Books by Goldman, David P.

Goldman, David P. How Civilizations Die. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1-596-98273-4.
I am writing this review in the final days of July 2013. A century ago, in 1913, there was a broad consensus as to how the 20th century would play out, at least in Europe. A balance of power had been established among the great powers, locked into alliances and linked with trade relationships which made it seem to most observers that large-scale conflict was so contrary to the self-interest of nations that it was unthinkable. And yet, within a year, the irrevocable first steps toward what would be the most sanguinary conflict in human history so far would be underway, a global conflict which would result in more than 37 million casualties, with 16 million dead. The remainder of the 20th century was nothing like the conventional wisdom of 1913, with an even more costly global war to come, the great powers of 1913 reduced to second rank, and a bipolar world emerging stabilised only by the mutual threat of annihilation by weapons which could destroy entire cities within a half hour of being launched.

What if our expectations for the 21st century are just as wrong as those of confident observers in 1913?

The author writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online. It is commonplace to say “demographics is destiny”, yet Goldman is one a very few observers who really takes this to heart and projects the consequences of demographic trends which are visible to everybody but rarely projected to their logical conclusions. Those conclusions portend a very different 21st century than most anticipate. Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and increasingly, the so-called developing world are dying: they have fertility rates not just below replacement (around 2.1 children per woman), but in many cases deep into “demographic death spiral” territory from which no recovery is possible. At present fertility rates, by 2100 the population of Japan will have fallen by 55%, Russia 53%, Germany 46%, and Italy 39%. For a social welfare state, whose financial viability presumes a large population of young workers who will pay for the pensions and medical care of a smaller cohort of retirees, these numbers are simply catastrophic. The inverted age pyramid places an impossible tax burden upon workers, which further compounds the demographic collapse since they cannot afford to raise families large enough to arrest it.

Some in the Islamic world have noted this trend and interpreted it as meaning ultimate triumph for the ummah. To this, Goldman replies, “not so fast”—the book is subtitled “And Why Islam is Dying Too”. In fact, the Islamic world is in the process of undergoing a demographic transition as great as that of the Western nations, but on a time scale so short as to be unprecedented in human history. And while Western countries will face imposing problems coping with their aging populations, at least they have sufficient wealth to make addressing the problem, however painful, possible. Islamic countries without oil (which is where the overwhelming majority of Muslims live) have no such financial or human resources. Egypt, for example, imports about half its food calories and has a functional illiteracy rate of around 40%. These countries not only lack a social safety net, they cannot afford to feed their current population, not to mention a growing fraction of retirees.

When societies are humiliated (as Islam has been in its confrontation with modernity), they not only lose faith in the future, but lose their faith, as has happened in post-Christian Europe, and then they cease to have children. Further, as the author observes, while in traditional society children were an asset who would care for their parents in old age, “In the modern welfare state, child rearing is an act of altruism.” (p. 194) This altruism becomes increasingly difficult to justify when, increasingly, children are viewed as the property of the state, to be indoctrinated, medicated, and used to its ends and, should the parents object, abducted by an organ of the state. Why bother? Fewer and fewer couples of childbearing age make that choice. Nothing about this is new: Athens, Sparta, and Rome all experienced the same collapse in fertility when they ceased to believe in their future—and each one eventually fell.

This makes for an extraordinarily dangerous situation. The history of warfare shows that in many conflicts the majority of casualties on the losing side occur after it was clear to those in political and military leadership that defeat was inevitable. As trends forecaster Gerald Celente says, “When people have nothing to lose, they lose it.” Societies which become aware of their own impending demographic extinction or shrinking position on the geopolitical stage will be tempted to go for the main prize before they scroll off the screen. This means that calculations based upon rational self-interest may not predict the behaviour of dying countries, any more than all of the arguments in 1913 about a European war being irrational kept one from erupting a year later.

There is much, much more in this book, with some of which I agree and some of which I find dubious, but it is all worthy of your consideration. The author sees the United States and Israel as exceptional states, as both have largely kept their faith and maintained a sustainable birthrate to carry them into the future. He ultimately agrees with me (p. 264) that “It is cheaper to seal off the failed states from the rest of the world than to attempt to occupy them and control the travel of their citizens.”

The twenty-first century may be nothing like what the conventional wisdom crowd assume. Here is a provocative alternative view which will get you thinking about how different things may be, as trends already in progress, difficult or impossible to reverse, continue in the coming years.

In the Kindle edition, end notes are properly linked to the text and in notes which cite a document on the Web, the URL is linked to the on-line document. The index, however, is simply a useless list of terms without links to references in the text.

July 2013 Permalink