Here is my latest commentary. The original is posted here.
"I have seen the future, and it doesn’t work."–Sean Connery, Zardoz
All right. 2012 has come and gone, and none of the big events predicted for that year came to pass. Now what can we expect? If there ever was a questionable proposition, it’s predicting the future; the vast majority of predictions made about the future do not come true. Especially if there is a date put on them, like the prediction from a few years back about us running out of seafood by 2050.
One thing’s for sure; after all the hype about the Maya Calendar running out of dates, it’s going to be hard to get people pumped up for the next earth-shattering calamity that somebody thinks of. Before 2012 came along, we were told to expect disasters from massive earthquakes, nuclear war, overpopulation, pollution, oil shortages, famine, diseases like AIDS, comets, an alignment of the planets, global warming, etc., and none of those predictions happened. How are the fear-mongers going to top all that? Right now only asteroids, solar flares and an awakening super-volcano (e.g., the Yellowstone formation) are still in the running.
So what is likely to happen, barring a catastrophe? Most predictions fall into two categories, utopias and dystopias. Utopias, named after Sir Thomas More’s novel, are happy societies that have solved the problems of today, like poverty, hunger, war and intolerance. One of the best-known examples of an optimistic future is the universe of "Star Trek"; there humanity is in a golden age, and the problems of the future come from the alien races our descendants meet, from the Klingons to the Borg.
Dystopias, on the other hand, are pessimistic views of the future; the name comes from a combination of the words, "dysfunctional" and "utopia." In this scenario a catastrophe, or a totalitarian government, creates a society that can be described as "hell on earth." Movies and novels about dystopias include "1984," "Brave New World," "Fahrenheit 451," "Soylent Green," "Bladerunner," and "The Hunger Games." A variation of this has civilization collapse completely, followed by a dark age, before a new civilization rises phoenix-like from the ruins of the old one.
When I wrote my views about how history works, I called the period from 1453 A.D. to the present "the Western Age," because during this time, the world has been dominated by Europe and European-style nations. World War I and World War II ruined or exhausted most of them, leaving two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, to divide the world between themselves. Then when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, only the United States was left. The United States was riding high for a few years after that, but now the irresponsible policies of the Obama administration (reckless spending and borrowing, prolonging the 2008 recession, weakening the military, apologizing for past US successes) are making sure that the best years of the United States are behind us, not in our future. So when a non-Western nation, most likely China, becomes richer and stronger than the US, the Western Age will be over. What will come after that?
When I was a kid, I was led to believe that the future would be fun, thanks to Tomorrowland at Walt Disney World, and TV programs like "The Jetsons" and "Star Trek." Alas, nearly fifty years later, I don’t see us heading in that rosy direction. While advances have been made, mainly in computers, it now looks like the dark age scenario will happen before we drive flying cars or take a vacation on the moon. Here are the three reasons why I have come to that conclusion: (1.) the dumbing down of the human race, (2.) depopulation, and (3.) an end to liberty of thought.
The Dumbing Down of the Human Race
Like it or not, we are getting dumber. I have already devoted another essay to this subject: You Can’t Fix Stupid — But You Can Breed It.
In 1797, Thomas Malthus wrote Essay on the Principle of Population, which warned that because population grows geometrically, while food production grows arithmetically, the world community will not be able to grow indefinitely; at some point famine and disease will strike, and then we will fight wars over dwindling resources, causing misery for everyone. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he seemed to be making a good point; population mushroomed from just under 1 billion people in Malthus’ day, to 7 billion in our own time. Eventually all educated folk agreed that a growing surplus of people and a growing shortage of resources was a serious problem. What Malthus didn’t factor in was that population growth can be controlled, and we do not need a government program to do it — we can do it just by educating girls. You probably haven’t heard the news, but at this time, more than half the world’s population is reproducing below the replacement rate
In his book on demographics, How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too), David Goldman (known online as "Spengler") began by explaining how depopulation can be worse for mankind than overpopulation:
"The world faces a danger more terrible than the worst Green imaginings. The European environmentalist who wants to shrink the world’s population to reduce carbon emissions will spend her declining years in misery, for there will not be enough Europeans alive a generation from now to pay for her pension and medical care."(1)
What happened to our birthrate? Well, in primitive, agricultural societies, large families are good; having many children means extra hands to work on the farm, allows you to make alliances with other families by marrying your sons and daughters to theirs, and provides a guarantee that somebody will look after you when you get old. Of course, the amount of land on a typical farm also means you can build your house large enough to comfortably hold everybody; that is not so easy when you move to the city and have to fit the family into an apartment that has no room for expansion.
