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MATT BURGESS: Welcome back to the Free Mind Podcast, where we explore topics in Western history, politics, philosophy, literature, and current events with a laser focus on seeking the truth and an adventurous disregard for ideological and academic fashions.  I'm Matt Burgess, an assistant professor of environmental studies and faculty fellow of the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado Boulder.  My guest today is Lionel Shriver, an author and journalist whose many books include, We need to talk about Kevin and most recently, Abominations: Selected Essays from a Career of Courting Self-Destruction. 

Our conversation focuses on one of the fascinating contradictions of Ms. Shriver's life that she has written about. On the one hand, she's recently become an advocate for natalism, the idea that birth rates have become concerningly low for society, especially in developed countries like ours. On the other hand, she personally chose not to have children and she has stated publicly that she does not regret that decision. We discuss what natalism is, possible reasons for declining birth rates in the US and other western countries and what, if anything, can or should be done to raise birth rates. Lionel Shriver, welcome to the Free Mind Podcast.

LIONEL SHRIVER: Hi, it's nice to talk to you again.

MATT BURGESS: Yeah, you too. So today's topic is natalism and fertility and I think it would be helpful to just have a little bit of background. So I'm an environmental scientist and in environmental sciences, overpopulation used to be a major concern. So in 1960 the US fertility rate was almost four children per woman and it was above seven in several other countries. There was this really famous book called, The Population Bomb, that had forecasts like the UK might collapse by 2000, and so would India due to population-driven starvation. And in response to that, there were countries that enacted some very coercive anti-fertility policies. Most famously perhaps the one-child policy in China, which some estimates have as causing 100 million coerced abortions, disproportionately of girls. But now people are starting to talk about the opposite issue. So there was a book that came out recently called, Empty Planet... The UN population Forecast has been revised down. So at one point, not that long ago it was 11 to 12 billion by 2100, now it's about 10.5. There's some demographers that think it should be revised down even more to 8.5 to 9 billion by 2100 with the actual population globally peaking in the middle of this coming century. And within individual countries there's some even starker realities. So both international and Chinese demographers now project that China is on track to lose about half of its current population by 2100. And the declines in fertility that we're seeing across the world are driven by choices. So access to contraception makes a small difference, but not much. The main drivers seem to be urbanization and female education and it seems to be ubiquitous across the world, happening in all regions.

So for example, birth rates are still high in some sub-Saharan African countries, but the region is not a major outlier in the relationship globally between per capita income and birth rates. And in fact there are some relatively affluent sub-Saharan African countries like Botswana that have birth rates very close to replacement as of 2021. In fact, among rich countries there are only two countries that have birth rates above replacement and those are Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and no country whose birth rates have fallen below replacement have ever come back up above replacement since then. What's different about Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? Religion is an obvious answer and indeed religion does seem to provide somewhat of a buffering force on birth rates, but not that big compared to the downward pressure from education. 

So for example, there are some religious communities in the United States that have above replacement birth rates, but interestingly the fraction of Americans that are religious is still declining because people are converting away from religion faster. Similarly, there are some immigrant communities that have higher birth rates than native-born in the first generation, but their kids and kids' kids tend to have similar birth rates to native-born kids. And in fact, even among immigrants, the birth rate in the US is now below replacement. And so all of these trends have people like Elon Musk suddenly talking about babies, and there's this word that's floating around called natalism, which Miriam Webster defines as an attitude or policy favoring or encouraging population growth. And so this is what I wanted to talk to you about because you wrote an article in the Spectator this past July whose title was, The age of the anti-natalists. So my first question is who are the anti-natalists in your view and what is it about their ideas or ideology that you disagree with?

LIONEL SHRIVER: Okay, we're going to come back to that question, but in your summary of reality right now, I would differ on one point. I've read a couple of demographic tones this last year and one of them was completely devoted to African demography. And I do think that Africa is an outlier and I think this is going to be a big issue with immigration, with migration, and it's going to be very political. And because race is involved, it's also going to be extremely touchy. But it does look as if by 2100 there will be at least 4 billion Africans, and that's on a continent that has very poor water resources, which is the biggest constraint on human population anywhere, and also has poor governance. And you can talk about, oh, everyone will get rich and then stop having babies but so far in a lot of countries, even when they improve their economic prospects, the fertility rate is not coming down. So that's the one spanner in your summary. I do not think that we're talking about a universal worldwide species-wide plummeting of fertility below replacement rate.

