Belmont Club

O Brave New World

Russell Shorto of the New York Times looks at the demographic collapse of Europe and examines the various explanations for it. One theory is that when the traditional family met “modernity” the result was a hybrid with the worst features of both. The low birthrate of southern European countries for example, is explained by arguing that taking care of kids in the old fashioned way is just too difficult and hence, couples have chosen not to have kids.

Will Europe as we know it just peter out? Will ethnic Greeks and Spaniards become extinct, taking their baklava and paella to the grave with them, to be replaced by waves of Muslim immigrants who couldn’t care less about the Acropolis as a majestic representation of Western culture? Venice has lost more than half its population since 1950; its residents believe their city is destined to become a Venice-themed attraction. Is the same going to happen to Europe as a whole? Might the United States see its closest ally decay into a real-life Euro Disney?

According to this theory, the northern Europeans have attained a birthrate of 1.8 — lower than replacement but higher than Western Europe’s — by applying welfare state solutions to the childrearing problem. Extensive daycare and parental leaves allow northern European couples to stop worrying about childrearing and worry about more important things, like “gender equality” instead.

State-subsidized day care is standard. The cost of living is high, but then again it’s assumed that both parents will work; indeed, during maternity leave a woman is paid 80 percent of her salary. “In Norway, the concern over fertility is mild,” Aassve told me. “What dominates is the issue of gender equity, and that in turn raises the fertility level. For example, there is a debate right now about whether to make paternity leave compulsory. It’s an issue of making sure women and men have equal rights and opportunities. If men are taking leave after the birth of a child, the women can return to work for part of that time.”

Unfortunately for this theory, the article continues, there is the glaring counter-example of the USA, the only major Western country to have replacement birthrates. The secret to American exceptionalism, some will be sad to learn, is apparently the stubborn tendency of the inhabitants to cling not only to their guns but to their Bibles as well, which has had the effect of reinforcing gender equality. Darn. “But the U.S. runs counter to this [the welfare state theory]. Some commentators explain its healthy birthrate in terms of the relatively conservative and religiously oriented nature of American society, which both encourages larger families. It’s also true that mores have evolved in the U.S. to the point where not only is it socially acceptable for fathers to be active participants in raising children, but it’s also often socially unacceptable for them to do otherwise.”

But there is more than Bible-clinging behind the American birthrate. A flexible labor market means that American parents can often find ways to earn a living and raise kids, creating not only a modern industrial society but avoiding extinction at the same time. “Compared to other high-income countries, this cost is diminished by an American labor market that allows more flexible work hours and makes it easier to leave and then re-enter the labor force. An American woman might choose to suspend her career for three or five years to raise a family, expecting to be able to resume working; that happens far less easily in Europe.” But for those who think flexible labor markets and religious attitudes are too a high a price to pay, there’s a third solution: import people. With immigration from high birthrate countries the only way to make up for labor shortfalls in the near term, policy makers are focusing on culling the best and the brightest from the Third World.

If you can’t breed them, lure them. The population flow largely went the other way during the first half of the 20th century, but immigration is quickly transforming European societies. Some are looking to Canada or Australia as models: there, the focus is on selective immigration — opening the door for those who have knowledge and training that will benefit the economy.

But mass migrations create problems of their own. They unbalance the societies from which emigrants come. And they change the character of countries to which the immigrate. Some countries are casting about for politically correct ways to exclude undesirable cultures from entering the mix, torturing the language if necessary to create a kind of coded barrier to certain types. Whether that will succeed is open to question. But if that’s not possible, there’s a fourth way near and dear to radical environmentalism’s heart, such as it is. That is to encourage the Enlightened to traipse into that good night and groove on the return of the jungle. Shorto seemed creeped out by a gentleman that he met.

… the bearish middle-aged man beside me was full of enthusiasm. He waved an arm expansively, indicating a distant tree line. “From here you see that the city is embedded in a protected nature area,” he said through an interpreter. “We will bring that into the city.” Listening to Karl Gröger, director of the city’s department of building, is disorienting; where local politicians are supposed to cheer development, he was standing in the midst of his city’s industrial infrastructure and saying, in effect, “Someday all of this will be wilderness.”

But Shorto, to his everlasting credit, doesn’t think the National Geographication of Europe is a serious solution. Despite efforts to prettify the population decline there’s no escaping the hard fact that a society shutting itself down will at some point collapse. Slowly at first and then rapidly as huge cohorts age and dodder around incontinently. Short writes:

I put this to Carl Haub of the Population Reference Bureau, who monitors global fertility on a daily basis from his perch in Washington. Is it possible that these are basically “good problems,” that Europeans, having trimmed their birthrates, are actually on the right path? That all they have to do is adjust their economies, find creative ways to shrink their cities, get more young and old people into jobs, so that they can keep their pension and health-care systems functioning?

Haub wasn’t buying it. “Maybe tinkering with the retirement age and making other economic adjustments is good,” he said. “But you can’t go on forever with a total fertility rate of 1.2. If you compare the size of the 0-to-4 and 29-to-34 age groups in Spain and Italy right now, you see the younger is almost half the size of the older. You can’t keep going with a completely upside-down age distribution, with the pyramid standing on its point. You can’t have a country where everybody lives in a nursing home.”

Of course things would never reach that point. Long before the nursing home phase old and defenseless societies would be systematically looted and taken over by high birthrate outsiders who will have grasped the unattended levers of power. This the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with a suffocated scream.

Tip Jar.