In his 1929 book The Thing, G.K. Chesterton warns social reformers to be cautious about changing institutions, laws, or customs:
[L]et us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or a gate [is] erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away.”
Chesterton was illustrating the often-subtle importance of structures and ideas that moderns are so eager to deconstruct. Before setting longstanding traditions aside, we should first understand these things and understand why previous generations were committed to them. Otherwise, even well-meaning reforms can incur serious consequences, not all of which are immediately obvious, and which fall on future generations.
Chesterton’s analogy came to mind while reading an essay by Louise Perry at The Spectator, entitled, “Modernity is making you sterile.” Perry, a maverick feminist and author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, argues that the so-called “progress narrative” cherished among the elites of the developed world, along with the technologies that have enabled it, is keeping us from having babies. Like a slow-acting poison, modernity and its values have eaten away at the fabric of society, though imperceptibly so to those focused only on the present. This, she writes, is the real reason that most of the developed world is currently running out of people:
[W]hat we are now discovering is that, at the population level, modernity selects systematically against itself. The key features of modernity–urbanism, affluence, secularism, the blurring of gender distinctions, and more time spent with strangers than with kin–all of these factors in combination shred fertility. Which means that progressivism, the political ideology that urges on the acceleration of modernisation, can best be understood as a sterility meme.
In other words, if a society places a low value on children, pretty soon there will not be enough of them. As a friend of mine likes to say, “That’s not magic, it’s just math.”
Only 3% of the world’s population currently lives in a country whose birth rate isn’t declining. According to a 2020 BBC report, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Thailand, and South Korea will lose half their populations by the end of this century. Within 75 years, virtually every country on earth will have a shrinking population. Those in the West will be among the first and fastest declining.
Why is almost no one talking about this slow-motion crisis? According to Perry, we are blinded by the “urbanism, affluence, secularism, [and] the blurring of gender distinctions” that is collectively embraced by moderns. Committed to maximizing individual freedom and immediate happiness, the West has learned to ignore the subtle usefulness of family, fertility, and gender roles. It assumes that people who once practiced these things “were all bad and stupid.” The results of our beliefs and actions (or inaction) include a seemingly unstoppable drop in birth rates and, in Perry’s words, the eventual “end of our way of life.”
A progressive vision of reality sees social reform and technological advancement solely as a means to make life freer, comfier, or more entertaining. Institutions, laws, and customs are ignored or eliminated without ever asking the kinds of questions Chesterton thought important: “What are these traditions and institutions for? What do we owe to future generations?”
Perry rightly concludes that an overhaul of modernity is overdue. This will involve asking better questions and, at the very least, reprioritizing motherhood. We must consider why traditional values were valued in the first place, in light of the future and not just the present. Unfortunately, Perry also thinks that such an overhaul can take place without reconsidering the deepest roots of modern individualism or the sexual revolution. For example, among the “values” she hopes to hang onto in an ideal, fertile future are “gay rights.”
Still, it’s encouraging to hear a voice outside of conservative Christian circles saying that children are blessings and that healthy societies welcome them. Our increasingly sterile way of life is a sign of sickness at the heart of modernity. Unless we can learn to see the value of past traditions for our future, we’re not going to have one.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.