Even in an age of social distancing, you’ll still find the strangest people getting into bed with each other. In mid-March, the U.K. government’s behavioral insights team—known as the “nudge unit”—unveiled its response to tackling the novel coronavirus. Its plan, as is well known now, involved allowing the disease to run through the population in order to develop local herd immunity. The nudge unit’s rationale was that most of those infected would recover and develop a natural resistance to the virus, which would slow the spread of the disease among the most vulnerable as the search for a vaccine continued. The British nudgeocrats did not flinch at the implication that this strategy, given the virus’s known mortality rates, could eventually kill between a quarter- and a half-million people: effectively a form of state-sanctioned mass murder.
In response to the predictable outcry, the U.K. government eventually changed course and embraced social distancing and other mobility-limiting measures to flatten the viral infection curve. But the death drive at the heart of the herd immunity strategy did not fade with the defeat of the nudgeocrats’ preferred approach. As lockdowns took hold and the full economic toll of the pandemic grew apparent, calls across the developed world to “get back to work” and more carefully evaluate the costs and benefits of social distancing increased. At the start, this was usually framed as a choice between lives and dollars: “No society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its economic health,” editorialized The Wall Street Journal on March 19, while an opinion column in Australia asked, “Lives matter, but at what cost?” Eventually, these calls became more straightforwardly eliminationist, presenting the slaughter of those most at risk from the virus as a form of heroic wartime sacrifice. In an emblematic exchange, 70-year-old Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told Tucker Carlson he would be prepared to risk death if it would allow the economy to return to normal.
This strain of eliminationism is not simply a derangement of the political right; the notes sounded by the dollars versus deaths brigade come straight from the liberal hymnbook. Cass Sunstein, Obama administration regulator and patron saint of the nudgeocrats, got in early with his own gratingly contrarian pandemic take. “Probability neglect,” he announced in late February with a characteristic cod-social-scientific flourish, meant “a lot of people are more scared” about the coronavirus “than they have any reason to be.” Libertarians quickly followed suit, among the most prominent of them law professor Richard A. Epstein and economist Robin Hanson, who pushed for the adoption of strategies centered around “voluntary infection” and “variolation” as alternatives to social distancing. A common thread united these approaches: the idea that, sometimes, life is simply not worth fighting for. “It is not always unacceptable to cause death knowingly,” Sunstein wrote in one of the four books he published last year. “When government allows new highways to be built, it knows that people will die on those highways.” For a liberal cost-benefit fanatic like Sunstein, policy is always about trade-offs, even when the costs can be measured in lost lives; do we really want to stop building highways just because some people will die on them? Since the value of a human life can be quantified—at $9 million to $10 million, according to major federal agencies—death is acceptable, and lives expendable, when more valuable goods are involved. The coronavirus pandemic has breathed new life into this old utilitarian chestnut, and it is precisely the life-reducing mindset of cost-benefit analysis that has driven the resistance to social distancing.
What’s remarkable is how voices conventionally thought to occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum have latched on to the cause of acceptable death. Cheering for the elimination of humans is now an authentically pan-political concern. “Wow,” a Silicon Valley product designer tweeted in mid-March. “Earth is recovering. Air pollution is slowing down. Water pollution is clearing up. Natural wildlife returning home. Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We’re the virus.” That catchphrase (“We are the virus”) has been widely mocked and memed, and while there are many in the environmental movement who take issue with its basic premise—that humans, rather than resource use or consumer capitalism, are the problem—plenty of others have responded in vigorous agreement. In one of the more interesting contributions to this school of thought, Canadian ecologist William E. Rees connected the pandemic to climate change, characterizing both as the result of a single factor: rampant population growth. “There are no exceptions to the first law of plague dynamics: the unconstrained expansion of any species’ population invariably destroys the conditions that enabled the expansion, thus triggering collapse,” Rees wrote in early April. The only way to “salvage global civilization,” he insisted, is by reducing “the human ecological footprint” through a “controlled contraction of the human enterprise.” In other words, we must depopulate or perish. Fewer people will be our salvation.
This is not a new idea. The argument that the world is overpopulated—and that control of birth rates holds the key to reversing climate change—dates back to Malthus, and remains a stubborn presence in the climate change debate today. “We cannot hide away from human population growth,” primatologist Jane Goodall told a climate change session at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, a few weeks before the global Covid-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic. “It underlies so many of the other problems. All these things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem if there were the size of population that there was five hundred years ago.”