But let's return to your question. You're right, I did a column that laid out a number of, in some ways unrelated obsessions, especially on the left, which when you put the package together is ultimately anti-natalists. The weird obsession with transgenderism, which of course often results in a lot of these people if they do get surgery and go through cross-sex hormones, will not be able to have children. More broadly the whole gender spectrum, the LBGTQIA+, alphabet thing, most of the behaviors of those letters do not naturally result in producing more human beings. And although I clarify I'm the pro-choice, the anti-abortion thing and how the left has got so riled up in the US about the reversal of Roe V Wade. And in that process, ever since that Supreme Court decision, you've seen a lot of Democrats not simply arguing for abortion access but advocating abortion, celebrating it, saying how wonderful it was. It's trying to completely reverse the previous stigma. And I won't go on, but there's an overall package and of course, you add in the climate change obsession and how this is driving so many people of childbearing age to decide, we can't bring kids into this world, the future looks bleak. Of course, there's the apocalypticism of the left in general. And by the way, that's a tendency I think that I'd probably share, is not oriented toward having a future and therefore is not oriented toward having kids. And of course the right has always been more traditionally the side of the family.

MATT BURGESS: So let's dig in a couple of these points, because also if we have time, I would love to come back to the point about Sub-Saharan Africa because I think there's some nuances... I think there's some nuances, I don't completely agree with your characterization of it, but I also think that probably 90% of what we're talking about is kind of different spins on the same set of facts. Basically there are a number of countries that are very poor and have high birth rates. And so the question is, what's going to happen? Well, first of all, will they become richer, is one question and secondly, if they do, what will happen? And nobody can really know that for sure. And I think that you're right that there are different points of perspectives out there on what those possibilities are.

LIONEL SHRIVER: Well, Africa is the only place in the world that the UN has had to revise its estimates upwards. African countries are not following the plan, it's definitely an aberration.

MATT BURGESS: It is, although some of that is economics. So one of the things that I actually study in my research group is that everybody is overly optimistic in their economic forecasts, especially in poor countries. And so if you think that there's a strong relationship between affluence and declining birth rates, one reason why I suspect that it has sometimes been the case that fertility rate projections have been off in poor countries, is not so much that the pathway between affluence and fertility has been off, but the affluence part has been off.  But if you don't mind, I'd love to dig in on a couple of things you said about the US. So you mentioned the trend of LGBT identification and there's a statistic that you cite and there's been others that have cited similar statistics that something like one in five members of Gen Z identify as LGBT. And in the context of fertility, I want to ask you the following question and that is, I wonder to what extent that statistic in this particular discussion is a red herring. And I asked that for two reasons. The first is that if that was what was driving declining fertility rates in the US, you would expect to see higher fertility rates in countries like Japan where there's much lower LGBT identification. And yet-

LIONEL SHRIVER: I'm going to stop you right there.


LIONEL SHRIVER: Because I want to clarify what I mean. I'm talking about a constellation of positions and obsessions, which if you put them together suggests an anti-natalist predisposition. But that's not to make any causal connection between that predisposition and the fact that people are having fewer children. And I totally agree with you, I do not think that LGBT-whatever, identification is a major driver of the reduced fertility in the United States or anywhere else. So I'm not sure I want to go there.

MATT BURGESS: Yeah, sure. No, thanks for clarifying that. The other thing that I was going to mention, which may be not relevant as a counterpoint, given what you just said but you might find interesting, is I was reading recently that although it's true that a very large fraction of Gen Z now identifies as LGBT, a very large fraction of that subset of Gen Z that identifies that way are natal females who when you ask them about their sexual behavior only report heterosexual behavior.

LIONEL SHRIVER: Yes, you've been reading Eric Kaufmann.

MATT BURGESS: That probably is where I read that, yeah.

LIONEL SHRIVER: He did a very detailed study and I thought it was hilarious because a lot of the people who are claiming to have, if you will, wayward sexual proclivities have no such thing. Although I think there is reason to be a little concerned if only for their happiness, that a lot of these people just aren't having sex, period.

