Conditions Under Which We May have a Future
"It is high time to unlearn the now traditional image of the infra- and supra- structure. Without transcendence, there is no life."
I propose to speak
here of the future, with all of the risks that doing
so involves.(1) I
will not venture any conjectures about what the
future might hold, that is, about future events. I
will simply ask under what conditions there can be a
future in the first place. Now, the first condition
is that there be people to live in it. I will ask,
then, what conditions have to be fulfilled in order
to ensure the population of the future.
I will be obliged to venture beyond my field of expertise into the domain of demography. I will rely on the work of others who are, or at least have seemed to be, competent in it. In order to avoid polemics, I will refrain from citing living authors. In any case, I will do no more than swerve briefly into demography before regaining the safe road on which I can move ahead at my ease.
About 30 years ago, we started hearing about the so-called "population explosion." As far as I can tell, the term was introduced to the public in Boston, Massachusetts on August 28, 1968--not by a demographer, but by the American sociologist Philip M. Hauser in the opening address of a convention of sociologists. Hauser listed what he called the "population explosion" among four causes that, in his view, were revolutionizing the "morphology" of society. By "population explosion," Hauser meant "the remarkable increase in the growth rate of the world's population, especially during the three centuries of the modern era."(2) Hauser's term has been prodigiously successful since its 1968 debut. It has even achieved the status of a commonplace. The only problem is that professional demographers have known all along that it is false. More and more of them, in fact, are coming to the conclusion that it is actually the opposite of the truth. Today, the idea of a "population explosion" is a dead letter--except among a few intellectual stragglers.
The currently dominant model envisages a classic demographic shift caused not only by declining mortality rates, but also by declining birth rates. Large numbers of children are no longer needed to guarantee the replenishment of the human species from one generation to the next. The third world appears to be exploding only because it has abruptly undergone a process that in Europe could go almost unnoticed because it occurred there slowly over a period of centuries. The arrival of doctors and medicines from Europe has caused a sharp drop in infant mortality, and the local populations are still in the midst of adjusting, that is, lowering, their birth rates to reflect their actual needs. The world's population will eventually level off at a rate of 2.1 children per woman to about 10 billion people.
This is the official model of the United Nations. It is also the most wide-spread model, the one that most international organizations endorse, finance, and publicize. Yet it is not the only possible model, and there are some population experts who contest it. In what follows, I take my bearings from a now classic 1988 article by Jean Bourgeois-Pichat, who at that time was director of the French government's Institut national d'études démographiques [National Institute of Population Studies]. Having reached the height of his career and the end of his life (he would die in 1991), Bourgeois-Pichat cooly sums up in a rather technical, little publicized journal, his outlook on the future--which he seasons at the end with a dash of science fiction. Bourgeois-Pichat states that European birth rates seem to be sinking permanently below the minimum needed to replenish the population from generation to generation. Indeed, he goes so far as to speak, not of a "population explosion," but of its precise opposite: A population implosion.(3)
The idea of a decline in population has been in the air ever since. It turns up even among level-headed, not easily excited people like Raymond Aron, who wrote in his 1983 memoirs that "Europeans are committing suicide by declining birth rates."(4) The politicians have also picked it up. In a speech dating from his term as prime minister [of France], Michel Rocard put the question like this: "Most Western European states are committing demographic suicide without even realizing it."(5) The last president of the Republic echoed him not long afterwards. It is worth pointing out that most politicians give the same speech before family lobbies in an election year as a kind of preparation for doing nothing about the problem once they are voted into office.
To be sure, Europe's population is still growing, but the growth rate is gradually slowing. This trend will probably continue until some time between the years 2030 and 2050. What will happen then is, of course, anyone's guess, but it looks as though the population will begin to decrease. We do not know how fast. Going by the statistics for Germany, the most populous and most advanced country in Europe, we can confidently predict the disappearance of the peoples of Europe by around 2050. At any rate, 2050 is the date forecast, without any hint of hysteria, by Jean Bourgeois-Pichat.