Under the strain of eliminationist thinking, the pandemic has emerged as a struggle for human life—both literally, since there are billions of individual lives on the line, and figuratively, as a contest to determine the real importance of life to policy and the public sphere. Eliminationists of all stripes—whether of a conservative, liberal, libertarian, or environmental hue—conceptualize the human as an agent of quantifiable destruction. The human is reduced to a price or, in the environmental metonymy, a footprint. The human becomes the main unit of negotiation in an economic game whose structure goes unquestioned and whose rules are presumed to be natural rather than the product of conscious deliberation. Eliminationist thinking, in other words, makes the human less than human. What should we do about people? Whether facing a pandemic or climate change, eliminationists have a simple solution: Let them go, we don’t care.
And yet care is precisely the feeling—and the action—that the coronavirus pandemic has revealed as most essential to human flourishing. Think of all those nurses, doctors, medical technicians, and hospital janitors who have tended to the needs of the most vulnerable, or the delivery people, pharmacists, and supermarket shelf-stackers who have put their bodies in harm’s way to meet the daily needs of the uninfected. These care workers have kept society whole throughout the pandemic, even as the back-to-work crowd’s calls to abandon the vocation of care and endorse the manslaughter of millions have multiplied. What’s been revealed, in the process, is a sharp demographic split: between those most vulnerable to the virus, who are overwhelmingly elderly, and those tasked with looking after them, who skew young.
Across the developed world, countries have had to contend with critical workforce shortages. The U.K. assembled an extraordinary volunteer army to deliver food and essential services to the elderly in self-isolation and issued an appeal to retired doctors and nurses to help meet the shortfall in care workers exposed by the pandemic, while, in early April, cell phones in New York City lit up with a similar call for medical workers to join the fight against the virus. As the pandemic progressed, a jarring contrast set in: between the carnage spreading through aged-care facilities and the grim uptick in the death count of older patients, on the one hand, and the astonishing energy, commitment, and youth of those called on to save the lives of those most in need, on the other. Disappointing the eliminationists, people in the countries worst affected by the virus have flattened the curve by caring for, not killing, one another.
Environmentalists such as Rees are correct when they paint the coronavirus pandemic as a crisis driven by climate change. It’s argued that the destruction of natural habitats, itself a by-product of the rich world’s irrepressible material and energy needs, has driven wild animals into unprecedented contact with humans, feeding the exotic fauna trade suspected to be at the heart of the virus’s origin in Wuhan and creating a web of unpredictable zoonotic consequences. Meanwhile, the very modernization initiatives that led the Chinese government to encourage the development of a domestic wild animal industry in the first place are themselves of a piece with the expansionary, acquisitive processes of resource and energy use—the lust for consumption and growth—that drive the ongoing destruction of our planetary ecosystem. As many have already pointed out, all the planetary stresses exposed by this epidemiological crisis apply to the larger ecological crisis that’s already unfolding: the permeability of borders, decaying state capacity in the global north, the rapid globalization of atmospheric harms. What has been discussed far less is how much more fragile and unsustainable the demographics of countries in the developed world have yet to become, assuming current population trends hold, as the earth grows hotter, more climatically volatile, and less comfortably survivable.
In a future where the populations of rich countries are even older and more care-dependent than they are today and the world faces rolling crises born of the fallout from anthropogenic destabilization of the climate, who will answer the calls for help? The coronavirus pandemic points the way to a looming, slow-motion collision between the aging populations of the West and climate change. The real problem is not that rich countries have too many people, but too few: too few, specifically, of the young people who will be needed to repel the worst effects of global heating, care for the old, and supply the dynamism and creativity that offer the surest path to unlocking solutions to stabilize the climate. Regrettably, however, the institutions of liberal capitalism are wholly unprepared to address the demographic challenges ahead. Throughout the developed world, the same rationalizing cost-benefit mindset that drives eliminationist responses to the coronavirus pandemic plagues political approaches to demographic rejuvenation. Absent a more humane, care-centered approach to population policy, Western nations are bound to live an ever-worsening cycle of labor shortages, sickness, economic disruption, and death, even as the earth grows hotter and life becomes less tolerable for all.
