Among the handful of must-read 20th century dystopian novels—Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World; George Orwell’s 1984; C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength—is P.D. James’s The Children of Men (New York: Penguin Books, c. 1992), which prods both our imagination and reason by envisioning the potential consequences of demographic trends. James, a distinguished novelist, known mainly for her riveting (and philosophically nuanced) mystery stories, portrays the world in 2021, twenty-six years after the last baby was born, dooming the race to extinction. She challenged, in a powerful artistic way, one of the prevailing orthodoxies of our day—the threat of overpopulation. The Children of Men boldly countered the message of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best-selling Population Bomb (one of the most egregiously misguided books published during that pivotal decade), which fueled to the mounting fears of ecological catastrophe then gripping the environmental community. Because earth’s resources are finite, he predicted: “In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” Ehrlich was duly lauded by the academic community (after all he was a certified member of the elite, a professor at Stanford University with an enviable reputation as an entomologist) and courted by the complacent media (Johnny Carson gushing over him for his prescience).
One of the few journalists willing to risk censure by differing with Ehrlich was Ben J. Wattenberg, who warned of actual population implosion rather than explosion. Two decades later he wrote The Birth Dearth, examining the “Total Fertility Rate” which was falling around the globe. He vainly hoped to stimulate a national conversation on the subject, but few (alas) recognized the reality of birth dearth. Returning to his concern in Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, c. 2004), he argued that “never have birth and fertility rates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, in so many places, so surprisingly” (p. 5). “For at least 650 years,” he says, “the total number of people on earth has headed in only one direction: up. But soon—probably within a few decades—global population will level off and then likely fall for a protracted period of time” (p. 5).
European, Russian and Japanese populations are virtually in free fall, with a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) significantly less than requisite replacement levels (2.1 per woman). Europe’s population will likely shrink from 728 million in 2000 to 632 million in 2050. To replace lost babies, Europe would need to take in nearly two million (rather than the current 376,000) immigrants each year. Russia has a TFR of 1.14 and will lose 30 percent of its population by mid-century. Not only are folks having fewer children—they want less! And lest we think this is true only of prosperous, highly industrialized nations, it also applies to Less Developed Countries, where a dramatic reduction in population growth has occurred within the past few decades. China, for example, had a TFR of 6.06 forty years ago; after instituting a “one child only” policy, by the beginning of the millennium the TFR fell to 1.8! Similarly, South Korea’s 2005 rate fell to 1.17. Brazil and Mexico reveal the same depopulating trajectory. In fact, few nations are repopulating themselves. America, however, has proved somewhat exceptional, sustaining a replacement level fertility rate—in part through welcoming immigrants who frequently have large families.
To explain this phenomenon, Wattenberg points first to increased urbanization, where children are something of a liability rather than an asset. Secondly, as women pursue higher education and careers—and as couples earn more money—they have proportionally fewer children. “More education, more work, lower fertility” (p. 96). Thirdly, abortion disposes of 45 million developing children every year. Fourthly, divorce lowers fertility as single women welcome fewer children than their married counterparts. Fifthly, contraception (exploding since the ‘60s) empowers couples to enjoy sexual pleasure without undesired consequences. And sixthly, since couples marry later in life they inevitably have fewer offspring. The ominous consequences of this depopulation cannot be ignored, because the welfare states established in virtually all modern countries simply cannot support growing numbers of elderly retirees funded by dwindling numbers of younger workers. Successful businesses thrive by employing creative young workers and selling goods to expanding numbers of consumers—essential factors inevitably absent as populations decline. Nations—and civilizations—will lose power and influence as their numbers decline. Less free, less enlightened dictatorial successors may very well replace them. The world, quite simply, will be a radically different place within a century.
