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April 01st 2012 print

Mervyn F. Bendle

How Civilisations Die

Is demography destiny? And does drastic demographic decline entail the death of civilisations? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes it does, and that the plummeting fertility rates in his country foretell the inevitable doom of his Muslim theocratic tyranny. “Negative population growth will cause the extinction of our identity and culture,” he rages. He views it as a self-inflicted “act of genocide” by the young women of Iran.

Demographic decline is, of course, a dread future that has confronted the West for some time. As Mark Steyn observes in America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It (2006), Europe faces the “Four Horsemen of the Eurocalypse”: 

Death—the demise of European races too self-absorbed to breed; Famine—the end of the lavishly-funded statist good times; War—the decline into bloody civil unrest that these economic and demographic factors will bring; and Conquest—the re-colonization of Europe by Islam. 

However, the Muslim world faces a similar demographic calamity, as David Goldman explains in How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam is Dying Too) (2011). In his view the approaching disaster will indeed engulf Europe and other developed economies but then, after some decades, it will also devastate the Muslim world. The key difference will be that Europe possesses considerable economic, cultural and institutional resources to draw upon to alleviate the impact; Islam, on the other hand, will not be so fortunate, and when the blow comes, in the latter half of this century, it will devastate what remains of that civilisation.

This calamity, Goldman argues, betrays a terminal malady, a debilitating cultural despair—a nihilism—that is rapidly corroding the finely knit cultural and social fabric that sustains all civilisations—although, as the parenthetical subtitle suggests, he doubts that contemporary Islam actually constitutes a coherent civilisation. (Indeed, the image of a coherent and benign “Islam” that we are presented with in the West is largely a confection of public relations firms, compliant politicians and media, and academics funded by copious amounts of petro-dollars.) Nevertheless, Islam confronts a catastrophe that may easily dwarf that facing Europe and other advanced societies.

The implications of this are profound. As Goldman observes about the decline of civilisations in general: “the death of a culture is an uncanny event, for it erases not only the future but also the past, that is, the hopes and fears, the sweat and sacrifice of countless generations whose lives no longer can be remembered”. Goldman believes that there is a civilisational tipping point, a moment when the spiritual and cultural resources of a people or a nation are exhausted or destroyed and it is no longer possible for them to attain or retain a sense of immortality through participation in a great chain of generations stretching from the past into the future. At this point some nations “fight to the death. Others cease to breed. Some do both.” Global politics over the next half-century will be determined largely by which countries choose which of these paths.

The nature and scale of the global demographic future are becoming ominously clear. As Goldman points out, on present trends, “in the second half of this century most of the great powers of the past—Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, and Japan, among others—will cease to function. A century later they will have ceased to exist.” In Western Europe, by 2100 the working-age population will have fallen by about 40 per cent, and in Eastern Europe, Russia, and East Asia by some 66 per cent. The least fertile European nations face a population decline of 40 to 60 per cent, with Germany’s population projected to decline by 98 per cent over the next 200 years if present trends continue.

Simultaneously, in all these countries the old-age dependency ratio (the ratio of people aged sixty-five and over to those of working age, fifteen to sixty-four years) will increase significantly, especially over the next few decades, placing huge burdens on the economic systems and social structures of these countries. Locked in a “demographic death spiral … Economies and tax revenues across Europe and East Asia will implode while pension and health care costs skyrocket”, according to Goldman.

Goldman doesn’t mention Australia, but our overall demographic profile is similar to Europe’s although our situation is nowhere near as grave. Our population is projected to grow to 36 million by 2056 and 45 million by 2101, on the most likely trends, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). On these trends, the proportion of people aged sixty-five years and over will increase from 13 per cent in 2007 to 23 per cent in 2056, while the working-age population will decline from 67 per cent in 2007 to 60 per cent in 2056. As a result, the old-age dependency ratio will increasing from 1:5 to more than 1:3, a challenging but manageable situation, certainly in comparison to Europe, and one largely managed by continuing high levels of immigration. 

