Demography is destiny


The division of mankind into an expanding poor majority and a shrinking wealthy minority is a prescription for conflict and instability. If the present trends prevail, the rich democratic countries will come up against very serious political, economic, social and – finally – military problems. The increasing life span exacerbates the dilemma. In Europe we are on our way to a geriatric society, a unicum in world history.

Evolution at work

The transition from opportunistic hunting and gathering to monotonous agriculture certainly was the cause of great mental stress. Husbandry calls for hard and persistent labour, the rigid systematization of female gathering chores – certainly a most unpleasant kind of life for inveterate hunters and fishermen. The resulting process of selection, lasting several thousand years, must have left an indelible mark on our genetic inheritance. Unlike the primitives of today, we are the heirs of hardy, toiling peasants. The parsimony and pronounced territoriality of the farmer are transformed into local patriotism and nationalism; rustic behavior patterns reappear as ordinary middle-class virtues.

Natural (or unnatural) selection through alcohol abuse has for millennia been operating in agricultural societies with an abundant supply of fermentable carbohydrates. A mutation that changes the metabolism of alcohol is quite common among civilized nations. Acetaldehyde, a toxic intermediate, is burned at a reduced rate which leads to its accumulation with subsequent hangover symptoms. Primitive peoples have not been subjected to this selection factor and have a normal metabolic rate. The warning signal of a hangover is much weaker and alcoholism is often endemic. Obviously the excessive drinkers were soon eliminated, and this may have correlated with a genetically based activation of the surviving population.

Close to nature, high status persons, men in particular, produce a lot more offspring than the mean. In a class society the roles are reversed. A host of children is dispersing the accumulated wealth and high status women shun childbirth. This trend was discernible in antiquity and was taken up by upper class Europeans (except in England).

In A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (2007), Gregory Clark traces back the English industrial revolution to a persistent genetic change during the preceding centuries. In contrast to other peoples investigated, the affluent English had more children surviving into adulthood than the population at large. Under stagnant economic conditions, this meant that many of them ended up in straightened circumstances, squeezing out the common indigent by their cultural-cum-genetic competitiveness. Clark maintains that the slow change in genetic endowment was the mainspring of the subsequent economic development. By the same token, the less developed countries are in for a long haul. These controversial conclusions have so far evoked only muted reactions.

Natural selection is always at work, with or without our approval. Every change in the rules of reproductive play has far-reaching consequences. Has natural selection gone into reverse? Can the flood of unrestricted human procreation be stemmed? If the high-fertility populations become permanently dependent on the birth-controlling strata, we can expect severe instability.

Primitive birth control

Infanticide, sometimes combined with cannibalism, has been fairly common in tribal communities but more sophisticated methods are well-documented, too. Among the Australian aborigines, an operation was performed on young men at the initiation ceremony whereby the spermatic duct (the vas deferens) was opened so that the sperm would not enter the vagina during intercourse. When a child was desired, a finger could be held over the opening.

In ancient cultures, abortion was certainly practised and the exposure of deformed or otherwise unwanted children has worked as a safety valve among many if not most civilized peoples. In Antiquity, large-scale and publicly sanctioned infanticide may have been a contributory factor in the regression of the Greek and Roman cultures.

Birth control promotes ecological balance but may also cause cultural stagnation, and invites encroachment from surplus areas. Even if contraceptive techniques were to be applied worldwide, there would always, without the strictest enforcement, be individuals or groups reproducing themselves in excess of the ‘norm’. A high birth rate is perfectly acceptable, provided that the people involved take full responsibility for their offspring.

Socio-economic feedback

The high birthrate of poor countries and low reproduction in the Western world has been ascribed to socio-economic feedback. Social security certainly plays an important role. In traditional societies, the care of the old falls upon the children, a practice which in many cultures has been underwritten by reverent ancestor worship. Accordingly, the survival of enough offspring is still indispensable in the developing world.

The marginal cost of an additional child is low because the mother lacks alternative occupation and the needs of the children are slight. In the longer term, the family gains additional laborers and social security because the children are obliged to care for their infirm parents. But high mortality means that the number of children must be disproportionate to be on the safe side. The upshot is excessive an excessive birth rate even if every family makes a rational, statistical calculation.

