What’s the biggest threat to the world’s prosperity and stability over the medium haul—say, between 2020 and 2050? The proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction? A continuing economic recession? Jihadism running amok? The Detroit Lions ushering in the Apocalypse by winning an NFL championship? (Just kidding on the last…)
According to Neil Howe and Richard Jackson, two researchers at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, the primary destabilizer of world affairs in the mid-decades of the 21st century will be demographics—meaning, primarily, too few people throughout too much of the developed and developing world. Some numbers-crunching helps make the case:
—In the 1980s, the median age was 34 in western Europe and 35 in Japan. Absent an unanticipated and dramatic change in birth rates, the median age in western Europe in 2020 will be 47, and in Japan, 52.
—In the 2020s, half the adult populations of Italy, Spain, and Japan will be above the official retirement age.
—By 2030, thanks to several generations of cratering birth rates and the resulting demand for immigrant labor to fill low-wage jobs, the number of Muslims will double in France and triple in Germany. Amsterdam, Birmingham, Cologne, and Marseilles will likely be majority-Muslim cities, twenty years from now.
—China, the fair-haired boy of establishment international affairs analysts, is heading for serious trouble, thanks to its draconian one-child policy and communism’s destruction of traditional Chinese culture. By 2030, China will be an older country than the U.S.. As Howe and Jackson write, “Imagine [Chinese] workforce growth slowing to zero while tens of millions of elders sink into indigence without pensions, without health care, and without children to support them. China could careen toward social collapse—or, in reaction, toward an authoritarian clampdown.”
—Vladimir Putin’s plans for a new Russian imperium may run aground, because Russia will almost certainly be in demographic free fall by 2050, if not sooner. With what demographers call “lowest-low”birth-rates, and confronting colossal public health problems related to alcohol abuse and environmental degradation, Russia is a mess. Today, the average Russian man’s life expectancy is 59, which is sixteen years less than his American counterpart (and somewhat less than the life-expectancy of those in his grandfather’s generation who survived Stalin and Hitler). Forty years out, Russia will have fallen in the world population tables from fourth place (in 1950) to twentieth place.
—And while all this is going on, western Europe will be in continuing social, economic, and political crisis, thanks to too few tax-paying workers trying to support the womb-to-tomb Euro-welfare state—which has already displaced private-sector health care and pension options while suppressing the habits necessary to sustain them.
Ever since the 1968 publication of Paul Ehrlich’s intellectually fraudulent bestseller, The Population Bomb, enlightened opinion has held that “overpopulation” is the problem. It isn’t, and it never was. Now, thanks in part to the triumph of a contraceptive mentality in societies that have lost any religious sense of obligation toward the future, the grim truth is revealing itself: the problem is too few people. Of course, there was always something instinctively counterintuitive about the anti-natalist cast of mind, which thinks of a newborn calf as a “resource” or an “asset” and a newborn child as a “burden” or “problem.” Now that implausibility turns out to have, not only the gravest moral consequences, but the most severe economic, social, and political results.
Yet the mythology of overpopulation is so deeply embedded in American elite opinion that even realistic observers like Howe and Jackson, after looking into the demographic abyss, can still write that contemporary sub-Saharan Africa is “afflicted” with “the world’s highest fertility rates.” No, sub-Saharan Africa is “afflicted” with vast governmental corruption and ineptitude, ethnic and tribal madnesses, jihadism, and diseases ancient and modern. But it is not “afflicted” with people.
Ideas have consequences, for good or ill. The false idea of “overpopulation” has helped make it very likely that our children and grandchildren will live in a far less stable world than ours – which has not exactly been placid.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.