August 30, 2023

Of all the grim futures on offer today, climate change is unquestionably the doomsday scenario that weighs most heavily on the minds of the most people. Despite the raging hype that AI might one day turn against its creator, no protestor has yet glued himself to a JMW Turner painting to demand that ChatGPT just stop writing marketing copy. And although the odds of a nuclear war breaking out are the highest they’ve been in decades, nobody is holding up traffic in the hope of dissuading Vladimir Putin from launching his arsenal of “Satan” ICBMs. All eyes are on the boiling planet.

But what if a different crisis gets us first? What if the biggest problem we face is that billions of people are getting old at a faster rate than babies are being born? In Italy there are so few children that schools are “vanishing like the melting glaciers”. In Japan, adult nappies have outsold the baby variety for over a decade. Indeed, there is such a superabundance of waste from incontinence products that one town has started burning them for fuel. The problem is global: for countless millennia, forming families was the most intuitive thing imaginable, but no longer.

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Of course, not everybody sees this as a problem. The glass-half-full take is that the declining birthrate has finally put our Malthusian terrors to bed. The threat of exponential overpopulation has corrected itself: for instance, China’s population is set to drop from 1.4 billion today to 800 million by 2100. The glass-half-empty view is that there won’t be enough young people to sustain this vastly expanded older population. The advice offered by economists is simple and utilitarian: countries that are depopulating must increase immigration.

But the materialist nature of today’s discussion, where it is being had, obscures the many profound existential questions posed by the impending arrival of a grey planet. In fact, there is only one forum in which these are being addressed: science fiction. Here, a handful of stories have tried to imagine what a world without children would look like.

The most famous of these thought experiments is Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film, Children of Men, based on the PD James novel, in which an ecological catastrophe has rendered the human race infertile, and civilisation stands on the brink of collapse. But while Children of Men is bleak enough, and contains generous helpings of man’s inhumanity to man, it is only set 18 years after the last birth. As a result, there are still plenty of young people about, among them a vigorous 40-ish-year-old Clive Owen, who ultimately discovers a mother and baby. The film ends with their rescue, and choral music, and the sound of children laughing. Crisis averted!

But if Children of Men loses its nerve, ultimately resisting the full ramifications of its premise, the same cannot be said of Greybeard, a novel by the British Grand Master of science fiction, Brian Aldiss. Written in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it imagines that a nuclear catastrophe has left all humans and many animal species infertile. Crucially, Aldiss begins his story half a century after the event, when humanity is on the verge of extinction. The youngest people in the novel are Algy Timberlane, aka “Greybeard”, and his wife, Martha, who are both 56. Most of the characters are in their seventies or older.

This enables Aldiss to explore the nature of an aging planet in detail. His first assumption is that a physically frail, and therefore vulnerable, community is a much more fearful one. At the start of his novel, Greybeard and his wife have spent a decade living in the village of Sparcot, which is run by a petty local tyrant. They have accepted his irascible rule in exchange for the promise of security. The residents squabble and complain about toothache while living in fear of invading Scotsmen and, of all creatures, stoats — one of the few species of mammal to have escaped the catastrophe with their reproductive organs intact, meaning they proliferate. The choice of animal is inspired: if Aldiss’s protagonists had feared feral dogs, their weakness would have been less obvious; how much worse that this diminished population cannot control a pest that nobody today gives a second thought. How alarming that Aldiss’s prophecy is starting to come true, on depopulated Japanese islands where cats vastly outnumber pensioners.

Loss of strength is only part of the problem, however. Civilisation is also undone by a collective loss of will. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, the survivors hope that the infertility is a transient phase from which they will recover. Then, as the years pass, and it becomes clear that there will be no children to inherit the fruits of their labour, people lose interest in maintaining society beyond the bare necessities required to survive. The economy collapses and the result is a simpler, reduced world, of villages without businesses and new technologies. But this is not the pastoral dream of today’s “degrowth” proponents; it is an impoverished, dilapidated world that has given up on itself, and awaits oblivion.