Control of population was among the first articles of statecraft. An early Chinese manual of governance recommended that “if the multitudes scatter and cannot be retained, the city state will become a mound of ruins.” The literature of the first states, in both Europe and Asia, was littered with similar homilies. Since “the state with the most people was generally richest and usually prevailed militarily over smaller rivals,” James C. Scott writes in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, “the prize of war was more often captives than territory.” This basic assumption of statecraft—that more is better—remained essentially undisturbed until the late eighteenth century, when Thomas Robert Malthus wrote his famous essay on the principle of population. Experience has convincingly disproved the “law” Malthus isolated—that population grows exponentially while the means of subsistence grow only linearly—and more recent contributions in the same tradition, most notably entomologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, have been similarly discredited.
Though the heyday of the populationists has passed, their ideas live on, in academia and among the professional policy influencers, usually dressed up in the neoliberal language of individual choice. A recent paper written by three male academics, for example, argues that “population engineering,” pursued through a tripartite strategy of “choice enhancement,” “preference adjustment,” and “incentivization,” is a “practical and morally justifiable means to help ameliorate the threat of climate change.” Many environmental NGOs talk a similar language; Population Connection has endorsed the idea that “the epicenter of all of our problems in the environment is runaway population growth,” while the Sierra Club, recognizing that “population pressure causes environmental harm,” calls for “policies that will help women choose the timing and spacing of their children.”
We can all, I hope, agree that giving women the freedom and security to make reproductive choices on their own terms should be a paramount policy objective for sane governments everywhere, as should access to the medical care needed to facilitate those choices. But women’s empowerment needs no environmental crutch to clear the threshold of good policy. Indeed, embodying ecological virtue in this manner and consigning climate stabilization to the realm of private choice—relying on women to act as “sexual stewards,” to borrow a phrase from gender and environmental scholar Jade S. Sasser, for the planet’s well-being—is precisely what is not needed to address global warming. Climate change is a problem of collective action, not individual will; as Barry Commoner, a biology professor who was among Ehrlich’s first critics, once put it, “Pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom.” It’s obviously true that a planet with far fewer people on it than our present 7.6 billion would emit far less carbon. But there’s no nonviolent way to reduce the world’s population with anything like the urgency required to make a meaningful contribution to stabilizing the climate. What matters is how we all use resources, not how many people use them.
In the long run, demographics and development will likely render the populationist case moot anyway. As countries get richer, their fertility rates tend to drop. According to the World Bank, global population growth peaked at 2.1 percent in the late 1960s and has been on a steady decline since; in 2018 it was 1.1 percent. The idea that fewer people is the answer to impending ecological collapse, and governments everywhere must work to reduce populations, runs up against the simple reality that the world is already creating new humans at a slower and slower pace—and has been doing so for half a century. This is not cause for celebration, however; quite the opposite. In the developed world, the defining feature of populations today, thanks to decreasing fertility rates, is that they are both aging and decelerating. The future of many countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development with subreplacement fertility looks like Japan, where the population peaked in 2008 and is projected to include more people over the age of 80 than under the age of 14 by 2050, making it the world’s first truly geriatric society. Across the European Union, the number of working-age people (15–64) for every person over 65—commonly known as the “elderly dependency ratio”—is on track to decline to two by 2050, from four today. Population growth in Poland today is flat; in Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, and Portugal, it is already negative.
The aging of populations in the West is a slow-motion economic catastrophe, and climate change will only make it worse. Think of all the unbearably sad and dystopian stories that have emerged during the pandemic: the aged-care facilities turned into death wards, the wrenching spectacle of mass graves being dug for the unidentified dead, parks being considered as burial grounds, elderly people seeking desperate solace from smart home devices in their final living hours. The effects of climate change on older populations will be exactly like this, only multiplied many times over and drawn out over a longer span of time. Disability, frailty, a lack of mobility, and impaired organ function are the lived realities of many old people even in normal times—difficulties that will only grow as heat waves, floods, and hurricanes become more destructive, amid the general rise in temperatures, pollution, and sea levels. The ecological crisis is also a crisis of aged care.
Old people who are more ill than usual because of climate change will compound the structural stress that aging already places on a country’s economic health. It’s generally accepted that as populations age, the strain on the economy grows, as there are fewer working-age people to support the elderly. Across the developed world, aging is stretching welfare states to the breaking point, and things will only get worse as the costs of adapting to and mitigating climate change, especially for the elderly, climb. A falling dependency ratio is a recipe for shriveling demand, a shrinking tax base, and economic decline. Two recent papers demonstrate that aging leads to lower GDP per capita, with the decline attributable to slower growth in both the labor force and labor productivity. A battery of research shows that companies in younger labor markets are more innovative, and older economies more monopolistic.