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In What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (New York: Encounter Books, c. 2013) Jonathan V. Last details the latest data regarding population prospects. The book’s title reveals its thesis: no one’s expecting these days—and paradoxically, as P.J. O’Rourke quipped, “the only thing worse than having children is not having them.” Failing to heed the Bible’s first injunction—“be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth”—modern man faces an uncertain prospect bereft of children, coddling pets as their “fuzzy, low-maintenance replacements” (p. 3). The earth, it seems, will grow emptier. Indeed, “only 3 percent of the world’s population lives in a country whose fertility rate is not declining” (p. 92). We are moving from the “First Demographic Transition,” wherein children took center-stage and politicians built careers on looking out for them, to the “Second Demographic Transition,” wherein individual adults shun both families and children to pursue their own careers and pleasures. “Middle-class Americans don’t have very many babies these days. In case you’re wondering, the American fertility rate currently sits at 1.93,” significantly below the requisite replacement level (p. 4). At the moment, the deficit is rectified by Hispanic women, who average 2.35 babies, but they too are rapidly choosing to have less and less. For example, the once-plenteous supply of Puerto Rican immigrants to New York has collapsed as the island’s birthrate shrunk in 50 years from 4.97 to 1.64. “Some day,” Last says, “all of Latin America will probably have a fertility rate like Puerto Rico’s. And that day is coming sooner than you think” (p. 113). Labor shortages in Latin countries will eliminate the need to emigrate and the U.S. population picture will quickly resemble Europe’s.
Glancing abroad, by 2050 Greece may lose 20 percent of its people; Latvia has, since “1989 lost 13 percent” and “Germany is shedding 100,000 people a year” (p. 25). Spain registers barely one baby per woman. Japan’s population is shrinking and abandoned rural villages bear witness to the trend. It’s the same in Russia: “In 1995, Russia had 149.6 million people. Today, Russia is home to 138 million. By 2050, its population will be nearly a third smaller than it is today” (p. 25). Consequently, Vladimir Putin has zealously promoted a variety of failing schemes designed to encourage women to have more children. But they choose not to! Other things seem more important. “Divorce has skyrocketed—Russia has the world’s highest divorce rate. Abortion is rampant, with 13 abortions performed for every 10 live births. Consider that for a moment: Russians are so despondent about the future that they have 30 percent more abortions than births. This might be the most grisly statistic the world has ever seen. It suggests a society that no longer has a will to live” (p. 137).
Portents of things to come stand revealed in Hoyerswerda, a German city near the Polish border. In 1980 the town had 75,000 residents and “the highest birth rate in East Germany” (p. 98). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the folks there (and, more broadly, throughout the former East Germany) simply stopped procreating. The fertility rate abruptly plunged to 0.8 and within three decades the town lost half of its residents. Hoyerswerda “began to close up shop” (p. 98). Buildings, businesses, and homes stood vacant. Similar developments across the country dictated a significant shift from “urban planning” to expand and develop infrastructures and suburbs to devising ways “to shrink cities” (p. 98). Parks now proliferate, replacing factories and schools. The wolf population is actually resurgent, with wolf-packs prowling around dwindling settlements.
Mirroring these European trends is Old Town Alexandria (the D.C. suburb where Last and his wife lived for a while)—a “glorious preserve of eco-conscious yoga and free range coffee. My neighbors had wonderfully comfortable lives in part because they didn’t take on the expense of raising children” (p. 25). As a portent of things to come, white, college-educated women, shopping in Alexandria’s stylish boutiques and devotedly determined to pursue a career, have a fertility rate of 1.6—barely more than Chinese women after decades of that nation’s recently-suspended “one-child” policy. In 1970 the average Chinese woman bore six children and the Communist regime envisioned multiple problems with the ticking population bomb. Energetic policies were implemented until quite recently, when the rulers realized the implications of population implosion. But a trajectory has been set and within forty years “the age structure in China will be such that there are only two workers to support each retiree” (p. 13).
Looking to explain this world-wide pattern, the author lists a variety of “factors, operating independently, with both foreseeable and unintended consequences. From big things (like the decline in church attendance and the increase of women in the workforce) to little things (like a law mandating car seats in Tennessee or the reform of divorce statutes in California), our modern world has evolved in such a way as to subtly discourage childbearing” (p. 16). Certainly there are good reasons not to procreate. Heading the list is money. Rearing a child may very well cost parents a million dollars! Financially, it’s the worst investment possible! “It is commonly said that buying a house is the biggest purchase most Americans will ever make. Well, having a baby is like buying six houses, all at once. Except you can’t sell your children, they never appreciate in value, and there’s a good chance that, somewhere around age 16, they’ll announce: ‘I hate you’” (p. 43).
