Another front in the geopolitical struggles shaping our world: demography

Summary:  this is the first in a new series, considering one of the most powerful geopolitical forces of our time:  demographic change.  This first chapter looks at one of the more interesting — even exotic — writers about these things:  Spengler.

Many forces shape our world.  Some work quickly, like the four horsemen — war, famine, disease, and death.  Some work slowly, so that only over a lifetime does one see their effects, such as technology, evolution in political and moral standards.  Some so slowly that only statistics change mark their changes, and forecast the results.  Like climate change and demographic trends.

Of all the large forces changing the world, only demographic changes are often ignored.  The movements of people, changes in fertility and lifespans — these are almost irresistible forces, yet often ignored by both major media and public policy.  Yet these are the things that most often bring peoples into existence, or sweep them off the globe into the dustbin of history.

Among all the forces at work in the modern world, I consider the greatest to be the demographic changes.   The coupled phenomena of dying cultures — fertility rates far below that necessary for replacement — plus migration of peoples from high fertility to low fertilty cultures.  Few analysts study these things, compared to relatively trivial forces such as terrorism, and even fewer contemplate their causes.

One of the few is the person writing under the pseudonym Spengler for the Asia Times.  One of the few original thinkers of our times, his works travel far outside the boundaries of “proper” thought and ignore the rules of linear reasoning.  He was one of the first to consider the full significance of these things.  Consider this excerpt from “Why Europe chooses extinction” (8 April 2003):

Demographics is destiny. Never in recorded history have prosperous and peaceful nations chosen to disappear from the face of the earth. Yet that is what the Europeans have chosen to do. Back in 1348 Europe suffered the Black Death, a combination of bubonic plague and likely a form of mad cow disease, observes American Enterprise Institute scholar Ben Wattenberg. “The plague reduced the estimated European population by about a third. In the next 50 years, Europe’s population will relive – in slow motion – that plague demography, losing about a fifth of its population by 2050 and more as the decades roll on.”

In 200 years, French and German will be spoken exclusively in hell. What has brought about this collective suicide, which mocks all we thought we knew about the instinct for self-preservation? The chattering classes have nothing to say about the most unique and significant change in our times. Yet the great political and economic shifts of modern times are demographic in origin.

Spengler speculates about the future to be carved out by these trends, and looks for their causes in the souls of nations.  Their literature, their Gods.

Please share your comments by posting below. Brief! Stay on topic! Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information see the new archive of major reports about demographic change.

Other articles by Spengler about demography

Live and let die” (13 April 2002) — “Political suicide is commonplace, indeed endemic, among populations who fail to adapt to changing circumstances. The popularity of suicide bombing among young Palestinians has much in common with other instances of large-scale suicide in recent years.”

 “Why Europe chooses extinction” (8 April 2003) — “Demographics is destiny. Never in recorded history have prosperous and peaceful nations chosen to disappear from the face of the earth. Yet that is what the Europeans have chosen to do. Back in 1348 Europe suffered the Black Death, a combination of bubonic plague and likely a form of mad cow disease, observes American Enterprise Institute scholar Ben Wattenberg.”

Why radical Islam might defeat the West” (8 July 2003) — “The day is coming when great nations will find their numbers dwindling from census to census; when the six-roomed villa will rise in price above the family mansion; when the viciously reckless poor and the stupidly pious rich will delay the extinction of the race only by degrading it; whilst the boldly prudent, the thriftily selfish and ambitious, the imaginative and poetic, the lovers of money and solid comfort, the worshippers of success, of art, and of love, will all oppose to the Force of Life the device of sterility.”

Catholicism – isn’t that a gay thing?” (22 August 2003) –“In 1506, the Venetian prostitutes’ guild lodged a complaint with the Signoria that homosexuality had become so prevalent as to threaten its livelihood. Civilizations in decline typically take on the characteristics of Bonobo monkeys, Nero’s Rome being the most lurid example. No precedent exists to my knowledge, though, for the priesthood to become the homosexual vanguard.”

