A Foundering Civilization

By de Marcellus, Robert | The Human Life Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

A Foundering Civilization


de Marcellus, Robert, The Human Life Review


When the Titanic struck an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, no one thought there was any real danger. After all, the ship was "unsinkable." Crew members reassured the passengers, who continued to eat, drink, dance, and eventually sleep. Reality started to set in only when the ship's Second Officer, Charles S. Lightoller, noticed that, with all the pumps working, the level of water in the stairwell was still creeping up and up. When the Titanic slipped below the surface, it shocked out of its complacency a world that felt it had almost achieved mastery of its destiny.

The story of the Titanic provides a vivid metaphor for the current demographic state of the world's industrialized nations. Like the passengers of the Titanic, today's public, news media, and government leaders are oblivious to ominous news-in this case, the quiet unfolding of the most portentous event of modern history: the failure of current generations to produce enough children to replace themselves. A French historian, Professor Pierre Chaunu, has called this failure "the White Pestilence," because, unless successfully combatted, it will eradicate European and other industrialized populations as surely as the Black Death destroyed the cities and towns of the Middle Ages. The loss of millions of young men in World War I was regarded at the time as a catastrophe of unequaled proportions, but, while today's White Pestilence is progressing quietly and without physical devastation, the impact on industrialized societies will be incomparably more severe and long lasting. Sustained below-replacement fertility affects almost every facet of national life. The funding through tax dollars of medical and retirement benefits, national defense, basic research, education, and infrastructure construction, to name but a few, relies on the efforts of working citizens. And that is in addition to the effect on the economy itself.

The remorseless figures

There is no question of what is taking place. The data on fertility-the average number of children per woman-are carefully recorded and published by the governments of all modern nations. It is well established that in nations with modern health standards an average of 2.1 children per woman is needed to maintain a steady population-the "replacement level" (one child to replace each parent, and a fraction extra to replace children who die before reaching reproductive age, as well as to compensate for the slightly smaller number of female than male births).

How ominous are the current fertility figures? Very ominous. The fertility rate of Italy and Spain, for example, now hovers around 1.2. Japan is only slightly better off, at 1.46 and France at 1.6. The United States' fertility rate is currently at an almost healthy 2.1, but for a period in the late Seventies it was as low as 1.73. A rate as low as Italy's or Spain's means that in every generation the native population will be nearly halved. Furthermore, unlike a population decimated by war or pestilence, populations with low fertility age before they die, creating enormous economic burdens for the remaining young workers.

As the proportion of the non-working elderly to the working young increases, the income of young workers is increasingly absorbed by taxes. The ratio of the population aged 65 and over to the population aged 15 to 64 is known as the "elderly dependency ratio." While in most industrialized countries the ratio is now around 20%, in only thirty-three years it is expected to nearly double in the United States and France, and more than double in Japan, Germany, Italy, and Canada. In Italy, for example, unless the fertility rate rises dramatically, the elderly dependency ratio will grow from 23.8% in 1995 to 37.5% in 2020 to 60.0% by 2050. Dramatic aging of the population will occur in Japan, Germany, and Italy in just 12 V2 years, and in the other industrialized countries in another twenty years. Any nation whose tax base, production, and consumer base decline as precipitously as those of Europe appear destined to do faces economic and social catastrophe on a scale not seen in modern times. …

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