MATT BURGESS: That's right, yeah. Sex in general is on decline among young people. Now, so is teenage pregnancy, and in fact I believe, so is alcohol and drug consumption. I've read some interesting takes, coming down morally on both sides of that observation. So I want to follow up kind of in the same way that I did about the LGBT statistic, about what you said about climate. And so pushing back against some of the extreme apocalyptic narratives, it's actually something that I've done both in my research and some in my writing about climate change and the macroeconomics of climate change. And so I've certainly come across the statistic that there's one survey that found 40% of young people say that they're afraid to have children because of climate change. And 45% of them reported anxiety about climate change impacting their daily lives and functioning. That concerns me-

LIONEL SHRIVER: I'm not sure I actually buy that.


LIONEL SHRIVER: I think it's a seemingly lofty reason not to have children, but I'm not convinced that that's really the reason why these people say they don't want to have kids, nor do I entirely buy that that is what is going to govern their decisions.

MATT BURGESS: Yes, you anticipated my question, which is great. So what I was going to ask you was in the same way that I effectively asked you if you thought that the LGBT identification was driving the bus on fertility rates, and it sounds like you think it's not, I was going to ask you if you thought the same was true about this climate anxiety. And it sounds like again, you think it's not?

LIONEL SHRIVER: No, I don't. I don't buy it. It's a lot of trouble to have children. It's very expensive to have children if you're not in an agrarian economy where the kid by the age of seven is going to be pulling the plow. And it's also, we really haven't quite worked out how to have families and also have two parents who are employed or even have high-flying careers. So one of the reasons I didn't have children is I cared more about writing books. It was my perceived self-interest. And all that trouble and boredom, it does come with a lot of boredom if you spend a lot of time with a two-year-old. I just wasn't up for it. What's changed for me, I don't think that I would describe myself as having formerly been proud of having chosen not to have children. That's going way too far, but I certainly wasn't apologetic about it. Well, I would say that on my own account I still think I made the right decision for myself to forego having children. I have become more mournful on behalf of the species and my people, however I might define that term, but I think that it was biologically unfortunate that I didn't reproduce. And I am alarmed by the high proportion of people coming up behind me who have also chosen not to have children. And so I find myself in a very dissonant political position when I talk to younger people of childbearing age, I find myself encouraging them to have children. Which I think, I mean considering that the book that I made my reputation on was used by many people, I was told, as the reason they decided not to have kids, or at least a justification for that decision. I think it's comical for me to end up being a politically pro-natalist, but that is weirdly where I went, at least for western countries and also eastern countries that are suffering either decline or are looking at population decline shortly, like South Korea or Japan. Very rich cultures that I don't want to see diminished, or you don't want to see suffer economically. So I make the weirdest possible advocate of this position.

MATT BURGESS: Which is great on a podcast because I find it totally fascinating. So if you will permit me, I'd love to dig in on a couple of the specific points of this race. And so the first is I want to parse the distinction between being mournful for individuals and being mournful for society.

So the first question I'll ask, and obviously I'm effectively asking you to speculate, and you can't possibly know this for sure, but you said that in your case you do not regret your decision to not have children. Now that you see that there's a large cohort of young women and men behind you that are making that same decision, do you expect that the bulk of them will like you, on balance, think that it was a good decision? Or do you think that a growing fraction of them might regret their decision?

LIONEL SHRIVER: Oh, that's impossible to forecast honestly.

MATT BURGESS: Sure. Let me ask a follow-up question that might tease it out a little bit. It is impossible to forecast. I guess one reason I ask is that implicit, I think in some of the trends that you describe in your article, and correct me if this is inaccurate characterization, but it sounds like maybe you're wondering if there are cultural pressures on young people to adopt various attitudes today that are anti-natalist in ways where maybe they don't realize the full extent of that choice, or the kind of indirect effects of their choice on their fertility. And so insofar as there's a culturally coercive element to it, you might imagine some regret coming later down the road.