In the early years of the industrial revolution, parents had their children work in the factories, but that was so obviously unsafe that it was outlawed by the beginning of the twentieth century. That, and the need for children to go to school for many years, in order to gain the skills needed to survive in a more complicated society, meant that from an economic standpoint, children were no longer an asset, but a liability. Because of that, and because many women delayed marriage to pursue college or a career, parents had fewer kids, so the typical nation’s population did not grow as quickly after it industrialized. I find it ironic that our changing society began to neutralize the threat of overpopulation — right when Malthus was writing about it.
And that wasn’t all. Europe was devastated by two World Wars in the first half of the twentieth century. Not only were millions killed, but the faith of those left alive was shattered; they could no longer believe they were building a utopia. People who believe the future will be worse than the present are not motivated to bring children into the world, and the widespread acceptance of birth control and abortion made life without children feasible. Consequently population growth in Europe and Japan leveled off completely, and their populations started to shrink when the birth rate per couple dropped below the 2.1 kids needed for zero population growth. It was a similar story in the Soviet Union and its satellite states; communist governments encouraged a high birth rate by rewarding the mothers of large families, but with the end of the Cold War that incentive disappeared, so the populations of the post-Soviet Bloc fell, too.
How about the rest of the world? Most other nations are headed in the same direction; they’re just not as far down the path. David Goldman asserts that growth rates are slowing down to the point that the world’s population will probably peak at 8 billion people around 2050, and then slide into decline after that. Most of the Third World is still growing at this time, but as they modernize, their families are having fewer children, just as in the developed countries. By the 2070s, even the most fertile parts of Africa are likely to have a birthrate below what is needed to replace the population. China and India have had the world’s largest populations since at least 500 B.C., but China’s harsh one-child policy and the practice of sex-selection abortions in both countries has created a shortage of women, so for them the population peak is in sight. After the peak, their numbers could drop by half before the end of this century; as the saying goes, "the bigger they are, the harder they fall!"
Most surprising are the tumbling birthrates in Moslem countries. In the twentieth century, the Islamic world had the highest birthrates of all; many of their countries grew by 3 percent a year. However, now their birthrates are falling faster than those of the developed countries. The causes of the decline are much the same as in Europe: a longer period of education, and a loss of faith. Add to that high unemployment and despair — the governments of those countries promised a great future for their people, but failed to deliver. And because they have fewer resources to draw on than the developed nations, and less of an infrastructure, when their populations start to shrink, they will be hit harder than the Europeans. Thus, Goldman concluded in his book that if we can make it through the current generation, the West will win the War on Terror.
Among the developed countries, five still have growing populations: Australia, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and the United States. But much of that comes from immigration, rather than births at home. Take away the immigrants, factor in a birthrate that is also declining, and by the end of this century, Israel may be the only country left that is still growing. And much of the growth in developed countries will come from traditional religious groups who have not lost faith in God, like the Amish and Orthodox Jews. Thus, if demographic trends continue, the society of the future will be more religious than ours.
The most alarming thing about depopulation is that once it sets in, it may be impossible to stop it. As depopulation continues, the median age of the population rises, meaning that a lot of folks will be too old to have kids. If this death spiral is not stopped, world population could drop to 3.5 billion in 2200, and 1 billion by 2300. So far attempts by national governments to boost fertility rates have failed:
"Singapore has been encouraging parenthood for nearly 30 years, with cash incentives of up to $18,000 per child. Its birthrate? A gasping-for-air 1.2. When Sweden started offering parents generous support, the birthrate soared but then fell back again, and after years of fluctuating, it now stands at 1.9 — very high for Europe but still below replacement level."(2)
I have discussed depopulation at length because a nation’s economy cannot grow while its population is shrinking. The government cannot function very well, either; all social programs, like Social Security and Medicare, run on the premise that more people will put money into the program than take money out, but in a society where the elderly are the largest demographic, this won’t happen. Thus, you can expect to see the current financial problems of Greece, Italy and Spain spread to quite a few other countries in the near future. Finally, the last time there was a prolonged decline in the world’s population was between the second and eighth centuries A.D.; the result of that was the Dark Ages we’ve all heard about. Therefore falling populations are probably the best indicator that a new dark age is on the way.
