Every decade Europe is losing the equivalent of the population of Spain, says Daniel Johnson
r some years. the European birthrate has been below replacement level. Tony Blair recently admitted that there was no Government policy on population. but the effects of low fertility are already making themselves felt on many of his policies. Yet politicians seem to be as baffled as everybody else, both about why Europeans have stopped having enough children, and what to do about it.
Many people arc also sceptical, remem bering previous population forecasts that proved false. The demographic panic about global "overpopulation" some 40 years ago bequeathed us totalitarian coercion, as in the Case of China's "one-child policy", as well as what John Paul 11 dubbed the "contraceptive mentality" in the West.
Like the Malthusian theory of two centuries ago. the fear of overpopulation was based on extrapolations that underestimated the ability of the market economy to generate wealth when not hindered by politics or ideology, and the natural tendency of population growth to adjust to economic circumstances.
The present crisis of demographic decline differs from earlier anxieties about overpopulation, because even the most cautious predications are alarming. It is already an obvious fact that our society is ageing fast. In Europe, the effects of low fertility are masked by unprecedented immigration: Britain's population is still increasing. But mass immigration is at best a temporary palliative and brings with it many new problems. Increasing life expectancy also means that the proportion of dependent elderly people compared to the working population is rising indefinitely.
It is remarkable that the most illuminating study of the problem should have emerged from a Catholic quarter. The distinguished Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz, of the Vienna Institute of Demography. argues that around the year 2000 Europe entered a phase of "negative momentum". For each decade that fertility in the 15 older member states of the European Union remains at its present level, the continent's population will decline by between 25 and 40 million the equivalent of a country the size of Spain. Even if one assumes that the average birthrate remains at its present level only until 2020, and thereafter returns to replacement level, the cumulative effect by the end of this century will be a decline of Europe's population by at least a quarter.
This is a prospect unprecedented in European history. According to Lutz, Europe is caught in what he calls the Low Fertility Trap. Only part of this is caused by low fertility. in the sense of women having fewer children and more women remaining childless. Nearly half of the population decline, he shows. is actually caused by women delaying childbirth for career and lifestyle reasons. This postponement pushes the birth rate down from a worrying 1.8 to a critical 1.5. This "birth deficit" causes a shrinkage of the population pyramid base, which has a pennanent effect. even if career women eventually do have two or more children.
Smaller families are also self-reinforcing, because the "ideal family size" falls. A society in which children grow up with little or no experience of larger families will find it very difficult to reverse this trend. Lutz observes that societies which fall below the critical level of 15 children rarely "recover". Instead. they are trapped in a spiral of falling expectations: each generation has a smaller ideal family size.
Lutz suggests that societies caught in the Low Fertility Trap are also characterised by pessimism about the future. An ageing society is constantly obliged to cut pensions and welfare benefits as the "support ratio" of working-age to elderly people falls to less than three to one. Pessimism induces people to save rather than to spend their income. and the resulting fall in consumption cuts economic growth. A stagnant economy, with few jobs and poor prospects, persuades couples to delay or forgo children. This vicious circle is typical of Japan and Germany.
Though Lutz does not go into detail about the cultural aspects of the Low Fertility Trap, these are evident enough here in Britain. The assumption that a "normal" family should have no more than two children has prevailed for many years, as those with larger broods are made constantly and painfully aware. But negative momentum means that one-child or even childless families will gradually become the norm rather than the exception. For a growing proportion of women, childlessness is no longer seen as a misfortune, but as a positive lifestyle choice. This is partly a matter of technology, reinforced by Government propaganda campaigns. Ever more sophisticated artificial contraception and abortion on demand have played a significant part in narrowing the population pyramid base.
At the deepest level, however. the cause of negative population momentum is moral and spiritual. The idea of sexuality as recreation. divorced from its God-given purpose of procreation, was bound over time to have devastating demographic and cultural consequences for Europe. Immigrant communities. above all Muslims, that retain more positive attitudes towards children will, over time, become dominant. Bernard Lewis, the dean of Western experts on Islam, has predicted that by 2100 Europe will be a mainly Muslim continent.
This is no idle speculation; indeed, such demographic shifts have happened before. Historical demographers recently reminded us that the Anglo-Saxons supplanted the Celtic Britons over several generations, because they were at a reproductive advantage: they had more children. Today to put it crudely Muslims are at a reproductive advantage over Christians. But need this necessarily be the ease?
In his book The Cube and the Cathedral, published last year and adumbrated in The Catholic Herald, the American theologian George Weigel asked why Europe was "committing demographic suicide". He rejected economic. sociological, psychological and ideological explanations as insufficient. Instead, he linked the failure to reproduce to a loss of self-confidence rooted in the destruction of Europe's Christian identity. "For when God goes and the death of the biblical God in the European public square is what today's European actors in the drama of atheistic humanism seek and have to a significant measure accomplished so does God's first command: 'Be fruitful and multiply.—
The truth is that Europe's Low Fertility Trap is self-inflicted it really is a form of death wish. It is also the ultimate manifestation of a selfishness and pride, at the expense of posterity, that is truly diabolical. Our lack of faith in God and in our own ability to provide for our children is inflicting irreparable damage on future generations. The task for the Catholic Church, which is flourishing outside Europe, is not to adapt to the impending demographic disaster, but to protest against the attitudes that underlie it. The Church must show that there is another way God's way.