In comparison, Islam faces a catastrophe. In Goldman’s view: 

if demographic winter is encroaching slowly on the West, a snap frost has overtaken the Muslim world. Europe has had two hundred years to make the transition from the high fertility rates of rural life to the low fertility rates of the industrial world. Iran, Turkey, Tunisia and Algeria are attempting it in twenty. 

These and other Muslim countries presently have disproportionately large populations of teenagers and young adults, trapped in long-term unemployment and under-employment, or wasting their time at sub-standard universities that produce hundreds of thousands of unwanted graduates who are presently being radicalised in the “Arab Spring”. They are the progeny of previous generations where the average family had six or seven children, but will themselves have only one or two children on average. The result will be an eventual demographic “train wreck”, according to the scenario described by Goldman, as this huge cohort ages amid economic stagnation and political chaos and comes to depend on the next generation for support that will not be there.

For example, at present there is only one elderly dependant for every nine working-age Iranians—producing an old-age dependency ratio of 1:9; but in 2050 that ratio will be 7:10, meaning that the economic burden of the elderly on working-age Iranians will be over six times greater than at present. The Iranian economy is already in a parlous state, with a 50 per cent inflation rate, and the output from its declining oil reserves is projected to halve by 2050. And Iran is a benighted, corrupt, theocratic state that has resolutely turned its back on almost all aspects of modern culture, alienating a vast proportion of its population. Prospects are unremittingly bleak and people are acting accordingly in the one area of their lives where the state cannot (yet!) intrude. Unsurprisingly, in 2010 Ahmadinejad denounced the increasingly prevalent “two children per woman” attitude amongst Iranians as “a formula for the extinction” of Iran.

The Iranian leadership has only slowly become aware of the approaching demographic disaster. In 2006 Ahmadinejad had declared that Iranian girls should marry at the age of sixteen and commit themselves to producing the six or seven children necessary to avoid the looming depopulation of their country. The women of Iran responded by dropping the average fertility rate even further, to 1.7 in only four years. Moreover, the situation is worse amongst the dominant Persian population, which constitutes a slim majority in Iran and is confronted with eventual engulfment by a range of sizeable and more fecund minorities, including the increasingly restless Kurds, Azeris, Arabs and Baluchis. Already, in the capital, Tehran, the rate is only 1.5, emphasising the extent to which urban women are recoiling from the grim future that is unfolding in Iran.

Ahmadinejad believes the drop in fertility in Iran is part of a Western plot to seduce Iranian women into a life of consumerism rather than reproduction, ignoring the fact that the decline started in 1980, immediately after the Islamic Revolution that brought the present regime to power. This conspiracy theory is shared by another Islamist national leader, Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey. “They want to eradicate the Turkish nation,” he declared in 2008, and called upon Turkish women to have at least three children each. The reaction was negative, and the demand for contraceptives apparently rose.

A similar situation confronts most of the Muslim world, which is shadowing the depopulation of the West but with about a half-century time-lag. As Goldman points out: 

a good deal of the world seems to have lost the taste for life … The world’s population will fall by as much as a fifth between the middle and the end of the twenty-first century, by far the worst decline in human history. 

While there has been recognition in the West that plummeting fertility will create enormous problems, especially in Europe where some countries have already passed the demographic point of no return, the fate facing the Muslim world is even bleaker.

Even though its population profile is presently much younger than the West, the fall in Muslim fertility rates is precipitant—indeed, it is “the fastest demographic decline ever registered in recorded history”, as Goldman notes. “World fertility has fallen by about two children per woman in the past half century [but] fertility in the Muslim world has fallen two or three times faster”, especially amongst Arab, Persian, Turkish, Malay and South Asian Muslims. For example, fertility in Iran has fallen phenomenally, by nearly six children per woman, closely followed by Turkey (by five), Egypt and Indonesia (four), and Pakistan (three).