LIONEL SHRIVER: Yes. I think that because of these weird insidious pressures that all drift in the same don't-have-children direction, people are in danger of not taking the decision seriously enough.  I don't think you're ever going to get anywhere by arguing that you have to have children for the good of society. You're never going to get anywhere arguing, oh, you have to have babies because we need to maintain Western civilization. These are not the reasons that people have children. In the same way that they don't think that people don't have children because of climate change. We have children for very personal reasons. I don't regret not having kids, but I have only an increased appreciation for the kind of rewards that childbearing has. I mean, I did another article a while ago talking about happiness and that my understanding of happiness is not a state, but a trajectory. And what that means is the things that have ended up making me happiest, that is most satisfied, most gratified are long projects that were very hard and sometimes had moments of active unpleasantness. Good example is doing a couple of really long cross-country bike trips, which involved enormous amounts of misery. You go months on the road and maybe you'll get a tailwind for two days... It's awful. But somehow in the process you are left with a sense of achievement, that something happened and you completed something that has some meaning. And of course, writing a book is similar. You go through periods where what you're writing is awful and it's not necessarily always entertaining. But parenthood is just like that, it's another long project that has periods of unpleasantness, and is really hard and sometimes goes wrong but there aren't that many things in life that are genuinely satisfying and that give you a sense of meaning, purpose, that make you feel loved, that make you feel that you have achieved something. And parenthood is definitely one of those things. 

Now, there are no guarantees. And that's why, however weirdly, I've come to really admire parents because it's a big risk. And there's a line in We Need To Talk About Kevin, something along the lines of having sex without contraception is like leaving the back door unlocked. You don't know who's going to walk in. And I admire risk-taking. We don't talk up risk-taking much lately, and I think we should. Getting out of bed is a risk. We should be big on risk. And if my parents didn't take the risk with me, I wouldn't be here. And we all have to bear that in mind, that sense of gratitude that someone made the decision to have you, or at least made the decision not to get rid of you. And if you feel that you are yourself a worthwhile entity, then that was a good decision. And therefore, I don't think that you owe the world or your parents or anything, I don't think you are obliged to return the favor and have children. I won't go that far, but you'll never know what you're missing if you don't have kids. And I don't either, I can just look around me. My younger brother has four children, I sometimes joke that he had mine. And I follow the story very closely, I'm very interested in how interested I am. I spend a lot of time on the phone with my brother talking about his kids, and I'm never bored. Well, I don't see them very often. They hardly know me really, because I just don't show up very often but they have no idea how up to speed I am, because it's the remaining narrative in our family. We both lost our parents last year, and we used to talk about them all the time, and now that story's over.

Another discussion in, We Need To Talk About Kevin, which is very much about the whole question of should you have kids? The wife, when she's starting to warm to the idea, talks about wanting more story. And I think that's one of the best reasons to have kids... more happens. There's more suspense in your life, there's more change in your life. I mean, the main thing that's happened to me, aside from the story of my career, is I've gotten old and that's a depressing story. And children coming up, things happen to them. They fall in love, they have their heart broken, they get together with somebody, they make their own decisions about their own careers. They have their disappointments. It's like getting to live your life more than once.

MATT BURGESS: Yeah, that's a really interesting way to put it. And actually I do have kids. I have two sons and they're by far the best decisions that I ever made, for many of the reasons I think that you describe. Although it's also a visceral, primal thing that is hard to fully imagine before it's real. You can't-

LIONEL SHRIVER: I believe that, and I don't have any access to it.


LIONEL SHRIVER: Perhaps just with my parents, I have to go backwards, but I can't fully inhabit my parents in relation to me. And I find that in fiction, I end up having to fake that experience but that's not the same thing as having it or having real access to what it feels like.

MATT BURGESS: And it's really hard to... As you said, your parents, in my case, my parents would occasionally when I was growing up, try to describe that feeling. But even that doesn't completely prepare you for what it's like to live it. 

One question I want to ask you... actually a couple of questions, I want to ask you following up on something you said earlier. The first is one of the cultural discussions that I've seen recently that I don't think your piece on natalism directly addressed but maybe, and correct me if I'm wrong, was indirectly connected, is a discussion occurring, what I would say within the feminist movement where basically some people who call themselves feminists are saying that feminists fought to gain women access to roles in society that had previously been only available to men... which we would all agree is a important thing. And then some say, but in doing so, is it possible that we might have implicitly then valorized and elevated what were historically masculine social roles and values? So for example, careerism above all else, and then implicitly devalued historically feminine social roles and values related to family. Do you think there's any truth to that? If so, do you think there's any relationship between that and what we've been discussing? Or do you see them as separate maybe in the way that the LGBT pattern is separate?

