The Twilight of Man

… and the Promise of Dawn

Experts used to fret a lot about overpopulation, and they haven’t broken the habit yet, although it no longer seems to be the real danger. The fertility rate is plummeting in nearly every society in the world, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping. In practically every industrial society, it has sunk below replacement level (2.1). As of 2022, the UN projects that fertility will soon sink below replacement level globally. The world’s population should peak sometime around the 2080s–perhaps as early as the 2050s–and then actually begin to decline.

But the UN’s projections only extend to 2100. I recently tried to find what was projected beyond that but came up empty. Apparently, most modelers expect the world to end in 2100. Or maybe it’s just that, since they’ll all be dead by 2100, they don’t see why anyone would care what happens after that.

But it turns out a few statisticians do care. This August, a paper finally came out that modeled what will happen if the decline in the global fertility rate is not reversed, and instead fertility asymptotically levels off somewhere below replacement level. The results indicate that the global population will begin to plummet at a rate comparable to its rise during the Industrial Revolution, and over the next few centuries return to pre-modern levels.

Of course, this is merely a projection based on current trends; it does not mean that things will actually turn out this way. However, the authors of the study argue that the scenario of continued decline in fertility is plausible. For one thing, it doesn’t seem to be easy to reverse fertility decline once it gets going. Of the 27 countries in the Human Fertility Database that have declined since 1950 to a complete cohort fertility of below 1.9, none have so far returned to replacement level. And pro-natalist policies have not been very effective. In fact, some scholars have hypothesized the existence of a “fertility trap,” theorizing that once fertility declines below a certain level in any society, it will not bounce back, due to altered cultural and economic forces preventing people from choosing to raise large families.

If this is true, and current trends hold, that means that perhaps 3/5 of the people who will ever be born have already been born. In this scenario, as the human population dwindles away, the mighty techno-empires of the turn of the third millennium will gradually crumble into dust, leaving a tiny and moribund population on a mostly empty globe.

The figure below, taken from the study, shows modern population levels as a brief spike in world history:

The Ultimate Expression of Nihilism”

There are doubtless several causes of the decline in childbearing worldwide–the rise of the pill, for instance, and social security and pensions rendering children economically unnecessary. But these are not the underlying causes; they are only enabling factors. Because, at the end of the day, a society will continue to reproduce if people care about a future beyond their brief lifespans. But to care about that, you have to have a deep faith in some sort of transcendent meaning to the world. Western society apparently doesn’t.

“Abnegation of child-bearing is the ultimate expression of nihilism,” wrote the prescient social critic David Goldman in How Civilizations Die. In that book he made the argument that every civilization that has turned away from childbearing has eventually collapsed and that this fate is coming to the modern developed world–and to the Third World as it develops. “Despite the political scientists,” Goldman wrote, “… communities and nations continue to define themselves by what they hold sacred, and when nothing more is sacred, they lose their reason for being.”

This seems to be true, doesn’t it? More than just the birthrate shows it. It’s an observed fact that “deaths of despair” are on the rise in America.

Yet it’s interesting to note that Goldman was not a prophet of doom; on the contrary, he was a triumphalist. When he was working on How Civilizations Die, the American fertility rate was holding steady at replacement level, practically unique in the developed world. Goldman saw this as a sign that the future belonged to America, because it was the only industrial world power to hold to its faith, and with it, its vitality. (Goldman himself is not a Christian.) Yet by the time the book came out in 2011, the fertility rate in the U.S. was already plummeting. It is now well below replacement level, as it is in Europe, and American religiosity seems to be collapsing along with it. It seems that whatever was exceptional about America insulated it against the depressive effect of technology and wealth for a while, but not forever.

So Goldman’s concession in How Civilizations Die has become more ominous:

America’s global power may decline, to be sure. But if America declines, it will not be the victim of a more potent challenger, as when Rome displaced Greece in the second century B.C.E., or France displaced Spain in the seventeenth century, or England and Germany displaced France during the nineteenth. America’s decline instead would have no successor, and world relations would devolve into chaos. America’s collapse would more closely resemble the fall of Rome.

Inexorable Nightfall

The crucial question is, could anything reverse this will to self-annihilation? It’s hard to be sure, of course. As Ross Douthat pointed out in a recent New York Times piece, you can’t predict the future of religion because religious revivals spring from sudden mystical encounters. Douthat quotes a letter from Thomas Jefferson in 1822: “I trust,” he wrote, “that there is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die an Unitarian.” Indeed, according to Goldman all but one major church in Boston had embraced Unitarianism by 1805. Yet as we all know, Unitarianism was not the future of American religion. The Second Great Awakening happened.

So perhaps a religious revival will provide a new lease on life to Western Civilization. But a true religious revival may be difficult in our current climate. We are living very differently from the frontiersmen of the 1830s. Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, and everyone in America, except for the poorest of the poor, possesses extravagant material wealth compared to the richest of the rich in Jesus’ day, or even in the 1800s.

A typical poor man in America today can eat to satisfaction whenever ever he chooses, travel faster than a flying carpet, instantly immerse himself in entertainment of a quality unobtainable to the most luxurious royal house of antiquity, cure ailments that would have stumped the most venerable ancient physicians, and access free libraries containing more books than the lost Library of Alexandria. Even your typical Syrian refugee in Amman, where I live, has an apartment with a flatscreen TV—which nobody, not even Caesar himself, could afford in Jesus’ day. An individual in the modern world can find endless distractions from true pain or facing the reality of true grief. We can drown our sorrows in ice-cream, Netflix, and social media or drug ourselves until we forget the ultimate meaninglessness of our lives.

That is no soil for a single mystical experience to grow in, let alone an entire religious revival. There will always be ups and downs, of course. But it seems to me that it would be difficult for a broad and deep revival to happen, except in the event of civilizational collapse.

The other alternative is that humanity simply fades away—stagnant, sterile, sated if not content, as we allow ourselves to pass gently into the night.

After the Night is Over

So there you have it.

But there is one source of hope.

If there was a single person in ancient times who managed to approach the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by ordinary people today, it was King Solomon. And what did his unmitigated success do for him?

So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:17)

If you don’t learn from the wise who came before you, you have to learn through bitter experience. The developed “Christianized” world seems to have successfully passed the Proverbs stage and is entering the Ecclesiastes stage. Human wisdom, no matter how precious, no matter how beneficial, cannot save us in the end from the curse of all mankind. There is Death in us. Death is the end of Man—the end of all our hopes, all our dreams, all our progress.

But there is a book of Solomon after Ecclesiastes. And you could not have predicted it. It is a eucatastrophe, a surprise happy ending, a fairytale twist after the dark valley of despair. After all has been heard, we turn the page to Song of Songs—the Wedding Banquet of the King and his Bride.

Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
(Song of Solomon 2:10-11)

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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