But while the West probably possesses the economic resources and political infrastructure necessary to manage an unprecedented transition to smaller, older populations—albeit with considerable dislocation and turmoil—the Muslim world has nothing comparable. “As Muslim fertility shrinks at a rate demographers have never seen before”, it is closing quickly on the ageing West so that “by the middle of this century, the belt of Muslim countries from Morocco to Iran will become as gray as depopulating Europe”, but with as little as one tenth of Europe’s economic capacity to deal with the problem.

The political implications of this situation are ominous: “the sense of impending doom that pervades much of the Muslim world makes these countries dangerous and unstable”. As far as militant Islamism is concerned, Goldman entertains no illusions. History shows that people entombed in a dying culture “live in a twilight world. They embrace death through infertility, concupiscence, and war.” Consequently: 

imminent population collapse makes radical Islam more dangerous, not less so. For in their despair, radical Muslims who can already taste the ruin of their culture believe that they have nothing to lose … Nations confronting their own mortality may choose to go down in a blaze of glory … Radical Muslims will fight to the death 

—in accordance with the frequent boast of the fanatical Islamist: “You love life, we love death”—an assertion that now seems only half right, and it’s the wrong half. 

Obviously, this apocalyptic prospect has immense implications for legal and illegal immigration into Europe and elsewhere, particularly as the situation in Iran deteriorates and the violent and authoritarian nature of the forces contesting the “Arab Spring” become more obvious. Increasingly large masses of Muslims are gazing longingly across the Mediterranean at the affluent but vulnerable welfare states that beckon, and beginning what many see as the “re-colonisation” of Europe by Islam. Smaller but increasingly significant numbers are also casting a covetous gaze in the opposite direction, to the southern outposts of European civilisation in Australia and New Zealand.

The spectre of Eurabia, with the continent dominated by a Muslim majority by century’s end, has long haunted vigilant scholars and commentators, such as Bat Ye’or (Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, 2005); Tony Blankley (The West’s Last Chance: Will We Win the Clash of Civilizations?, 2005); Walter Laqueur, (The Last Days of Europe, 2007); and Christopher Caldwell (Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, 2009). According to these analyses, we are living through the self-extinction of the European civilisation that shaped the world we live in.

Caldwell points out that nearly 11 per cent of the European population was born overseas, most of whom are Muslims who are successfully resisting integration into their host societies. In Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), Niall Ferguson observed: 

if the Muslim population of the UK were to continue growing at an annual rate of 6.7 per cent (as it did between 2004 and 2008), its share of the total UK population would rise from just under 4 percent in 2008 … to 28 per cent in 2040, finally passing 50 per cent in 2050. 

Various other demographic projections indicate that the Muslim communities in Italy and Sweden will more than double over the next twenty years; France will be an Islamic republic by 2048; Muslims will form a majority in Holland by 2030; and Germany will follow suit shortly after that. The late Libyan President Gaddafi boasted in 2006 that “the 50 million Muslims of Europe will turn it into a Muslim continent within a few decades”.

The threat of Eurabia, it now seems, is much closer than this vision of a stealthy takeover implies, as the Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East slip further into crisis. In Goldman’s view: 

we may not have the opportunity to observe at leisure how demographic trends in the Muslim world play out. The childless twenty-somethings of Islam’s Generation X do not have to wait another forty or fifty years until they face starvation upon retirement. They are hungry now.  

Consequently, it is not a protracted process of demographic conquest that faces Europe in the near future but “inundation by Muslim refugees fleeing the chaos” unfolding in their homelands.

The 16 million people of Tunisia and Libya are already one source of increasingly desperate illegal immigrants as their nations disintegrate and fall under the domination of the Muslim Brotherhood or similar Islamist regimes. Egypt, however, has 82 million people and is also on the verge or political and economic collapse as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups tighten their grip. As Goldman points out, this is a land where (according to World Health Organisation estimates) 97 per cent of married women have suffered genital mutilation, 40 per cent are functionally illiterate, and half the population lives on about $2 a day. It also has a dysfunctional political system, a corrupt military, a failing economy, a disappearing tourism industry, fleeing capital and shrinking foreign reserves, and needs to import half its wheat and other foodstuffs in volatile markets if its people are not to starve.

