August 12, 2009
Empty Cradles, Demographic Destiny and the Death of the WestBy Selwyn Duke
While the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding was good cinema, it was also a big fat Hollywood fiction. With Greece's fertility rate of 1.36 children per woman -- well below the replacement level of 2.1 -- "big" is not a modifier demographers would associate with today's Greek families. In fact, a more accurate film might be called My Big Fat Muslim Wedding.
Worse still, Greece is no anomaly. Long ago the cradle of Western civilization and more recently one of its backwaters, it's now part of a phalanx of Western demographic failures. In fact, while it may seem counterintuitive to those weaned on the stuff of Malthusian nightmares, the West is facing a population implosion of historic proportions. And the statistics are staggering. As I wrote when reviewing the documentary Demographic Winter last year:
Although pondering demographic malaise conjures up the image of sterile Western swingers, note that this phenomenon is, in a measure, manifesting itself worldwide. Take Eastern Europe, for example. Russia, with its birthrate of 1.4 children per woman, is experiencing a population decrease of 700,000 a year. With an even lower birthrate of 1.22, some Lithuanian officials are concerned about the eventual disappearance of their population. And this is mirrored in other Eastern European nations; Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and the rest are all turning in similar numbers.
The picture is no better in developed Asian nations. Although they're still stuffing people into Tokyo subway cars like sardines, Japan's rapidly graying population contracts with a birthrate of 1.22. South Koreans may have far more reason to bring children into the world than Kim Jong-il's captives, but their 1.2 still can't match the latter's 2.0. And Hong Kong, not to be outdone -- but perhaps soon undone -- comes in second to last in the world with a birthrate of 1 even (only Macau ranks lower).
Even more surprisingly, the developing world is now following our lead. For example, Uruguay, Kazakhstan and Algeria have birthrates of, respectively, 1.94, 1.88 and 1.82. And while millions of illegal aliens still stream across our sieve-like southern border, believe it or not, even Mexico's birthrate is plummeting muy rapido. As professional demographers have been telling us since the 1970s, the whole world is poised to experience a demographic winter.
Yet, isn't this good news? Aren't we dodging a real-life Soylent Green scenario of cramped, elbow-to-elbow living, strained resources and wilderness existing only in memory? This certainly has been the prevailing view for quite some time now, but there is another, more ominous side to this story. To quote demographer Phillip Longman, "The ongoing global decline in human birthrates is the single most powerful force affecting the fate of nations and the future of society in the 21st century."
Let's first discuss economic implications. Normally, a civilization can be represented with a population pyramid standing right-side-up, with the youngest people at the bottom and the age increasing as you move up (okay, we'll forget pharaoh buried underneath). So the aged would be at the very top, with lots of youngsters down below to do civilization's heavy lifting.
When birthrates collapse, however, this pyramid is turned on its head, with the elderly outnumbering the very young. This usually means hardship, as the young often have to care for their elders. Specifically, though, in our nation it means that the burden of paying an ever-increasing social security bill will fall on ever-dwindling young shoulders. Worse still, it can create a vicious circle: as the young pay progressively higher taxes, the financial strain makes it even less likely that they will have children. It's a recipe for the winding down of a civilization toward the nadir of non-existence.
Yet there are problems even when social programs are removed from the equation. The young and vibrant are the worker bees; they are the inventors, innovators and creators of wealth. They drive the economy. Of course, the elderly may take jobs out of necessity or boredom, but they can match the economic engine of a peak-working-years population little more than they could match it on the athletic field. This is part of the reason why famed economist Adam Smith taught that decreasing population correlates with economic depression.
