August 9th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: IVF - 25 years on

EDITORIAL: America, Iraq and ... Australia

CANBERRA OBSERVED: National Party and the Anderson legacy

COMMENT: Courts turn children into commodities

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Wisdom of Solomons / Do as I say and not as I do / A touching story

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Water restructure will destroy Murray communities

ENVIRONMENT: Will the Federal ethanol package work?

What a US free trade deal means for Australian media

DEMOGRAPHICS: Russia's population implosion a warning to Europe

ECONOMICS: US-Australia free trade negotiations based on dubious assessments

ASIA: North Korean time bomb still ticking

BOOKS: MARIE ANTOINETTE: The Journey, By Antonia Fraser

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Russia's population implosion a warning to Europe

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, August 9, 2003
Russia's population is in steep decline. By 2015, the population could shrink by 15-20 million, from about 149 million in 2000.

A country needs a birth rate of 2.1 children per woman to replace its population. Russia's birth rate is 1.17 children per woman of child bearing age. Its death rate is 1.7 times higher than the birth rate.

Live expectancy for Russian women is 72 years, but only 59 years for men.

Two-thirds of Russian territory is settled now as sparsely as it was in the Neolithic Age: less than one person per square kilometre. In other words, east of the Urals, a demographic wasteland is superimposed on a geographic wasteland.

Drug use, alcoholism and sexually transmitted diseases are leading reasons for the decline, according to Murray Feshbach, a senior scholar at the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow Wilson Centre.

He says that about 15% of Russian couples are infertile and 75% of women experience serious medical problems during pregnancy.

UN population projections predict that while the world's population will increase from 6 billion to 8.9 billion by 2050, the 27 countries soon expected to make up the European Union (EU) will fall from 482 million to 454 million over that same period.

Europe's population flipped from positive to negative momentum in 1999. Those with the lowest birth rates will experience the sharpest decline. As The Economist recently outlined:

"By 2050 the number of Italians may have fallen from 57.5 million in 2000 to around 45 million; Spain's population may drop from 40 million to 37 million.

"Germany, which currently has a population of around 80 million, could find itself with just 25 million inhabitants by the end of this century, according to recent projections by Deutsche Bank, which adds: 'Even assuming (no doubt unrealistically high) annual immigration of 250,000, Germany's population would decline to about 50 million by 2100.'"

In Europe, only Albania has a replacement birth rate. Europe's average is 1.34 children per woman of childbearing age. The birth rate even in Catholic Ireland has fallen to 2.0, and in other southern European Catholic countries it is only 1.2, little better than in Russia.

Stein Ringen, an Oxford sociologist, has noted that "without emigration or immigration and with a stable birthrate of 1.5, a population would be reduced to about half in 100 years, and with a birthrate of 1.2 to about 25 per cent".

Ringen acknowledges that birth rates and population trends change unpredictably. But with the exception of the post-1945 baby boom - before working mothers became the norm - Europe's birthrates were low for most of the last century, and higher rates are unlikely because the "modern conventions for family life are built around the now firm idea, and economic necessity, of both parents working and earning".

Given current demographic trends, this will have a profound effect on the age structure of the EU and make taxpayer-funded pension systems unviable.

Currently, the EU has 35 pensioners for each 100 workers. By 2050 there will be 75 pensioners for every 100 workers. Worst hit will be Spain and Italy where the ratio of pensioners to workers will be one-to-one.

In Germany, France and Italy, pensions are paid by current taxpayers. Italians are paying 33% of their incomes in taxes to fund the pension bill, and Germans are allocating 22% of their incomes to pay pensioners.

Already workers in Italy, France, Austria and Germany have protested at this tax burden. A struggle is developing between the generations - between the tax-paying younger generation of workers and the growing numbers of pensioners.

Only the UK and the Netherlands have a high proportion of people providing for their own retirements through superannuation funds.

While the EU is ageing, nearby Africa and the Middle East have large, growing and younger populations. Already, there are large numbers of illegal immigrants entering Europe's porous borders from these areas.

If the EU nations were to look to immigration to maintain the current population balance, it would require up to a ten fold increase in the immigration rate. Given the current political tensions over illegal immigration, increasing the immigration rate is unlikely to be an acceptable solution.

Europe's other alternative is to encourage families to have more children.

However neither the generous tax benefits of the Swedes, nor the generous family allowances and extensive state-funded child care of the French have succeeded in substantially addressing Europe's birth dearth.

In warning that there are common cultural causes between Russia's population decline and Europe's decline, Dr Herbert London, president of Hudson Institute, points to the breakdown of the family.

London blames "a dramatic decline in the desire for reproduction among the younger generation", explaining that "the prevalence of one-child families, the decline in the number of recorded marriages, the increase in cohabitation, and the rise in divorce are all symptoms of this condition."

There is a "virtual breakdown of the traditional family", backed by an emerging belief, "virtually unchallenged in social science, that divorce and 'only-children families' are actually desirable conditions that must be protected. An undeclared war is being conducted against those who identify a crisis in the family and a resulting demographic implosion."

As a result, "if nothing dramatic occurs in Russia to encourage larger families, the retreat from childbearing will continue and accelerate. Two children in a family will certainly no longer be the norm and, as a consequence, Russia could become a nation of only one hundred million in thirty years time (down from 149 million today)."

This sharp decline, "could decide Russia's geopolitical fate. A decline of 50 million people could undermine the territorial integrity of that vast nation." The decline could also "undermine any effort to create industrial market capitalism, which depends on mass production and mass markets."

Accompanying the collapse of the family, London said, is a social atmosphere that produces "a revision in cultural perspectives has led to an unprecedented level of prestige bestowed on homosexual behaviour as well as evidence of an increased rate of suicide."

Such conditions, he warned "not only threaten the familial foundation of civilisation, but human self-preservation itself."

Russia, along with much of the West, "is in the midst of an historic revolution that is weakening the family, devaluing the role of children, and threatening depopulation ... It is no exaggeration to contend that Russia's future, and perhaps the fate of other nations, depends on the restoration of family and child-centred lives. A relentless drive for consumer gratification and self-fulfillment have taken us down a path that threatens societal well being," Dr London warns.

Commenting on Italy's birth rate being no better than Russia's, Canada's National Post columnist Mark Steyn blamed abortion as one of the prime causes of depopulation.

"A society whose political class elevates 'a woman's right to choose' above 'go forth and multiply' is a society with a death wish," he wrote. And "today we're the endangered species, not the spotted owl. We're the dwindling resource, not the oil."

  • Pat Byrne

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