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The fifth horseman of the apocalypse Part 1

Population decline is the elephant in the world's living room. 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. [1] If present fertility rates hold, the number of Germans will fall by 98% over the next two centuries. No pension and health care system can support such an inverted population pyramid. Nor is the problem limited to the industrial nations. Fertility is falling at even faster rates - indeed, at rates never before registered anywhere - in the Muslim world. The world's population will fall by as much as a fifth between the middle and the end of the 21st century, by far the worst decline in human history.

The world faces a danger more terrible than the worst Green imaginings. The European environmentalist who wants to shrink the world's population to reduce carbon emissions will spend her declining years in misery, for there will not be enough Europeans alive a generation from now to pay for her pension and medical care. [2] For the first time in world history, the birth rate of the whole developed world is well below replacement, and a significant part of it has passed the demographic point of no return.

But Islamic society is even more fragile. As Muslim fertility shrinks at a rate demographers have never seen before, it is converging on Europe's catastrophically low fertility as if in time-lapse photography. The average 30-year-old Iranian woman comes from a family of six children, but she will bear only one or two children during her lifetime. Turkey and Algeria are just behind Iran on the way down, and most of the other Muslim countries are catching up quickly. By the middle of this century, the belt of Muslim countries from Morocco to Iran will become as gray as depopulating Europe. The Islamic world will have the same proportion of dependent elderly as the industrial countries - but one-tenth the productivity. A time bomb that cannot be defused is ticking in the Muslim world.

Imminent population collapse makes radical Islam more dangerous, not less so. For in their despair, radical Muslims who can already taste the ruin of their culture believe that they have nothing to lose.

Political science is at a loss in the face of demographic decline and its consequences. The wasting away of nations is an insoluble conundrum for modern political theory, which is based on the principle of rational self-interest. At the threshold of extinction, the political scientists' clever models break down. We "do not negotiate with terrorists". But a bank robber holding hostages is a terrorist of sorts, and the police negotiate with such miscreants as a matter of course. And what if the bank robber knows he will die of an incurable disease in a matter of weeks? That changes the negotiation. The simple truth - call it Spengler's Universal Law #1 - A man, or a nation, at the brink of death does not have a "rational self-interest".

Conventional geopolitical theory, which is dominated by material factors such as territory, natural resources, and command of technology, does not address how peoples will behave under existential threat. Geopolitical models fail to resemble the real world in which we live, where the crucial issue is the willingness or unwillingness of a people inhabiting a given territory to bring a new generation into the world.

Population decline, the decisive issue of the 21st century, will cause violent upheavals in the world order. Countries facing fertility dearth, such as Iran, are responding with aggression. Nations confronting their own mortality may choose to go down in a blaze of glory. Conflicts may be prolonged beyond the point at which there is any rational hope of achieving strategic aims - until all who wish to fight to the death have taken the opportunity to do so.
Analysis of national interests cannot explain why some nations go to war without hope of winning, or why other nations will not fight even to defend their vital interests. It cannot explain the historical fact that peoples fight harder, accepting a higher level of sacrifice in blood and treasure, when all hope of victory is past. Conventional geopolitical analysis cannot explain the causes of population collapse either, any more than its consequences - for example, under what circumstances strategic reverses (notably the two world wars of the past century) may crush the aspirations of the losers and result in apathy and demographic death.

Why do individuals, groups, and nations act irrationally, often at the risk of self-destruction? Part of the problem lies in our definition of rationality. Under normal circumstances we think it irrational for a middle-aged man to cash in his insurance policy and spend money as fast as possible. But if the person in question has a terminal illness and no heirs, we think it quite reasonable to spend it all quickly, like Otto Kringelein in Grand Hotel or his updated equivalent, Queen Latifah's character in The Last Holiday. And if we know that we shall presently die of rabies, what is to prevent us from biting everyone we dislike? Countries sometimes suffer the equivalent of terminal illness. What seems suicidal to Americans may appear rational to an existentially challenged people confronting its imminent mortality.