It’s not the end of the world – it’s the end of you” (3 February 2004) — “Americans, unlike breast-beating Greens, tend not to confound their own sense of mortality with the vulnerability of the natural world because they have chosen other means to address the matter of their inevitable death. So don’t worry, and tuck into your spotted owl.”

Faith, fertility and American dominance” (8 September 2004) — Book review of The Empty Cradle by Phillip Longman. “This American journalist is not the first person to be horrified by declining birthrates among “modern” civilizations, and to extrapolate that anti-modernists such as evangelical Christians will eventually breed themselves into a position of global dominance. In this book, he hatches schemes such as tax incentives to encourage bigger families and save modernity from itself.”

Death by secularism: Some statistical evidence” (2 August 2005) — “Infertility is killing off the secular world, whose ideologies – socialism, positivism, and so forth – promised an unending vista of peace and prosperity. Statistical evidence strips secularism of its progressive mask and reveals the death’s-head underneath.”

Why nations die” (16 August 2005) –“The topic of mass extinction, particularly through environmental neglect, commands the attention of the reading public, but books that compare the present to bygone civilizations do not tell the whole story. We might be gone today, but somehow the world will survive tomorrow.”

Do you call that an empire?” (4 October 2005) — Review of Imperial Grunts by Robert Kaplan. “The tattooed, tobacco-chewing, iron-pumping soldiers who make up much of the US Army simply cannot be compared to the soldier-scholars who made the British Empire. Therein lies the great difference between America’s global police exercise and a true empire. And as Americans have no empire, there is nowhere to extract wealth.”

Crisis of Faith in the Muslim World; Part 1: Statistical evidence” (1 November 2005) — “Negotiating the demographic decline of the 21st century will be treacherous for countries that have proven their capacity to innovate and grow. For the Islamic world, it will be impossible. That is the root cause of Islamic radicalism, and there is nothing that the West can do to change it.”

The peacekeepers of Penzance” (21 August 2006) — “Dwindling birth rates have turned Europeans into the walking dead, which goes a long way toward explaining why they are so reluctant to send troops to Lebanon: a people without progeny will not accept a single military casualty. Europe’s role, then, is irrelevant: all that matters is the coming confrontation between the United States and Iran.”

14 thoughts on “Another front in the geopolitical struggles shaping our world: demography”

  1. While the topic is well worth consideration Spengler should be taken with a HUGE pinch of salt.

    1) In the ”Peacekeepers of Penzance” article he compares the low variant projection for Europe with the medium variant projection for the USA.

    There may be valid reasons for that comparison but if the low variant projection for the USA were used instead, things would look equally bleak in the USA demographic wise. (

    2) Using the same link one can shoot holes in his attempt to involve religion as an explanation. While cultural factors no doubt play a role as the Russian tradition of frowning upon women having children when they get into their late twenties. Spengler ignores the obvious.

    Having children requires money. Two of the EU countries in worst shape population wise are Italy and Spain. Both devote countries but with atrocious work conditions for their youth. Getting a steady job is a major concern.

    In Italy university graduates traditionally work 12-24 month for free on their first job. Try raising a family on no income. And if you’re first established on the labour market when in your mid-thirties, Mother Nature plays tricks. A 90 % drop in fertility for a woman aged 30 compared to a woman aged 20.

    This raise the discussion when women should have children during or after their education?

    To further undermine the Christianity argument look at Japan & South Korea. They are much worst off than even devote Italy & Spain. Using medium variant projection the population share aged 60+ will be ca 42-44 %. Compared with Italy & Spain ca 38-39%. China, UK, France & Germany 30%-34 % USA 20%.

    China is obvious because of the One Child policy, but don’t tell me that Japan is burden with Christian values.

    The interesting bit is, if economic conditions play an important part in the choice of having children what will happen in the USA if a debt burden will hamper your economy. Will you move along the medium variant projection or move along the low variant path?
    Fabius Maximus replies: To put Spengler in context, most writers about the population crash in developed nations have only the most trivial explanations. At least he is thinking seriously about it.

    Pointing to non-western nations is not imo a valid criticism of Spengler. He does not position his work as a universal answer — applying to all peoples, all times. Some events do have multiple, particular answer.

