Friday, February 3, 2012

Why Civilizations Die: Part I

At Spherical Model, I propose that civilization requires certain things to thrive: belief in God, who grants us unalienable rights, and therefore obedience to God’s law; and in order to perpetuate the belief and train in the civilized behavior, families are the basic unit and must be honored and nurtured. My way of organizing the ideas may be unique, but these beliefs about civilization are more widely understood. So when I hear a book title like How Civilizations Die, my interest is piqued, to see if this supports my thesis or adds additional insight.

How Civilizations Die(And Why Islam Is Dying Too) came out just last year. The author is David P. Goldman, online columnist “Spengler,” whom I admit I was not aware of (read an explanation of his column themes here ). The original “Spengler” authored the pessimistic work The Decline of the West, so Goldman took the name in irony. Sometimes with such a book, I end up having to study and reread, and write down quotes. This is one of those.
It does indeed support my basic Spherical Model thesis about civilization. But while I mainly outline the positive requirements for civilization, he covers the much broader subject of what doesn’t work, and along the way reveals what works. There’s a lot in here, and I’m still developing how to write about it, but I think I will spend two or three blog posts on it.
He describes his theme as following the direction of German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig, and then giving it broader application: the mortality of nations and its causes, Western secularism, Asian anomie [breakdown or loss of social norms, uprootedness], and unadaptable Islam.
I think I will simplify somewhat. Here are his basic themes:
·         Population decline is the identifying symptom of a culture in decline.
·         Culture declines when it secularizes.
·         Culture decline is inevitable if culture is formed on the wrong basis.
o   Ethnicity, location, and history are the wrong bases for culture.
o   Belief in God-given individual rights is the right basis. 

Population Decline
Goldman pulls no punches. This is from the introduction:
As a matter of arithmetic, we know that the social life of most developed countries will break down within two generations. Two out of three Italians and three of four Japanese will be elderly dependents by 2050. If present fertility rates hold, the number of Germans will fall by 98 percent over the next two centuries. No pension and health care system can support such an inverted population pyramid (p. ix).
I’ve been interested in population decline for quite a while, and have occasionally written on it. But Goldman presented not only a lot of specificity, but also information I didn’t have before. I was unaware, for example, that much of the Muslim world is experiencing a plunge in fertility rates. Here’s the Iranian situation for example:
Today there are more Iranians in their mid-twenties than in any other age bracket. But they are not reproducing. An educated twenty-five-year-old Iranian woman today probably grew up in a family of six or seven children, but will bear only one child. The consequences will be catastrophic. Today there are nine Iranians of working age for every elderly dependent. By 2050, when the bulge in Iran’s population will be at retirement age, there will be more Iranians in their mid-sixties than in any other age bracket—seven elderly dependents for every ten working Iranians. The country produces just $4,400 per capita [adjusted constant dollars], about a tenth of America’s GDP, and most of that comes directly or indirectly from oil and natural gas reserves—which are running out.
It’s already too late to fend off the population decline…. Aging populations present a danger even to rich countries with well-funded public pension systems. For poor countries with a primitive social safety net or none at all, a graying society will be a disaster (p. 2).
The speed of the fall of fertility in the Muslim world is startling. Worldwide fertility has fallen over half a century from 4.5 children per woman to about 2.5. But in the Muslim world in the last fifteen years, the rate has fallen two to three times faster: Iran by six children per woman, Turkey by five, Pakistan by a little more than three, and Egypt and Indonesia both by four.
The few Muslim pockets retaining fertility are those with higher illiteracy. Another factor is religious practice—more frequent attendance at the mosque equals higher fertility. In short, they retain high fertility if they remain in a traditional Muslim world and have not entered the modern world. But remaining outside the modern world also means being unable to employ and feed the population. And that’s a serious problem, but it’s worse for those with higher literacy: Iran, Turkey, Tunisia, and Algeria. There the lack of children means the lack of hope for a future.
Goldman warns, “Whereas Europe tends toward pacifism because it knows it has nothing to gain from aggression, Iran tends toward belligerence because it knows it has nothing to lose” (p. 7).
I am disturbed that higher literacy tends to correlate with lower fertility. Education is a good thing, in itself. So the other factor, faith, must also be significant. In just about all the ways you can think of “faith,” Goldman says, “Demographic winter arises from a crisis of faith” (p. 16): loss of adherence to a specific religion, loss of faith in one’s culture, loss in faith in personal or national purpose and value.
We’ll focus more on faith in the next couple of posts. But there’s one more factor to look at regarding demographic demise: economics. Somewhere during the past century children changed from being an economic asset to being a cost. Some of this is a shift from rural farm labor to urban labor.
We used to ask questions like, “How many children do I need to help me work and then support me in my elderly years?” The answer on a subsistence farm is five. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when life expectancy was lower, that was equal to the number needed to keep the population stable. And it was how many children women bore in 1950, when 70% of the world lived in farming communities. In 1800 90% of Americans lived on farms, and women bore an average of seven children. By 1900 only 50% lived on farms, and fertility had fallen to four children per woman. In 2000 US fertility dropped to two.
People have stopped thinking of children as an economic asset. We don’t use them for child labor, and we don’t expect them to directly care for us in our old age—that has shifted to a collective care. In other words, our children pay a rising portion of their wages to the government, which doles out elderly care as it sees fit. So there is a disconnect between the number of children an individual has and the amount of care he receives in old age.
The disconnect means there is no incentive to personally have more children. We look at the quarter million dollars it costs to raise a child, and think about whether we would prefer to spend that income on ourselves instead. The only social reason to have children who contribute to collective elderly care is altruism; there is incentive to freeload.
Those who have a “faith” reason for having children, however, still have them. On the individual and national/cultural level, people who believe only in themselves fail to find something worth caring enough about to reach into the future.

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