This is the cheerful point of a fascinating book I just read, titled "How Civilizations Die," by David Goldman.
"Population decline is the elephant in the world's living room. As a matter of arithmetic, we know that the social life of most developed countries will break down within two generations." So begins the book, which develops themes from turgid U.N. population studies into an absorbing and sobering picture of the chaos likely to envelope the world over the next 75 years.
The problem is that large swathes of the world's population have stopped having children, or stopped having them in numbers sufficient to replace the current population. Birthrates in every Western European nation, and all of the western former Soviet republics, have fallen well below replacement level. Replacement levels vary, depending on a variety of factors, but world wide the level is around 2.3 children per female. Any rate that is less than 2.0 is well below replacement level, no matter where you are.
The sad reality, as the author points out, is that the rate at which a population has children is not a scale with evenly distributed consequences. It is not like walking down the cellar steps, when at each step you are one foot closer to the bottom and one foot further from the top. Instead, it is more like walking down steps to the bottom of a deep pool. There is a world of difference between being 6 inches above water and 6 inches below. One is alive and the other is dead.
There are three startling aspects of the book. The first is included within the parenthetical following the title, "And Why Islam is Dying, Too." Iran is facing national extinction in the very near future because, in one generation, its population has gone from having 6-7 children per female to less than 2. The Iranians are quite aware of this, and spend a lot of time fretting about it. So do the Turks, who face the same problem. We in the West, however, go on assuming that because they are Muslim nations they are having babies like mad.
As these nations have become more literate their birthrate has dropped to the same level as Western Europe's - that is, down to the "catastrophic" level on the birthrate speedometer. The difference is that it took Western Europe hundreds of years to reach this state, while most of the Muslim nations of Northern Africa and the Middle East have managed to do it in one generation.
Having children at less than replacement rate creates an "inverted population pyramid," in which the number of working age people keeps getting smaller compared to the number of elderly dependents. A poor society reaches crisis stage more quickly than a rich society - there's less money to cushion the fall - but neither one can support the inverted pyramid for very long. At some point any society having children at less than replacement level topples and collapses, as did Rome, and before it, Greece.
Here are "diamond-shaped" population pyramids for Hong Kong and Japan, from 2006, reflecting a fall of their total fertility rate below replacement levels 30-40 years ago:
The diamond-shaped population graph means that people with jobs will have to support relatively few children and a relatively few elderly. This contributes to an economic boom, since workers get to keep a bigger share of their earnings than if they were supporting lots of kids. This works great, for a little while, like swimming underwater with your snorkel.
But the next generation has a big problem. They will have far fewer workers supporting a larger and rapidly growing number of older dependents. And they are unlikely to start having lots more children, because that will make their lives even more burdensome, in the short run. Thus, once you start down this road it is very difficult to reverse course.
By the last half of this century, Western Europe and the western tier of former Soviet republics will be in the process of social collapse as a result of their below replacement birthrates. Some countries will collapse sooner, some later, some will have more money or more immigration or smarter financial planning. But in the end they will all be sucked down the demographic maelstrom. At least they will if they don't change their childbearing habits immediately and radically. Not a likely prospect.
The third startling aspect of this book is that demographers have identified two key contributors to the decline of birth rates: increases in female literacy and a decrease in religious faith. Thus, for example, there are only two traditionally Western nations that are still having children at replacement rate: the United States (just barely) and Israel, both of whom have near universal female literacy but also have relatively high levels of religious faith. And within those nations, the people contributing most to replacing our populations are religiously zealous people.
When women in a rural and backward society become literate, the desire to have children takes second place to the economic possibilities opened up before them. Even more significantly, when people lose their faith they lose their desire to have children, at least enough children to allow the society to survive. The only factor that has consistently counteracted the tendency of female literacy to depress birthrates is fervent religious faith.
In Iran, only about 2% of the population go to mosques regularly. It is not the case, as is commonly supposed, that the population is radically religious. Far from it. The ruling elite is, but that's about it. Iran is about as religious as France, which is to say, not at all.
The author goes on to point out that theories of rational social and political behavior break down when a "player" becomes convinced (rightly or wrongly) he is about to die. Someone with 3 months to live often views the world - and risk-taking - quite differently from someone not faced with death.
The same for societies. Sometimes they accept their fate and die quietly, but often enough they get frantic and engage in near hopeless wars in a last-ditch effort to survive.
Not a pretty picture, but a fascinating book. I could not help remarking the fact that since the time of the Rev. Thomas Malthus the elite in Western society have obsessed about over-population as the great demographic catastrophe facing civilization.
This obsessive notion has been systematically falsified by events for the past two centuries. The prophecies of doom have proven, in the event, to be precisely wrong. Curiously, this has not stopped the caterwauling prophesies, or the enormous push to reduce birthrates. These efforts have proven "successful," by and large, except among the deeply religious and the illiterate.
With "successes" like these, who needs failures?
A curious side-note: looks like Pope Paul VI got it just exactly right in Humane Vitae, and his many and sundry critics got it, well, dead wrong. Have a look here.
So on we march, off the cliff's edge, the elites in government, academia, and the media urging us onward, ever onward, in the precious and holy name of global population control, while the actual catastrophe we face is not a population explosion but an implosion, with its attendant Demographic Zombie Nations (DZN) lurching about in spasmodic death throes.
The prescribed "cure," it turns out, is far worse than the "disease."
"Oh, the humanity . . ."
- Radio announcer Herbert Morrison's famous words
while witnessing the Hindenburg disaster in 1937.