Now we come to the death of the West. Many of you know that Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, the face of 1980's terrorism, has been relatively well-behaved for nigh on 25 years now. Of course, this may be because Ronald Reagan effected a bomb-induced attitude adjustment in 1986. Yet, such punitive action, while sometimes necessary, seldom yields a permanent change in behavior without a permanent change in vital signs. It didn't scare Saddam Hussein or the Taliban sufficiently, that's for sure. (Of course, they don't wear dresses, either.) But is faint-heartedness on the part of Gaddafi the reason? Or is there another factor? Well, a clue can possibly be found in something he once said:
Is this Gaddafi wearing pragmatist's clothes? Perhaps he realizes that the West is voluntarily committing civilizational suicide, and all he need do is stay out of its way.
If so, he simply notes what civilizations from the good to the bad to the ugly always have understood, that their success largely hinges upon their ability to replenish that invaluable resource: people. For example, the ancient Romans at one point became obsessed with the idea that they weren't creating enough babies; Joseph Stalin, hardly a pro-lifer, outlawed abortion; and the Nazis had their Lebensborn program. And even today governments are taking note of the problem. To name a handful, Russia, Poland, France and an Italian town are offering citizens substantial monetary incentives (i.e., cash and sometimes tax breaks) to be fruitful and multiply. Yet it isn't working -- and for good reason: a cultural problem cannot be solved with a political solution. Why, even demographically correct Augustus Caesar, who wielded absolute power, could not remedy the birth dearth among Roman nobility.
This almost universal concern is warranted because a people is like a species: a failure to reproduce leads to extinction. Now, this doesn't mean that neutron bomb-like cityscapes lie in the West's future. More likely is that its peoples will be dominated -- and supplanted -- by other cultures. Oh, its new master may not be Islam; it may be China, India or, even more likely, different groups in different parts of the West. The point is that while the Third World and Asia are following in our footsteps, they are far healthier demographically and may be able to recover. But we may soon be at the point of no return.
Now the question is, does this matter? If you listen to the left, our demographic demise is something to be ignored when possible and applauded when not. As Kathryn Joyce did in an incredibly snide and stupid article titled "Missing: The ‘Right' Babies," the concern about the West's baby bust is often chalked up to just "old-fashioned race panic." The left's implication is that cultural suicide is our civilization's comeuppance.
The irony of this is that the people extinguishing themselves are leftists, people who aren't enlightened enough to understand that their "enlightened" values will die with them. Whether tomorrow brings us a Chinese hegemon, a worldwide caliphate or, more likely, a bipolar or multi-polar world, it may be a place ruled neither by the virtues of Christendom nor the values of those crucifying her. When the people who birthed political correctness disappear, they won't be able to reproduce it any more than little baby libertines. Of course, also true is that the West's glorious triumphs, such as its unprecedented respect for human rights, would also fade into history.
And this is something mature people consider. Would the world be a better place with China as the dominant force? If you have trouble with that one, ponder how the Chinese are currently raping Africa as they zealously exploit the continent's resources. They are making European colonialism look beneficent.
Mature people also do something else -- they acknowledge facts. And what bothers me about the current debate over population is the steadfast refusal to do so. If you believe that man is a pox upon the planet, be forthcoming. If you think he needs to cut his numbers by 90 percent, make your case. If you want a "Planetary Regime" to control world population -- which Obama's science czar John Holdren wrote about -- stand and be counted. But, as liberal icon Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "You're entitled to your own opinions, but you're not entitled to your own facts." Before debating where we should go, there must be an acknowledgement of where we are.
And where is this? It's a phase civilizations have seen before, eerily illuminated by setting suns of their own design. For example, even 2000 years ago, Greek weddings weren't all that big and fat. As Greek historian Polybius wrote circa 140 B.C. when lamenting civilization's decline,
"In our time, all Greece was visited by a dearth of children and general decay of population . . . . This evil grew upon us rapidly, and without attracting attention, by our men becoming perverted to the passion for show and money and the pleasures of an idle life."
When I ponder our materialism, promiscuity, frivolity and selfishness, our abortion-mill archipelago that churns with Nazi-like efficiency, it occurs to me that perhaps the leftists are right -- just not for the reasons they think. It's not sins of our past that haunt us but those of our present, and maybe the euthanizing of Western civilization is, after all, our comeuppance.