Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, June 11, 2007

Falling Birth Rates

by Jawaharlal Nehru

Even though human population seems to have multiplied far beyond numbers the Earth can sustain, corporate and political propagandists of Japan and other materially rich nations constantly lament falling birth rates. The following words seem as pertinent today as they were when Jawaharlal Nehru wrote them during 1942 to 1946 while imprisoned in his own country by the British as they finished looting it. The text is from pages 553 to 557 of the 1985 Oxford University Press edition his classic book, The Discovery of India.
-- Bill Totten

What is the cause of this widespread phenomenon of falling birth-rates? The increasing use of contraceptives and the desire to have small regulated families may have produced some effect, but it is generally recognized that this has not made any great difference. In Ireland, which is a catholic country and where contraceptives are presumably little used, a fall in the birth-rate started earlier than in other countries. Probably the increasing postponement of marriages in the west is one of the causes. Economic factors may have some influence but even that is hardly an important consideration. It is well known that as a rule fertility is higher among the poor than among the rich, as it is also higher in rural areas than in urban. A smaller group can maintain higher standards, and the growth of individualism lessens the importance of the group and the race. Professor J B S. Haldane tells us that it is a general rule that in a great many civilized societies those types which are regarded in the particular society in question as admirable are less fertile than the general run of the population. Thus those societies would appear to be biologically unstable. Large families are often associated with inferior intelligence. Economic success is also supposed to be the opposite of biological success.

Little seems to be known about the basic causes behind the falling birth-rate, though many subsidiary ones are suggested. It is possible, however, that certain physiological and biological reasons lie at the back of it - the kind of life industrialized communities lead and the environment in which they live. A deficient diet, alcoholism, neurotic conditions or poor health generally, mental or physical, affect reproduction. And yet disease-ridden and insufficiently fed communities, as in India, still reproduce themselves at a prodigious rate. Perhaps the strain and stress of modern life, the ceaseless competition and worry, lessen fertility. Probably the divorce from the life-giving soil is an important factor. Even in America the fertility of farm labourers is considerably more than double that of the professional classes.

It would seem that the kind of modern civilization that developed first in the west and spread elsewhere, and especially the metropolitan life that has been its chief feature, produces an unstable society which gradually loses its vitality. Life advances in many fields and yet it loses its grip; it becomes more artificial and slowly ebbs away. More and more stimulants are needed - drugs to enable us to sleep or to perform our other natural functions, foods and drinks that tickle the palate and produce a momentary exhilaration at the cost of weakening the system, and special devices to give us a temporary sensation of pleasure and excitement - and after the stimulation comes the reaction and a sense of emptiness. With all its splendid manifestations and real achievements, we have created a civilization which has something counterfeit about it. We eat ersatz foods produced with the help of ersatz fertilizers; we indulge in ersatz emotions and our human relations seldom go below the superficial plane. The advertiser is one of the symbols of our age with his continuous and raucous attempts to delude us and dull our powers of perception and induce us to buy unnecessary and even harmful products. I am not blaming others for this state of affairs. We are all products of this age with the characteristics of our generation, equally entitled to credit or blame. Certainly I am as much a part of this civilization, that I both appreciate and criticize, as any one else and my habits and ways of thought are conditioned by it.

What is wrong with modern civilization which produces at the roots these signs of sterility and racial decadence? But this is nothing new, it has happened before and history is full of examples of it. Imperial Rome in its decline was far worse. Is there a cycle governing this inner decay and can we seek out the causes and eliminate them? Modern industrialism and the capitalist structure of society cannot be the sole causes, for decadence has often occurred without them. It is probable, however, that in their present forms they do create an environment, a physical and mental climate, which is favourable for the functioning of those causes. If the basic cause is something spiritual, something affecting the mind and spirit of man, it is difficult to grasp though we may try to understand it or intuitively feel it. But one fact seems to stand out: that a divorce from the soil, from the good earth, is bad for the individual and the race.

The earth and the sun are the sources of life and if we keep away from them for long life begins to ebb away. Modern industrialized communities have lost touch with the soil and do not experience that joy which nature gives and the rich glow of health which comes from contact with mother earth. They talk of nature's beauty and go to seek it in occasional week-ends, littering the countryside with the product of their own artificial lives, but they cannot commune with nature or feel part of it. It is something to look at and admire, because they are told to do so, and then return with a sigh of relief to their normal haunts; just as they might try to admire some classic poet or writer and then, wearied by the attempt, return to their favourite novel or detective story, where no effort of mind is necessary. They are not children of nature, like the old Greeks or Indians, but strangers paying an embarrassing call on a scarce-known distant relative. And so they do not experience that joy in nature's rich life and infinite variety and that feeling of being intensely alive which came so naturally to our forefathers. Is it surprising then that nature treats them as unwanted step-children?