Nevertheless, the custodians of policy consensus in the West, especially the United States, are usually fairly blasé when asked to contemplate population aging and its potentially devastating impact on domestic economic growth. Innovation and productivity growth, they say, will be our salvation—a rosier Yangonomics. Given the state of the literature on the subject, however, this complacency may owe more to confusion than confidence. It may be true, of course, that innovation (the AI revolution, robots, production by meme: whatever you want to call it) will eventually render most wage labor redundant. Innovation may even help rebalance the demographic deficits that most countries in the West are running up. But there’s a complicating factor at work here: time. And the precious little time we have available to reverse global warming calls for more than mere faith in our aging societies’ inherited (and contested) capacity for innovation.
The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has famously argued that we have only a decade to stabilize the climate and prevent the planet from heating to uninhabitable temperatures. Adherents of the degrowth movement think that a rapid, mass contraction in economic life is the most effective way to reverse climate change. But if you accept, as I have argued elsewhere, that this solution is unfeasible or unlikely to materialize in the decade we have available to set our ecological house in order, the fastest, most humane path to climate stabilization probably looks something like the Green New Deal—a combination of investment to boost the development of renewable energy, welfarism to address the economic inequalities that climate change renders deadly for those most in need, and flexible new ways of thinking about how best to rebuild social relations and relegitimize institutions for the post-carbon age. Climate change, in this sense, calls not for societal retrenchment but a flowering of thought and action across politics, the economy, and civil society. It demands countries and workforces that are dynamic, and creative, and willing to take risks. Countries, in other words, that look nothing like the senescent, exhausted, shrinking polities we find across the global north today.
What, then, offers the surest path to demographic rejuvenation? Pro-natalist policies are one way for states to boost their birth rates, but they often devolve into an unfortunate “breed for the motherland” jingoism, and their track record of actually producing more babies in the developed world is poor. In the OECD, there are a handful of nations with subreplacement fertility rates (anything south of 2.1 births per woman) whose populations are nevertheless growing at a fairly robust pace. Australia’s population increased by 1.6 percent in 2018, Canada’s by 1.4 percent, New Zealand’s by almost 1 percent. That growth, of course, has been driven by immigration, which presents the other obvious solution to the developed world’s creeping senescence.
Out there in the land of the optimistic think tankers, hardly a day goes by without some paean to the economic value of immigration. Immigrants “play a disproportionate role in American entrepreneurship,” they’re a “win-win” for economic development in both the countries they migrate to and emigrate from. All of which, of course, is true, but we don’t need a blast of turgid position-paper prose (“refugees can move the needle when it comes to integrating their communities in global markets in robust ways”) to make that case; any sentient being alive in the developed world’s many multiethnic democracies today knows from lived experience that immigration makes countries far richer, more diverse, more dynamic, and more interesting than they would otherwise be. Immigrants are the developed world’s best hope to foster the kinds of demographic replenishment and creativity that are sorely needed to produce workable solutions to the climate crisis in the coming decades.
As climate change accelerates, there’s also a strong argument to be made for developed countries to increase their migrant intake on the grounds of environmental justice. Ecological collapse, the product of developed-world industrialization, will hit those in poorer countries hardest. For centuries, Europe and the United States plundered these countries, and now their reward is impending obliteration by the ecological distortions that the rich world’s self-interest has unleashed. In addition to aid and other channels of economic assistance, significantly higher immigration intakes are one effective way for the developed world to discharge the moral obligation that this chain of cause and effect creates. This seems especially urgent at a time when those displaced by environmental degradation still have no formal refugee status under international law.
And yet. Despite the obvious benefits, these are not hospitable times for immigration across the developed world. Inspired by the Great Replacement–inflected thinking of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, several countries in Eastern Europe are pulling up the drawbridge to foreign migrants, their dim demographic prospects notwithstanding. Even in nations with a healthy immigration intake today, the story is not much happier, and migrants continue to attract a xenophobic backlash. In some of these countries, such as the United States, nativists have ascended to the highest chambers of power. But even in those societies run by less nakedly reactionary governments, the dog whistle and the assimilationist value-grab remain sturdy tools of everyday policymaking. There’s a hypocrisy at the heart of immigration policy in the West today. On the one hand, immigrants are seen as useful agents of growth; on the other, immigrant-bashing is now a reliable vote winner. Openness to migrants is justified and encouraged as a matter of policy, in order to boost a country’s demographic and economic prospects, but the demands of electoral politics simultaneously require that openness to be undercut. It’s not quite the case that democracy dictates that immigrants must be demonized, but all too often short-term electoralism means they are.