LIONEL SHRIVER: I think there's something to that. I don't think that the women's movement ever completely succeeded or even tried very hard, to elevate childbearing and child caretaking to having real social status. We pay lip service to the importance of motherhood but I don't think that the culture as a whole places an enormous value on it. And therefore, if I imagine myself as having had children, and this I dealt with when I was making the decision, I see myself as less successful, less productive, less important.

MATT BURGESS: You mean by virtue of your decision?

LIONEL SHRIVER: Yes. Then I would end up having to spend all this time raising kids. And even if it was only two, you know how much effort two children are. And that may be a fear that might have proven unfounded, for all I know had I had a couple of kids, I'd have more material for my fiction and I'd be even more famous.

MATT BURGESS: It's possible.

LIONEL SHRIVER: Who knows? I love parallel universes. So yeah, I find that almost equally credible. But I do think that feminism has not been especially pro-natalist historically and still isn't. When I was young, the decision not to have children was an expression of self-respect. I take myself seriously. I want to have a career. I have ambition and my ambition is bigger than being merely a mother, and I'm going to forego that, which I wasn't that attracted to to begin with, because I want to be a force to be reckoned with. And that hasn't really changed.

MATT BURGESS: So it seems like there's two ways that I've come across that people talk about how this might change without undoing any of the progress that we've made. And the first is the following. So I don't know if you're familiar with Anne-Marie Slaughter or Sheryl Sandberg, but what the two of them have in common, they're both very famous, extremely successful women who had children and who wrote books and articles and spoke about what that was like. And one of the things that they both remarked on, was that they each had what they referred to as a lead parent spouse. And basically meaning they both have husbands who, to varying degrees... Sheryl Sandberg's husband unfortunately is deceased... are or were less ambitious than they were and took more of a leading role with the children. And I've talked to a couple of very successful men about that narrative, and the reaction is always, no, duh. That's also the secret of all powerful men that have children. And so one way I could see the modern social norms becoming more natalist is for it to become more normalized for powerful women to choose less ambitious, more family-oriented husbands.

LIONEL SHRIVER: [inaudible 00:28:21].

MATT BURGESS: And there's nearly as much progress on that as there has been in the workplace as far as I know. For example, there's been lots of articles written about how the big gender imbalance in college right now, where it's almost two-to-one, women-to-men in American colleges, is driving many educated women to not get married as much as it's driving them to marry men who are not college educated. So what do you think about that, I guess?

LIONEL SHRIVER: Well, traditionally women are drawn to successful men and ambitious men. Men who will make money, who will, if anything, raise their status. I don't know how you reverse that. It's one thing to be wishful about how we might be different, but that's a pretty primitive natural biological drive that's difficult to bend in a different direction.

MATT BURGESS: So that's a good segue actually to the second solution or argument that I've heard regarding the fertility rates while maintaining the progress that we've made in terms of gender equality. And that is basically around policies like paid family leave or mandatory options for part-time, which I believe they have in the Netherlands. And I'm not sure if these are exactly the right statistics, but Christina Hoff Sommers wrote about this, and I think it was something like more than half of women, when that option became available took it, and not zero, but a much smaller fraction of men did. And so if you look at fertility rates, there's lots of countries that have policies like that, although obviously to varying degrees and people who advance this argument would say, not far enough, but none have gone far enough to get birth rates back up to replacement. So what do you think about the argument that we just need to take those kinds of pro-family career policies like paid family, mandatory, allowing part-time and just ramp them up and until the birth rates go back up?

LIONEL SHRIVER: It probably won't work.


LIONEL SHRIVER: Well, I mean if you look at the countries that have these wonderful policies, they don't have above replacement rate fertility, do they?

MATT BURGESS: No, exactly. Yeah. Right. So that would be the argument. I guess, I'm asking, do you think that implies that they just haven't gone far enough? Or do you think there's something that would have to go absurdly far to work?

