The Looming Death of Peoples
This is the way the modern world ends. Not with a bang but demographic collapse.
Amid the tumult and noise of our digital distractions, a different kind of silence is falling over large parts of the world. This silence is one of futures that will never come, of pasts that are unrecalled, and presents that go unlived.
In the most “developed” parts of the world, we are living through a growing quiet: one that speaks louder than the trumpets on judgment day of our passing into a grave from which no memory or legacy will be carried forward. The shriek of children, the hum of adult life, and the murmur of the old are all slowly, almost imperceptibly, fading away. We are witnessing the apparently slow, but soon-to-be brutal, reality of demographic decline and senescence. The reality of population decline, rather than the “population bomb”, is so concerning that the United Nations has devoted resources to the study of its implications for the politics of the future.
The Great Silence is more than just a metaphor. Over the last hundred years, around 400 languages have died out, often through the assimilation of speakers into larger linguistic populations, but mainly through demographic decline: the speakers themselves have dwindled until no one lives who can speak such words. We are witnessing the process of global homogeneity in action. The estimates are that half the world’s remaining 6,500 languages will disappear by 2100, although some estimate the likely figure as around 90%. In his book How Civilisations Die, David Goldman notes the tragedy of those indigenous people who are the last surviving members of their tribe, the last speakers of a dying tongue, no longer able to communicate and participate in the same lifeworld as others, their language now nothing more than a prison of sound, incomprehensible to those around them.
Of course, organizations like the UN adopt a materialist and abstract view of the implications of such developments. They must, owing to their high-altitude, low-resolution view of such matters. However, this is not only a tale of GDP decline, infrastructure breakdown, tax intake shrinkage, welfare state collapse, and other material results that are themselves deeply troubling. As we can see from the snowballing of language deaths, however, the demographic death of peoples must be understood and confronted also on an existential and metaphysical level.
Modernity is a solvent of fertility that acts as a “sterility meme” and liberalism is its active ingredient.
Nations are communities that stretch across time, bound by threads linking the dead to the living and the unborn. These threads have frayed, often to a few strands. For hundreds of millions, the single strand of familial and communal life is all that ties them into the great chain of existence. For more and more people today, these links have been snapped. Most are untethered from a past they no longer remember and pay little heed to a future they do not regard as their legacy.
The UN and other such institutions will talk about this collapse as being neither unprecedented nor unexpected. To them, this is simply the latest stage in the demographic transition, from high infant mortality and fertility in premodern times to low infant mortality and low fertility in the late-modern era. The modern global population boom caused by industrialization was merely an aberration, and this is its natural course correction. But if we wish to come out the other side in one piece, we cannot take the current state of things as an edict of nature. We must explore the root causes that have severed us from our biological imperatives.