Climate Policy Can Help Avert Modern Liberalism’s 'Doom Loop'

Liberalism’s “doom loop” is inextricable from the global-warming crisis.

A child jumps off a rock into a body of water at sunset or sunrise
Kids play in a tidal pool during a heatwave in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2016. (Mike Hutchings / Reuters)

What new responsibilities should a rich and liberal democracy take on in the 21st century? If you ask almost any American progressive, they will talk about the need to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions and lessen the blow of climate change. Lately, a growing number of conservatives have glommed onto another policy. They suggest that such a democracy should also be pronatalist: It should take children as a virtue and a public good (even a blessing), and it should direct its welfare state toward encouraging human reproduction.

Given that some environmentalists seem to treat low population growth as just one more variable in the climate equation, the two policies may seem incompatible. In fact, they support each other; they may even need each other. Aggressive climate policy is pronatalist.

I’ve been thinking about this because two writers have gone back and forth lately on what they call modern liberalism’s “doom loop.” Derek Thompson identified the idea first, here at The Atlantic, describing a three-step process. Step one: Liberal and richer democracies tend to have lower birth rates and aging populations, which strains their respective welfare states. Step two: Those same democracies admit more immigrants, in order to reinforce their welfare state and beef up their working-age population. But—step three—as an increasing amount of a state’s population becomes foreign-born, its aging population becomes more xenophobic and less supportive of the same welfare state.

And that “leads to stratification, further discontent and an authoritarian turn, which presumably slows growth further, etc., etc., until liberalism goes kaput,” writes Ross Douthat, picking up the idea at The New York Times. Part of what makes the loop so insidious is that—much like a plane’s real-life death spiral—a polity’s knee-jerk instinct to escape the loop only reinforces it.

Thompson names the loop but doesn’t quite describe a way out of it, though he suggests that guiding people out of bigotry is a possible exit in the long term. “The liberal cause,” he says, “requires Americans learning to break the catch-22 of diversity and equality.”

Douthat, seizing on that sentence, says that maybe nations should consider trying to tinker with another variable:

It could also be that there’s a policy mix that would make that combination a little less of a catch-22, and require less in the way of eliminating the inherent human bias in favor of one’s own posterity in order to succeed.

Maybe, for instance, if you cut immigration rates modestly while also spending heavily to encourage old-fashioned procreation, you would have a better chance of getting faster growth while also creating a socioeconomic environment—youthful, future-oriented, optimistic—that makes assimilation easier.

“Youthful, future-oriented, optimistic”—who wouldn’t want a country like that? It even sounds like the United States, once upon a time.

How do we get back there? By addressing the full scope of the problem. Americans have to talk about climate change—because climate change will simply be happening in the background of all of this. If liberalism’s doom loop is one condition of the 21st century, then the accumulating degradation of Earth’s only climate is another. Its political economy is as specific to this century as the unusually high number of old people kicking around is. And it specifically informs the issues here in two ways.

First, the warming of the world will set off more waves of mass migration. No matter how the doom loop churns, global warming will very likely increase the foreign-born population of the northern and richer democracies all by itself. The immigration reporter Dara Lind has argued that there’s a tendency to take diversity’s threat to nationalism for granted, even though racism corrodes democratic solidarity at least as much as a foreign-born population does:

The point holds for climate migration as well. As I argued last year, reducing racism and neutralizing the threat it poses to democratic solidarity constitutes climate adaptation as much as raising a seawall or protecting a coastal wetland does.

But here Douthat would insert that racism isn’t the only variable at play in the doom loop; there’s also “the inherent human bias in favor of one’s own posterity.” He proposes pronatalist policy—that is, incentives for procreation and family formation—as a solution.

I think it’s good to have kids; I think taking care of kids gives rise to responsibility, generosity, and selflessness among adults and communities; and I agree that the longer horizons of child-rearing promote a “youthful, future-oriented, optimistic” politics. I also suspect that pronatalist policy will soon make for good U.S. electoral politics: By the time of the next presidential election, the biggest single-age cohort in America—that is, my own, the 1991-er—will be narrowing in on prime parental age. Perhaps our progeny-concerned parents could even be converted into a new and coveted bloc.

But if you want to make American politics more future-oriented, you first need to fill the climate-shaped hole in our future-oriented-ness. As a polity, we have little collective vision for the future, and little public determination to make sure it’s a better place to live.

When you talk to people about why they don’t want kids, they don’t always talk about their aversion to children or child-rearing; they often talk about how bleak they think the future will be. Between the breakdown of the global liberal order and the ongoing degradation of the planet’s climate, the next few decades don’t seem like a particularly sociable place, for them or their hypothetical children. To many potential parents, it feels like older folks are pressing down the accelerator, trying to burn all the gas in the engine before the car goes careening straight off the side of the canyon.

But wait: Haven’t people birthed kids into hopeless environments since, well, forever? How is climate-change doom now any different from doom over nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War? After all, in 1962, the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. fertility rate was nearly double its current number. (In fact, there’s some evidence that the crisis itself slightly increased births in states near Cuba or with large military installations.) And the most radical of anti-procreative climate-themed projects, like the Conceivable Future Project, record only dozens of examples of people swearing off child-rearing.

Well, sure. But much of the conservative argument for pronatalist politics respects the fact that cultural changes—and important medical and political advances—have altered childbearing decisions. Isn’t the general anxiety about climate change as a cultural phenomenon—and the lack of political amelioration of it—one of those changes? Potential parents undertake a complex and often spiritual calculus when they plan their families, when they decide to have zero, or one, or five kids. It seems reasonable to me that if you want to coax people back into having larger families, or families at all, you may have to soften that calculus by assuring them the future will be a good place to live.

Because right now, the future does not seem like a very pleasant place to live at all. Economists who study climate change say that, at best, the phenomenon will exact persistent and troubling costs on the poorest parts of the United States; at worst, it will initiate one of several globally destabilizing crises. Global warming will also degrade Earth in plenty of hard-to-calculate ways, wrecking the gentle rhythm of the seasons and strangling the natural biodiversity of every stream and mountain. This last seems like an impoverishment to which pronatalists should be especially sensitive.

This line of argument is somewhat awkward, because Douthat himself (and many of his fellow pronatalists) does not believe in the bleakness of a climate-changed future. He has written that climate change is not “a crisis unique among the varied challenges we face,” and he has doubted the apocalyptic future that some climate advocates describe. Many conservatives seem to reject climate change in part because of its anti-procreative supporters.

And perhaps many conservatives will never buy into a future that bleak. But could they take seriously that many of their younger peers do? A recent poll taken by, alas, an energy-reform interest group found that a majority of young Republicans, ages 18 to 30, support a carbon tax. Young Americans overall, ages 18 to 34, are more concerned about climate change than other age cohorts.

I go into these details not to make a generational plea but to assert a public reality. For voters, climate change is unmistakably a low-intensity issue: Even though millions of Americans say they care about it, that concern doesn’t seem to change which candidate they support. But global warming can have political and cultural consequences that are not electoral. As our climate problem goes unfixed, as it seems to be intentionally aggravated by federal policy, it corrodes confidence in the future.

Planning for the future has many benefits that do not help the future alone. If you want a society that encourages people to have kids, you must first tell them that you are working to make the future modestly more hospitable. Not a perfect place, not a problem-free place, not a place where everything will be okay. Just a modestly better one. Pronatalist policy and aggressive climate action could reinforce a vision of a healthy, thriving world, full of human beings.

Optimism can break the doom loop—and even if it fails in doing so, at least our grandchildren under the Third People’s Junta will pay less for their flood insurance.