Complicating this are welfare state structures such as Medicare and Social Security that “actually shift economic incentives away from having children” (p. 46). Though Texas Governor Rick Perry was ridiculed for suggesting it, Social Security really is a “Ponzi scheme” that will only work “so long as the intake of new participants continues to increase” (p. 107). In 1950 three million folks were getting Social Security checks; thirty years later there were 35 million retirees expecting monthly payments; by 2005 nearly 50 million were on the role, taking $546 billion a year from taxpayers still working. In its initial (New Deal) phase, Social Security only exacted one percent of a worker’s paycheck; 30 years later (under LBJ’s Great Society) the rate inched up to three percent; by 1971 it jumped to 4.6 percent; and today (shielded from any adjustments by Barack Obama) it amounts to 6.2 percent. The sky, you might say, is the limit as an endless line of elders look to their shrinking numbers of children to pay the bills. The same goes for Medicare—except the prognosis is worse by far! It simply cannot survive in it present form, given the realities of a shrinking population. Both programs “were conceived in an era of high fertility. It was only after our fertility rate collapsed that the economics of the programs became dysfunctional” (p. 109).
Yet looming above all else is “the exodus of religion from the public square” (p. 84). Devout Catholics and Protestants have more kids. They shun the behaviors facilitating population decline—contraception, abortion, cohabitation, delayed marriage, divorce—and church-going couples fully enjoy marriage in ways unavailable to their secular counterparts. Practicing Protestants increasingly resemble practicing Catholics, procreating more than enough youngsters to support population growth. But non-religious women, according to a 2002 survey, had a fertility rate of only 1.8, whereas women who rated religion as “not very important” clocked in at 1.3. Ultimately “there’s only one good reason to go through the trouble” of rearing children: “Because you believe, in some sense, that God wants you to” (p. 170). For this reason our government especially should craft family-friendly, child-friendly policies—repudiating the feminist and homosexual ideologies shaping the laws and judicial decrees of the past half-century.
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Columnist Mark Steyn, whether writing or speaking, is justly renowned for his infectious humor and verbal dexterity, bringing to his discussions of serious subjects a sustained note of good cheer. There is little to cheer about, however, in Steyn’s America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It (Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 2006) wherein he casts a gloomy look at demographic realities and predicted “the Western world will not survive the twenty-first century, and much of it will effectively disappear within our lifetimes, including many if not most European countries” (p. xiii). Within 40 years “60 percent of Italians [once lionized for their large and boisterous families] will have no brothers, no sisters, no cousins, no aunts, no uncles” (p. xvii). Declining populations will leave welfare states unsustainable and civilization unfeasible. “Civilizations,” said Arnold J. Toynbee, in A Study of History, “die from suicide, not murder,” and Western Civilization is in the midst of self-inflicted mortal wounds. “We are,” Steyn says, “living through a rare moment: the self-extinction of the civilization which, for good or ill, shaped the age we live in” (p. 3).
Though we’re tempted to think such things have never happened before, Steyn jolts us with a quotation from Polybius (c. 150 B.C.), one of the greatest ancient historians, who said: “In our own time the whole of Greece has been subject to a low birth rate and a general decrease of the population, owing to which cites have become deserted and the land has ceased to yield fruit, although there have neither been continuous wars nor epidemics. . . . For as men had fallen into such a state of pretentiousness, avarice, and indolence that they did not wish to marry, or if they married to rear the children born to them, or at the most as a rule but one or two of them, so as to leave these in affluence and bring them up to waste their substance, the evils rapidly and insensibly grew” (The Histories, XXXVI).
