Siena, Italy

IN 1348, THE BLACK DEATH took the lives of 70,000 of this city's 100,000 inhabitants. Siena, whose exquisite art still amazes, never again had a population that large. Today, it numbers just 56,000.

The Black Death was traced to infected rats aboard a merchant ship from the Crimea that stopped in Sicily. The diseases carried by those rats ravaged not only Italy but all of Europe. The loss of life ranged from 12 percent in a city or region to the 70 percent reported in Siena. "No one wept for the dead," wrote a denizen of the devastated city, "because everyone expected death himself."

Today, a visitor to Italy is struck by the fact that demographic destruction is occurring once again, though this time more slowly. There is no Black Death, no communicable disease that the destruction can be blamed on. But the fact is that Italy is depopulating itself, and it is doing so by human choice. Procreation, you could say, is suffering. Simply put, Italians are having very few babies--actually, too few for Italy to survive.

Italy now has the lowest birthrate (1.23 children per woman) in Europe and the second lowest in the world. If Italy's "rate of reproduction continues," London's Sunday Telegraph recently noted, "Italians will slowly but surely die out."

A similar demographic destruction is visiting other European countries, for most of them also have birthrates well below what is necessary to maintain current population levels (thought to be 2.1 children per woman). Consider that the population of Spain will decline from 40 million to 31.3 million by 2050 if the birthrate in that country persists unchanged.

It isn't hard to see the immediate problems facing a Europe lacking sufficiently high birthrates. Most obviously, the lavish, cradle-to-grave welfare states found throughout the continent will want for new workers and the taxes they would pay--unless immigration soars. But immigration brings its own problems, not least (in a post-September 11 world) terrorism and the cells that support it.

Of course, welfare benefits could be cut. In Italy, for example, the retirement age would have to be raised from a mere 55. But trimming the welfare state requires political will, and it isn't obvious that aging populations that clearly like living in the "present moment," as one European history scholar told me, will acquiesce.

THEY MAY HAVE no other choice, especially if Europe is going to develop a military capability to defend itself (once the United States withdraws its troops). Europe has been able to enjoy "paradise," in Robert Kagan's keen analysis--a paradise made possible by the fact that its security has relied upon American power. Now, though, the time for assuming responsibility for a government's most important task has arrived.

European governments hold out hope that their populations won't wither but stabilize and even increase. Officials (tutored by economists) tend to regard a too low birthrate as a problem of supply that can be corrected as all such problems are--by offering behavioral incentives, meaning money.

Italy recently began offering 1,000 euros (roughly $1,200) to every woman who has a second child. That experiment will be closely watched. Meanwhile, working Italian women continue to complain about their husbands, who they say do too little work around the house. If the men helped out more, they say, they would have a second child.

MAYBE. But maybe, too, the low birthrates of Italy and Europe generally are symptomatic of a much deeper problem. That Europe is secular (and American religious, an unnerving fact in Europe) is undisputed. But the problem of a secular society, as the British historian Christopher Dawson long ago pointed out, is that it "has no end beyond its own satisfaction." Such a society may have a harder time turning from its own pleasures to take on the responsibility of raising children.

"A baby," Carl Sandburg once said, "is God's opinion that the world should go on." In secular Europe, God's opinion may not be regarded as very important. A continent whose graying populations are wealthier and healthier than ever apparently prefers to do things other than perpetuate the human future.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

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