I want to make an argument that may not be provable. I’m aware of what evidence there is, and isn’t, for it; I’m aware of how much work it would entail to actually track this down and provide solid evidence in book form. I don’t have the energy. But it’s still worth putting the idea out.
My argument is that between 1400 and 1950, there was constant keen awareness of sudden death, and that this shaped the ethical values of the time. We inherited these ethical values, but since 1950, a different set of forces has been pushing us in another direction. In our time, both views of the world are still active, and they view each other as, at base, an existential threat. From this comes the very real rancor of political discourse.
Of course people were aware of death before that period. Epidemics, famines and wars were always at hand. But the climate was warmer than average; sea passages were open, settlements moved upward, and harvest seasons were long. The main evidence that Europe had become relatively overpopulated is in its ability to absorb the first visitations of the plague without disruption of services. It took a few more cuts of the Grim Reaper to put real pressure on the labor structure.
The bubonic plague continued to revisit until about 1700. The Little Ice Age was at its peak around that time; North America was settled during the coldest period, when the harvests were shorter and the shoreline lower than it had been in pre-Columbian times. (And of course N.A. was depopulated due to a smallpox pandemic.) In Europe, the plague had destabilized the religious social order, so during the 1500s and 1600s, there were many religious wars as the universal rule of the Catholic church broke down.
To grossly oversimplify matters, life in Europe before the plague was relatively easy, but food was in short supply. After the plague, there was more food but life was harder. People were more actively worried about raising the next generation, but they were worried about spontaneous death, not about supplies running out. If a child could survive into adulthood, nobody doubted that he could find a place in the world. His life would be centered around storing summer food for the winter, and around chopping firewood, but there were plenty of trees and lots of land. Keeping babies alive seemed extremely important. We have some indirect evidence in that England passed its first harsh laws against infanticide in the early 1600s.
America was founded during the Little Ice Age’s demographic bust centuries. Its basic cultural values came from the expanding frontier. More people, in the form of babies or in the form of immigrants, could be accommodated. The next generation was needed to take care of those who grew sick or old. Children began working from an early age and grew up fast. De Tocqueville noted in 1830 that the average US birth rate seemed to be about six living children per woman, compared to a lower rate in Europe.
Since 1950, the climate has begun to be relatively warmer than it was during the settlement period. Growing seasons are longer, and hot-climate animals migrate northward. We’re reversing the Little Ice Age in many ways. We’ve also used political means to stop most wars; at the same time, we have eliminated many causes of infant mortality.
If you step back from the history you lived through, and look at it on a larger scale, it’s not that surprising that abortion was legalized about a generation after vaccinations became routine. There was no connection made at the time, but the people who brought about the changes were living in a demographic boom and were abolishing many other sources of death. A centuries-old ethic, which put the lives of newborn infants above all, seemed less relevant.
In today’s political culture wars, “conservatives” look to the past ethics in which all infant life is precious and there will always be enough food to go around as long as everyone learns to work hard. “Progressives” look into an unknown future and see overcrowding: the fish are dying, GMO crops may turn out to be toxic, the oceans will start flooding our cities. The last thing we need is a higher birth rate, they feel. In fact, a higher birth rate threatens the existing lives of adults. We already can’t find work for all of our young adults, now that the frontier is closed and manufacturing has moved to Asia.
And so the really hot-button emotional issue of our time is whether we should legally recognize marriages that, by definition, cannot produce babies. These marriages would provide companionship, sex and stability for existing adults, but would not add to the birth rate. They might help absorb some of the excess birth rate by adopting babies, but they would never add babies, by definition. I believe that at some level, people who are most in favor of same-sex marriage are also aware of overcrowding; if nothing else, you can see quickly that people believe and vote differently based on the relative population of their voting district. The split isn’t regional, it’s city vs. country, with the electoral battles taking place in the suburbs, who could swing either way.
The question I asked myself in 2011 was why people were reacting to fairly low-stakes political issues as though the stakes were extremely high. They were willing to dehumanize other people over disagreement, even when these other people had no more power than they did. My answer, as I finished writing about the Middle Ages, was that the Black Death gave birth to an era in which all new life was precious, while World War II gave birth to an era in which new lives threaten existing lives. That baby born in a slum or trailer might eat MY FOOD.
The health care debate underscores it again. If you haven’t read Ezekiel Emanuel’s Lancet paper on rationing scarce resources, you should. It’s a logical, fair look at how a society might assign scores to the value of life, and infant life scores lower than the life of a 30 year old who can work. This logic is wrong when you’re struggling to fill a bust with a younger generation; it’s pretty irrefutable when you have more than enough people already. We are moving into a Post-Plague world, where plague ethics don’t apply. And, of course, one that is again experiencing global climate shift and may yet see another pandemic to reset our values.