An End to Liberty of Thought
The Dark Ages of history got their name not because the sun was dim, but because of darkness of the mind; you could say they were a time when people weren’t too bright. Few records were kept, superstition ran unchecked, intellectual curiosity was discouraged, education was limited to a few people, and most people had a rigid mindset, unwilling to "think outside the box," as we now put it. Much of this was because of a shortage of reading material; few people could read, most books were owned by the Church, and most books were written in the Church’s secret language (Latin in western Europe, Greek in the east). No wonder Johann Gutenberg’s printing press is hailed as one of the inventions that made liberty and the modern world possible.
Now it appears to the author that we are heading into a new age of non-reason. As time goes by and our society grows more complicated, we pay more taxes, and we accept all manner of restrictions upon our lives; I have argued elsewhere that the US government of today is more oppressive than the British government the American Founding Fathers rebelled against, in 1776. In the name of safety and good citizenship, we live within the strangling decrees of oppressive federal regulations: government-approved light bulbs, government-approved washers and dryers, government-approved refrigerators, government-approved automobiles, etc. The list goes on and on. We can’t go to the bathroom in most places without having to flush a "low-flow" government-mandated toilet–two or more times, of course–which defeats the purpose of the plumbing. In New York City you can buy two 16-ounce soft drinks, or one two-liter (64-ounce) bottle of the same stuff, but you can’t buy a 24-ounce drink, because drinks made of sugary water make people fat. And coming soon to the future home: smart thermostats that will monitor the indoor temperature and automatically regulate it if you are using too much energy.
"The U.S. Constitution is less than a quarter the length of the owner’s manual for a 1998 Toyota Camry, and yet it has managed to keep 300 million of the world’s most unruly, passionate and energetic people safe, prosperous and free."–P. J. O’Rourke
Today the Constitution’s Bill of Rights is under attack more than ever before, from health care laws requiring the violation of one’s religious beliefs to the question of gun ownership. Whereas one of the most famous quotes of the American Revolution was Patrick Henry’s "Give me liberty or give me death!", today freedom is seen as a problem, more government is seen as the solution, dependency on government is encouraged, and our point of contact in the government is likely to be an unelected bureaucrat, rather than an elected official responsible to us. I can imagine Uncle Sam or the president pointing to a jail cell and saying, "If you get in there, it will be easier for us to protect you."
"If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom–go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen."–Samuel Adams
Of all the restrictions we have accepted, the worst may be the shackles we put on our ability to express ourselves, what we call "political correctness." These days, all too often, we are more willing to say and do what sounds right, than we are to say and do what works. A big example of this is our attitude to the war against terrorism. In the past, terrorists were treated like pirates or rabid animals; international law gave them no rights, and it was expected that soldiers would kill them on sight. Nowadays, however, we want to give captured terrorists the same rights as our own citizens, and fight the war with one hand tied behind our back, as if it is not worth winning if we fail to prove we are nicer people than the enemy. Well, at the beginning of World War I some British officers did not let their soldiers wear steel helmets because they thought that was unsporting; you all know how that turned out, right?
If the terrorists win, a dark age is sure to follow. I don’t think I need to explain why, and if the only possible outcome of this war is a terrorist victory, I can end this commentary here. What you read after this point will explain how a dark age could still happen, even if we win.
In George Orwell’s "1984," one of the tools of the totalitarian state is a language called Newspeak. The object of Newspeak is to limit the ability to express ideas; consequently the developers of Newspeak made the grammar simple, and eliminated words that they felt loyal subjects did not need; Newspeak was described as the only language with a vocabulary that gets smaller every year. The ultimate goal was to make it impossible to describe any ideology or concept that opposed the state, except as "thoughtcrime." If such ideas cannot leave the mind, the reasoning was, they will not be thought at all.
Whether our intelligentsia intended it or not, political correctness is working the same way. To avoid offending someone, we use words and phrases that our more cumbersome than what we used before; i.e. "physically challenged" instead of handicapped or crippled. You may have seen this list of politically correct terms about women; although the list is meant to be a joke, you have to notice that every politically correct term uses more words and/or syllables than the term it replaces. Normally as time goes on, the number of words in a vocabulary may increase, but the grammar gets less complicated and the words get shorter; political correctness does the opposite.