In a primitive society, the children provide cheap labor and serve as retirement insurance. To top it off, the group solidarity of the tribe and the extended family make for collective responsibility. Childcare is a kind of commons. Curtailing your own reproduction just pushes you into caring for your neighbor’s offspring. The suppressed position of the women acts as a shackle on social development. She carries all the burdens but has scant alternatives.

On the whole, economic growth seems to diminish the population pressure in the less developed countries. This trend is obviously supported by the ongoing democratization, urbanization and the emancipation of women. The Islamic countries are somewhat exceptional. By and large, the negative correlation between income and fertility is holding in this category, too. The fertility in Tunisia and Algeria is already below two births per woman, but rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Libya exhibit much higher figures. Perhaps we have to wait for the strict orthodoxy to be undermined by covert secularization, as has happened in Catholic Southern Europe.

In the welfare state, children are economic liabilities, at least for the better off. The tab for old age is conveniently foisted onto somebody else.

Fluctuating fertility

The industrial revolution brought on a steep population increase in Europe which abated during the first half of the twentieth century. The aftermath of the Second World War brought an unexpected baby boom which was soon succeeded by a baby crash in all developed countries. The average fertility has in most quarters dropped far beneath the sustainable number of 2.1–2.2 births per woman. Already in the 1970s, the ominous trend was clearly visible but any attempt to raise the question met a wall of silence. The whole subject was taboo and is still weighed down by political incorrectness despite the looming demographic disaster.

In the European Union, the fertility varies around 1.5; Italy and Spain are at rock bottom with 1.3. The population of Russia, Ukraine and Japan is already dropping whereas the United States features a fertility of 2.1. The poor immigrants probably compensate for the fertility deficit of the well off. A similar relation certainly holds in Europe too.

In our post-industrial society Homo economicus is still thinking rationally, only that the economic incentives are turned topsy-turvy. Children have become an economic liability. For a couple, the standard of living is clearly maximized over their life span if they refrain from procreation, heedlessly consuming the capital invested in them. Their livelihood in retirement is produced by the progeny of somebody else. Except for the dirt poor, children are driving down the economic well-being of the family in comparison with a childless peer group.

Economic considerations are not all-pervasive as children are still born in our societies. But the disastrously low fertility across Europe (and Japan) shows that the domestic economy matters. Adequate human reproduction has literally become a question of life and death for the developed world.

Child support has little impact except for the low income bracket. Taxation should be the vehicle for compensating, at least in part, the added costs of raising a family. Such systems exist but are generally insufficient. To become effective they must be combined with a tax increase for the childless. A straightforward way would be to differentiate pension payments; study debts could be abrogated on similar grounds. Thus parenthood would be recognized as an investment in the future of society.

The developing world

Many less developed countries have understood that unchecked procreation is aggravating their situation. On the other hand, a rise in living standards generally leads to a drop in fertility, albeit with a certain delay. To escape the vicious circle of propagation and poverty, India and China resorted to compulsive birth control.

India fell back on compulsory sterilization of the poor which brought the whole family planning campaign into disrepute. Nevertheless, in 1994 the fertility had dropped to 3.34 and the 2008 estimate is 2.76 (the Muslims exhibit a higher fertility than the Hindu majority). Pakistan lingers on 3.58 but in Islamic Bangladesh the forecast for the fertility in 2025 is 2.1 – a steep drop from the present and spot on the sustainable level.

In China the rules were gradually tightened up until the one-child system was introduced in 1979. It applies both a carrot and a stick. One child families are favored while the next children have serious economic consequences. The Chinese have succeeded in reducing fertility to 1.77, and are already concerned about the demographic structure. The tough policy has had an unintended side-effect, well known in other countries with similar values. Due to the widespread preference for boys, baby girls are often terminated, before or after birth. In China the girl deficit is above ten percent.

In vast regions, such as South East Asia and Latin America, the population increase is subsiding. The exceptions are many Islamic countries and Sub-Saharan Africa; Mali and Niger are at the top of the fertility league, featuring an average of over seven children for every fertile woman. Some populous countries too, like Nigeria and Ethiopia, have a high birth rate only partly compensated by the high mortality. But in South Africa, the population is decreasing due to the Aids epidemic; a round twenty percent of the fertile population is infected.

