Is Western Civilisation Heading for Extinction?

Daily Mail (London), July 18, 1998 | Go to article overview

Is Western Civilisation Heading for Extinction?


Byline: GEOFFREY WHEATCROFT

AT THE end of the 20th century, at the end of the millennium, at what has been called 'the end of history', Europe is triumphant. The European Union not only has a larger population than Japan or the U.S. but produces more economic wealth than either.

And yet, in this hour of triumph there are visible signs of failure.

Despite - it might even be because of - that success, Europe is in decline.

It is dying on its feet - or dying in its bedrooms. Our society is fantastically productive of material wealth. What we are less and less good at producing is children.

For most of this century, academics and think-tanks have been warning about the danger of a population explosion. According to doomsayers 25 years ago, it should have

swamped us by now.

What none of these diviners foresaw was the exact opposite, a phenomenon which might be called a population implosion.

This unforeseen and fateful development stems from the collapse of the European birthrate.

The fall has been faster in some countries than in others, but in every European country, ours included, the birthrate has dropped below the rate of stable reproduction: the magic figure of just over two children per woman needed to maintain the population level. Far from growing out of hand, our population will soon start shrinking.

THE implications of this in terms of economics, welfare and simply self-confidence are enormous. As Jean-Claude Chesnais of the National Institute for the Study of Demography in Paris says, low population growth was for so long regarded as a good in itself that we cannot come to terms with what is actually happening.

'I think Europe may be in the vanguard of a powerful trend,' he says. And it's not only powerful but frightening, 'because you can't have a successful world without children in it'.

Grasping this development is made harder for us by the fact that it is unprecedented. The birthrate has never slumped like this before in history, except as a result of catastrophic war, epidemic or economic depression.

Other societies have declined, and sometimes disappeared. In the Middle Ages, Vikings and Danes reached America, colonised Iceland, where their descendants still live, and also settled in Greenland. But after a few centuries, the Greenland colony vanished without trace.

Other peoples have seen their numbers collapse, from the Incas of Peru to the inhabitants of the Pacific islands. This was usually caused by the arrival of Europeans and sometimes thanks to their brutality, though more often because of the diseases they brought.

Europe has been devastated by epidemic and war. The Black Death of the 14th century reduced the population by at least a third - in some English parishes by two-thirds - and the Thirty Years' War of the 17th century did the same for Germany.

What is happening in Europe is quite new. It is voluntary, a product of peace and prosperity. There has been no international war in the continent for more than 50 years. Medicine has conquered all the great scourges and we are healthy to a degree unknown in human history. Our population decline is a 'problem of success'.

The figures are startling and the trend seems irreversible.

Only 30 years ago, Italy had a very high birthrate, partly because of obedience to Roman Catholic teaching on birth control. The Italians now ignore that teaching and their birth-rate has collapsed astonishingly, to an average 1.2 children per woman.

That is so far below the necessary rate of reproduction that the population is already shrinking. And Italy recently passed another historic landmark, when it became the first country ever with more people aged over 60 than under 20.

In Italy, the 'baby slump' has been blamed on the state, which provides, by North European standards, meagre welfare support for families. …

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