    As for “Having children requires money”… No, it does not. Many poor nations have high fertility. Withing nations, fertility often (usually?) declines with rising income.

  2. To bang an old brick its economics … stupid. Also stupidity and the modern ‘youngism’.

    Oh and Iran. So religious (as claimed) and their replacement rate is what? 1.71, lower than Denmark. So much for that argument. His peon to Israel was great, trouble is that the rest, the majority of Israeli’s, are doing it tough because the ‘settlers’ are the ultimate social security bludgers. Heck pay me to have children, give me a free house and a free income and I’ll have squillions of them.

    Spengler is an idiot, still stuck in the 1880’s.

    Not enough white Christian men around to keep down the fuzzy wuzzys, coming occasionally home from the wars (for the greater glory of the Empire, the Church [note that the Anglicans are a State Church, with the head of Govt the head of the Church {which they proclaimed with war}, convenient eh].

    Add in the money that was made, but the soldiers never see, with their pith helmets, impregnating their quiet, uneducated (with no vote) women folk. To breed another generation that goes out to fight the fuzzy wuzzies, so that the elite can make even more money.

    You get the picture, one of the US’s great generals said the same “war is a racket”.

    Marginal cost I call it, have a child or invest in your retirement funds .. such a dilemma. I can have a child that costs me the earth and sods off as soon as they can. The ‘best’ thing they will ever do is to sell off my house to put me in a decent old home. The worst they will do is sell of the house and drop me into the tender hands of the State system. (this is based in real example by one of my ‘friends’)

    Have them live with them and take care of them, never. Not like the old days when my Grandfather lived with us to the day he died.

    You are an economic idiot to have children unless you are part of the economic ‘elite’.
    Fabius Maximus replies: “You are an economic idiot to have children unless you are part of the economic ‘elite’.” I love explanations that boil down to “people are idiots.” In bleak moments sometimes I even agree.

    As I noted above, fertility tends to decline with incomes. Elites, from Rome to today, tend to have low — even below replacement — fertility. People with large families in the US do so despite the economics. Economic determinism fails as an explanation for human behavior, unless you consider “people are idiots because they do not think like me” an explanation.

    “Heck pay me to have children, give me a free house and a free income and I’ll have squillions of “them.” Would you really? I suspect from this statement — volunteering to be a paid breeding machine — that (1) you are a guy, and (2) not serious about willing to move to the West Bank, take up farming and raising kids.

  3. I never was convinced by Spengler. He miss one crucial fact, trends can change and they certainly will.

    Take the french demograpgy, for exemple. In the middle of XVIIIth century french fertility rate started to decline. In 1789, the population was between in 25 and 30 millions, at the beginning of the XXth century it was around 40 millions. Compare that to the UK, at the end of the XVIIIth century, the population is near 10 millions, a century latter it’s 40 millions.

    The british population exploded while the France stagnated. And you know…..historians have no idea of what happened.There’s several hypotheses but no evidence.

    Then suddenly, in middle of the second world war(1941-1943), the number of births started to rise. It’s the beginning of the baby boom that will bring french population above 60 millions. And it’s not unique of course, it was global trend in the industrialised world.And of course, there’s no explaination.

    I think you will have more luck tying demographic trends to variations in solar activity than with any kind of socio-economic factor.

    For his comparison between the US and europe.I would be very curious to know how the US demography looks if you only take in account the WASPs.

    And for the idea that Europeans would be reluctant to send soldiers abroad because they have few children, this is ridiculous. In the Balkans, it was the americans that were obsessed with avoiding casualties.It has a lot more to do with latent anti-americanism and indifference to what is unfortunately perceived as an “american war”.

    Yes, Spengler is thought-provoking.But that’s his only merit, IMO.
    Fabius Maximus replies: There are three frequent objections to essays that I find baffling.

    (1) The trends described can change.
    (2) The data is not perfectly reliable.
    (3) The author’s theory might be wrong.

    None of these are meaningful objections because they always apply, and so should be assumed. That is, in what discussion of human events are these things not true? Should all essays have these notes printed at the end in small print?

