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Imagine a world where a brave array of new technologies has proliferated to meet our human needs by taming nature—yielding a vast increase in wealth, leisure and education.

Instead of scrimping like our ancestors at the mercy of forces beyond their ken, we have attained a noble’s sovereignty. Vast swathes of our lives are planted not with the starches of grim necessity but the fruit of our free choice.

Human life has begun to seem like an adventure.

Looking back at the sufferings of our grandparents, we almost doubt that their lives were fully human. We might admire their fortitude, but we certainly don’t wish to share the toil and tears that lined those black-and-white faces in those yellowed photos.

We glance at corners of the world where people still live as our forefathers did—and the scenes of poverty shock us. What is more, those folks are striving as fast as they can to join the rest of us. Soon the whole world will live as we do.

Alas, a serpent got into the garden. A technology fundamental to all this progress has dangerous, incalculable side effects.

At first, the signs were subtle and only appeared to experts. But, as time went on, the harm began to be obvious. Our carefully engineered techniques were disrupting the ecology. Resources became suddenly scarce. Exquisitely balanced biosystems started to fragment. Once-mighty natural forces began waxing feeble. Thundering rivers ran dry.

It seemed that the golden goose might be choking to death.

Experts explained why all this was happening, and the highest authorities offered a sobering diagnosis: We had overstepped the bounds of what nature would take at our hands. By subjecting the forces of life on earth to our inexhaustible wish list, we had threatened their viability.

We would have to go on a diet. We would need to step back, to renounce some of the control we had seized, and try to subsist in balance with the rest of nature again. We could still control our environment and plan our lives.

But to do this without poisoning our world we would also have to control ourselves, to act in careful harmony with the forces we wished to influence—rather than riding over them with a technological steamroller. It would mean living again in certain ways as our ancestors had.

Of course, there were dissenters who won popular praise by assuring the world’s consumers that the alarmists’ fears were misplaced. There was no need to worry about the mounting side effects of man’s technologies.

The resources that were depleted could be replaced; the biosystems that died had never been really essential; the freedoms we’d learned to treasure were too important to surrender.

Maybe the “authorities” weren’t really on the side of human freedom anyway—and it was time to find a new set of authorities; the dissenters modestly offered their services, and millions decided to follow them—creating a deep split of opinion between those who believed that a crisis existed and those who flatly denied it.

There was no room for compromise, so the two sides kept talking past each other, inventing ugly phrases to impugn each others’ motives.

How does the story turn out?

The above is not the story of climate change, but of the sexual revolution. The key technology in question is artificial contraception, and the ecology that is threatened is that of the human family.

It seemed once that the resources of nature were so inexhaustibly vast that they must be immune to our technologies; likewise, the institution of marriage and the family seemed too deeply rooted in human nature to be threatened by a few tweaks here and there.

Those who warned against each successive reform (laxer divorce laws, birth control, taboo-free premarital sex) as a threat to human marriage appeared as hysterical alarmists. Nothing as vast, ancient and primal as the heterosexual family was really fragile.

Surely the sheer vitality of human nature would preserve the “natural family” for the vast majority and keep the human race growing, even as our reforms made life more bearable for outsiders. One might as well worry that human beings could poison all earth’s air or kill off the life in its seas.

Now, of course, the doomsayers are getting some credit. Fewer and fewer young couples bother to marry at all, and a shrinking percentage of them will stay together.

Marriage has shrunk to such a pale ghost of itself that it can be blithely…redefined. Evermore, children are raised by that impoverished shard of a family, a single mother battling to her maximum limit to rear her young.

The birth rate is plummeting far below replacement levels…everywhere. The melting started with icy places like Japan and Russia. Then it jumped to Canada, Germany, Italy, even Spain. Then the United States.

Now birth rates are halving in Mexico. Each place that we imagine will make up for the birth dearth succumbs to the trend in turn.

The next great war over which human lives are sacred will center on the elderly—as the generation that embraced the pill and abortion ages ever more expensively in hospitals that their dwindled ranks of grandchildren cannot afford.

Those who did get born despite all these brave innovations, who scramble to support their own offspring in lands where children are scarce and barely supported, will look to the wrinkled rebels who left behind this mess with something less than the piety of Aeneas. There is some justice on earth after all.

Anyone who predicted this outcome in 1968 would have been dismissed as a fevered crank. Of course, that is what happened to Pope Paul VI. He warned in Humanae Vitae that new technological means of helping married couples plan their families would open a “wide and easy road towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality,” a loss of “respect for the woman” and her reduction to “a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment” (17).

The Pope also noted that nothing would “stop rulers from favoring, from even imposing upon their peoples,” the dictates of population control. So he called on us to “recognize insurmountable limits to the possibility of man’s domination over his own body and its functions” (21).

It is deadly to a man’s good name to be too right too soon. Paul VI and the other authorities—Scripture authors, Orthodox rabbis, Church Fathers, reformers like Luther and Calvin and every Christian church until 1930—were right to warn us that some liberating theories and technologies cut too deep, too close to the roots of life.

The vast, compelling attractions of love and sex were given their strength precisely to drive us to do something hard and dangerous: to commit ourselves for life, to bear and nurture children. By cleverly splicing away the pleasure from the effort, we have done for sex what cocaine does for the brain. Now, modern men act like those rats that starve themselves in the lab, pushing the “pleasure” lever instead of the one that dispenses food.

