By David Brooks
New York Times
Published 27 July 2009
Every day, I check a blog called Marginal Revolution, which is famous for its erudite authors, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, and its intelligent contributors. Last week, one of those contributors asked a question that is fantastical but thought-provoking: What would happen if a freak solar event sterilized the people on the half of the earth that happened to be facing the sun?
If you take an individualistic view of the world, not much would happen immediately. There are millions of people today who do not reproduce, and they lead happy, fulfilling and productive lives.
Even after the event, material conditions would be exactly the same. People would still have an incentive to go to work, pay off their bills and educate the children who were already with us. For 20 years, there would still be workers flowing into the labor force. Immigrants from the other side of the earth could eventually surge into the areas losing population. If anything, the mass-sterilization might reduce the environmental strain on the planet. People might focus on living for the moment, valuing the here and now.
But, of course, we don’t lead individualistic lives. Material conditions do not drive history. People live in a compact between the dead, the living and the unborn, and the value of the thought experiment is that it reminds us of the power posterity holds over our lives.
If, say, the Western Hemisphere were sterilized, there would soon be a cataclysmic spiritual crisis. Both Judaism and Christianity are promise-centered faiths. They are based on narratives that lead from Genesis through progressive revelation to a glorious culmination.
Believers’ lives have significance because they and their kind are part of this glorious unfolding. Their faith is suffused with expectation and hope. If they were to learn that they were simply a dead end, they would feel that God had forsaken them, that life was without meaning and purpose.
The secular world would be shattered, too. Anything worth doing is the work of generations — ending racism, promoting freedom or building a nation. America’s founders, for example, felt the eyes of their descendants upon them. Alexander Hamilton felt that he was helping to create a great empire. Noah Webster composed his dictionary anticipating that America would someday have 300 million inhabitants, even though at the time it only had 6 million.
These people undertook their grand projects because they were building for their descendants.
They were motivated — as ambitious leaders, writers and artists are — by their hunger for immortal fame.
Without posterity, there are no grand designs. There are no high ambitions. Politics becomes insignificant. Even words like justice lose meaning because everything gets reduced to the narrow qualities of the here and now.
If people knew that their nation, group and family were doomed to perish, they would build no lasting buildings. They would not strive to start new companies. They wouldn’t concern themselves with the preservation of the environment. They wouldn’t save or invest.
There would be a radical increase in individual autonomy. Not sacrificing for their own society’s children, people would themselves become children, basing their lives on pleasure and ease instead of meanings to be fulfilled.
Some people might try to perpetuate their society by recruiting people from the fertile half of the earth. But that wouldn’t work. Immigration is the painful process of leaving behind one culture and way of living so that your children and children’s children can enjoy a different future. No one would be willing to undertake that traumatic process in order to move from a society that was reproducing to a society that was fading. There wouldn’t be the generations required to assimilate immigrants. A sterile culture could not thrive and, thus, could not inspire assimilation.
Instead there would be brutal division between those with the power to possess the future and those without. If millions of immigrants were brought over, they would populate the buildings but not perpetuate the culture. They wouldn’t be like current immigrants because they wouldn’t be joining a common project, but displacing it. There would be no sense of peoplehood, none of the untaught affections of those who are part of an organic social unit that shares the same destiny.
Within weeks, in other words, everything would break down and society would be unrecognizable. The scenario is unrelievedly grim. An individual who does not have children still contributes fully to the future of society. But when a society doesn’t reproduce there is nothing left to contribute to.
But, of course, that’s the beauty of this odd question. There are no sterilizing sunspots. Instead, we are blessed with the disciplining power of our posterity. We rely on this strong, invisible and unacknowledged force — these millions of unborn people we will never meet but who give us the gift of our way of life.