    As for the Balkans, can you give a citation? Like Spengler, I too have heard reports that many (not all) of the EU forces will unwilling to take risks. There are similar reports from Afghanistan.

  4. Fabius –
    Demographic analysis as it ties into political, social, and economic issues is a fascinating field, isn’t it? It becomes even more interesting when a cyclical component is added. Your epynonymous Spengler takes an (obvious) cue from Otto Spengler of prewar Germany. His contemporary Toynbee in the west and even Kondrietoff in Russia both alluded to cyclical historical cycles. This baton may have been passed to Quigley, but it seems that in the post-war (WWII) era, this whole field of inquiry became academically unfashionable, probably because of the Nazi taint.

    Contemporaneously, it has been revived by Strauss & Howe, as well as other scholars. Certain folks have tried to use it as an economic analysis tool, such as Harry Dent; while his logic is reasonable, the predictions have been less so. The somewhat mercurial John Xenakis seems to be keeping the fire alive in his web blog on generational dynamics.

    Arguments why more advanced, urban societies tend to have lower birth rates center around: 1. Accessibility of contraceptives; 2. No survival advantage to the parent to have children (social security, Medicare, retirement accounts); 3. Increasing costs of competition in an affluent society for children of elite or intendant classes to join those classes (private schools, tutoring, college, graduate school, expanded adolescence, etc…); 4. True economic disadvantage to child rearing for those who have children, making them less economically competitive than those who do not (no state run child care, more mouths to feed, less job mobility, unable to spend as many hours at work than their single counterparts thereby being passed up for promotions).

    An interesting consideration was raised by Wooldridge and Mickelthwait whereby they note that in such adverse circumstances to child rearing, only those who truly love children or feel it is their religious duty to raise children will tend to do so, and by instilling their (typically conservative) values in their progeny, may cause a rightward shift in most polities in the future. Or in other words, the liberals forgot to perpetuate their kind.

    This comment isn’t the place to get into the arguments of how immigration can affect demographics and society – suffice it to say that Japan is leading the world in its experiment in agedness with Old Europe running not far behind. The US actually is not so bad off as our birthrate exceeds our replacement rate. South America and the Mideast are where there is still population growth. Asia is more static than one would expect, but is at an earlier stage much like where the US stood 40 years ago.

    Finally, mass migrations and die offs do occur. And we may be living in a time which Ray Kurzweil calls “the singularity” where medical and technologic advances render contemporary assumptions about lifespan irrelevant. But there is one important question that needs to be asked, as economics and geopolitics go hand in hand these days:

    At best estimates, we have about 30 years of increasing population growth. Thereafter, population growth will reverse, and overall world population should decline significantly. In such a world, with our financial markets based upon growth and fueled by increasing population growth and market growth, how will our society survive? What will happen after the end of growth?

  5. Oldskeptic wrote: “Spengler is an idiot, still stuck in the 1880’s.”

    Alternatively, one could hypothesize: “Spengler is a propagandist, who affects the appearance of an idiot in order to continue pouring propaganda into the media.”

    I suspect Spengler devotes his considerable intelligence to baiting hooks that will catch those with a misplaced devotion to authority. Cave Spengler, O Fabius! (Or is the vocative of Fabius “Fabie”?)

    Fabius Maximus replies: Do you consider any of this a rebuttal of his reasoning, or just telling us that you are unhappy with his reasoning? If the former, I do not understand. If the latter, thank you for sharing.

  6. Another example of Godwins “reductio ad Hitlerum” law. Or is it?? From the The American Almanac (1994):

    “…Dr. Friedrich Burgdoerfer, director of the Reich’s Statistical Office, asserted at the {1935} Berlin world population conference in solemnly objective tones, that by the year 1960 Slavs would make up over half the European population, while the proportion of Germans would shrink to one-fourth…”

    Fabius Maximus replies: What are you saying? I do not understand.

  7. After the rant, time for some hard numbers. I take Australian numbers from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Their population forecast, the ‘B”, mid range one. Australia is mid range in this, lower than the US, but higher than say Japan or Italy.