Self-immolation of endangered peoples is sadly common. Stone-age cultures often disintegrate upon contact with the outside world. Their culture breaks down, and suicides skyrocket. An Australian researcher writes about "suicide contagion or cluster deaths - the phenomenon of indigenous people, particularly men from the same community taking their own lives at an alarming rate". [3] Canada's Aboriginal Health Foundation reports, "The overall suicide rate among First Nation communities is about twice that of the total Canadian population; the rate among Inuit is still higher - 6 to 11 times higher than the general population." [4] Suicide is epidemic among Amazon tribes. The London Telegraph reported on November 19, 2000,

    The largest tribe of Amazonian Indians, the 27,000-strong Guarani, are being devastated by a wave of suicides among their children, triggered by their coming into contact with the modern world. Once unheard of among Amazonian Indians, suicide is ravaging the Guarani, who live in the southwest of Brazil, an area that now has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. More than 280 Guarani have taken their own lives in the past 10 years, including 26 children under the age of 14 who have poisoned or hanged themselves. Alcoholism has become widespread, as has the desire to own radios, television sets and denim jeans, bringing an awareness of their poverty. Community structures and family unity have broken down and sacred rituals come to a halt.

Of the more than 6,000 languages now spoken on the planet, two become extinct each week, and by most estimates half will fall silent by the end of the century. [5] A United Nations report claims that nine-tenths of the languages now spoken will become extinct in the next hundred years. [6] Most endangered languages have a very small number of speakers. Perhaps a thousand distinct languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, many by tribes of only a few hundred members. Several are disappearing tribal languages spoken in the Amazon rainforest, the Andes Mountains, or the Siberian taiga. Eighteen languages have only one surviving speaker. It is painful to imagine how the world must look to these individuals. They are orphaned in eternity, wiped clean of memory, their existence reduced to the exigency of the moment.

But are these dying remnants of primitive societies really so different from the rest of us? Mortality stalks most of the peoples of the world - not this year or next, but within the horizon of human reckoning. A good deal of the world seems to have lost the taste for life. Fertility has fallen so far in parts of the industrial world that languages such as Ukrainian and Estonian will be endangered within a century and German, Japanese, and Italian within two. The repudiation of life among advanced countries living in prosperity and peace has no historical precedent, except perhaps in the anomie of Greece in its post-Alexandrian decline and Rome during the first centuries of the Common Era. But Greece fell to Rome, and Rome to the barbarians. In the past, nations that foresaw their own demise fell to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Plague, Famine, and Death. Riding point for the old quartet in today's more civilized world is a Fifth Horseman: loss of faith. Today's cultures are dying of apathy, not by the swords of their enemies.

The Arab suicide bomber is the spiritual cousin of the despondent aboriginal of the Amazon rain forest. And European apathy is the opposite side of the coin of Islamic extremism. Both apathetic Europeans and radical Muslims have lost their connection to the past and their confidence in the future. There is not a great deal of daylight between European resignation to cultural extinction at the hundred-year horizon, and the Islamist boast, "You love life, and we love death." Which brings us to Spengler's Universal Law #2: When the nations of the world see their demise not as a distant prospect over the horizon, but as a foreseeable outcome, they perish of despair. Like the terminally ill patient cashing in his insurance money, a culture that anticipates its own extinction has a different standard of rationality than does conventional political science.

Game theorists have tried to make political strategy into a quantitative discipline. Players with a long-term interest think differently than players with a short-term interest. A swindler who has no expectation of encountering his victim again will take what he can and run; a merchant who wants repeat customers will act honestly as a matter of self-interest. By the same token, the game theorists contends, nations learn that it is in their interest to act as responsible members of the world community, for the long-run advantages of good behavior outweigh the passing benefits of predation.

But what if there isn't any long run - not, at least, for some of the "players" in the "game"? The trouble with applying game theory to the problem of existential war is that the players may not expect to be there for the nth iteration of the game. Entire peoples sometimes find themselves faced with probable extinction, so that no peaceful solution appears to be a solution for them.

Situations of this sort have arisen frequently in history, but never as frequently as today, when so many of the world's cultures are not expected to survive the next two centuries. A people facing cultural extinction may well choose war, if war offers even a slim chance of survival. That is just how radical Islamists view the predicament of traditional Muslim society in the face of modernity. The Islamists fear that if they fail, their religion and culture will disappear into the maelstrom of the modern world. Many of them rather would die fighting.

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