Are we about to be overwhelmed, then, by a flood of barbarian invaders? This is a fantasy, but it is a plausible one. It would not be the first time that a civilization disappeared in such a way. The fall of the Roman Empire, as everyone knows, is one of the foundational traumas of Western history. So much so, in fact, that, as Tocqueville puts it, "we are perhaps too inclined to believe that civilization could not die in any other way."(6) Yet one of the most plausible explanations of the fall of Rome is the scarcity of human material, what the ancients themselves called "oliganthropy." This hypothesis was defended by, among others, Max Weber.(7) The so-called "barbarian invasions" resulted, in part, from the suction effect created by the Empire's population vacuum.
Yet we need not look at this process, as we all too often do, only from the point of view of the invaded. The ancient world was rejuvenated by the so-called "barbarian invasions," for which I would like to find another term. For one thing, "barbarian" is a loaded word that reflects Greek and Roman prejudices. Moreover, it seems that these "invasions" were really injections, an influx of new blood, a transfusion that restored life to an anemic organism.
One might wish that something similar would happen to the tired West. Besides, the barbarians who would be most likely to sweep through us are really not so bad. Neither, for that matter, were the barbarians of antiquity. There are cases of Roman peasants who emigrated to barbarian territory in order to escape the intolerable pressure of what had become a despotic state.(8) On balance, does the West have much reason to boast? In a word, hasn't the West had its day?
I return, then, to my question: Are we going to be overwhelmed? Unfortunately, no. There is no hope of that. For the problem is that barbarians are rather hard to come by these days. The regions of the world from which one might expect an influx of people are themselves undergoing a drop in population. Certain areas, such as north eastern Brasil, which not long ago seemed on the verge of becoming human anthills, are now rapidly bleeding people. We are beginning to realize that earlier demographic statistics were considerably inflated. Not long ago, it was generally estimated that Nigeria would have 120 million inhabitants by the year 2000. The first reliable census, which was taken in 1991, before the current civil war, speaks of 88 million.
The most that can be hoped for--or feared--is that part of the population of the third world will eventually settle in the North of the planet. But, if the rest of the world imitates the West, this resettlement will bring only a temporary reversal. According to Bourgeois-Pichat, it will take only a bit longer for the entire human race to disappear, an event which he places somewhere around the year 2400.
At this point, I leave demographic conjecture behind. I must confess to a certain relief, first, because demography is not my area of expertise, second, because even an amateur's brief foray is enough to convince me that it is a minefield, where facts and arguments are often overdetermined by political accusations and taboos, in short, by disputes among persons and institutions. I will thus consider what I have reported so far as a hypothetical basis for a few thought experiments that I would now like to conduct.
The Children of Mohammed and the Children of Maurice
What, then, is to keep the rest of the world from following the West so to say on its path to extinction? Television series from the West have spread the image of the two-child family and the carefree singles across the globe. Yet the West has spread not only second rate entertainment, but also, among other things, longer life expectancy, decline in infant mortality, more time set aside to education, greater participation of women in the professions and in public life, and so forth--things, in other words, that it is hard to deny are goods.
In 1997, "SOS Racisme" [Help, Racism!] designed a poster inviting the average Frenchman to think about immigration. The poster represented its target audience with a name that, one must say, was brilliantly chosen: The typically French name "Maurice." The main text read as follows: "If Mohammed didn't have children, Maurice wouldn't have a pension." The subtitle made the point clear: "Starting in the year 2000, the children of immigrants will be major contributors to everyone's retirement fund." The aim of the poster, of course, was to combat what Jean-Pierre Chevènement had awkwardly called a "national preference." Despite its excellent intentions, the poster did a wonderful job of letting the cat out of the bag and cast a harsh light on a rather sordid economic fact: Immigration pays. It imports workers without charging the host country a penny for their upbringing and education.
The problem is that Mohammed is no idiot. And that he knows full well what Maurice expects of him--to raise his children and put them to work. Mohammed's children are supposed to work to support Maurice in his comfortable retirement home. We should not be surprised, then, if Mohammed is reluctant to bring children into the world for so noble a calling and if immigrant families eventually become as small as those of so-called "native stock."
Let us return to our European societies, to Maurice and to his children. How can we hold it against these children if they are unfruitful? How can we blame the generations that are capable of reproducing? Our societies ought to encourage the young in this direction. Yet this is precisely what our societies do not do. Young people enter the work force late, and their professional life begins [at least in Europe] with temporary internships and the threat of unemployment. Once they do have some job security, they are under such intense pressure that they simply have no time for children. This is bound to discourage them from starting families, quite apart from the many other economic and psychological factors that are in play. And this is only reinforced by the less than positive portrayal of the family in certain of the media. But, in the end, why would we help young people to start families? In order to do that, we would have to redistribute social wealth in their favor. Such a "new deal" is hardly likely. In fact, what is much more likely is the opposite.