    Impact of aging of the population per year on economic activity, assuming that that productive people are 20-65, under or over that they are ‘drainers’. Based on June 2008, the change from year to year (the % reductions in ‘productive people”( and the cumulative effect).

    Annually Cumultive
    Jun-2009 0.0% 0.0%
    Jun-2010 0.0% -0.1%
    … {snip}
    Jun-2020 -0.4% -3.1%
    … {snip}
    Jun-2030 -0.3% -7.6%
    … {snip}
    Jun-2051 -0.1% -11.4%
    … {snip}
    Jun-2100 0.0% -13.5%

    Two comments about these numbers:
    (1) It starts to look rough after 2040, but then again even the optimists say that oil will be running out then so there are more important things to worry about.

    (2) And what I ask is the annual growth in productivity? It, in just about every country in the world dwarfs these numbers (usually in the 1%-4% region per year).

    Problem? Where? There are some real issues to deal with, this is Spenglar nonsense.

    Note: I ‘m quite happy to do your country’s numbers. Just get the data and email me them, I may be a number nut but doing every country’s demographics .. well I have too much to do.

    Fabius Maximus replies: I aways appreciate efforts to model economic impacts, but let’s not get carried away. Modeling complex social and economic processes is useful because it allows tinkering with the assumptions to allow better understanding of the dynamics. But the output is still a guess.

    Long-term forecasts from econometric models are WAG. If we run that model in reverse, will it accurately “forecast” Australia’s economy back to 1900 (back-testing, the first step in testing)? I doubt it.

  8. I don’t understand it either. These demographic/eugenic predictions appear to be simple racist propaganda in statistical disguise. But I am not sure what to make of Spengler.
    Fabius Maximus replies: In what way are they racist? Unless you consider any discussion of demographics and its implications to be racist.

  9. They seem almost identical to pseudoscientific scare tactics used by the Nazi party in 1935. I also noticed that in Spengler’s defence of the NeoCons, he characterizes Leo Strauss as a “confused jew.”

    Of course those things do not invalidate demographic predictions. Neither would any other thing. Lacking a time machine, predictions are not falsifiable.

    I worry about the unstated ‘implications.’ Surely we haven’t forgotten the quest for lebensraum, and a final solution.
    Fabius Maximus replies: All valid points. But so many valuable things have dirty roots.

    For example, much of today’s liberal thought (and some organizations) have roots in the eugenics movement. Such histories are important to know, as these things have philosophical roots (they do not just happen). However, I believe that we know the past in order to understand our own time, not to hold the living accountable for sins of the dead. To do so would be like discrediting chemistry because of its roots in alchemy.

  10. Generally speaking, demography is not important. What is more important than counting different types of heads is what is in those heads to begin with. Take today’s situation. If numbers were important, then how is the creeping Islamization explained taking place today? Shouldn’t the 10:1 ratio stacked in favour of the natives preclude any such scenario? Apparently the native majority is indifferent, unwilling or hostile to what used to be their most cherished values. That’s ideology, though.
    Fabius Maximus replies: A truism common to many of the social sciences is that the absolute levels of a factor are often less important than its rate of change. So Islam does not have a majority role in France, but the momentum is on their side. A look in the maternity wards tells the story.

    This is consistent with what you are saying, just a different perspective on it.

  11. I think you’re missing my point: why will numbers matter in the future when they obviously don’t matter now? Also, the momentum you refer to is not as convincing as some would have us believe.

    Do Muslims Have More Children Than Other Women in Western Europe?“, Population Reference Bureau

    Even in world-weary Europe Muslim women, given the freedom to choose, will raise fewer babies.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The conclusions of this study are pretty mild:

    “The study confirms the perception that Muslim women have more children than non-Muslims in Western Europe, but shows that the gap is not as large as many believe. And, similar to other immigrants in other countries, Muslim fertility rates tend to fall over time, narrowing the gap with the non-Muslims who make up the vast majority of the European population now, and for the foreseeable future.”

    I did not realize that anyone thought otherwise. The two key points are:

    (1) Relative fertility rates differ, which have large effects over time.
    (2) Immigration, which is a large factor for the EU — esp. as its population ages — but was outside the scope of the PRB story.