Unsurprisingly, Goldman foresees a catastrophe of “biblical proportions” unfolding in Egypt, sending a massive wave of refugees across the Mediterranean. “The simultaneous demographic decline of Europe and the adjacent Muslim countries may bring about mass starvation, political instability, and an unmanageable refugee crisis—and common ruin—before the end of the present century.” 

How and why has this situation arisen? Demographers and other social scientists have identified a range of factors that help explain this historically unprecedented event, which is affecting most of the world. Chief amongst these are the profoundly transformative effects of modernisation on feudal, traditional and tribal societies, including urbanisation, industrialisation, education and literacy, greater female workforce participation, improved health care, family planning, higher ages at marriage, and more frequent divorce.

The ultimate demographic effect of these multiple factors was obscured by the moral panic generated around the spectre of “the population bomb” that became widespread in the latter half of the twentieth century. People focused only on the sudden growth of the global population. Various alarmists, such as Paul Ehrlich, insisted in the 1960s that this was out of control, demanded “zero population growth”, and ignored countervailing forces that are now becoming obvious. Indeed, according to Goldman’s analysis, the long-term demographic projections now reveal that the “bulge in world population” that excited Ehrlich and many others was “a one-off event in human history, not the harbinger of environmental doom”. It was an effect produced by the fact that death rates declined rapidly under the impact of modernisation, while birth rates fell much more gradually, causing “a blip in the statistics [that] is about to fade in the rearview mirror”. While global population is set to peak at about 8 billion around 2050 it will then decline precipitously by perhaps 2 billion over the following fifty years, leaving behind a smaller, much older global population, the effects of which will reverberate over the following century.

However, by themselves, Goldman insists, these factors fail to tell the whole story. To the processes of modernisation just noted must be added the profound impact of religion and secularisation, interacting in complex and previously misunderstood ways within societies. Secularisation, it appears, promotes infertility. As secularisation promotes and facilitates the supremacy of individual choice regarding reproduction within previously traditional societies it activates a “demographic contradiction—individualism leading to the choice not to reproduce—[that] may well be the agent that destroys” those societies, as the sociologist Eric Kaufmann suggests in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? (2010).

This is not an argument against the liberalisation of tradition-bound societies or for the artificial preservation of obviously non-viable tribal communities. Rather, it is part of Goldman’s case that such liberalisation can have devastating demographic effects that can only be comprehended if adequate attention is given to the spiritual dimensions of human reproduction, and such attention has not been paid by most of the prominent commentators in the field. He believes that “secularism in all its forms fails to address the most fundamental human need”—the deeply embedded human desire to achieve some form of immortality for themselves and their loved ones. The world that secularism offers is a purely immanent world of the here-and-now, stripped of any sense of the transcendent or the eternal. It appears that people are increasingly choosing not to bring new life into such a world.

Religions, on the other hand, in their different ways, “offer the individual the means to transcend mortality, to survive the fragility of a mortal existence”. Life is experienced as a journey full of challenges, joys and disappointments, and new life is embraced as part of a shared voyage through various stages that ultimately stretch beyond this world. Goldman recognises that such claims will mean little to convinced secularists, and that communicating the existential force of religious faith to such persons would be akin to “describing being in love to someone who never has been in love”.

For example, traditional political science, Goldman points out, regards religion as just another belief system, an ideology like communism or fascism, and is therefore unable fully to comprehend the existential grip that the longing for some form of immortality has on human consciousness. Nonetheless, without a comprehension of the power of this spiritual force in human societies, Goldman believes it will be impossible to understand how entire societies can lose faith in the future, turn away from having children and choose instead to accept oblivion. For example, across a range of modern societies the lowest fertility rates in the industrial world are now found in the atheistic former Iron Curtain states of Eastern Europe, while the highest rates are registered in America and Israel, where religion continues to play a major role in people’s lives.