Shedding immigration policy of its xenophobic skin is especially hard when it comes to climate change, since environmental destruction has long been associated, in the popular political imagination, with the libidinous, foreign Other. Indeed, there’s a direct line connecting the thinking of post-Malthus populationists and those who oppose immigration in the developed world today. More important to the history of U.S. policy formulation than Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb was a pamphlet of the same title published in 1954, 14 years before Ehrlich’s book, by Dixie Cup co-founder Hugh Moore. Moore’s pamphlet paralleled the Eisenhower administration’s approach to international aid policy at a time when the Unites States’ major concern was to limit the spread of communism. Containing population growth in the global south—a place to be exploited for its natural resources and cheap labor but feared for its fecund and potentially Marxist billions—became a major priority for U.S. administrations during the Cold War. When an adviser to Lyndon Johnson suggested increasing relief to India in advance of a visit by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Johnson replied, “Are you out of your fucking mind? I’m not going to piss away foreign aid in nations where they refuse to deal with their own population problems.” Before long, the international development community had joined this misguided effort to tie aid to reproductive suppression. The full horror of postwar population control measures—forced sterilization, infanticide, the state invasion of women’s bodies, whole countries left demographically distorted for generations to come—rested on this basic, orientalizing notion: The real danger to social order, not just globally but also at home, came from the irresponsible, untrustworthy foreigner incapable of controlling basic human urges.
This is to say nothing of the more general historical links between environmentalism and race science, which are plentiful. California’s Save the Redwoods League was founded in 1918 by eugenicists who explicitly linked the protection of the environment with the preservation of racial purity. In 1974, Garrett Hardin, a eugenicist and self-styled “human ecologist,” published “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor,” in which he compared the United States to a lifeboat with little space to spare and argued that admitting more people would cause everyone to drown. “World food banks move food to the people, hastening the exhaustion of the environment of the poor countries. Unrestricted immigration, on the other hand, moves people to the food, thus speeding up the destruction of the environment of the rich countries.” Hardin’s anti-immigration environmentalism paralleled the U.S. government’s campaign against undocumented workers from Mexico. “By the late 1970s,” environmental policy scholar Robert Gottlieb has written, “population control was becoming synonymous with efforts to control the flow of Mexican migrants.” The heirs to Hardin’s xenophobic brand of environmentalism today are organizations like the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, both of which continue to push the line that curbing immigration will help reduce carbon emissions. The United States is not the only country where powerful interests employ a veneer of environmental concern to decorate the caravan of bigotry. In Australia, for example, a loose coalition of electronics store owners, ecologists, mining profiteers, and parliamentarians (with some overlap between these categories) has assembled to push the agenda for a smaller, whiter country. The Hardinesque slogan critics have mockingly tarred them with: “Fuck off, we’re full.”
Governments attempting to head off the reckoning between climate change and population aging by boosting immigration run up against the cultural wall amassed by centuries of explicitly racist policymaking, in which the undocumented Mexican, the refugee arriving by boat, and even the lawful airport entry have always been cast as a threat. In Trump’s language, “They are taking our jobs. China is taking our jobs…. India is taking our jobs.” So why regard the Chinese or Indian immigrant as any different? From there, it’s only a short conceptual step to children in cages: “The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility…. Not on my watch.”
Even the countries regularly lauded as immigration success stories leave much to be desired, their schemes often amounting to little more than indentured slavery (the migrant worker programs of the Persian Gulf states) or a form of neocolonial demographic resource stripping (the “skills-based” migration systems of Canada and Australia, which target sending countries’ best and brightest). Policies built around skills entrench, within receiving countries, a purely utilitarian vision of migration, and encourage the belief that immigrants are valuable exclusively as units of economic production. The same cost-benefit tyranny that reduces the coronavirus patient to an expendable unit of economic value turns immigrants into mere vessels of productivity. Migrants are valuable to the economy, of course, but that is not their only value, and forcing them to justify their existence by submitting to a rationalizing calculus of worth is both dehumanizing and counterproductive, since it sows the seed of social conflict by defining migrants as competitors in the labor market. As migration scholar Liav Orgad has written, “states want to have it both ways—enjoying the economic benefits of migration, while not [being] willing to fully accommodate the cultural changes brought by it.”