Mr. Zmirak’s book and other books relating to the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis essay originally appeared in The National Catholic Register.

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8 replies to this post
  1. I laugh, but not in joy. “…we have attained a noble’s sovereignty”, no, not even attained to the sensibility of a *noble savage*. We have, however, attained to a higher regard for pleasure than for life. It may not be part of the Western Ethos to believe in karma, but, as you say, who can doubt tht the payback will be a real b**ch?
    And, out of the shadows, who shall emerge to gaze upon the shattered monuments, inscribed, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”?

  2. Well, this is helpful, but there are still countries with very high birth rates (or TFR to be more precise). All of those are either in Sub-Saharan Africa or majority-Muslim (or both). So what the author suggests is not completely and well-informed, I think. While the West breeds itself out of existence, excess population from countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Niger and Somalia will migrate to Europe and North America. Why wouldn’t they? No one is going to stop them. And if they arrive illegally, and hang out for a while, they will be given an amnesty as a matter of justice. Ergo, the future of the UK looks like Pakistan, the future of France looks like N Africa, the future of Germany looks like Turkey (low birth rates, I know) and Afghanistan. The pace of migration and inability to speak positively of their own culture of the West means, by nec., that the idea that these immigrants will somehow adopt the customs and culture and norms of the UK, USA, Germany or France–that idea is ridiculous.

  3. Mr. Zmirak: If it’s any consolation to you at all, the current world population is estimated to be approximately 7 billion, with predictions that it will reach 8 billion within the next twenty-five years or so. Whatever else you might say about a child born into this world, she or he certainly shouldn’t be lonely. As to the particular case of declining birth rates in the West, where the technological and cultural changes you document have centered, there may be good news: according to the Washington Post (

    “The decline in birth rates in some of the world’s largest economies shows signs of stalling, and in some cases reversing, a new study shows, giving some relief to governments struggling to finance old-age provisions with taxes from a shrinking workforce. Research from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, in Germany, found that previous methods of calculating the number of births a woman will have over her lifetime do not take into account the fact that women are having babies later.
    Overall, the study, which looked at fertility rates in 37 developed economies, found that traditional methods of counting had underestimated the number of births per woman by about 20 percent. In particular, fertility is rising in the English-speaking world, with Britain, the United States, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand all likely to have sufficient births per woman to at least keep populations from falling in years ahead. ”

    It strikes me as interesting that Christians are now such fierce advocates of traditional marriage, of family and of fertility, when one of the earliest Christian documents from one of the earliest Christian proselytizers is very clear in its assertion that Christians ought to avoid marriage if possible, practice sexual abstinence, and marry only as an alternative to “burn[ing] with passion”. In Paul’s section on marriage (1 Corinthians: 7), he never once mentions having children, and clearly favors the unmarried state: “I would have you be free of care. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs–how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world–how he can please his wife–and his interests are divided.” Add children into the mix, and I’d say you’re looking at even more division of the “interests”. I’m not knocking marriage or children, mind you; I just think that the evolution of Christianity on this issue from Paul’s time to ours is remarkable and too little discussed.

    • Jack,
      Thanks for the link to the Post article. As to Paul, you quote from one of his earlier epistles wherein he expects the return of Messiah to happen very soon. Later in his life he adjusted his point of view and seems more amenable to marriage and family (I am thinking of the Pastoral epistles).

      • Abu Daoud: You’re right that Paul “adjusted his point of view” when the expected parousia did not occur. The questions raised by that are (a) if Paul was wrong about that, what does that say about Paul’s theology and Christology? It seems like an awfully big issue to have been wrong about. And (b) should Christians have continued to adhere to the original expectation of Christ’s return (and to the “end times” ethic that implied) or were they correct to adjust to “ordinary life”? The latter would suggest (at least in some interpretations) that Jesus came, died for our sins, rose from the dead, and changed, more or less, nothing…and that the fundamental assumptions of Christianity were wrong.

        • Dear Jack,
          Paul’s shift demonstrates to use the humility and proximity of God to us humans. He is a God who risks all, subjecting his very written Word to the only-approximate wisdom of humans. This does not make Scripture less valid, but more valid and more precious. You must understand that I live in a Muslim-majority city, in a Muslim-majority region (the Middle East). So I am used to being told that the Qur’anic version of revelation, a pure dictation from an eternal tablet in heaven, is better than what we Christians have. I will not accept it. God is close to you Jack. He is there in the interstices of your own personal life, loving you and caring for you, guiding you (if you will listen), and calling you to be part of the revolutionary movement which Jesus of Nazareth initiated so many years ago–the Kingdom of God.
          Come to the Light, to truth, to genuine compassion and love.
          Do not settle for the counterfiet of ‘tolerance’, reach beyond it to true love. Jesus. He is the desire of your heart, if you are humble enough to understand your own desires. Most humans are not. But the choice is yours.

          • Abu Daoud: Thank you for your generous response. I welcome the chance to be part of “the revolutionary movement which Jesus of Nazareth initiated,” but I’m afraid I’ll either have to do it on my own atheistic terms or (sadly) forego the invitation. You are no doubt right about humility, and I’m the first to admit I’m lacking in that regard. On the other hand, who knows what tomorrow will bring?

  4. Family First. The Latterday Saint Proclamation on Family to the World. Read it and try to understand. There is plenty of room.

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