Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Demographic Descent of Europe: What Does It Mean?

“Above all, and most urgently of all, why is Europe committing demographic suicide, systematically depopulating itself in what British historian Niall Ferguson calls the greatest ‘sustained reduction in European population since the black Death of the 14th century’?

  • Why do eighteen European countries report ‘negative natural increase’ (i.e., more deaths than births)?
  • Why does no western European country have a replacement-level birthrate? (The replacement level, according to demographers, is 2.1 children per woman; as of 2004, Germany’s birthrate was 1.3; Italy’s 1.2, Spain’s 1.1, and France’s 1.7; the higher French rate is due to Muslim immigration).
    [Footnote: "As demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has noted, the difference between a replacement-level birthrate and a birthrate of 1.5 or 1.4, other things being equal, is the difference between a stable population over time and a population that decreases by one-third as each generation passes."]
  • Why is Germany likely to lose the equivalent of the former East Germany in the first half of the 21st century?
  • Why will Spain’s population decline from 40 million to 31.3 million by the middle of the century?
  • Why will 42 percent of Italians be over sixty by 2050- at which point, on present trends, almost 60 percent of the Italian people will have no brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, or uncles?
  • Why will Europe’s retired population increase by 55 percent in the next twenty-five years, while its working population will shrink by 8 percent- and, to repeat, why can’t Europeans, either politicians or the public, draw the obvious conclusions from these figures about the impending bankruptcy of their social welfare, health care, and pension systems? Why, to cite Niall Ferguson again, is Europe’s ‘fundamental problem… senescence’?
  • What is happening when an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than ever before, declines to create the human future in the most elemental sense, by creating a next generation?
  • Why do many Europeans deny that these demographics- which are without parallel in human history, absent wars, plagues, or natural catastrophes- are the defining reality of their twenty-first century?

These questions cannot be answered satisfactorily by reference only to Europe’s distinct experience of the twentieth century and what Europe learned from it. Nor can they be answered by appeals to European shame. A deeper question has to be raised: Why did Europe have the twentieth century that it did? Why did a century that began with confident predictions about a maturing humanity reaching new heights of civilizational accomplishment produce in Europe, within four decades, two world wars, three totalitarian systems, a Cold War threatening global catastrophe, oceans of blood, mountains of corpses, Auschwitz and the Gulag? What happened? Why?”

-George Weigel, The Cube and the Cathedral, (2005), p. 21-23.

Weigel goes on in this slender and fascinating volume to gather and assess anaylses of the contemporary European scene in the context of its historical trajectories.

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