The Long View 2004-05-31: The Great Evangel of the Terrorist Leeches

World Bank Crude Birth Rate Data 2014

World Bank Crude Birth Rate Data 2014

Here, John Reilly talks briefly about the aging of China's population due to the slowdown in the birth rate. The line I still remember is:

...China will get old before it gets rich.

Parts of China have certainly gotten very rich indeed, although the interior remains rural and poor, much like America a century before. It is still not clear how the great demographic shift is going to play out across the world over the next century. The fate of nations will likely hinge on this. However, this kind of forecasting is inherent likely to fail, but I will proceed heedless of the risks.

As you can see from the map above, almost the entire world has moved into the demographic transition, where birth rates slow as countries modernize. The big outlier here is all of sub-Saharan Africa. Granted, that is the poorest region of the world at present, but even taking that into account, the demographers have been surprised by how high birth rates have remained in sub-Saharan Africa.

Consider this revised prediction from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division:

Each curve follows the same model, the logistic curve, but the 2015 prediction uses a much slower rate of change than the 2004 prediction. As is the nature of logistic models, a small change in the rate can have a very large change in total population growth. In this case, the expectation is an additional 2 billion Africans will be born over the next hundred years.

What that will mean is just a guess that this point, but you can expect the world to be very different 100 years hence.

The Great Evangel of the Terrorist Leeches

Even today, when Europe seems to be turning into a geriatric version of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and the United States carries on ever fiercer debates about the relationship of God and the citizen, it's still taken as a given that America is the land of soulless materialism. Some very smart people make this mistake:

When I was a youth, I lost interest in religion for many years, largely because the people who represented it were so keen to accommodate my interests and outlook. They were in fact pretty clueless about what those interests and outlook were. But even if the leaders of the Church in those days had been as sharp as today's MTV marketers, the mere fact that they tried to make Christianity blend into popular culture made Christianity seem negligible.

No doubt there is a way to evangelize using the music of Linkin Park (which I like). Much the better course, however, is to present a message so powerful and mysterious that Linkin Park will use it as a source.

* * *

Having just referred to Europe as a gerontocracy, let me hasten to add that I realize that reports of The Death of the West are exaggerated. It may well be that the human race as a whole is approaching an age of steady or, more likely, gradually declining population. Certainly it is the case that the West is not alone in facing the difficulties of the demographic transition:

The Most Populous Nation Faces a Population CrisisNew York Times...Barring a radical shift in social policy, China is on course to age faster than any major country in history, as its median age soars from about 32 today to at least 44 in 2040.

China will mature more in the next generation than Europe has over the past century, according to data compiled by the United Nations. It will have to grapple with the same age-related fiscal, social and productivity challenges of countries with several times its per capita income.

Put another way, China will get old before it gets rich.

I frankly don't know how remediable this problem is. In the case of China, demographic collapse seems to be a product of government fiat, so maybe a change in policy will fix matters. However, much the same started to happen in the old Soviet block, which had no interest in population control. In Europe, and even the US, birthrates are influenced by official policy, but you have to wonder whether those policies are the cause of cultural change or its symptoms.

There is key difference between forecasting the future of the West and the future of China. however. There are, of course, uncertainties in the future of the West, but the general outline of that future is reasonably clear; just ask Spengler. China, however, has completed not just the culturally creative phase of its history, but even the era of the Universal State. The forces that govern China's future are therefore more random, mechanical, unpredictable.

At any rate, it is not predictable through Spengler or Toynbee's models. Maybe Lao Tse could do better.

* * *

Also in the May 30 Sunday New York Times, there was a report by Neil Genzlinger that I cannot find a link to: "This Year, a Dark Cloud Hangs Over the Carefree Season." The cloud hangs particularly dark over New Jersey, whose malls and public transportation make peculiarly target-rich environments for suicide bombers. In order to alleviate the danger, the New Jersey Department of Counterterrorism is about to begin offering instruction to local law-enforcement agencies in how to recognize suicide bombers. The report quotes a suicide bomber (a failed one, in an Israeli jail) about the relative merits of bombs in bags or on belts, and the question of whether the belts should be secured over the stomach or across the back.

All this reminds me of Robert Heinlein's novella, The Puppet Masters, a fine story that became the template for some really bad movies. The story was about the invasion of Earth by large, neural leeches. If they touched any part of a person's skin, they could immediately gain control of his mind. The government discovers what is going on before the whole country is infected, however. People are required to wear clothes in such a way as to make clear they are not carrying a leech. People who appeared in public in something more than beach-wear were shot on sight.

As summer turned to fall and the weather turned cold, this practice became more and more awkward. We could soon have a similar problem.

* * *

Meanwhile, while we go about preoccupied with petty concerns about life and death, the Great Conspiracy is beginning to implement its plans. I have obtained this joint statement from the American Literacy Council (on which I'm a board member, actually) and the Simplified Spelling Society, regarding the action they plan to carry out this week in Washington, D.C.:

Not all spellers heading for Washington, DC, for the National Spelling Bee on June 1-3 think English spelling is a good thing that should be celebrated.

While spectators and judges inside the Regency Hyatt Hotel will be pondering the spellings of obscure words, and admiring the efforts of contestants, outside on the street some members of the American Literacy Council (ALC) and the Simplified Spelling Society (SSS) will be trying to convince passers-by that English spelling is a problem that needs fixing.

Like those inside, they [may] admire the efforts of contestants, but they will have signs and sandwich boards with slogans such as "I'm thru with through" and "Enuf is enuf. Enough is too much". Their aim is to alert parents, educators, politicians, business people, and others concerned about the unacceptable level of illiteracy among English-speakers, to the fact that a prime cause for this is English spelling.

One of the picketers, ALC chair and SSS member, Alan Mole, from Boulder, Colorado, puts it this way: "Our odd spelling retains words like cough, bough, through and though. This increases illiteracy and crime. Fix it and you fix a host of problems. We want to fix it."

And fix it we shall.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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