Fear By Numbers

The 21st century, for better or worse, is awash in information
— we know more about ourselves through charts and graphs now than
at any other point in history. Population numbers, health
statistics, human migration patterns — the numbers seem to
proliferate faster than the populations they describe. The numbers
boom, in turn, has fueled an explosion of predictions that project
us far into the future — to the end of time, even. And while the
figures may be consistently right, the predictions, so far, have
been anything but.

In fact, if history is a worthy guide, such predictions have had
less to do with hard numbers than they have had to do with a
predilection for apocalyptical visions. If the dire prophesies
issued forth from any number of political camps had proved true,
writes Nicholas Eberstadt for
The Wilson Quarterly, ‘the 20th century
should never have occurred at all.’ Yet these nightmare
scenarios persist. Either there will be too many people, and the
world will plunge into scarcity-driven anarchy, or there will be
too few, and the ageing masses will demand ever more from a
shrinking labor force. From the Carter Administration’s
Global 2000 study and Al Gore’s Earth in the
, to the Club of Rome’s The Limits to
, Eberstadt blasts the dire predictions — from
liberal groups and individuals — that contain sensationalized
visions of disaster as motivation for socially and
environmentally progressive change.

Phillip Longman’s vision of demographic trends, on the other
hand, takes us in the opposite social direction. In
The Return of Patriarchy‘, originally
published in Foreign Policy, Longman starts with the
axiomatic assertion that population equals power, suggesting
that the West, and Liberal Democracy with it, could vanish into
the night because of its declining birthrate. As liberals
basically liberate themselves out of existence, patriarchal
sectors of societies will take hold. Feminism, by his reasoning,
is evolutionarily inferior to patriarchy. It’s simply a numbers
game, after all.

Longman, like so many before him, achieved the movement from
statistical analysis to cultural diagnosis in just a few pages.
Indeed, the link between demographic analysis and political
discourse cannot be denied, suggest Michael S. Teitelbaum and Jay
Winter in
their response to a similar, earlier piece
by Longman, published in Foreign Affairs. When a
political or economic power’s dogmatic certainty begins to
waver, they suggest, ‘many thinkers turn to demography for an
explanation of its plight.’

Along with Longman, another such thinker is Stanley Kurtz, who
called for the restoration of ‘traditional’ values in his 2005
article ‘Demographics and the Culture War‘, published in
Policy Review. Faced with declining birth rates, Kurtz
asserted, we have three choices: ‘at least a partial restoration of
social values, a radical new eugenics, or endless and compounding
population decline.’ A grim scenario, indeed. Apparently, dystopia
and social collapse lurk just around the corner unless we adopt
more ‘social values,’ the antithesis of which Kurtz describes as
‘[s]ecularism, individualism, and feminism.’ In Kurtz’s view, then,
this trio of terror (maybe a new ‘axis of evil’?) is bringing the
decline of civilization and must be reversed if culture as we know
it is going to survive.

As Tietelbaum and Winter point out, ‘[w]e simply do not know
enough to make daring claims such as Longman’s,’ which they accuse
of being ‘based on unproved or unprovable assertions.’ Such claims,
Eberstadt says, ‘have always at heart been a guessing game.’ Yet
these ‘dramatic and unproved visions of the future’ persist, and so
must be met with healthy skepticism especially when those visions
are deployed in the service of overtly political agendas.

Go there >>
Doom and Demography

Go there too >>
Demography is Not Destiny

Related Links:
Demographic Fear-Mongering and the Return of

Alarmist Demography Stalks Women Over 60
It’s The Demography, Stupid

Related Links from the Utne Archive

Sociology on the Skids

Flirting with Disaster

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