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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 18-07-2020 09:55

Strolling towards the exit

Extinction is staring many communities in the face, yet few find the thought that all they presumably value could be about to die at all disturbing.

There was a time when most men and women saw themselves as belonging to a community that would last for many centuries to come. If told that within a couple of generations it would almost certainly be reduced to a few scattered remnants, the prospect would have filled them with dread.

Two thousand years ago, the poet Horace could boast that with his words he had built a monument “more durable than bronze, higher than the regal pyramids, which no angry wind or hungry rain can demolish.” Well, the pyramids are still there, but by and large the amiable Roman, whose odes and epistles are remembered by many, had it right.

Can anyone writing in Greek, Italian, German, Russian or Japanese look into the future with the same confidence? Perhaps not, unless they get translated into Ibo, Chinese, Hindi or, luckily for some of us, English before it all gets shovelled into the dark.

All this may seem rather gloomy, but though extinction is staring many communities in the face, few find the thought that all they presumably value could be about to die at all disturbing. What in other circumstances would be seen as exemplary stoicism, in those now prevailing looks more like spiritual vacuity. When asked about what lies ahead for their descendants, of whom some are already with them, they shrug their shoulders and say it is none of their business.

Until very recently, even expressing an interest in demographic trends – let alone suggesting that a world with hardly any Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, Japanese, Germans and Russians left among us, would be dispiriting place – was frowned upon in enlightened circles where it was assumed that only right-wingers of a nationalistic bent worried about population decline in countries inhabited by people who are unwilling to have enough children to keep their own particular show on the road.

After all, we were told, the sons and daughters the Europeans and Japanese preferred not to have can be replaced by immigrants from Africa and South Asia who, as time goes by, will dutifully look after their ageing hosts by doing all those ill-paid but necessary jobs the natives find beneath their dignity. Among those who shared this sanguine view was Germany’s Angela Merkel who, to widespread applause, issued an open invitation, which was eagerly accepted, to all who wanted to come, before deciding it would be better to slow the influx for a while because it was causing her too many political problems.

The idea that in the last analysis only numbers matter overlooks the importance of culture, both in the sense anthropologists give to the word and the one preferred by those keen on what used to be called the humanities. If Germany were to be occupied almost entirely by Arabs, Africans or Pakistanis, would it still be Germany? Even if it retained its traditional name and everyone living there agreed to pay homage to Goethe, Kant and Beethoven, it would surely be a very different place. The same can be said about other parts of the world which are still in the hands of people who are on the way out.

A few days ago, the influential British medical journal, The Lancet, made a splash with an article predicting that, after reaching a peak of 9.7 billion in 2060, the world’s human population would start going down. For many who feared that the planet was getting overcrowded and before too long humans would live cheek by jowl, destroy the climate and kill off most wildlife, this was splendid news. While the prospect of having more centenarians than infants around disturbed some who wondered what it would do to their pension schemes, most others assumed the benefits would outweigh any potential drawbacks.

The process the authors of the article envisaged would be far from even. Some countries, led by Japan, Italy and Spain, would see their numbers drop by at least half by the end of the century, while in others, notably Nigeria, they would increase fourfold. As for countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, which broadly speaking are expected to stay more or less where they are now, they would do so thanks mainly to immigration. According to The Lancet’s editor, the upshot would be a world order in which India, Nigeria, China and the US would be the top dogs, with Europe, which is becoming a picturesque geriatric home, fading into the background.

Of course, there is no guarantee that anything like this will come about. Wars, famines, murderous revolutions, famines and plagues far more lethal than the one we are now enduring would make nonsense of what are apparently realistic prophesies. There is even a possibility that some peoples which are now on death row could astonish the demographers by starting to breed again much as did their great grandparents in the days in which having six, seven or more children was common enough. Unless something like this does happen, however, the world will soon be saying goodbye to the last representatives of the Greeks, Italians and many others whose forefathers contributed so much to our civilisation.

For devout multiculturalists, individuals who insist that whatever the Europeans did over the centuries cannot be considered superior to the political, philosophical or artistic achievements of the natives of the Amazon rainforest or New Guinea because all cultures, with the possible exception of those developed by whitey, are equally valuable, it is reactionary folly to worry about the imminent demise of traditions that had lasted for thousands of years until, barely half a century ago, the heirs to them decided to call it quits. Perhaps it is in the grand scheme of things, but bad as some Europeans no doubt were when their lot were enjoying their brief moment in the sun, others have been every bit as cruel and ruthless as the worst of them, as a cursory glance at their histories makes clear.

One must also take into account the attachment some have to the languages, literatures and the like they think of as intimately theirs and which, they believe, help give meaning to their lives. Does the thought that all could melt away, or be swept aside by newcomers who find either contemptible or downright incomprehensible whatever the Europeans or Japanese did when in their naïve way they expected their respective cultures to last forever, trouble them at all? As far as most people are concerned, it evidently does not.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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