Monday, August 07, 2006

More on Demographic Collapse

Frederick Turner at TCS Daily has just written an article in which he addresses a topic I considered not so long ago in this space: the demographic collapse of the West, and the reasons behind it. The explanation he pursues is similar to my own, though perhaps not surprisingly, he doesn't couch his in the terminology of memetics:

If we eliminate all external causes for population collapse, what is left is people's own reproductive choices. The reason people stop replacing themselves is, I would argue, cultural.

What, basically, persuades people not to have babies even when they have the political, social and economic stability to do so? Among the eras and nations where this phenomenon occurs or occurred one basic characteristic stands out: the loss of a transcendent future. What I mean by "transcendent" is some ideal or love or hope or faith that rises above the interests of the self, the practicalities of expected income, the security of predictable outcomes, and the lifetime of the individual. What I mean by "future" is that it is an ideal, love, hope, or faith that extends beyond the present and is not satisfied with an instantaneous and eternal reward in the now.

Turner looks at the issue from the perspective of religion: essentially, he proposes that every society that forsakes the faith of its fathers' in favor of a more epicurean lifestyle is demographically doomed. There's certainly quite a bit of truth to that. If you examine the various declining societies around the world, one of the first commonalities that leaps out is that they are very secular. Not only Europe, but also Japan (which has essentially abandoned its Shinto/Buddhist heritage) and China (which, in the urban territories at least, has lost its Confucian/Buddhist background) share this basic trait.

The interesting thing about the article is that he puts the problem into historical perspective:

For hundreds of years historians have wondered what happened to the Roman Empire in its last days. They agree that there was a demographic collapse in its urban Italian heartland. They noted that Romans themselves became outnumbered in their own country -- while remaining as a shrinking elite, the "domini" (the root of the "dons" of Spain and the Mafia) that became a feudal aristocracy in the middle ages.

I actually didn't know this, but it's not really all that surprising. The Romans became a very urbanized society, after all; urban environments are conducive to horizontal memetic transfer, and this tend to dampen birthrates. Still, it's very interesting that what's happening now has happened before.

Now, if you remember my previous post on scenarios by which the global demographic collapse will come to an end, you'll recall that one of them was 'triumph of the traditionalists', in which traditional religious subcultures grow and eventually form the majority of society. Note that that isn't what happened to the Romans: there weren't any pagans left, instead their old religion was replaced entirely by a foreign import, the mutated version of Judaism we call Christianity. That opens up an interesting possibility, which is that the West will become colonized by a new (or at present, small) religion. The two candidates tht come to mind are Mormonism and Scientology, though I'd put my money on Mormonism (Scientology doesn't encourage high birthrates, and tends to be a very destructive influence in people's lives; in memetic terms, it's more of a parasite than a symbiote.)

So imagine a future where Mormons are the mainstream....


Blogger Gormless Norman said...

Interesting thoughts. I don't quite understand why a minor religion like Scientology or LDS would have the advantage though. It seems pretty clear to me that the future belongs to Islam, unfortunately. Aside from its aggressive expansionism, it has certain advantages to educated Westerners: it has no creation myth to contend with (thus a lot of apologists like to assert that Islam is compatible with science, or that the Koran contains the big bang theory, or other crap like that, which people do in fact say); also, like other forms of fascism, its violence and intolerance appeal to the darker urges that lie dormant in all people, educated or not. But I think the main thing Islam has going for it as a religion is its simplicity. I think a transition is already underway among the mainstream protestant churches, and even in liberal catholicism, where the doctrine in which individual people believe is moving away from the trinity and towards a one sort of generalized spirituality, which will be a quick leap from there to Allah. LDS has an elaborate system of mythology, one which is perhaps even more demonstrably false than other forms of christianity (according to what 'demonstrably false' would mean for a nonbeliever, which I don't think I am). Sorry to be a downer, I'd prefer the a future where people read L. Ron Hubbard and get their colons cleaned on the road to nirvana or whatever it is.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

It's possible that Islam will win in the long run, and while I doubt it, that eventuality can't be discounted. The problem is that Islam actually comes down to its violence; it's bloody borders are already starting to meet resistance, and we haven't even started fighting it yet ... not to the degree we're capable of, anyways. When we do start (and I do think that's a when, not an if) it will get very, very ugly for them. Put it this way: Europe might well fall, but I don't see Islam making much progress in the U.S.

I picked the LDS because it's basically a mutated version of Christianity: an obvious memetic descendant (thus more compatible with the Western meme pool) but distinct enough to be a separate religion. You're right that they have a complex - and IMHO somewhat crazy - mythology, but plausibility usually isn't an issue with religions. What LDS has going for is that it's aggressively evangelistic, but also promotes high internal birthrates. It also has the advantage that, unlike Islam, it's not violent; thus, host societies don't tend to form a strong adverse reaction to it (at least, no stronger than slamming the door in their missionaries' faces.) Furthermore, Mormons tend to do quite well economically: in Latin America, Mormonism is one of the best predictors of socioeconomic status. There's a stark contrast there with Islam, whose believers tend to be poor, ignorant, and uneducated.

Of course at the moment Islam looks big and scary: it's an old religion, with a billion followers. Mormonism, on the other hand, remains relatively small. But then every new religion starts out small, and the LDS is growing fairly rapidly and - crucially - peacefully. Islam might be going through a strong growth phase at the moment, but the rest of the planet is getting increasingly pissed with their shenanigans. My crystal ball predicts a drastic reduction in their numbers at some point in the near future, probably thermonuclear in nature.

As far as Scientology goes, I actually find them more threatening than Muslims. Everything I know about them makes them very scary, but they're too virulent to spread very far through society. Or at least, I hope so.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Gormless Norman said...

Thanks Matt, it's always nice to stop by the Sanitarium when I need a little dose of optimism! I agree things will get worse before they get better, and as far as what the long term future holds, I think the only thing that's certain is that it will not be what we predict. In 1910, who could have predicted what the political map would look like a mere 40 years later?

8:41 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

I don't know if I'd describe myself as an optimist, exactly, unless maybe in the sense that ultimately I think the future will be more good than bad. Still, I fully expect there to be lots and lots of bad.

1:20 AM  
Blogger Gormless Norman said...

True, I should have said relatively optimistic, at least as compared with myself. I look in my crystal ball and see the bomb and the burqua. Things look so bleak to me that I honestly wonder if it would be cruel to reproduce. But I guess things looked bleak at other times and places, and people were not deterred from getting their freak on!

8:47 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Yeah. Nothing revs up the hormones like a good ol' fashioned catastrophe ;)

11:07 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home