It has been a long time coming, but when last week the Chinese dictatorship admitted that its country’s population is shrinking at an alarming rate, respectable people in Western capitals at long last agreed that something rather serious was happening, not just in Xi Jinping’s domains but also in most other parts of the world. Though it has been evident for decades that plummeting birth rates would cause major problems in the medium term and that, unless they were reversed, they would eventually lead to the extinction of our species, getting upset about such a trivial matter was long assumed to be a nasty right-wing thing with decidedly racist overtones. The consensus had it that going on about demography being destiny and the like was for Nazis, or for sinister bean counters who wanted to reduce the number of pensioners, not for decent men and women.
With collective self-flagellation very much in fashion in the developed world, influential thinkers and those who take their cues from them continue to warn us about the dangers of overpopulation. Some go so far as to treat humankind as a plague and make out that Planet Earth would be happy to see it depart and leave more room for the cuddlier species they favour. Others, who are less misanthropic than worshippers of Mother Nature, also known as Gaia, limit themselves to saying that whatever difficulties may be caused by a shortage of youngish workers could easily be ironed out by importing larger contingents of people from relatively prolific regions of the world, as indeed Europeans have been doing for over half a century, but it so happens that in their places of origin birth rates have started to tumble. If present trends continue, even Africa will run out of people.
You do not need to be a gloom-monger to assume that something must be badly wrong with societies that have little interest in surviving for more than a handful of generations before calling it quits. To avoid the sad fate that awaits species that refuse to breed, women in China, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia and many other countries would on average need to have twice, or almost twice, as many babies as is currently the case, but there are no signs of anything like this happening in the immediate future. And though the outlook may seem to be marginally better in the United States, the United Kingdom and, for that matter, Argentina, they too are steadily wilting away.
When consulted, women in countries whose population is declining fast tend to say that, while they would like to have children, they can be very expensive and a bit of a nuisance because caring for them would prevent them from enjoying life or pursuing a career. Many blame their refusal to do what their mothers did on the rapid increase in housing costs and the need to put aside plenty of money in order to ensure that their hypothetical offspring get the educational credentials they will eventually need.
All this is true enough, but it does not explain why, when people were by and large much poorer than most are today, they had far more children than their descendants. Was it a sense of duty, the feeling that it was the natural thing to do, the result of a widely-held philosophy of life which, despite its shortcomings in the eyes of the many who criticised and mocked it, persuaded people they had a place in a community which had formed itself centuries ago in the remote past and would continue to be around for just as many in the unforeseeable future?
Whatever it was, the much-despised ethos of a generation that is now dying out was surely healthier than the one that succeeded it in which few seem uncomfortable with the thought that, a couple of hundred years from now, any surviving Japanese, Koreans, Greeks, Italians, Germans, Spaniards, etc., would, if lucky, merit the interest of ethnologists whose forerunners back in the 21st century used to study the habits of the remaining Ainu and the folkways of tribes sheltering in what is left of the Amazonian forest in the hope of recording them before it got too late.
Though some governments, like the Japanese and Korean, agree that something really ought to be done to halt the death spiral that is carrying their nations towards oblivion, their efforts have so far had little effect and, as in Europe and the Americas, much of the population look with resigned indifference at statistics which should frighten them. People console themselves, if that is what they are doing, by assuming that before the end comes they personally will be dead and gone, so they have nothing to worry about. Needless to say, for most of those who are still in their 20s, this will not be the case at all; long before they reach old age, the societies they live in will in all probability have buckled under the weight of welfare systems which were set up when circumstances were very different. Young people are already being warned they will have to pay through the nose for the upkeep of an ageing population; understandably, some do not like that particular idea at all.
So, what has gone wrong? What is it about our modern civilisation – which at first sight is far better and far more successful than any of its predecessors – that has put it on death row? It clearly has much to do with women: unless cloning hatcheries are soon established, they are and will continue to be, the only people who can give birth to new humans.
Encouraging more women to do so should be a priority, but, alas, difficulties abound. While it is known that birth rates drop precipitously when girls receive a proper education and can enter the workforce, only the Taliban want to keep them illiterate and confined to the bedroom or kitchen, as so many were in the Western world until little more than a century ago. In any event, there can be no doubt at all that, as well as being cruel, banning women from the workplace would have a quite devastating effect on economies which rely on their contributions; this is one reason why in more and more countries families need two incomes to make ends meet. Is “women’s liberation” compatible with the survival of our species? Unless it is, at a basic level the Taliban have got things right and much of the rest of the world has got them badly wrong.