July 31, 2023 - 5:15pm

Economically speaking, the large-scale consequences of the global fertility crash are widely discussed. But what will the cultural impact be? Two reports from last week foreshadow some of the dystopian oncoming responses to the baby bust.

Left-wing news site The Grayzone reports on the outsourcing of gestation, notably via the still-booming surrogacy industry in war-torn Ukraine — which represents a quarter of global commercial surrogacy. In this economy, human infants all too frequently seem like a commodity to be extracted and sold, aided by international wealth disparities. 

The most profitable “reproductive services” company operating in Ukraine, Switzerland-based BioTexCom, states baldly that “we are looking for women in the former Soviet republics because, logically, [the women] have to be from poorer places than our clients.” The result objectifies both mothers and babies: BioTexCom has been implicated in numerous reports of surrogate abuse and other human rights abuses, including abandoned babies. 

And if the beginning of life is thus increasingly subject to the logic of the market rather than of love, so too is its end. “Nadine”, a humanoid “social robot”, is elsewhere being touted as a solution to the growing shortage of care and companionship for the elderly. In Singapore, which at 1.05 babies per woman has one of the world’s lowest total fertility rates, “Nadine” has been seen “working” as a bingo caller at a nursing home. 

Some might argue that, surely, a robot “companion” is a better end-of-life option than the kind of isolation made notorious by (also low-fertility) Japan’s booming “lonely death” clean-up industry. Even so, I can’t imagine how cold a comfort interacting with “Nadine” would be for a lonely old person bereft of visitors or even much paid-for human care. Yet our shrinking willingness to reproduce — not to mention the industrialisation of childbirth on behalf of wealthy, low-fertility baby-buyers — is tied to the increasingly inhuman nature of elderly care. All share a common underlying theme: our collective refusal to see or value anything outside the market.

Feminists have long pointed to the unacknowledged foundation of altruistic care upon which the measurable economy rests, and which that economy also renders second-class and largely invisible. But particularly since the second wave, the dominant feminist consensus has tacitly accepted this marginalisation of care. And yet our collective decision to treat care both as infra dig and as an unacknowledged resource to be leveraged for “value creation” effectively transforms that capacity. No longer a core enabling condition for life together, our capacity to love becomes a non-renewable resource, to be extracted and turned into “real” value in the measurable economy.

As a result, like topsoil and functioning ecosystems, altruistic love is now increasingly scarce. Collapsing fertility is a sign that this scarcity now threatens our survival as a species just as urgently as ecosystem collapse due to more material forms of scarcity.

In the world of ecology, “ecomodernists” propose tech fixes for our exploitative relation to the natural world, such as piling people in tower-blocks and feeding us on high-protein mould grown in vats. Phenomena such as commercial surrogacy and robotic nursing-home “workers” represent a similar mindset, applied to the increasingly palpable scarcity of altruistic care that’s now fraying our social fabric and threatening our continuity as a species. 

Such tech-optimists reassure themselves that the surrogacy boom and robot carers will solve the increasingly obvious challenges posed by population collapse and driven by our yawning care deficit. They are wrong. The affective labour needed for loving care will always exceed the money available to “compensate” the worker. And this means that an inevitable byproduct of shifting care to the waged economy will be still further kinds of cruelty. Not just exploited, injured, objectified women, and maternal deprivation baked into the experience of birth to a surrogate. And at the other end of life, bingo robots at best, care home abuse or a lonely death otherwise — or a new culture of death for the weak, sick, poor and elderly.

Strip-mining the physical landscape leaves scenes of devastation behind. The same goes for strip-mining altruism. There is no tech fix for the growing litany of miseries now emerging from a culture built on ignoring, and exploiting, the human capacity for love.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.