Monday, March 14, 2005

A Glimpse of the De-populated Future

In Policy Review, Stanley Kurtz ponders the cultural impact of declining birth rates in the industrialized world. Kurtz observes that the American birth rate has fallen from an average to eight births per woman during the Colonial period to just under 2.1 births per woman today, slightly below replacement level. But the US isn't unique; throughout Europe, birth rates have plummeted far below replacement levels. Unmentioned by Kurtz, Russia, devastated by seven decades of communism, shows the sharpest demographic decline, and will likely experience the Western world's fate well before the West does. Even in the "developing world" the birth rate has fallen from six births per woman in 1970 to just 2.7 today. Still, the developing world will continue to replace its population for some time, whilst the industrialized countries - Europe, the US, Japan, Canada and Australia, will see their populations decline significantly. This global trend, coupled with the life extending technologies of modern medicine, means that over the next few decades, the West will experience a demographic scenario unprecedented in human history - a time when the numbers of the elderly will vastly exceed the numbers of the young. The nature of this change is sufficiently dramatic to raise serious questions.
Can societies that old sustain themselves? That is the question inviting speculation. With fertility falling swiftly in the developing nations, immigration will not be able to ameliorate certain implications of a rapidly aging West. Even in the short or medium term, the aging imbalance cannot be rectified except through a level of immigration far above what Western countries would find politically acceptable. Alarmed by the problems of immigration and assimilation, even famously tolerant Holland has begun to turn away immigrants en masse — and this before the recent murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, which has subsequently forced the questions of immigration and demography to the center of the Dutch political stage.

In short, the West is beginning to experience significant demographic changes, with substantial cultural consequences. Historically, the aged have made up only a small portion of society, and the rearing of children has been the chief concern. Now children will become a small minority, and society’s central problem will be caring for the elderly. Yet even this assumes that societies consisting of elderly citizens at levels of 20, 30, even 40 or more percent can sustain themselves at all. That is not obvious.

Population decline is also set to ramify geometrically. As population falls, the pool of potential mothers in each succeeding generation shrinks. So even if, well into the process, there comes a generation of women with a higher fertility rate than their mothers’, the momentum of population decline could still be locked in. Population decline may also be cemented into place by economics. To support the ever-growing numbers of elderly, governments may raise taxes on younger workers. That would make children even less affordable than they are today, decreasing the size of future generations still further.
Kurtz ponders the usual explanations offered for the fall in birth rates - rising educational and economic opportunities for women, the economics of urbanized, industrial societies, birth control technology - and wyrly observes: "And what demographic decline truly shows is that when childbearing has become a matter of sheer choice, it has become less frequent."

The consequence of the shift from young to old may cause the economic collapse of European welfare states and the US entitlement system (Social Security, Medicare). As the numbers of young workers dwindle, taxes will have to be raised or benefits cut to keep the systems going. Eventually, however, the number of elderly beneficiaries will so dwarf the number of workers that no amount of taxation will be able to keep the systems afloat.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the combined cost of Medicare and Medicaid alone will consume a larger share of the nation’s income in 2050 than the entire federal budget does today. By 2050, the combined cost of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt will rise to 47 percent of gross domestic product — more than double the level of expected federal revenues at the time. Without reform, all federal spending would eventually go to seniors. Obviously, the system will correct before we reach that point. But how?
Since the elderly vote more consistently than they young, it is unlikely that significant benefit cuts will ever be approved. As taxes rise precipitiously, economic activity will decline, accelerating the economic collapse. Beseiged by economic calamity, the West might turn to technology for a solution - a possibility, Kurtz notes, that has increasingly worried many conservative thinkers like Francis Fukayama.
That is a grave concern, yet there may still be others. The disruptive effects of biotechnology will play out in a depopulating world — perhaps a world shadowed by economic and cultural crisis. So the immediate challenge of biotechnology to human history is the prospect that the family might be replaced by a bioengineered breeding system. Artificial wombs, not the production of supermen, may soon be the foremost social challenge posed by advancing science. Certainly, there is a danger that genetic engineering may someday lead to class distinctions. But the pressure on the bioengineers of the future will be to generate population. If and when the prospect of building “better” human beings becomes real, it will play out in the context of a world under radical population pressure. That population crunch will likely shape the new genetics at every turn.
Feminists, unwilling to abandon the work place or contraception, might readily embrace such technologies, Kurtz speculates.
Thus, if faced with an ultimate choice between feminist hopes of workplace equality with men and society’s simultaneous need for more children, it is not hard to imagine that some on the cultural left would opt for technological outsourcing — surrogacy in various forms — as a way out. To some extent, this phenomenon has already begun: Consider the small but growing numbers of older, usually career women who choose and pay younger women to carry babies for them. As with Sanger and Firestone, eugenics may be seen by some as the “logical” alternative to pressure to restore the traditional family.

Christine Rosen, who has usefully thought through the prospects and implications of “ectogenesis,” suggests that objections to the human exploitation inherent in surrogacy could actually propel a shift toward artificial wombs. Of course, that would only complete the commodification of childbirth itself — weakening if not eliminating the parent-child bond. And if artificial wombs one day become “safer” than human gestation, insurers might begin to insist on our not giving birth the old-fashioned way.
Contrary to Kurtz, an articifical womb - should one be successfully developed - would not require the pressure of economic depression or even radical depopulation to become an attractive and popular alternative to natural means. Were such a device to become available tomorrow, many women - particularly older career-driven women now facing the strictures of the biological clock - would likely jump at the chance to use it now. As genetic engineering technology advances, and the options for embryonic manipulation proliferate, artificial wombs might eventually be seen as superior means of bringing children to term than the natural method.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home