existential Threat (US Department of Defense
The Previous Version
Currently, climate change is the looming catastrophe that is going to kill us all, destroy civilization, or at least make the world a much worse place to live in unless something drastic is done to prevent it. Fifty or sixty years ago it was population growth. In The Population Bomb, Paul and Anne Ehrlich confidently predicted unavoidable mass famine, hundreds of millions of people starving to death, in the nineteen seventies, the decade after the book was published. The book was a best seller. Although their view of the consequences of population growth was more extreme than that of most others commenting on the subject, it was at the time within the range of respectable opinion. For example:
The pace of population growth is so quick that even draconian restrictions of childbirth, pandemics or a third world war would still leave the world with too many people for the planet to sustain, according to a study. (The Guardian, 2014)
What actually happened was the precise opposite. People in poor countries continued to have children. Nutrition in poor countries went up, increasing calories per capita, not down. Extreme poverty went sharply down, is now, as a fraction of the world population, less than a fifth what it was when the Ehrlich’s published.
That does not seem to have had much effect on the public’s willingness to believe in impending catastrophes.
The Newest Version
is the peril of Artificial Intelligence taking over the world and killing off or enslaving all humans. I raised that as a possible future in my Future Imperfect fifteen years ago. I now encounter some people, although not yet many, who treat it as the future we should expect
The Right Wing Version
I am active on an online forum with a range of political views that includes a few pretty extreme right wingers. Several of them believe that progressives have captured enough of the levers of power, K-12 schooling, the universities, the media, the big corporations, the federal bureaucracy including the FBI, that defeating them is now impossible. For example:
Maybe it's time to stop following politics? Enjoy what little time you have left before the left's cleanup is complete? If the outcome is already decided, you gain nothing by following the news, except maybe outside of knowing where the purges will be so you can avoid them.
The sun is setting on your life and the lives of everyone you care about. There isn't much time. Enjoy what little sunshine is left. (celamien)
I don’t watch movies, have read little popular literature, but my impression from second-hand information is that themes of dystopia have become unusually popular in modern entertainment. A google for dystopian movies found an article listing the 23 best ones. A search for dystopian novels found a list of 23 of the best ones; five were old and famous, the others reasonably new.
It looks as though a lot of people enjoy spending time in a fictional future where the world has gone to hell.
The Real World
Part of what makes the pattern so odd is that, by objective criteria, the world has not only not gone to Hell, it is in multiple respects strikingly better than in the past. Some of that is obvious in our ordinary lives, where we have access to a variety of entertainment and a quality of medical care that has never existed before. Some of it is visible in statistics. World life expectancy is currently 72.6–73.2. It was 45.7–48 in 1950, 31–32 in 1900, ~29 at the beginning of the 19th century. It has been going up a lot, faster in recent decades than in the past.
The fraction of the world population living in extreme poverty has fallen sharply, is now about a fifth what it was fifty years ago.
World GNP per capita was about five times as high at the end of the 20th century as at the beginning.
We are richer, healthier, better provided with the good things of life than ever before. Prediction, they say, is difficult, especially about the future.4 But why, when things have been getting rapidly better for your entire life and well before, would you predict that they are about to start, or have just started, to get rapidly worse? Why would you expect the near future to be a world you would not want to bring children into?
There are two possible categories of answer. One is that there are good reasons for that belief, that one or another of the projected catastrophes, or a different one, is what we should expect. I do not believe that is true but would be happy to see arguments for it.
The other is that there is some reason why people believe it or pretend to believe it even though it is not true. An example would be people who do not want to have children but feel some social pressure to find pessimism a convenient excuse for not having them. I can imagine that as an explanation for part of the pattern, but not a very large part.
What are others?
My favorite answer, from the comments to this post:
Social media disproportionately elevates the voices of unhappy people, because they spend more time online. Previously we mostly talked about public affairs with cheerful extroverts, because those are the people you tend to meet and talk to, and got our news from successful professionals because those were the people who wrote news articles as a profession. Because moods are contagious, everyone is now more unhappy.
Probably not the right answer, but an ingenious one that I hadn’t thought of.
Projections of both economic growth and the cost of climate change vary; those figures are typical.
“From 2016 to 2021, four types of climate disasters (floods, storms, droughts and wildfires) -- the frequency of which has increased due to global warming -- led to 43.1 million child displacements in 44 countries, the report says.”
As the quote makes clear, the number is for all weather disasters not for weather disasters due to climate change, making the headline a lie.
Over the lifetime of the oldest claimant, global temperature has gone up by about half a degree C.