LIONEL SHRIVER: It doesn't work. Historically, pro-natalist policies enacted by the government do not successfully affect the birth rate. Nowhere, it never works. You can't pay people to have children. And no matter how more graceful you make it with the part-time and the childcare, you can't make them want to have children. And there's something going on here culturally, biologically, psychologically, that is complicated, but at the same time seems to be happening everywhere except Africa.

MATT BURGESS: Innovatively.

LIONEL SHRIVER: Yeah, yeah. Okay, I'll send you the book

MATT BURGESS: Yeah, yeah. We can talk offline. I think where I would leave it with Sub-Saharan Africa, is certainly in virtually all Sub-Saharan African countries, birth rates are above replacement. There's some of the richer ones, again, like Botswana where that's come down a lot and it's very close to replacement.

LIONEL SHRIVER: They're the exception.

MATT BURGESS: Any argument, any prediction I think would be just that, right? So I think it's good to know that there are just different respects out there.

LIONEL SHRIVER: Good to know, in the big picture, African cultures by and large place enormous value on children and regard a man's worth, for example, in terms of how many children he has, women too. I mean, it's both sexes. It is seen really as the meaning of life. Western culture, if we're going to keep it just the west, doesn't think that anymore, period.

MATT BURGESS: Yeah. So two follow-up points. One is the way you described Sub-Saharan African cultures certainly applies in a broader way to religious culture. So for example, there's a well-known review study of the relationship between religion and fertility patterns, that concludes that the role of religion depends on three conditions being satisfied. First, the religion articulates behavioral norms with a bearing on fertility behavior, which is, I think speaks to your point about treating people's worth related to the number of children they have. Second, the religion holds the means to communicate these values and promote compliance. And third, religion forms a central component of the social identity of its followers. If I think about religious communities within the United States who internally have higher than replacement birth rates, it seems like they have the first and the third of those properties, but not the second one. So the religion holds the means of community, the values and promotes compliance to some extent, but obviously for the better, I think. We live in a free society and one of the consequences of that seems to be historically that people are choosing to leave religion fast enough to more than compensate for the fertility rate difference. Which I guess brings me back to something that you said at the beginning, which was that the fertility statistics in some ways have made you, and correct me if this is wrong, but I think the word you used was mournful for the decline of populations of Western, but also Eastern and basically generally rich countries. And then yet a lot of our conversation is about, I think, again correct me if I'm wrong, aspects of our culture that you don't necessarily agree with that have led to these declines in fertility. 

And so I guess my question is what are the aspects then that you're mournful about? And to what extent do you think those aspects are or are not directly related to fertility statistics?

LIONEL SHRIVER: I'm not sure mournfulness is the right word for concern for the economic future, but the economics of this are important. We were inevitably going to go through a very awkward age structure, a very disadvantageous age structure on the way to even just a completely stable population. Lots of old people, very few young people. Therefore, you have this wonky support ratio, which is really hard on young people because they're the ones who are working, they get taxed up the wazoo to support people like me.

MATT BURGESS: And their housing value grows slower or shrinks in some cases. I believe that it's the case that house prices are declining in many parts of Japan currently due to the depopulation.

LIONEL SHRIVER: Yeah, and that is worrisome, it doesn't send me into mourning, but it does concern me, and I'm going to be part of the generation that most burdens the world because I'm a latter boomer. Everyone's going to have a good reason to hate me and everyone likes me. And it puts a big burden on the healthcare system, and if you have a national healthcare system like the NHS in Britain, it already can't cope and it's just going to get worse.

MATT BURGESS: So birth rates are below replacement, quite far below replacement in some countries. There's never been a country that's brought it back up. I promised to ask you this at the beginning, I know what your answer is, but just to get it out of the way, do you support coercive government actions to address this?


MATT BURGESS: Neither do I.

LIONEL SHRIVER: Let's get that on the record. I absolutely do not, both because I believe in one of the fundamental human rights is to control your own reproduction. I also think that these policies are doomed to failure, so it kind of loses on both levels.

MATT BURGESS: And you mentioned earlier that you're pro-choice, and are you also pro-access to contraception?


