»  National Review Online

October 9th, 2001

  Numbers Are of the Essence


In chapter 9 of his book The Birth of the Modern, the historian Paul Johnson notes the following feature of British life in the early 19th century:

Half the population were aged 15 or under. There had been, by the 1820s, a revolution in infant mortality of a kind never before experienced by any society … The painter William Daniell's friend Mr. Wilkins, Sr., had 30 children, all living. The great financier Sir Robert Wigram had 15 sons and 5 daughters. The Rt. Rev. Henry Bathurst, Bishop of Norwich, was one of 36 children his father had by different wives. Maria Edgeworth was one of her father's 22 children by four wives … John Gulley, the prizefighter-turned-gentleman, had 24 children, 12 each by two different wives … A study of 50 [aristocratic] women shows that they tended to marry at age 21 and have an average of eight children, the last at age 39. Working-class women were even more productive, since they were less likely to practice birth control or deny their husbands.

Scholars of the future, looking back on our age with the long perspective of historical hindsight, may marvel at the tremendous stroke of good luck the human race enjoyed in the 19th and 20th centuries. It so happened that the first nation to conquer infant mortality, and so to generate the resulting demographic tsunami, was Britain — a nation with a long, strong tradition of law, rights, justice and liberty. That tremendous surge of population gave Victorian Britain the manpower, and the energy, to dominate the world for decades. Other nations followed with demographic transformations of their own, of course (America's was swallowed up in settling this huge land), but sometimes just getting there first counts for everything. We are still living in the aftermath of that demographic royal flush.

In determining the course of large historical events, hardly anything is more important than demography. Who's got the people? Who will have the people a generation from now? Numbers, as the late Enoch Powell used to say, are of the essence. Thinking about the matter a little deeper, in fact, it is not so much the numbers as the rate of increase — the "first derivative," for those readers with a little calculus. In sheer numbers, China in 1820 was way ahead of Britain: around 320m versus 28m. In demographic dynamism, though, there was no comparison: China was stagnant, Britain surging. This was, as I said, a huge stroke of luck for the world, or at any rate for those of the world's people who like an open society under the rule of law. The Pax Britannica had its problems and its dark spots, there is no denying, but a Pax Sinica doesn't bear thinking about.

And so to our own time. What does demography tell us about the world our children and grandchildren will inherit? Will they enjoy another, similar stroke of good luck? Whose populations are surging right now, and whose are stagnant? I'm afraid — genuinely afraid, speaking as a doting father — that the news is not good.

For a sample of what's in store, take a look at the Middle East, a part of the world where democracy, liberty and the rule of law are pretty much unknown. Back in January 1998, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a report with the title Demographics and the Coming Youth Explosion in the Gulf. If you open the report (you need that Acrobat thingy, which you can download free from the web) you will see that it is done like a business proposal: no big blocks of text, just some colorful graphs and bar charts and a few pages of bulleted key points. Page 9, for example, has a bar chart showing how long it takes for a region's population to double at 1998 growth rates. For the "advanced developed nations" it takes 162 years; for MENA (i.e. the Middle East plus North Africa) the number is a mere 26 years. Page 22 has a 3-D bar chart showing anticipated population growth in some MENA regions and nations over the period 1990-2030. Arab North Africa is a huge red slab, rising from less than 150m to almost 300m. The Arab Middle East is a lesser slab, but rising faster, almost tripling across the period. Below that is Iran, impressive considering it's just one country, coming up over 100m some time in the next decade. Cruelly, the analysts have added a slab for Israel … except that it isn't a slab, more like a trifling sliver, barely visible and hardly rising at all. It is tempting to conclude that everything you need to know about the future course of events in the Middle East is right there on page 22 of the CSIS report — though, of course, history is never quite as neat as that.

One of the more surprising features of the report is that it declares the "conservative" Muslim states of the Islamic heartland to be the ones for which the prognosis is most dire. "Oman is a demographic nightmare case … Saudi Arabia faces growing problems … Oil wealth cannot offset a steady drop in per capita income … Nearly 40 per cent of the population is under 14 [sound familiar?] … Education is breaking down and often irrelevant … Direct and disguised unemployment of youth averages 25 to 40 per cent, with little improvement in sight … "

Page 53 is a series of bullet points headed: "Destroying the Future: Other Problems Affecting Youth in the Middle East." Some of the points:

You get the picture: it shows a huge and fast-swelling pool of young people with no marketable skills, no rational economy to practice them in even if they had them, and their heads full of visions of a world-wide Islamic nation vanquishing the infidel. Meanwhile, in the nations of the West, populations are static, or in some cases (notably Italy and Russia) actually declining.

[Incidentally, as a side issue here, if you are the kind of person who is inclined to think that Mother Nature has preferences for the human race, what she obviously prefers is for us to be religious fundamentalists. These are the only people in the world who have dynamic growth rates — which, in the long run, is all Ma Nature cares about. This is true within the U.S., too, where the only high birth rates are found among hard-core Mormons, Hasidic Jews, Christian fundamentalist splinter sects, and of course Muslims. I feel personally comfortable being a skeptical, not-very-devout Episcopalian … but I have only two kids, and am therefore, from the demographic point of view, a loser. The philoprogenitive shall inherit the earth.]

Predicting the future is a fool's game, of course. All sorts of unknown quantities are involved: sudden technological breakthroughs, unexpected plagues or natural disasters, the introduction of energizing messianic faiths or ideologies (who, in 600 A.D., could have foreseen the rise of Islam?) Inasmuch as there are any reliable predictors at all, though, demography supplies by far the best we have. You count the current generation, look at its age structure and procreative habits, and make reasonable assumptions. If the number of 5-year-olds is currently N, then ten years from now the number of 15-year-olds will be pretty much N, too, barring catastrophes. There are very few things about the future that can be said with such a high probability of being true. It's just basic math.

This present, er, engagement with the world of Islam will, I am sure, end with a victory for the West over those who wish us harm. Looking past it, though, into the middle years of this new century, it's hard to avoid the impression that, demographically speaking, the West's luck has pretty much run out. Numbers are of the essence.