    This is baffling: “why will numbers matter in the future when they obviously don’t matter now?” Trends matter, making small things into big things. Rising sea levels, for example, are not a problem now but could be if they continue.

  12. Elaborating the last point: By projection, Muslims will be in the majority in the not-too-distant future. This means that the host culture will vanish, especially since, by projection, the number of natives will decrease significantly. Add on top of that immigration of unknown quantity. All other things being equal, since the argument rests on birth rates alone, it is merely a case of repeated additions and multiplications. By the same reasoning, mere numbers should speak immensely in favour of today’s majority. There’s no-one stopping today’s majority imposing its will should it choose to do so. Obviously it doesn’t, either through indifference, timidity or some other factor. So a strictly numerical argument falls on its head if you care to look around. Today’s situation is a refutation of the belief that numbers of a specific group are not important when you compare the importance of what beliefs that group holds.

    And yes, trends give us pointers. But your argument rests on the assumption that we reach the end state of that trend, otherwise why bring a particular to anyone’s attention? So bottom line, it’s always a question of raw numbers for the ‘demographists’.

    As to your points:

    (1) Yes, relative differences would have large effects over time if we were able to establish that these numbers would remain constant over that time. Perhaps the most important finding (reminder) of the above report is that they don’t. Extrapolating 50 or even 25 years into the future is a hopeless undertaking. One of my favourite examples of this is Mark Steyn talking about the “… the point of “lowest-low” fertility [TFR of 1.3] from which no human society has ever recovered”. Baseless speculation.

    (2) Notice that, even in Europe, where ethnic divisions are much stronger accentuated and given much greater importance than in the US, the uniquely Western ideas of individual freedom and happiness still influence those arriving and settling there. Which in turn means a significant number of immigrants hope to achieve that. There are great dangers in Europe, most notably the domestic drives of every variant to limit our freedoms, which could worsen conditions to a point where old hatreds and fears would be stirred and given renewed prominence. Let’s hope we don’t reach that state.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Extrapolating 25 or 50 years does seem like a hopeless task. Unfortunately, it is necessary, as so many dynamics in our complex society take place over long horizons. The pension systems in Europe and America would be in better shape if folks had used longer planning horizons. Bad outcomes were foretold long in advance, sufficiently so for even mild corrective measures to work, but we preferred to say that long projects are “a hopeless task.”

    Also, this is hardly “baseless specualtion.” Rather just simple math. Nothing inevitable, but the consequences of these trends are sufficiently clear to deserve attention.

  13. No, sir. It is not a question about the desirability of long-range planning, which I agree is a good thing. It is whether it is possible to base any long-range planning on the evershifting sands of fertility rates. There you will run into serious problems inherent to the problem.

    Since it is not “baseless speculation” according to you, what will the fertility rates for Italy and Spain be for the next 50 years, and explain to me what historical precedents you base these figures on?
    Fabius Maximus replies: It is not my field, and I lack the necessary background to even guess. Long-term averages can be estimated, however, with knowledge of the existing level and rate of change. Developed country fertility rates change slowly, with strong trends. So I fail to see why they cannot be estimated out for 2 generations. Note that an average over 2 gens (40 years) — needed for planning — is far easier to compute with reasonable accuracy than the level in 2050.

    Your second point is more critical. One theme of this site is that we, as a society, approach serious problems (e.g., climate change, peak oil, COIN) with grossly inadequate research. We seem to prefer inspired guessing, when the few dollars spent on data collection and analysis by multi-disciplinary teams of experts would provide a firm basis for policy experimentation.

  14. The only case I am aware of where official policy raised the birthrate is Romania. With access to contraception and – sad to say – abortion which Ceausescu restricted and which tends to be used by the upper and lower classes repectively I do not beleive this would have been acheived. Morover the “slack” the demand for more people is now being filled from outside before it can effect a rise in fertility in all western countries

    It is safe to say rising birth rates will not be a significant demographic factor in any western nation, for non immigrant fertility at least IMO.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree, but have little knowledge of these things. There are some folks with considerable data saying otherwise in the comments on this thread.

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