The fact of the matter is that the greying of the population triggers a multiplier effect.(9) On the whole, the generation that has children is between 20 and 40 years old. The under 20's, the children, do not yet have a vote. Retirees, ranging from 60 to 70 years old, enjoy a big share of the wealth, but have less influence. The decision-makers, the ones who hold the reins of power in the economy, finance, the media, and so on are, on the whole, between the age of 35-40 and the age of retirement. And their power only increases with age. Society is controlled by people between 50 and 70 years old. The balance of social power is tilted in their favor.
As for political power, it rests on the principle of "one man, one vote," which is blind to the voter's age. Yet the average age of French voters is around 50. And it is steadily rising.
When it comes time to make decisions affecting the distribution of social wealth, then, it is a safe bet that the decision makers will favor two age groups: Theirs and the group following theirs, into which they feel themselves being pulled. The part that goes to young families will thus be diminished in order to benefit the retired. Our society is based on the alliance of the middle aged and the old against the children.
One feels tempted to inveigh against this tendency: What selfishness, etc. I feel this temptation myself, all the more because, if I succumbed to it, I would at least have the decency not to beat someone else's breast. The generation that stands accused is my own, the generation of the baby-boomers, of the children of '68--now 30 years older and in control of society.
Democracy and Demographics
I will therefore restrain myself and ask instead a question that goes to the heart of the matter: What right do we have to protest? Isn't this system perfectly legitimate? Retired people vote, children, and, a fortiori, the unborn, do not. How could it be otherwise? This system is inevitable given the reality of democracy. We have no choice but to take care of those who are alive. We have no choice but to take thought for the present.
We can even say that this system is a direct consequence of the democratic ideal itself. Democracy entrusts the decisions to an assembly of voters. But, at the very least, voters have to exist. What entitles us, then, to deprive already existing people of the satisfaction of their legitimate needs in order to bring into being not yet existing people? By what right do we privilege nothing over being? With these questions, we suddenly find ourselves in the midst of a metaphysical discussion. . . .
In a famous passage, Kant says that the problem of building a state is perfectly soluble, even for a race of demons, so long as the demons are intelligent.(10) Allow me to go one step further. The problem of building a state is even easier for demons than it is for human beings, because, as theology teaches us, the demons are spiritual creatures who do not need to reproduce themselves. We human beings, on the other hand, can survive as a species only by reproducing ourselves. We need to replace the dead by bringing into the world individuals who did not exist before.
Everyone will admit that, in practice, our democracies are not perfect. But I have no objection to democracy as such. I have difficulty imagining a better regime. Democracy is the best means for ensuring the coexistence of already living people. But democracy does not say anything, cannot say anything, has no right to say anything about people who do not yet exist. Democracy has only one defect: Left to itself, its logic leads, in the long run, to the extinction of the human race.
Tocqueville already saw quite clearly, among other things, democracy's tendency to concentrate exclusively on the present. He saw with equal clarity where this tendency would lead, and he informs us in his usual discreet fashion. Democracy, says Tocqueville, erases both the past and the future: "Democracy not only makes each man forget his ancestors, but it also conceals from him his own posterity."(11) Tocqueville links this tendency to the erasure of religious convictions:
Once they [human beings] have accustomed themselves to disregarding what will happen to them after their life, one sees them relapse effortlessly into this complete and bestial indifference towards the future which accords all too well with certain instincts of the human species. As soon as they have lost the habit of setting their chief hopes upon the long term, their natural inclination is to wish to fulfill their desires instantaneously, and it seems that, once they despair of living for ever, they are ready to act as if they would exist for only a day.(12)
I said just now that I can think of no better regime than democracy, and I stand by my statement. But I would like to point out that the meaning of "democracy" is often overdetermined by a project frequently identified with modernity itself, namely, the claim to total autonomy with respect to any form of transcendence. Has the time come to realize the failure of this project?