This is not because Americans in general have more children, but because Americans of faith continue to have many children and they constitute a much larger proportion of the overall American population than in any other society that has passed through the processes of modernisation. For example, Goldman cites a 2002 survey that showed that 59 per cent of Americans claimed that religion was important to them, compared to 11 per cent in France, 21 per cent in Germany, 27 per cent in Italy, and 36 per cent in Poland. Another showed that one in two American women of child-bearing age said that religion is “very important” to them, compared with less than one in six European women. Ultimately, religious adherents have more children than others, and far more Americans adhere to their faith than Europeans, Japanese or Russians, among others, including Australia. 

Islam is not immune to this process of waxing secularity and waning religiosity. Contrary to the impression confected in the West, Islam is not at all a monolithic edifice of the faithful. Indeed, fundamentalism, with its frenzied re-assertion of archaic religious dogmas, has been only the most recent ideology adopted over the past century as Muslims search for a viable perspective on the processes of modernisation that are engulfing their traditional social structures. In Goldman’s view: 

demographic winter arises from a crisis of faith, in the West as well as the Islamic world. In many respects the demographic tailspin of Muslim countries repeats a well-studied pattern in the West: as traditional society gives way to modernity, faith and fertility vanish together.  

Consequently, the so-called “Islamic Reformation” being promoted by Tariq Ramadan, other Islamist ideologues, and Western academics, with its alleged return to traditional Muslim faithfulness, is being exposed as a mirage by the actual behaviour of the masses of young Muslims of child-bearing age: “the vast majority of educated young Muslims are alienated from the traditional Islamic culture of previous generations and rebel quietly against the Islamists’ attempt to re-impose it by force. They have voted with their wombs”, Goldman observes.

According to this analysis, the recent recrudescence of medieval Muslim fundamentalism is a desperate and increasingly hysterical response to the demographic threat, obscuring the spiritual collapse of contemporary Islam that is actually under way. The violent aggression of Islamist and Salafist groups, their fanatical self-assertiveness, their primitive attitudes towards women, and their xenophobic behaviour towards all other faiths and cultures have conjured up a “facade of religious authority [that] seems unbroken in most of the Muslim world”, when in fact, “behind the facade … the deterioration of traditional society hollows out religious faith”.

Therefore, despite Iran’s pretensions to being an observant Islamic theocracy, surveys indicate that there are lower rates of mosque attendance there than in any other Muslim country except Turkey, which has been a militantly secular state for most of the past ninety years. Only around 2 per cent of Iranian adults regularly attend Friday prayers. Meanwhile, as Goldman points out, “under the facade of radical Islam, Iran suffers from an eruption of social pathologies such as drug addiction and prostitution on a scale much worse than anything observed in the West”. There may be as many as 5 million hard-drug users, while in Tehran alone there are some 300,000 prostitutes, and this figure doesn’t include women engaging regularly in “temporary marriages”, which conveniently last from five to twenty-four hours and are legally sanctioned by Shi’ite Islam. There is also a flourishing international trade in Iranian women, who find themselves being trafficked to the Gulf States, Europe and Japan. “It appears that Islamic theocracy promotes rather than represses social decay,” Goldman points out. The Islamo-fascist facade serves to hide a disintegrating civil society. 

Civil society is a central concept in Goldman’s analysis, as it is within this realm that family life unfolds and is sustained. It is also a realm whose historical vibrancy characterises Western societies, while its absence or rudimentary level of development is a central feature of Muslim societies. Here he derives insights from St Augustine in The City of God, which, he emphasises, was written as the Roman empire collapsed through demographic decline, and the author awaited the rampaging barbarians that would soon lay waste to his civilisation. Goldman contrasts Augustine’s recognition of the role of civil society with the focus on the state by the Roman philosopher Cicero: Augustine “looked through the state to the underlying civil society, and understood civil society as a congregation—a body bound together by common loves, as opposed to Cicero’s state founded only on common interests”.

