20 October 2006

They're all doomed! Doomed!

Demographic alarmism is in vogue -- not with regard to our own country, but with regard to our cold-war-era allies in western Europe and our former adversary Russia.

In the European case, the emphasis is on the high birth rates of Muslims there and the relatively low birth rates (below replacement level) among indigenous Europeans. Obviously these trends, if they continue, will lead to a steady increase in the Muslim percentage of the population. I have seen projections that France (which has the largest Muslim population in western Europe both in absolute numbers and as percentage of total population) will be majority-Muslim fifty years from now -- or even that all of western Europe will be.

These projections are flatly impossible. The EU today has a population of 450 million. Of these, 17 million are Muslim. (The State Department gives a figure of 23 million for "Europe excluding Turkey [and Russia]", but the extra 6 million are in non-EU Balkan countries, and are not recent immigrants or descendants thereof -- they have been Muslim since Ottoman times). 17 million is 3.8% of 450 million. Even if the non-Muslim EU population were to shrink by 100 million over the next fifty years (as some projections anticipate), the Muslim population would need to grow to about 20 times its present size during that 50 years to reach a majority. Such a rate of growth has never been seen in any human population, anywhere, and is probably biologically impossible.

Even in France, there are 60 million people of whom 5 million are Muslim according to the best available estimate. Even if France's non-Muslim population were to shrink somewhat in the next fifty years, the Muslim population would need to grow to about ten times its present size over the same period to become a majority. This is, again, a faster rate of growth than any actual population has ever exhibited.

Further Muslim immigration might make the projections more plausible, but only if it took place on a scale so huge that European populations, in practice, would not tolerate it -- especially if they saw the Muslim percentage of the population passing 10% or 20% of the total in a given country. Already the atmosphere in Europe is growing more hostile toward Muslims, especially in Britain and France.

I am aware of no case in history in which a people who were the overwhelming majority on a piece of territory allowed another people to immigrate to the point of outnumbering them and taking over if the original majority held political sovereignty. There have been cases where immigrants reached parity or numerical superiority over an original population (Jews in Palestine, Indians in Fiji, Russians in Latvia), but these cases happened when the territory was under foreign rule, not the sovereign control of its original majority. It will not happen in western Europe either. Western Europeans are notoriously gripped by passivity and political correctness, but they are not biologically different from other humans.

(The historic high levels of immigration to the US are not a counterexample since the immigrants assimilated and became American -- they did not remain a distinct group making Americans feel that they were becoming a minority.)

In the case of Russia, the "doomsday scenario" is one of simple demographic collapse. Russia's population is declining with startling speed, perhaps 0.5% per year. In the coming decades, we are told, the Russians will become too few and too enfeebled to remain a major power or even to hold their vast territory against foreign encroachment (China is the most commonly-cited threat).

Russia's population of 148 million may seem small for a country almost twice the size of the US in land area, but in fact it is quite large in absolute terms, making Russia the world's sixth largest country by population (after China, India, the US, Indonesia, and Brazil). Moreover, its birth rate is not exceptionally low, being in the same range as those of western European countries. What makes Russia different is its high death rate, fueled by a startlingly-low life expectancy, mainly among males. The reason for this problem is no mystery -- it's the poor health habits of so many of Russia's people, especially the very high rate of consumption of strong alcohol.

This type of problem is eminently susceptible to being ameliorated by high-intensity public health campaigns, as we in the West know from our own experience with smoking. Fifty years ago, cigarettes were almost as pervasive and accepted in the US as vodka is in Russia now. But today, smoking has been drastically stigmatized, and the number of smokers has declined dramatically. Russia has a well-educated population presumably quite capable of absorbing information and acting on it. The approaches that worked with smoking here should work with alcohol there.

Concerns about Chinese threats to Russia's territorial integrity seem otherworldly in light of the huge size of Russia's nuclear arsenal relative to China's. Threatening the existential interests of a country with almost 20,000 nuclear weapons is not something a sane government would risk.

A key point, often overlooked, is that over the next decade or two Russia is likely to be the destination of a high level of immigration of a very desirable sort. The periods of Tsarist and Soviet rule left a large population of ethnic Russians -- at least 10 million -- in the Muslim territories of central Asia which are now the independent countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kirgizstan, and Tajikstan. As these countries revert to their original Muslim culture, they become steadily less attractive places to live for their Russian minorities, more and more of whom will eventually decide to leave. They are unlikely to be welcome in great numbers in any country other than Russia itself. Not only will these immigrants offset Russia's population decline, as ethnic Russians they will also offset the growing relative size of the Muslim minority in Russia.

A broader point is that demographic projections as far as fifty years in the future are essentially meaningless. There is probably not a single important country whose present-day demographic situation could have been accurately predicted from the trends it was exhibiting fifty years ago. Over a period of decades, the birth rates of Russians, Muslims, and western Europeans are likely to be influenced by all kinds of factors which cannot be anticipated today. Death rates will continue to drop dramatically throught the developed world due to advancing technology -- perhaps to near zero by the mid-2020s, if the views of de Grey and Kurzweil are vindicated. Rising tensions in western Europe could lead to calls not only to stop Muslim immigration, but even to expel some part of the existing Muslim population. The point is, it's impossible to tell what will happen simply by looking at trends in the present.

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