Darkest of all, however, is Aldiss’s take on how this ageing remnant of humanity would treat children. Ownership and exploitation are the dominant attitudes. Initially, a global effort is made to gather the surviving minors in three “Childsweep” centres, where there are “three psychiatrists to every child”, to help them cope with the trauma of the world they have inherited. But like any scarce resource, the children become the subject of an international dispute, which leads to a catastrophic war. When, decades later, Greybeard arrives in a village which has a handful of mutant children, he finds that they are periodically put on display as a “treat” for the inhabitants of a village. Later still, when he discovers a few healthy youths, the first one he meets is being kept as a sex slave by a con man. Aldiss’ bitterness may be partly explained by the fact that when he wrote the book, he had lost custody of his children following a divorce, but his point is universal: as we saw during the pandemic, when humanity is under pressure, it does not treat its children well.

Of course, Greybeard is extreme by design. I’m not arguing that our leaders should abandon all thoughts of climate change and prepare for a crumbling world overrun by feral stoats in which most adults abuse the dwindling number of children. But the thing about the real world, as opposed to the world inside a novel, is that we can have many intersecting (and insurmountable) problems at the same time. Today’s climate change activists think too much like novelists: they are performing one simple thought experiment, by imagining our world as it is now — the same balance of young and old, the same technologies, the same governments — and extrapolating the future along one central theme, in search of a tidy resolution. But the warmer planet they imagine will also be a grey planet, filled with elderly people.

There will be many more Joe Bidens unable to make it to the end of a speech or climb stairs unaided, many more Mitch McConnells freezing before the cameras, many more geriatric pop stars miming to songs they first performed 50 years earlier. And they will be the lucky ones. A great many others will be alone, ill, vulnerable, surrounded by decaying infrastructure, while rats and other creatures run wild. In this context, we may want to reconsider some of our anxieties about the AI apocalypse. Indeed, this could be one area where it would benefit us to be a little less existential and a little more materialist. An older, depopulated world will clearly require a far higher degree of automation and augmentation; there’s a reason that Japan is known for its robot technology.

Aldiss’s conceit rules out some possibilities that are open to us, of course, including the economists’ favourite: immigration. But you don’t need to be a science fiction grand master to imagine how this policy might go awry. They are assuming that older, poorer countries will remain attractive destinations for the inhabitants of younger ones; that there will not be significant backlash from the existing populations; that the immigrants themselves will not adopt the customs of their host societies, stop reproducing, and also grow old.

Those countries that cannot stomach more immigration will seek to incentivise larger families. This is the approach of Hungary, which grants mothers under 30 an exemption from income tax. Historically, however, the idea of rewarding families for great feats of reproduction has had mixed results. And the time may be coming when no matter how attractive the tax breaks, couples simply can’t have children. Sperm counts are plummeting worldwide. Scientists have suggested that everything from obesity to “endocrine-disrupting chemicals” may be responsible, but without firm conclusions, humans may yet end up like French bulldogs, unable to reproduce without direct medical intervention. And of course, some communities opt for extinction over change: today, for every 150 Parsi Zoroastrians born in India, 600 die, but the community refuses to recognise the children of women who marry outsiders. In the 200 years of their existence, the Shakers have had ample opportunity to reconsider their celibacy, but have declined to do so, relying on conversion to keep the numbers up. Today, two remain.

You would think that — given its inevitability — we would put a bit more effort into imagining this grey new world. But Greybeard is one of very few attempts to confront a planet in which most people are very, very old. In politics, the story is worse than in literature. All the signs are that we would rather not think about it: China, for instance, stopped reporting on its fertility rate in 2017. Perhaps this is because we have already made our decision: like the Parsis, we are not going to have more children, and so all we can do is wait for the great die-off to unfold.