When Caroline and I got married in 2001, having four kids was not only fashionable, it was the socially responsible thing to do. Countries with declining populations like Japan were storing up problems for themselves, with labour shortages and tax shortfalls on the horizon — and Britain was at risk of going the same way. Having lots of kids was practically a duty if you were in a stable relationship and you both had postgraduate qualifications, as we did. Our offspring were likely to contribute more in taxes than they received in benefits, thereby offsetting the cost of the growing underclass. We were so convinced of our moral righteousness that we actually looked down our noses at professional couples who stopped at two and thought of them as ‘selfish’.
How times have changed. Twenty years on, having even one child is considered by many to be irresponsible because of the impact on the environment. A 2017 study found that one fewer child per family could save 58.6 metric tonnes of carbon a year. Boys must be particularly bad for the environment on account of all those, ahem, greenhouse gases they produce — and we have three.
In only two decades, what used to be a high-status indicator — having a large family — has become a low- status indicator. But what can you do? You can’t just get rid of them because they’ve gone out of fashion. Children, it turns out, are the tattoos of the 21st century.
Concern about climate change is affecting fertility across the West — and no wonder, given the apocalyptic predictions made by everyone from Prince Charles to Greta Thunberg. If you believe the gloomsters, the icecaps are melting, forests are going up in flames, islands are sinking into the sea, large parts of the world will shortly become uninhabitable and wars will break out over the diminishing supply of clean water. Who in their right mind would want to bring a child into this hellscape? In July, Morgan Stanley issued a note to investors saying the ‘movement not to have children owing to fears over climate change is growing and impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline’.
You won’t get far trying to persuade progressive young people that the ‘climate emergency’ is a teensy--weensy bit exaggerated. Point out that Antarctica has just recorded its coldest six months on record, and they will accuse you of being a ‘denier’. In their eyes, you’re comparable to someone who disputes the reality of the Holocaust: an impression confirmed if they discover you’ve been selfish enough to have four children.
What can we do about this disastrous new trend? The social cost of a fall in the UK population will be astronomical. We already have an ageing population, with the number of over-65s increasing by 23 per cent between 2009 and 2019, and this demographic is projected to grow from 12.3 million today to 17.4 million in 2043. How will we pay for their healthcare if the tax base continues to shrink? Boris’s solution is to cap each individual’s contribution at £86,000, but who’s going to make up the shortfall if the tax-paying classes stop having children?
My hope is that the appalling record of public health modelling teams on predicting the course of the pandemic will make people think twice before accepting the pessimistic projections of climate change modellers. Then again, those crystal-ball gazers have been consistently wrong for decades and it doesn’t seem to have made the slightest dent in their authority. Scientists of all kinds have become the shamans of our godless age. If they peer into their chicken entrails and solemnly announce the end is nigh, it’s not surprising if their supine worshippers decide not to have children.
Perhaps this fashion, like most others, will turn out to be cyclical. Yes, people like Caroline and me, with our small army of carbon emitters, are currently social pariahs, but in another 20 years having loads of kids may become popular again. So less like tattoos, more like flares. Trouble is, the fertility window for millennials may have closed by then, making childlessness an irreversible trend. Wouldn’t that be ironic? The climate scientists’ apocalyptic scenarios will almost certainly prove to be wrong, yet because a generation of young people believed them it will be the end of the human race anyway.