Bourgeois-Pichat borrows a simile from astronomy. Think of the whole history of humanity, starting with the first humans around 600,000 years ago:
The arc terminating in the third outcome that we have indicated--the outcome we labeled "catastrophe"--describes a trajectory somewhat similar to the life of a star. After having shone modestly for millions, or indeed, billions, of years, a star abruptly becomes many times brighter, and the astronomers then call it a supernova. But the phenomenon is short-lived. The star quickly dies out and literally collapses upon itself, although we do not know for certain what happens in this final stage. As far as the astronomers are concerned, the star no longer exists.(13)
We are here to speak of the future of Christianity. On that score, there need be no anxiety. It is rather the future of humanity that seems to be gravely at risk. Let us suppose that humanity is going to disappear. Who would be embarrassed by this outcome? Christians could always update an old idea that was sketched in the Book of Revelation and systematically developed by the Fathers and the Mediaevals.(14) They could say, in substance, that the universe is a factory for making holiness and must therefore shut down once it has delivered the number of saints determined by divine plan. And it may well be that this number has already been reached.
The "humanists," on the other hand, ought to be very troubled. If you think that all five acts are performed in this life, you have no other scene to look forward to. Diderot says "the philosopher thinks of posterity as the believer thinks of the other world."(15) But what good is this if there is no posterity?
Even if the non-European peoples succeed us, they, too, will disappear. The question, then, is whether the Enlightenment is lethal. Must we wish that the other civilizations will not imitate us? That they will remain un-enlightened? Anyone who has read [French] political science dissertations is familiar with Valéry's inevitable line about civilizations that know they are mortal. It would behoove us to ask whether the adjective "mortal" should not be given a new meaning. As Valéry uses the word, it means "able to die." But we also know that there is such a thing as a mortal poison or a mortal illness. Might not Western civilization be mortal, that is, lethal?
If so, then we have to agree with those both inside and outside Europe who reject progress. The fact of the matter is that the peoples not infected with the virus of modernity (which I would like to call "modernity" here) are the ones who are having children. The demographic weakness of the developed countries gives ammunition to those both inside and outside Europe who resist modernization. The prospect of a world populated by integralist Catholics, Taliban-style Muslims, and ultra-orthodox Jews does not exactly correspond to our ideal future. But it just may be the logical outcome of certain of our practices.
Metaphysics as an Infrastructure
What are the psychological motives behind these practices? We know little about what motivates couples to want children or to restrict their number. We do not know, for example, why, around 1770, the French began to limit births--yet this was a major event that, among others, explains why English is the dominant language in the world today. There is, however, one author who seems to me to have said something very plausible about the ultimate psychological motivation for reproduction: the fourteenth-century Tunisian Ibn Khaldun. Ibn Khaldun asks what causes conquered peoples to disappear. His answer: discouragement. A people that has lost heart stops reproducing. Hope literally gives life. More precisely, "reproduction and fecundating activity [iÿtimar] come only from the intensity of hope [Êiddatu l-amal] and the liveliness [naëað] that it generates in the animal powers."(16) There is, then, a virtuous circle in which hope is produced by the image of a radiant future, while there is a future because there is hope. We have to reverse the old proverb: Where there is hope, there is life.
Why should we hope, why should we continue the human species? The question may seem otiose. And it might have been for Ibn Khaldun and for Tocqueville. It is less and less so for us. It was certainly no longer so for Renan, who devotes a long passage in the first of his Dialogues philosophiques to answering it. Nature, he says, dupes individuals for the sake of an interest that is bigger than they are, namely, generation. The universe is a deceitful tyrant. The interests of humanity require certain prejudices, and among them family spirit has pride of place. For Renan, we must simultaneously see through this trickery and submit to it.(17) I confess that I am not altogether inclined to bet on this latter formula. But even if it were plausible, could it ever oblige someone else? We are, like it or not, already embarked upon life. We enjoy it as an "acquired asset," but we likewise suffer its dark, not to say, horrible, aspects. But do we have the right to bring new beings into it if we cannot ask their opinion beforehand?
We have this right if, and only if, we can affirm that life is a good in itself, an absolute good, not only for those who are already alive, but also for those who are not yet among the living. According to Nietzsche, we can indeed affirm that life is a good for those who are already alive; we need only adopt the stand-point of Dionysus. This stand-point is, once again, that of a god, not of a human being. What Kant's fallen angels or Nietzsche's Greek gods can do without effort is less easy for human beings. . . . In any case, even supposing that we can take up this point of view, we cannot impose it on anyone else. But the question is: Is life's goodness such that we can justifiably inflict it on our neighbor? We cannot do that, in the last analysis, without something like a metaphysical anchoring.