Basic to demographic decay, as both Polybius and Steyn argue, is an apparently irreversible moral and spiritual decay leaving listless increasing numbers of people. Irreligious folks inevitably lose faith not only in an invisible God but in equally invisible ethical principles and reasons to live hopfully for the future. Thus Europe’s population has plunged like a raft going over a waterfall in the wake of the de-Christianization of the continent. Childless places like Japan and Singapore and Albania have little religious vitality. Standing alone in the midst of all this is the United States, which still enjoys a modest population growth. True to form, the U.S. is the extraordinary Western nation still featuring robust religious activity. Unfortunately this may not long persist since “most mainline Protestant churches are as wedded to the platitudes du jour as the laziest politician” (p. 98). They “are to one degree or another, post-Christian. If they no loner seem disposed to converting the unbelieving to Christ, they can at least convert them to the boggiest of soft-left political clichés, on the grounds that if Jesus were alive today he’d most likely be a gay Anglican bishop in a committed relationship driving around in an environmentally friendly car with an ‘Arms Are for Hugging’ sticker on the way to an interfaith dialogue with a Wiccan and a couple of Wahhabi imans” (p. 100). Without a resurgence of orthodox, muscular Christianity, Steyn thinks, America too will soon choose the childless path to historical oblivion.
In addition to population implosion, Steyn devotes much attention in America Alone to the threat of Islamic imperialism, facilitated by the growing passivity—the unwillingness to resist terrorism—throughout much of what was once labeled “Western Civilization.” Indicative of the trend was “the decision of the Catholic high school in San Juan Capistrano to change the name of its football team from the Crusaders to the less culturally insensitive Lions” (p. 158). (Simultaneously, 75 miles to the south, lock-stepping with the culture, Point Loma Nazarene University—while I was on the faculty—similarly changed its mascot from Crusaders to Sea Lions.) This loss of a masculine will-to-fight, as will as the will-to-procreate, signifies a collapsing culture. Indeed, the “chief characteristic of our age is “‘deferred adulthood’” (p. 191). And it takes strong adults to create and sustain a culture.
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However realistically we appraise the threat of Islamic Jihadism, demographic realities foretell coming calamities in Muslim lands during the next half-century. This prospect becomes clear in David P. Goldman’s How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) (Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 2011). Growing numbers of us are aware of the “birth dearth” haunting much of the world, but because it’s underreported, few know that within four decades “the belt of Muslim countries from Morocco to Iran will become as gray as depopulating Europe” (p. x). For example females in Iran, though now surrounded by half-a-dozen of their siblings, will themselves “bear only one or two children during their lifetimes” (p. x). “The fastest demographic decline ever registered in recorded history is taking place today in Muslim countries” (p. xv).
Along with his description of demographic patterns in Muslim nations, Goldman’s discussion of “four great extinctions” makes his book worth pondering. The first extinction took place a millennium before Christ, with the passing of the Bronze Age and the disappearance of cities such as Troy, Mycenae, and Jericho. The second extinction, two hundred years before Christ, enervated the Hellenic civilization once centered in cities such as Athens and Sparta. Aristotle says Sparta shrank within a century from 10,000 to 1,000 citizens. Increasingly large landed estates, run for the benefit of an ever diminishing aristocracy less and less concerned with rearing children, indulging themselves with sexual perversions such as pederasty, left Sparta bereft of people and militarily listless. The city was, he said “ruined for want of men.” (Politics, II, ix).
The third extinction marked the end of Rome’s power and grandeur in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. Even in the glory days of the Empire, when Augustus Caesar reigned, “there was probably a decline” in the empire’s population due to “the deliberate control of family numbers through contraception, infanticide and child exposure” (p. 131). Augustus himself decreed punishments for “childlessness, divorce, and adultery among the Roman nobility” (p. 131), but nothing worked, and the empire’s needed laborers and soldiers were necessarily drawn from defeated (or volunteering) barbarians from the North. We are now in the midst of the fourth extinction, when civilizations (East and West) are beginning to show symptoms of rigor mortis. This extinction began in many ways with the French Revolution in 1789, the “world’s first attempt to found a society upon reason rather than reason” (p. 134), followed by the subsequent waves of revolutionary activity, that transformed Europe into a bastion of atheistic and anti-natal secularism.
Though Islam seems to be a vibrant religion, currently regaining its virility through movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Goldman thinks it is in fact violently (and vainly) reacting to the global secularism fully evident in the dramatic decline of population throughout the Islamic world. Joining “Western Civilization,” Islam is another dying culture! So fewer and fewer of us will inherit the earth.