None of this should come as much of a surprise, since electorates all over the developed world have been conditioned by 50 years of market liberalism to think of the economy in purely agonistic terms. Most of the literature on the demographic crisis in the West is the work of conservatives: good-vibes natalists like Jonathan V. Last or weary cultural pessimists like Ross Douthat. In The Decadent Society, his recently published volume of demographic aphorisms and film criticism, Douthat dismisses immigration as the solution to demographic decline in the West, characterizing it as a technocratic fantasy uninformed by political reality. Mass immigration, he writes, “is a double-edged sword…. It delivers the promise of a more dynamic future, potentially, than the future promised by low birthrates, but for natives who are aging and whose communities aren’t thriving, it also suggests the benefits of that imagined future belong increasingly to people who seem culturally alien, to inheritors who aren’t your natural heirs, to other people’s children and grandchildren rather than the dwindling numbers of your own.” All of which is true, but that critique only makes sense as long as you accept the world as it is—as long as you don’t question an economic model that privatizes public goods, leaves the state shriveled and impotent, and pits people against one another rather than building bonds between them. The “immigration problem” is nothing to do with immigration per se, but a reflection of the way in which immigration has been instrumentalized within a public sphere built on self-dealing. The immigrants have no share of blame in this; nor do those threatened by their arrival. Rather, the “problematic” nature of immigration today stems from its mismanagement by governing elites, reflecting a basic failure of political imagination.
In 1910, Eugene Debs faced down an attempt by the right wing of the Socialist Party of America to adopt a policy against Asian immigration. In a letter, he wrote: “The plea that certain races are to be excluded because of tactical expediency would be entirely consistent in a bourgeois convention of self-seekers, but should have no place in a proletariat gathering under the auspices of an international movement that is calling on the oppressed and exploited workers of all the world to unite for their emancipation.” “Integrating” immigrant populations—the obsession of political demography in the developed world today—would be far easier in a society encouraged to view human existence as an exercise in cooperation and solidarity rather than individual self-enrichment. Moral clarity of Debs’s caliber is in desperately short supply today, and the marketization of our political imagination—the reduction of politics to a marketplace of domination and defeat—is a big part of the reason why. Liberal capital demands profitability above all. As long as immigrants are welcomed into an economic matrix whose defining characteristics are competition, alienation, and violence, the hospitality of receiving countries will remain contingent, riven with conflict, and precarious, and the developed world’s “immigration problem” will endure. It makes no sense to speak naïvely of morality and justice—to make the obvious ethical case for immigration, regardless of the intervening urgencies of developed-world demographics and climate change—while ignoring the social distortions wrought by the atomizing nature of the economies into which most immigrants today are absorbed. The demographic and environmental arguments in favor of immigration will fail as long as they refuse to reckon with this basic reality. Climate change will accelerate, along with the demographic decline of the West. And developed nations will limp on, their policies to extract themselves from this double crisis hopelessly out of step with the times.
There is history to contend with here, but surely no path dependence. The economy is not exogenous; it does not exist in a state of nature. Our ability to transform patterns of human energy use is coterminous with our ability to imagine a different economy, a different model of human enterprise and togetherness. Resolving the paradox of developed-world immigration policy—by, say, recentering liberalism around creative freedom rather than the freedom to consume, or embracing a reinvigorated left populism built around a culture of cooperation and care, or whatever else is usually thrown up these days as the grand solution to what ails capital—is work for the years ahead. What’s at stake is the struggle to define the human. The anti-natalist Peter Wessel Zapffe, a Norwegian ecological philosopher, once wrote that human beings are “a noble vase in which fate has planted an oak”: Hopelessly unsuited to our environment, we are condemned to seek existential meaning while maintaining a dreadful awareness of the futility of existence. This bind led Zapffe to conclude that life was not worth living, and the best solution for the human race was to simply die out. Those of us who still like being alive might find this extreme, but the orientation of Zapffe’s inquiry is probably correct. Reckoning with our future under climate change will inevitably require much deeper thinking about what it means to be human—about what gives human life value, what being present in the world entails, and whether our present socioeconomic configurations allow us to live truly as we want. We are indeed a noble vase, as Zapffe wrote, but that does not mean we must accept our fate as an oak. The power to flower is still ours.