Two years ago in
Warsaw, I had the great honor of speaking to this Congress about a global
phenomenon that has come to be known as “The Demographic Winter.” A documentary
by that title, much of which was filmed at the last World Congress, has done
much to further spread knowledge of the reality I was addressing. But for those
who are still unfamiliar with the Demographic Winter, I will briefly describe
it here before adding some new thoughts on how it will affect, and be affected
by, the great global economic downturn that began last year.
Many of us grew
up amidst warnings of “the population boom.” And indeed, world population has
doubled in my lifetime. Yet today, in nations as diverse as Italy and Iran,
Lebanon and China, Canada, and Cuba, the number children born each year is no
longer sufficient to replace the population.
The trend at
first glance contradicts the notion taught by Darwin and modern biology that all
organisms breed up to the limits of their available resources. Indeed, it was
precisely among the world’s most peaceful, prosperous and well-fed nations where
the phenomenon of sub-replacement fertility began, specifically here in Western
Yet Darwin could
preserve his theory by countering that these slow-breeding segments of human
population have simply become maladapted to their changing environment,
including a manmade environment that often makes the cost of parenthood seem
prohibitive to rational individuals. If we accept this hypothesis, does that
imply that humans are on the road to extinction?
It would if
fertility rates were falling below replacement rates consistently among all
people, but that is not the case. Rather than facing extinction, we are facing
a dramatic slowdown, and eventual decline in human population, accompanied by
dramatic changes in its composition.
Why is this?
Especially where childlessness and one-child families have become the norm, a
larger and larger share of future population is produced by an initially narrow,
but comparatively fast-growing segment of society. Specifically, in today’s
low-birthrate countries, the next generation is overwhelmingly being formed by
people who either reject or ignore the economic and social incentives that in
modern nations have made large families not only unfashionable, but often
Disproportionately, these people include those who are motivated by religious
conviction to “go forth and multiply.” In modern societies, with their pension
systems and other means of replacing the functions of the family, there has been
little economic incentive to have children, and strong reasons not to. Thus,
almost by default, what people have children, and especially those who have more
than one or two, tend to be people who have non-economic motives to procreate.
Today, there is
a strong correlation around the world between adherence to traditional
Christian, Islamic or Judaic religious values and high fertility. The result is
an emerging world in which in which the ancient, patriarchal values of these
religions are becoming stronger, while secularism suffers demographic decline.
world economic crisis will most likely compound the trend, for a variety of
reasons. The widespread loss of jobs and retirement savings gives a survival
advantage to those who still have abundant human capital upon which to rely,
specifically, strong, largely self-sufficient families in tight-knit,
high-trust, self-financing communities. Under currently unfolding conditions,
the “fittest” are those who invest heavily and successfully in building up
strong families and local community support networks.
Many people may
try to contend with their financial and economic losses by forming secular
communes. History suggests, however, that families and communities bound by
common blood and religious faith are more likely to succeed in fostering the
necessary sacrifice of individualism and consumerism.
These changes we
are living through are very scary, but they also, I think, have the long-term
promise of restoring the economic basis of the natural family and renewing
society generally. Seeing more specifically how this future might unfold
requires dwelling briefly on a few poorly remembered traditions from the past.
In a recent
Foreign Policy Magazine, I have published a brief article entitled The
Return of Yeomanry. This word “yeomanry” is now obscure in English, and may
be impossible to translate into many other languages. But particularly in
America during the 18th and 19th century, it stood for a
clear ideal of human organization, which was small-scale production centered on
a self-sufficient family unit.
America’s most prominent founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote
frequently the superior virtue of the country’s then substantial yeomanry, which
mostly comprised family farmers who owned their own land and small family
business owners. Jefferson’s vision of America’s future was that widespread
family ownership of small scale productive would remain the dominant form of
social and economic organization, and that the influence of both Big Business
and Big Government would be held in check.
Since then all
manner of social philosophers in many different traditions and different
generations, have articulated and defended this vision. It was the dream for
example, of Pope Leo XIII. It was also the dream Bulgaria’s Alexander
Stamboliski and the other leaders of Eastern Europe’s mostly forgotten
democratic “Green” movement, who in the aftermath of World War I reconfigured
the former Austro-Hungarian Empire by redistributing royal lands and converting
tenant farmers into self-sufficient freeholders. (1)
recently, real-life yeomen could be and were dismissed–often violently. Joseph
Stalin, for example, made short work of Eastern Europe’s land-holding peasant
class. During the 20th century, both capitalists and communists, for different
reasons, were hostile to the idea of a property owning, prosperous peasantry.
Capitalists wanted agriculture to be industrialized, while Communists wanted it
collectivized, with both opposed to any possible third way. For both
Capitalists and Communists, the future would be one of ever greater division of
labor and increasing economies of scale, with the family stripped of nearly all
Yet today there
are signs that the yeoman ideal of small-scale ownership and production, having
already out-survived communism, maybe be poised for a big comeback around the
world. This is not to predict the end of globalism, if by that we mean simply
high levels of interconnectivity. But it is to suggest that for reasons of
technology, demography, culture, and efficiency, big is no longer necessarily
better and the yeoman has a chance.