In saying this, we turn a very common way of looking at things on its head. It is the metaphysical that founds the natural, the physical. It is high time to unlearn the now traditional image of the infra- and superstructure. Without transcendence, there is no life. We can also turn Nietzsche's formulas on their heads. We needn't say that transcendence judges or condemns life simply because it compares life to, and measures it by, something else.(18) The question is not whether we ought to prefer immanence to transcendence. As if we had a choice! Immanence has an internal tendency towards self-destruction. There is a logic at work in the relation between immanence and transcendence.
I could cite Nietzsche again or refer to Malraux's saying about the death of man as the inevitable consequence of the death of God--a formula that has been repeated ever since Malraux penned it.(19) I will finish instead with an image. I spoke above of an ad. My concluding image comes from another, even more famous, ad, or rather, series of ads, which showed a young woman at the bath who, week after week, would progressively reveal her endowments. The same applies to the relation between immanence and transcendence: If I take off the top, I also have to take off the bottom. Perhaps we are living in something like the week's interval between one revelation and the next, and perhaps we have to expect that history, too, will, shall we say . . . turn her back to us.--Translated by Adrian Walker
Rémi Brague, married with four children, is professor of philosophy at the Université Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne).
1. [The text published here reproduces a talk given at the Sorbonne on November 25, 1999 within the context of a conference entitled: "2000 ans après quoi?" (2000 years after what?).--Tr.]
2. P.M. Hauser, "The Chaotic Society: Product of Social Morphological Revolution," in American Sociological Review 34 (1969): 1-19; citation 3b.
3. J. Bourgeois-Pichat, "Du Xxe au XXIe siècle: l'Europe et sa population après l'an 2000," in Population (1988): 9-44; citation 16. Hauser also speaks of a "population implosion" ("The Chaotic Society," 4a), but in an entirely different sense: "The increased concentration of world population on a small proportion of the earth's surface--the phenomenon of urbanization and metropolization."
4. R. Aron, Mémoires. Cinquante ans de réflexion politique (Julliard, 1983), 750.
5. M. Rocard, "Conférence de clôture de la Conférence des familles," January 20, 1989.
6. A. Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, vol. 2, 1.10, ed. J.C. Lambati (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), 557.
7. M. Weber, "Die sozialen Gründe des Untergangs der antiken Kultur" , in idem, Schriften zur Soziologie, ed. M. Sukale (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1995). See also M. Mazzarino, La fin du monde antique. Avatars d'un thème historiographique, trans. A Charpentier (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), 122-40.
8. H.-I. Marrou, Décadence romaine ou antiquité tardive? IIIe -VI siècle (Paris: Seuil, 1977), 140f.
9. Bourgeois-Pichat, 13-15.
10. I. Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden, 1st Zusatz, "Von der Garantie des ewigen Friedens," in idem, Werke, vol. 6, ed. Weischedel (Darmstadt: WB), 224.
11. A. Tocqueville, vol. 2, 2.2, 613.
12. Ibid., vol. 2, 2.17, 663.
13. Bourgeois-Pichat, 29f.
14. Cf. Rev 6:11. See H.-I. Marrou, Théologie de l'histoire (Paris: Seuil, 1968), 40f.
15. Diderot, Lettre à Falconet (February, 1766), in Le pour et le contre ou Lettres sur la postérité, ed. E. Hill et al., vol. 15 of Œuvres complètes (Paris: Hermann, 1986), 33.
16. Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddima 2.23, vol. 1 of ed. Quatremère, 268.
17. E. Renan, Dialogues philosophiques (1876), 1: "Certitudes," in Œuvres complètes (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1947), 571; 573; 575; 579.
18. See, for example, Nietzsche's posthumous fragments dating from between the end of 1886 and the Spring of 1887, no. 7 , in KSA, vol. 12, 274.
19. F. Nietzsche, Götzendämmerung, "Wie die wahre Welt zur Fabel wurde," in KSA, vol. 6, 81; A. Malraux, La tentation de l'Occident  (Paris: Le Livre de poche), 128.
This article first appeared in Communio