August 19, 2007
Lost PosterityBy Thomas Lifson
Posterity was once a central concept of American Civilization. We sacrificed our welfare, even our lives, for the sake of future generations, especially for our descendants unto the remote reaches of time. This concept was so important, that it appeared in the very first sentence of the Constitution, which sought to 'secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.'
Posterity is more concrete than the 'future.' We are connected to posterity. It derives from us, and from the difference we made, during that brief span of time encompassing our lives. The Constitution refers to 'our Posterity,' meaning something which belongs to us, or maybe more properly, something which is part of us -- the part of us which lives-on after we die. Posterity is of us, but far greater and more important than any of our individual lives. Posterity is worth dying for. Such a death confers a bit of immortality.
In contrast, the future will occur, regardless of our best or worst efforts. To paraphrase the bumper sticker, 'the future happens.'
Posterity began to go into a severe decline beginning, quite naturally, in the 1960s, with the rise of the 'me-generation.' Deferring experiences, pleasures, or achievements for the sake of others became unfashionable. Living in the moment, and for oneself, became 'what's happening.'
The family itself, both its nuclear and extended versions, came under attack as oppressive and limiting in nature. The rising Sixties Generation, which at first trusted no one over thirty, was studiously uninterested in its role as the inheritor of traditions worth preserving. It follows that concern for those who will inherit our legacy would be equally valueless.
The arrival of children, which used to be the accepted course of things for the overwhelming majority of people everywhere and at all times, usually jerked people out of the narcissistic rapture of youth. But coincident with the strengthening of what had been a youthful phase into a philosophy of life, came the birth control pill, and then Roe v. Wade. Then came a historic collapse of the birthrate.
If fertility rates drop, fewer and fewer people will care at all what happens after they die. 'Life is short, then you die' became one of many ironic bumper sticker—worthy commentaries. Meaninglessness was proudly embraced, fortified by the philosophical pretensions of the Existentialists. It's all about you, after all. Selfishness, dressed—up for the faculty party, worked for awhile.
But irony and meaninglessness can carry you only so far. Something eventually has to replace ennui, giving larger meaning to peoples' lives. As people age, their sense that they will actually follow the same pattern as everyone else, and die, begins to strengthen. Life as a cosmic joke comforts only a tiny minority on their death beds.
But posterity has not enjoyed a renaissance. In its place has come a different concept, the rise of environmentalist absolutism. While radical environmentalism does concern itself with what happens after we shuffle off this mortal coil, it regards the human contribution as a negative, not a positive. Instead of building a legacy for our descendents, all we do is despoil the purity of nature, making things worse.
The best we can do is minimize the damage. For many, including Ted Turner, this means radically downsizing the human population of the earth. In this vision of posterity, the best contribution we can make is to die early, and leave no trace of ourselves. This is the very antithesis of posterity.
The population downsizers are getting their way. In all developed countries, fertility has declined to crisis levels in the case of countries such as Spain, Italy, and Japan. With approximately 1.2 children per woman, these societies are in a death-spiral. For the Me Generation, this means importing foreigners to do the physical labor and staff the retirement homes. For those who have reproduced, and who care about their children's lives, it means the specter of their life as a potential minority, and the possible extinction of a national civilization stretching back millennia. St. Peter's could follow the example of St. Sophia in Constantinople, and become a glorious mosque someday.
Will posterity have a future? The signs are not altogether encouraging.
Economic and lifestyle considerations all favor continued focus on the pleasures of the moment, rather than a revival of concern for the legacy we leave to those not-yet-born. Children are very expensive to raise, and then comes the economic catastrophe known as college. There is no sign whatsoever that any of these costs will decline as a portion of national income, except as the number of children declines. A society which measures its welfare by the amount of stuff we accumulate will never see children as a source of happiness and meaning.
Here and there -- Singapore, Japan, and now Australia -- national governments are searching for tax incentives or other measures to encourage the bearing and rearing of children. But the fight ultimately is not about money, it is about values.
Only if the heart changes, if children come to be seen as the source of meaning in life, the most cherished gift the Deity can provide us, will declining fertility patterns reverse themselves. Only by seeing children as our sacred purpose, will we come to once again embrace our posterity as our ultimate achievement.
Unfortunately, proclaiming children to be the very purpose of life will make some people uncomfortable. Tragically, infertility is on the rise, whatever the scientific causes may be. The natural feeling of compassion for those who want children but cannot have them, prevents us from remarking on the comparative emptiness of life without progeny. But unless people think they will lose something very important by remaining childless, many will not be motivated to give up the pleasures of enhanced personal consumption a childless life brings.
When we lost posterity as a primary motivator in our lives, we lost a great deal. We will indeed leave behind us a posterity. But it may well be more of a future than a posterity we would desire.
An AT Classic first published May 24, 2004
Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker.