I’ve been reading How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) in between two other books, because… it’s like this: I have a great desire to re-read Jane Austen, so I’ve done Pride and Prejudice and am now halfway through Persuasion (and let me tell you what a relief it is that these old friends are only 1.99). I read those at night because I’ve found if I read non-fiction or even sometimes new fiction, I wake in the night in argument with it. “Yes, but it’s not like that.” I suspect it’s like eating oysters before going to bed and causes your brain to go into hyperdrive. Then I’m reading Dr. Helen’s Men On Strike, but it’s slow going for two reasons. Her writing, is superb and eminently enjoyable, but the subject has a way of ambushing me, either by reviving anger at circumstances I’ve encountered and which I have, since, talked myself down from, or by exposing me to things I didn’t even know where happening. It has to be read slowly, lest I happen to someone. The other reason is that I’m an idiot. (But we’d established that.) Being a bear of very little brain I did what I do to books of authors I like and know personally and bought it hard cover for the future signature. This is a problem, because I don’t want to hurt it. Which means (grumble) I might need to buy a kindle copy because I find more and more most of what I read is on the paperwhite because it’s easy to carry around and, in a Ziploc, safe for the kitchen.
So… what this means is that I’m reading three books at different times and in different parts of the house, which, to be honest, is fairly normal. (Unless it’s a book/series we all follow, and I have to concentrate on finishing as soon as possible, before Dan or the kids loses patience and absconds in this. On matters such as “do you sometimes buy two kindle copies, a hardcover and a paperback” it is better to be silent, as it might have an awful lot to do with the wretched state of our wallets. But hey, the kids can take their own copies when/if they move, and won’t suffer the horrible trauma I did, leaving all their best friends behind.)
Anyway, back to Mr. Goldman. Like me he thinks our problem is not overpopulation but is, or soon will be a birth dearth.
I disagree with him only insofar as I think he places too much faith in UN statistics. I’d be shocked near onto death to find any of those is accurate, and while it’s possible that they’re undercounting people (after all, the laziness of local officials must be accounted for) I think on the balance they’re overcounting, due to the advantages of that error: more international subsidies; more pride-of-race; considerably more machismo.
I could be wrong. I’m afraid it’s a situation in which “nobody knows not’ing” again, just like our own increasingly cooked statistics. But in these situations in general, though we cannot have proof without extensive research, we do know the way to bet. (And on research, put not your faith in princes, etc. Almost every Western researcher, up to and very much including the CIA were absolutely sure that the population, industrial production, etc. of the USSR were what the government said – even though, again, it was a bet statistics were cooked and everyone knew the way to bet on HOW they were cooked.
Anyway, so far Goldman has advanced three theories for why civilizations stop reproducing themselves, and all of them – I’ll admit – apply to an extent: lack of cultural confidence/belief in a civilization as a ‘race’ that must go on, regardless of the rest of humanity; education of women; loss of religious faith.
All three of them, to be sure, are a concomitant part of the birth dearth in the west. Weather they do cause it, it’s something else, though.
For one, I think Mr. Goldman is being – like most Americans, and even any number of Britishers – either too generous or too naïve about other cultures. I meet with this again and again. People with decent enough educations who have travelled abroad will, without irony, make statements like “Americans are the most racist/intolerant/provincial” people on the planet. At which point my jaw drops open and I wonder “Are you for real?”
I can only attribute this belief to the fact that few people speak a language fluently enough to eavesdrop on foreigner conversations, and fewer still have the sort of “mongrel looks” and manner 😉 with which I was blessed, where, depending on what I’m wearing and with whom I’m hanging out at the time, I can pass as a native pretty much anywhere. So, I’m going to assume most Americans never hear people from the rest of the world letting their hair down, and en-famile, being themselves.
Suffice it to say that so far from being the only racist country in the world, the US is the only country in which racism is utterly unacceptable not just in material stuff like hiring (the rest of the anglosphere at least also seems to find this unacceptable) but in the sense of being a thought crime, so that it has almost vanished from jokes, conversations, and even in most cases thoughts. As is, at that, “racism” unless it’s used as an accusation by someone losing an argument, is a matter of the more obvious race differences. To the extent Americans are very careful not to discriminate the people they don’t discriminate against are black and secondarily Hispanic (because they’ve been browbeaten into thinking their objection to unchecked immigration is racist) with people who are far darker but not organized racial minorities (Indians) and people who can be darker but do so well in America that Universities consider them a majority, like Asians.
And because of our peculiar condition as a nation of Intent and Belief, we of course don’t consider ourselves a “race.” In fact we confused my mom greatly by being “all sorts.” And there hinges the thing most Americans can’t and don’t get. Portuguese and Spaniards can tell between themselves on sight. Despite all the interbreeding that two near neighbors much at war couldn’t avoid, they can (I REMEMBER) tell which one people are. In the same way they can distinguish between French and Germans, English and Irish, and a fine degree of permutations within for the larger countries. (I could never distinguish between Swedes and Norwegians to their chagrin – or not to any degree of certainty, though I could guess with some confidence.)
By this I mean that pride of breed – which they would call race – and a certainty they’re superior to all others is still very strong in those countries. And yet, both Portugal and Spain are dying of failure to reproduce.
The same goes for religion. Yeah, I know, on paper it looks like post modern godlessness is leading to the death of populations. But trust me, the paper is confused. Portugal in my parents generation reproduced less than in their parents, and I’d guess except among the very educated putting on a pose for strangers (at that) Portugal is as religious as most places in the US. And yet, my generation has practically ceased to have kids. Which, because I also believe Goldman about how fast Islamic populations are crashing, also explains how their pride of race (trust me, kids) and their religion that permeates every facet of life, has failed to keep them popping out kids.
Education of women does have a strong influence, as does the participation of women in the work force.
First, because – duh – it delays reproduction. When I studied history one of the best indicators of whether population was expanding or contracting was the age of marriage for women. It’s a very vexing thing for us women who are rational beings that the peak of fertility seems to occur between the ages of 16 and 25 or so. That is, by the time a woman has finished her bachelors and had time to look about her for a moment or two, and – unless she’s very lucky – before she knows if there is a man for her, the chief of her fertility is gone. Then each five years after that, it gets worse.
Second, women who are working might be too tired to engage in quite so much… ah… marital combustability as can overcome that lapse of fertility. (Might be! Ah. After a kid or two and while working, I’d call it a natural family limiter.)
Third, we’re not absolutely sure of the effect of stress on women’s reproductive systems, nor what constitutes “stress” frankly. It is possible there is a high correlation, though I don’t know of any studies and must therefore follow two unreliable paths of information – first, almost all high strung women (self included, yes) I know had trouble conceiving or keeping the pregnancy. Second, it is a folk belief that a woman who is fretted will not get pregnant. (Now mind I also know women in abusive marriages who kept having kids. But one must wonder again on the TYPE of stress.)
So saying women’s education (and work) leads to a fall in birth rate is sort of a LaPlace truism: “The horse of Napoleon is white.”
Women’s education might by itself explain most of the fall in birth rates, but again, I think Mr. Goldman is stressing the point when he goes on about how this applies to Islam too. I suspect the type of education these girls are getting, even in “modernized” countries is 9/10ths religious instruction which – by his reasoning – should make them more willing to have children. And heaven knows in most Arab countries women are not participating in the labor force.
I think it is more likely that the cause is one that is concomitant but not operative with loss of faith and coincidental with women’s education: industrialization.
This is not because industrialization is, by itself, injurious to reproduction. If you are a devotee of Gaia and believe that we are poisoning our reproductive ability with the noxious fumes of civilization, go in peace. I won’t preach to you if you don’t preach to me.
It is rather because the industrial revolution, even at its beginning, cut down greatly on two things: the need/utility of children in the monetary survival of the household (I was going to say “labor” but in the context that might be misunderstood) and child mortality.
I think to get how incredibly rich, how incredibly healthy and well off we are, it takes coming, like me, from a country that – frankly – most of you would have considered a hell hole as to living conditions when I was a child. Looking at pictures of my very middle class living conditions, I’m struck by the fact that only certain areas of Appalachia back in the sixties could match the poverty on display. Not that we were – or certainly considered – ourselves poor. We knew poor, and they were infinitely worse off. We were, in face, as my grandmother would and did say “Well enough.”
But more than that, even the poor of my time didn’t match the conditions under which my mother – or my upper middle class father – had grown up. The stories I heard, including of going gleaning after the fields were harvested, not on some lark but to keep body and soul together, and of picking up fallen bits of coal by the side of the railroad, were mind boggling. Stories, too, of things like my grandmother sewing a satchel for dad’s book bag, because they couldn’t afford to buy him a book bag when he went to high school in the city (in his time, read “with all the rich boys” – which was true even in my brother’s day. Most even in the middle class stopped school at fourth grace, because the family needed their income.)
In my day even the poorest could afford book bags – often plastic, but all the same.
And mom’s stories, since she was genuinely (through family mismanagement of her ancestors’ mostly ) poor in childhood and grew up in a bad area, are even more horrifying. For instance, they used to make dolls, play with them for a year, then hold funerals for them, in the same way children in more fortunate circumstances had doll teas and doll weddings. There are other stories, like of going to the wake of one of her little play friends, and being very upset because the flies would keep landing on the corpse.
This is something that literally breaks my mind. Now, at fifty I have – that I know – lost two childhood play fellows (I must have lost more, but I live across the sea, and some of them married abroad, so it’s hard to be in touch.) One died of ovarian cancer in her twenties, and the other suffered a stroke while alone at home with her children and died before anyone discovered her, also in either her late twenties or very early thirties. However, we all reached adulthood.
Of course, here I must beg a break to point out that the playfellows I knew – the ones I grew up with – were already maybe 1/3 of those born to my cohort in the village and surroundings. The whateveritwas (Probably a particularly virulent chicken pox, though it might have been one of the last huzzahs of small pox escaped from a lab around that time. The mortality rate was more small pox, and it spared the kids of school age and older who had been vaccinated) that swept through when I was three took the children of several people we later knew, and my own cousin of the same age. But because I was so young, I remember being sick, and I remember being convinced my cousin had died because I’d refused to share my bread with her (no, I don’t think anyone ever told me this. I think it’s what my mind attached to when being told of her death) but I have no memory of my cousin’s face, nor of our interaction. So in my conscious life, children didn’t die. (Though I have a memory of a funeral procession for an infant, at around that time, going up the village street, with the mourners all in white, and I remember my mom telling me that for a child’s funeral you dress in white, because heaven has gained an angel.)
I suspect for most of us, children don’t die.
But beyond that we are all so prosperous, so happy, so contented, that children seem a terrible disruption of a rationally ordered life.
And before you scream at me that people in Muslim countries whose population is already falling are certainly not happy or contented, do consider what their grandparents and great grandparents lived like. It’s not the absolute prosperity but how fast it increases that makes a difference.
For any human, just knowing that he/she is unlikely to starve to death is such a marked improvement from the past, that we might as well be called blessed. But then consider that most of us will live longer, healthier lives than our ancestors. Consider, too, that – rightly or wrongly – even Egyptians believe that they have the right to be kept by their nation from the worst extremities of want. (How that holds is something else again.)
Humans have lived through far worse set backs and much, much worse times. Almost all the times and all the events, at any rate. Portuguese didn’t stop having kids because of civil war, Napoleonic invasions, ditactorship or famine. But they’re now stopping having children because they “have opportunities” and almost no one dies prematurely, and there is so much to do, to see, to learn and to explore. (And let’s remember that reality TV is practically intellectual by comparison to the best entertainment our ancestors could command. I mean, our ancestors in small villages across the world. Don’t tempt me, I’ve been reading Jane Austen.)
We are, in many ways living in the isle of the blessed, where hardly anyone ever dies, there is no want (not of the sort our ancestors knew) and we stay forever young (no? Go look at pictures of the early twentieth century. Discount the fact that we are as a rule heavier, a consequence of our prosperity.)
In those circumstances, we are told, elves had almost no children. So why would we be different?
Regardless of what statistics tell us and the intellectual conviction that we will, yes, one day die, it’s hard to internalize it. Few of us lose anyone that matters until we’re far too old to have children.
And in the middle of our interests and pleasures, having children seems such an unwonted interruption – particularly for women.
This accords, btw, with the reproduction model for a scavenger species, which stops reproducing when things are TOO good.
Will the piper be paid? Undoubtedly. He usually presents his bill. We don’t know what population crash will do to an industrial society, but I daresay we’ll find out – or our children will.
And then? I don’t know. I disagree with Goldman as to the cause (though to be fair, I haven’t finished reading his book, so I will blog on this later) and I disagree that this is “the end” of humanity as such (I tend to believe we’re like weeds and will come back even from greater extremity) but I don’t have a prescription for avoiding a crash before whatever correction comes. (What price bio-womb.)
My guess is that our way of life will over the next couple of hundred years either suffer massive impoverishment with attendant increase in births, or that we’ll figure out some technological way around this mess.
Which in turn will bring about OTHER issues.