The main difference between the last dark age and the next one is the belief system in charge. In the Middle Ages it was theology that shoved our thoughts down a straight and narrow path; now it is more likely to be ideology. Thanks to religious wars and Enlightment-era philosophy, most of us have lost the fear of God, but it looks like mankind will always follow some sort of ultimate authority, and without God, all too often the government fills that void. For that reason, I feel less sorry for a person who believes in the wrong god, than for a person who believes in no god at all.
On another page I asked if President Obama is a closet Moslem, but in the long run it may not matter, for this reason: whether the modern liberal believes in God or Allah, that deity is at best a junior partner to the state. That is also why you might catch me saying, "I wish I had as much faith in God as liberals have in government."
"Safaris through ancestral memories teach me many things. The patterns, ahhh, the patterns. Liberal bigots are the ones who trouble me most. I distrust the extremes. Scratch a conservative and you find someone who prefers the past over any future. Scratch a liberal and find a closet aristocrat. It’s true! Liberal governments always develop into aristocracies. The bureaucracies betray the true intent of people who form such governments. Right from the first the little people who formed the governments which promised to equalize the social burdens found themselves suddenly in the hands of bureaucratic aristocracies. Of course, all bureaucracies follow this pattern, but what a hypocrisy to find this even under a communized banner. Ahhh, well, if patterns teach me anything it’s that patterns are repeated. My oppressions, by and large, are no worse than any of the others and, at least, I teach a new lesson."–The Stolen Journals, from God Emperor of Dune, by Frank Herbert
I noted in previous essays that yesterday’s populists are today’s elitists, and that whereas liberals used to favor human rights, today they bow to foreign monarchs and say kind words about dictators. The above quote is from a science fiction novel, but it helps to understand why that has happened. Ever notice how the generation that grew up in the 1960s and 70s questioned authority, but now that they are in charge, they don’t like us questioning them, or the assumptions (e.g., global warming) that they accept as fact? If we can’t question authority, or laugh at it, for reasons of political correctness, we are well on the way back to the rigid thinking that characterized the Dark Ages; our declining standards of education and literacy may take care of the rest. Is the day coming soon when we find ourselves with a bunch of fancy gadgets and have no idea how they work, or we don’t even know what they are good for? Will we look at the buildings and great works of art and literature from the past, and refuse to believe our ancestors made them, the way some folks believe ancient astronauts are responsible for the achievements of ancient civilizations?
The good news is that dark ages do not affect all nations the same way. With the big Dark Age between 400 and 1000 A.D., Europe and India went through times that were ugly and anarchic, but other civilizations did better. Indeed, three civilizations–the Arabs, the Chinese and the Maya–enjoyed their best years in the seventh century, about the time that Europe hit bottom. In our case, if a dark age is coming because of restricted thought, those societies with the most freedom should also suffer the least. Because tyrannies distrust high technology,(3)and discourage their people from using computers and the Internet, we still have an advantage when it comes to getting our message out. They cannot make convincing photoshopped pictures, to start with. The Iranian and Chinese press agencies have been fooled by stories from The Onion; I trust you know The Onion is the Internet’s most famous source of satire. And North Korea is both so repressive and so backward that it can’t build a decent-looking website, or maintain it, without help from its worst enemy. The official North Korean website,http://www.korea-dpr.com, runs off an American server; that’s why the URL does not end in ".nk".(4) Their propaganda videos are lousy, too. For that reason, I don’t believe the trends mentioned in this section are irreversible.
Of course, I could be wrong, as Dennis Miller used to say at the end of his commentaries. Many believe we are living in the so-called "end times," so if the Messiah comes while we are here, all bets are off!
1. Goldman, David, How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too), Washington, DC, Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2011, pp. ix-x. I also recommend the reader check out my pageSpengler’s Laws for a summary of Goldman’s ideas on how changing populations affect history.
3. One dictator who tried to take advantage of new technology was Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. While receiving cancer treatment in Cuba, he ran Venezuela by issuing orders through Twitter. And when people began to doubt he was fit to run in the 2012 election, he recorded his own exercise video. However, the video didn’t fool anybody, except maybe Chavez himself; he died five months after the election.
4. By contrast, South Korea is ahead of the United States, when it comes to fast Internet connections.
© Copyright 2013 Charles Kimball