MATT BURGESS: Yeah. Okay. Just getting those things out of the way. So then my last question is, what if anything can be done about this, or should be done about this pattern? And how if at all, do you see it resolving itself? And then the latter part of the question is basically the idea that mathematically it seems unlikely that we're going to decline to zero in countries with low birth rates, which means that birth rates are going to come up eventually. And so how do you see that happening?

LIONEL SHRIVER: You're right. I am not actively concerned that the human race is about to disappear. It may be changing in its composition that isn't necessarily some big tragedy. As a species, we've never been in this position before where we have so many parts of the world not replacing itself quite, but it takes a long time. I was amused to read South Korea has apparently been on some pro-natalist campaign with its people, doomed to failure and has calculated that in something like the year 2753, there will be no more South Koreans. Well, that's a long time from now, and I always take projections 750 years out with a grain of salt

MATT BURGESS: As you should.

LIONEL SHRIVER: Yeah. And you can certainly make a case that for our species to have voluntarily pulled back its fertility is a good thing because it was going through the roof. I think it's a mistake to imagine that so-called overpopulation is no longer a concern because of demographic momentum, in Africa, in particular. We're still looking at a huge number of people on this planet, which last I read, the point at which we're going to peak exceeds the limits of our fresh water. And that's even if a book I read a few years ago, put at about 9.5 billion people. And that's even assuming that all fresh water sources are evenly divided around the world and they are not. Okay? So I don't think that too many people is no longer a problem. And there's certainly parts of the west right now in the United States that are becoming overpopulated in relation to the water resources, and it's becoming very political.

MATT BURGESS: You're talking about, for example, the Southwest with the concerns about... What's the reservoir called?

LIONEL SHRIVER: So I don't think that that concern is over and I am not worried about the species disappearing. And there may be some good things about certain places losing some population. All eyes are going to be on Japan because they're way out in front in terms of what happens to a society which just doesn't have very many children, and little by little gets very old and then starts getting smaller and smaller.

MATT BURGESS: And same with economic growth, interestingly. Them and Italy are two of the only examples I know of developed democracies that have undergone two decades or more of almost stagnant economic growth.

LIONEL SHRIVER: But if one is concerned about, if you look into the future, isn't it potentially dire that you go into a kind of slow death spiral? I do not think that there is a governmental answer to this. And it doesn't have to do with policies, it has to do with what people want. And what people want really comes down to individuals and their decisions, their desires. I'm not saying that the larger culture doesn't have an influence, it certainly does but in that sense, I think it's more important for me to talk to people who are maybe in couples and they're 30 years old and they're wondering whether they want any kids. And for my part, however, ironically, and I take the accusation that I'm a total hypocrite cheerfully. But what I can do is to urge them to consider it, and that's for personal reasons, not for political reasons, but because they may be happier people, they may have a richer life.

MATT BURGESS: And that I believe bears out in the data. And certainly I believe it bears out that the vast majority of people who do have kids are happy with the decision and don't regret it. So maybe as a final parting thought, is it so simple as folks like me who have kids and are happy about it, need to be louder about that?

LIONEL SHRIVER: Yeah, talk more about what a joy it is rather than complaining. And it's always seductive to complain and people now conceive of child-rearing as an enormous amount of bother. So maybe we just need to express more satisfaction if we have had children, and talk about the fun bit and the satisfying bit. That used to be much more commonplace. We're living in a negative time. I'm sure this is one reason I fit in so well. Ugh.

MATT BURGESS: I mean, certainly the mental health statistics bear that out. But before we get off of the happy note that we're on, maybe yeah, let's just end on the happy note that we're on. And let me just say, Lionel Shriver, thank you so much for joining us in the Free Mind Podcast and for speaking recently at the Benson Center.

LIONEL SHRIVER : Thank you very much. I'm grateful to the Benson Center for bringing me over. It was a nice night and it was fun to reprise our conversation.

MATT BURGESS: Yes, thanks again. 

The Free Mind Podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado Boulder. You can email us feedback at freemind@colorado.edu or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson. You can also find us on social media. Our Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube accounts are all @BensonCenter. Our Instagram is @theBensonCenter, and the Facebook is @BruceDBensonCenter.