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The West before the precipice

February 04, 2005

The West faces its greatest challenge since the dark years before the Second World War. Its manufacturing cannot compete with China's and it is losing middle-level back office jobs to Asia. Meanwhile, large-scale immigration from around the world has begun to change its very nature.

For five hundred years after Columbus reached America, Europe expanded by colonising new territories around the globe. This expansion peaked about fifty years ago. In 1960, one-fourth of the world's population was of European ancestry; in 2000, it was one-sixth; in 2050, it is expected to be less than one-tenth. The average fertility rate of European women has fallen to 1.4, which is much less than the 2.1 needed to maintain the population.

If these trends continue, by the end of the 21st century, Europe's population is expected to decline to one-third of what it is today. In Italy, in 2050, barely 2 per cent of the population will be less than 5 years old, and more than 40 per cent will be 65 years or older. The situation is equally grim for Germans and Russians. In France, more than twenty per cent of the children are of immigrant groups. Europe will become a new melting pot consisting of major groups from the Arab world, Africa and Asia. The United States will likewise be transformed.

As the native populations age, the burden on the youth to support the pensioned will become increasingly severe. The only way out would be for Europe to allow even more immigrants to run factories and offices. This would have far-reaching impact on its culture.

Alarm amongst conservatives

The liberals consider it politically incorrect to speak of this demographic problem, and have yielded ground to the right to define the issue. The conservatives have played on the public's fear of a collapse of the culture of the West, although it is kept out of high public discourse. This has yielded them rich dividends politically.

Three years ago, the American right-wing ideologue and Republican presidential candidate Patrick J Buchanan wrote a book called The Death of the West where he blamed the West's declining populations to fall in morals, lax immigration, and social programs that take away the incentive to have children. This is how Buchanan lists the four dangers that face America and the West:

The first is a dying population. Second is the mass immigration of peoples of different colours, creeds, and cultures, changing the character of the West forever. The third is the rise to dominance of an anti-Western culture in the West, deeply hostile to its religions, traditions, and morality, which has already sundered the West. The fourth is the break-up of nations and the defection of ruling elites to a world government whose rise entails the end of nations.

It is to counter this impending 'suicide of the West' that the conservatives wish to weaken the state, and progressively shift education of children from the public arena to church-run schools to ensure that the school curriculum remains West centric.

The reality of the situation is much more complex than the conservative critique. The culture in the West has been changing for a variety of reasons other than immigration and social security. Witness, for example, the musical tastes or sexual mores now, where what is considered the norm now would have been frowned upon a half-century ago.

The share of the European portion of the world population increased during the colonial era, and if it is going down now, it is because the rest of the world is yet to go over the development hump that the West has crossed. It is expected that the fertility rates will go down everywhere, and the world's population will eventually reach a stable value.

Much of the change of the culture is driven by new technology. For example, the birth control pill revolutionised sexual mores. Man's control of nature is taking the mystery out of life.

On cultural suicide

Nevertheless, some anthropologists are comparing the ongoing process in the West with that of cultural suicide. They argue that cultural entities, like individuals and groups, must eventually die. And some of these, when confronted with an extremely stressful environment, commit suicide.

Ritual suicide is also not uncommon in today's world. In the United States, the suicide of the Jim Jones and the Heavens Gate cults are famous recent examples. It is part of the tradition of the U'wa tribe in the Andes of Colombia. Under threat of losing their land and way of life to the order of Western oil companies, the tribe has again threatened to jump to death over a high cliff.

There are many ways to commit collective suicide. With their traditional way of life destroyed, the Pacific Islanders are eating themselves to death. Fully three quarters of the adults in Nauru and Samoa are obese, afflicted with ailments that were earlier absent. There are those who see in the present West the same dangers that took Rome to its fall. Decimated by disease, famine, and infertility, Rome submitted willingly to the sword of the barbarians.

The West confronts infertility and loss of manufacturing and office jobs to Asia. It is not certain that its economic security will be guaranteed by its dominance of the financial and the knowledge industries alone.

The entertainment dished out by the movies and television bolsters the sense of the mechanical nature of life. Given a pervasive spiritual crisis, it need not surprise that some people, or perhaps even communities, are acting as if suicide is the only escape.

Concentration of power

Edward Gibbon in his famous history on Rome's fall wondered if the end was inevitable. Historians have suggested that increased state control fatally weakened the empire.

There is increasing concentration of power in the hands of the medical and insurance establishments in the West. Even more disquieting is the increasing mechanisation of life that has led to a spiritual vacuum and alienation from nature.

The youth do not wish to marry and have children because they feel like cogs in the machine-state. The sexual revolution has not brought happiness; it has merely created a culture of gratification and consumption. Some are simply dropping out of the rat race and joining charismatic religious groups. It is estimated that about 20 per cent of Americans believe that the world faces imminent end.

It is essential to recognise this background to understand the current politics in the West, especially in America. But the remedy being offered by the conservatives as a part of George Bush's second term merely strengthens the business interests of the energy and the financial sectors without addressing the spiritual dimension of the problem. Despair does not arise out of the knowledge that we evolved from monkeys, but rather out of the pressures of the soul-less modern life.

External link:

The Assault on Tradition

Subhash Kak

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Number of User Comments: 7

Sub: ''Amorphous''

An "Amorphous" humanity ?! Oh that's brilliant. I suppose you know something the natural world, with it's constant drive towards change and diversity, doesn't. No ...

Posted by Sam

Sub: Just a thought

I wont be surprised if you will be "flagged" for writing this article!

Posted by lsu student

Sub: West before.....

This is one of the most myopic articles that I have ever read...Instead of celebrating the collapse of nations into a amorphous mass of peoples ...

Posted by Sudarshan

Sub: Well written!!

Nice article..Thanks rediff!!

Posted by Indian Lover

Sub: Very Good Article.

This is a fabulour article. well written and thoughtful. I totally agree with Kak when he says the modern soul-less life has killed the way ...

Posted by Tejas


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