It is the strength and vibrancy of civil society, bound together at the most intimate personal levels, that ensure the continuity of a civilisation, and not the exercise of power by the state in the pursuit of its own interests, whatever they might be and however much it may claim to rule on behalf of the people. A theocracy such as that of Iran, despite its pretensions to be implementing traditional religious values, actually operates like any other totalitarian or statist regime, destroying civil society by its domineering presence in the life of the people, and suppressing, suffocating and dissipating the very social and cultural dynamism that any civilisation depends upon if it is going to survive and flourish. (An excellent description of how this process destroyed civil society under the highly intrusive rule of the Soviet communist state is contained in Orlando Figes, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, 2007.)

Goldman’s analysis leads to what he calls a position of “Augustinian realism” in foreign policy, which focuses on those societies that both preserve civil society and nurture within it the values that resonate within American civil society. The calculation here is simple: the principle that “civil society precedes the character of a nation [means that while America] can ally with, cajole, or even crush other states … it cannot change the character of their civil society”, and consequently it is a chimerical pursuit to attempt to do so by military intervention or massive amounts of foreign aid.

It follows therefore that America should not waste its time seeking to democratically transform intrinsically ruinous states, but should focus instead on pursuing and nurturing alliances with “people who are linked to [American] civil society—our mother country England, for example, as well as the Christians in the global South”, including Australia. This approach also entails a continuing alliance with Israel, which, along with America, possesses both a dynamic civil society and a substantial fertility rate—indeed it exceeds that of America a time at a time when the Israeli people face a continuing and escalating threat to their very existence. 

Australia is in a unique position in this scenario. As a Western society we possess not only a dynamic civil society like that of America but also share similar political, economic, cultural and social institutions and values. On the other hand, Australia is a far more secular society than America (and indeed much of its political, cultural and academic elites are militantly secularist), and it exhibits some of the demographic dynamics that will lead soon to the perhaps terminal decline of Europe. These tendencies have been partially offset by a sustained program of immigration from many parts of the world, but we are also in close proximity to populous Muslim countries and are vulnerable to uncontrolled and illegal immigration from that region. This could easily undermine the success of our immigration program, especially if separatist Muslim ghettoes and “no-go areas” are tolerated, as they have been in Europe and especially in Britain.

According to standard ABS projections, Australia’s population will increase to between 31 million and 43 million by mid-century, depending on assumptions relating to fertility rates, life expectancy and net immigration. In the second half of the century the types of dynamics highlighted by Goldman increasingly take effect and the projections diverge, varying between 34 million and 64 million people. The lower projections are those preferred by much of the Labor Party, the Greens, the environmental movement, and urban and academic elites who are obsessed with “sustainability” and apparently comfortable with an Australia sparsely populated by an aged, enfeebled and increasingly vulnerable population sustained by a failing welfare state, and facing a world in demographic crisis and economic and political turmoil.

The alternative is to embrace very high levels of population growth and the economic dynamism that goes with it. Quite apart from the resources boom and the need to upgrade Australia’s infrastructure on a national scale, there are also major opportunities for development in northern Australia, capitalising on its vast fertile lands and the gigantic rainfall that the region enjoys but which remains largely unharvested, for consumption, irrigation, and diversion into the Murray-Darling system, and for other purposes including hydro-electricity. Visions of Australia serving as the “food bowl of Asia” have a great deal to commend them, especially while the world passes through the demographic catastrophe that appears certain to occur later this century.

It is a point not made by Goldman, but Australia shares with America one other vital characteristic—both nations have been frontier societies, surging ahead over the past two centuries with economic and social development on a continental scale. For generations both countries have been able to attract settlers and immigrants who have built their lives in our respective societies through determination and perseverance, and a desire to hand something on to their children.

This frontier ethos and nation-building spirit—“the Australian Legend”—remains a dynamic force in our country and explains the ease with which our society remains cohesive despite the fact that some 24 per cent of its population is overseas-born (a far greater proportion than any other country, and twice that of Europe, which is imploding as we have seen). Now, perhaps more than ever, it is the time to re-activate, re-embrace and promote that spirit, as we confront the colossal challenges that the demographic revolution of the twenty-first century will place before us. 

Dr Mervyn F. Bendle is Senior Lecturer, History and Communication, at James Cook University.