The good news is that the world population increase is abating and the statisticians calculate that it will level off at approximately ten billion. But such forecasts are notoriously undependable and they cover up the actual problem. The earth could well make room for say fifteen billion humans who individually and in groups take responsibility for themselves, their offspring and their environment. A much smaller number could, however, cause permanent misery if the indigent continue to procreate irresponsibly within an obsolete political, economic and social structure.

Too many people?

Is then the anomalous relation between income and reproduction a problem? Many people routinely shake off this question by referring to the looming overpopulation of our planet. Every unborn child would thus improve the deteriorating ecological balance. But the division of mankind into an expanding poor majority and a shrinking wealthy minority is a prescription for conflict and instability. If the present trends prevail, the rich democratic countries will come up against very serious political, economic, social and – inevitably – military problems.

Are there too many people on our earth? In any case there is always a deficit of good citizens, the only guarantors of the survival and the sustenance of our societies and our values. For destitute people, propagation is irresponsible whereas the rich are shirking their responsibility when they abstain from procreation.

Manuel Barroso, the Chairman of the European Commission, recently announced that up to 2050 the number of retirees (above 65 years) will increase by 58 millions while the active population (15- 64 years) will decrease by 48 millions. No response has so far been elicited by this distress call. The imbalances cannot be solved by immigration without the risk of a dangerous discontinuity in the societal development.

The successful immigration policy in the United States depends on the incessant pressure on the newcomers to pull their weight from the very beginning. The second generation immigrants have usually embraced the American way of life and the corresponding values. This has not worked in Europe. Considering the high birthrate of Muslim settlers in particular, a creeping Islamization of Europe cannot be excluded.

The demographic imbalances in the democratic core countries, with the exception of the United States, may be a more refractory problem than the uncontrolled propagation in the LDCs. The increasing life span exacerbates the dilemma. In Europe we are on our way to a geriatric society, a unicum in world history. We could and we should remove the economic obstacles to reproduction – voluntary childlessness must not be too attractive. This may not be enough. We are dealing with a complex network of human motivation, centered on the family institution. To carry forward a new generation is the most demanding long-term mission ever undertaken by ordinary people.

Marriage is instituted to create a safe environment for the rising generation. If a woman realizes that she can be left unsupported at any moment, her lack of commitment to family building is understandable. A deep trust between the parties is imperative. It excludes wanton affairs, which does not tally with the hedonistic individualism of our time. The core family deserves all the support it can get by legislation and by societal values. The survival of our societies is at stake.

Our greatest worry

The low fertility in many core democracies is a striking expression of internal decrepitude. Outside threats are mostly manageable but a permanent deficit in moral capital can only end in bankruptcy. Our greatest worry is, or should be, the skewed population pyramid which is wobbling on its shrinking base. The baby crash will in due cause create severe problems, not least in the care for senior citizens and the sick. Tax revenues will shrink while the costs of diverse entitlements are skyrocketing. Nowhere has this been taken seriously though the facts are on the table and many politicians are seeing the writing on the wall. At the opposite end of the life cycle we are encountering another moral challenge. It can’t be right to prolong the purely vegetative existence of many elderly people – a dignified death should belong to the basic human rights.

A sustainable population structure is a question of life and death for the democracies. People are not interchangeable; our personal offspring are always closest to our heart and best at managing our long-term plus-sum game. In an extended perspective, a shrinking population becomes disastrously unstable – with a grain of dramatization you could call it collective suicide. Much more resources, money, time and care, must be set aside to maintain our biological capital. Otherwise the future if not the very existence of our children and grandchildren is in doubt.

Ultimately it is a question of self-confidence and trust in the future. All too often one can overhear utterances about the futility of bringing up children into this miserable world; a rather odd interpretation of the present, in comparison with the exertions of our forefathers and -mothers. Those blessed with children understand that they are worth all our pains and worries, an insight which often arrives only after the fact. In former times, large families were a sign of poverty and stupidity. It is encouraging that fertility in the high income bracket nowadays seems to be above average. Like a slender waist, a large family is becoming a status symbol. Perhaps a break in the trend is approaching when more and more people cross the line to economic independence.