We see this most
vividly the realm of finance. For decades now, experts have argued that bigger
is better in banking. With their economies of scale, larger institutions are
more efficient, has gone the reasoning. They can match up lenders and borrowers
on a global scale. In places where money was piling up (like China or the United
Arab Emirates), banks with worldwide reach could tap into these savings and
direct them to borrowers in places where money was scarce (like Stockton,
California, or East Cleveland, Ohio). And so large-scale “transactional” banking
largely displaced small-scale “relationship” banking, following the “logic of
the market.” Looking back, however, we can see that global-scale finance wasn’t
really so efficient after all, except in the sense of being very efficient at
wasting the world’s capital on over-priced tract houses and worthless insurance.
By contrast, small-scale community banks have held up quite well during the
crisis, with micro-lenders in the developing world doing the best of all.
We see this also
in the realm of agriculture. In the United States, for the first time in
generations, the number of farmers is again on the rise. Mostly they are
small-scale family farmers producing food for local consumption, using organic,
or regenerative techniques.
The trend is
driven by two factors. One is rising consumer resistance to, and fear of, the
products of industrial agriculture, including genetically modified food, highly
processed food, and food laced with pesticides and growth hormones.
The other factor
is that industrial agriculture is reaching a tipping point in its productivity.
Oil and water, its essential inputs, are becoming increasingly scarce.
Meanwhile, the natural fertility of the soil in places that practice industrial
agriculture is becoming exhausted. Already, the rate of productivity growth on
American and European agriculture has dropped substantially in this decade
compared to the 1990s, and still more compared to the 1980s and ‘70s. World food
production no longer produces a surplus, and in recent years has fallen below
the rate of population growth, even as population growth itself has been slowing
I predict that
small scale farming in the United States, anyway, will continue to boom, due it
comparative advantage in oil and water use and in consumer preference. This
will be particularly true once policy makers realize that organic farming can
both substantially reduce carbon emissions and go a long way toward solving the
nation’s worsening health care crisis. By one credible estimate, if every farm
in the United States converted to organic production techniques, the nation’s
carbon emissions would fall by 40 percent. (2) Meanwhile, processed foods produced by industrial means using high
concentrations of fat and sugar are deeply implicated in the epidemic of obesity
that is a major threat to public health and the nation’s solvency.
At the same
time, many of the world’s citizens are being thrown back toward some form
yeomanry for lack of any attractive alternative. The train stations of coastal
China are packed with unemployed young people returning the countryside. To
alleviate Africa’s suffering, both the World Bank and the G-8 are prescribing a
revival of small-scale farming using organic techniques. With the decline of
communism and union power, employers, whether in Tokyo or Detroit, no longer
feel compelled to offer lifetime employment with generous benefits to forestall
a revolution. So now mass production shrinks along with mass consumption,
production of manufactured items seems around the corner. A technological
development to watch is the emergence of so-called “personal fabricators.” These
are digitally-driven machines, already used by companies like Nike to produce
rapid prototypes. The machines effectively allow you to “print” a three
dimensional object, such as, say, a sneaker. As with personal computers, the
size and cost of these machines (currently starting at around $18,000) will drop
quickly even as their power and potential expands.
Today, it is
already possible to use a 3-D scanner, such as the Z Scanner 700, to create a
digital blueprint of, say, a BMW tail light, and then simply print a replica for
a cost of a few cents in materials. Maybe few consumers will wind up printing
new cars in their garages, but they may well buy cars from small dealers who
have printed them locally, with huge savings in the cost of logistics and
inventory. In concept, you can even print a house as demonstrated
Behrokh Khoshnevis of the University of Southern California and the Center
for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies.
A final reason
to expect a return of yeomanry involves the global trend of falling birthrates.
In the long run, perhaps the greatest shortcoming of both communism and
corporate capitalism has been their failure to reconcile the tensions of work
and family life. For the majority of the world’s population that no longer lives
on farms or relies on home production, children are no longer an economic asset,
but an avoidable liability. And so we get fewer and fewer of them, with
resulting populating aging and for countries such as Japan and Russia now,
absolute population decline. By a Darwinian process, the future now appears to
belong to whatever societies figure out or stumble upon forms of organization
that reduce the direct and opportunity costs of parenthood, and widespread
yeomanry and home production may be just the system to that winds up doing the
Dr Phillip Longman is a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New
America Foundation. He formerly worked as a senior writer and deputy assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report. His best-known book is The Empty Cradle (2004). Republished from the World Congress of Families with permission.
(1) For an excellent account of this movement, see
Allan C. Carlson’s Third Ways: How Bulgarian Greens, Swedish Housewives, and Beer-Swilling Englishmen Created Family-Centered Economies — and Why They Disappeared. ISI Book, 2007.
(2) Tim J. LaSalle, et al, Regenerative Organic
Farming: A Solution to Global Warming, Rodale Institute, 2008,