We cannot go back to that old pantheistic outlook and yet perhaps we may still sense the mystery of nature, listen to its song of life and beauty, and draw vitality from it. That song is not sung in the chosen spots only, and we can hear it, if we have the ears for it, almost everywhere. But there are some places where it charms even those who are unprepared for it and comes like the deep notes of a distant and powerful organ. Among these favoured spots is Kashmir where loveliness dwells and an enchantment steals over the senses. Writing about Kashmir, M Foucher, the French savant, says:

"May I go further and say what I believe to be the true reason for this special charm of Kashmir, the charm which everybody seeks, even those who do not try to analyse it? It cannot be only because of its magnificent woods, the pure limpidity of its lakes, the splendour of its snowy mountain tops, or the happy murmur of its myriad brooks sounding in the cool soft air. Nor can it be only the grace or majesty of its ancient buildings, though the ruins of Martand rise at the prow of their Karewa as proudly as a Greek temple on a promontory, and the little shrine of Payar, carved out of ten stones, has the perfect proportions of the choragic monuments of Lysicrates. One cannot even say that it comes of the combination of art and landscape, for fine buildings in a romantic setting are to be found in many other countries. But what is found in Kashmir alone is the grouping of these two kinds of beauty in the midst of a nature still animated with a mysterious life, which knows how to whisper close to our ears and make the pagan depths of us quiver, which leads us back, consciously or unconsciously, to those past days lamented by the poet, when the world was young, when

le ciel sur la terre
Marchait et respirait dans un peuple de dieux."

-- A Foucher, L'art Greco-Bouddhique du Gandhara ii (Paris, 1918)

But my purpose is not to praise Kashmir, though my partiality for it occasionally leads me astray, nor to advance an argument in favour of pantheism, though I am pagan enough to believe that a touch of paganism, is good for the mind and body. I do think that life cut off completely from the soil will ultimately wither away. Of course there is seldom such a complete cutting off and the processes of nature take their time. But it is a weakness of modern civilization that it is progressively going further away from the life-giving elements. The competitive and acquisitive characteristics of modern capitalist society, the enthronement of wealth above everything else, the continuous strain and the lack of security for many, add to the ill-health of the mind and produce neurotic states. A saner and more balanced economic structure would lead to an improvement of these conditions. Even so it will be necessary to have greater and more living contacts with the land and nature. This does not mean a return to the land in the old and limited sense of the word, or to a going back to primitive ways of life. That remedy might well be worse than the disease. It should be possible to organize modern industry in such a way as to keep men and women, as far as possible, in touch with the land, and to raise the cultural level of the rural areas. The village and the city should approach each other in regard to life's amenities, so that in both there should be full opportunities for bodily and mental development and a full all-rounded life.

That this can be done I have little doubt, provided only that people want to do it. At present there is no such widespread desire and our energies are diverted (apart from killing each other) in producing ersatz products and ersatz amusements. I have no basic objection to most of these, and some I think are definitely desirable, but they absorb the time that might often be better employed and give a wrong perspective to life. Artificial fertilisers are in great demand to-day and I suppose they do good in their own way. But it does seem odd to me that in their enthusiasm for the artificial product, people should forget natural manure and even waste it and throw it away. Only China, as a nation, has had the good sense to make full use of the natural stuff. Some experts say that artificial fertilisers, though producing quick results, weaken the soil by depriving it of some essential ingredients, and thus the land grows progressively more sterile. With the earth, as with our individual lives, there is far too much of burning the candle at both ends. We take her riches from her at a prodigious pace and give little or nothing back.

We are proud of our increasing ability to produce almost anything in the chemical laboratory. From the age of steam, we proceeded to that of electricity and now we are in an age of biotechnics and electronics. The age of social science, which we hope will solve many of the intimate problems that trouble us so much, looms ahead. We are also told that we are on the threshold of the magnesium-aluminium age and as both these metals are extremely abundant and universally distributed, there can be no lack for any one. The new chemistry is building a new life for mankind. We seem to be on the verge of increasing enormously the power resources of humanity and all manner of epoch-making discoveries hover over the near future.

All this is very comforting and yet a doubt creeps into my mind. It is not lack of power that we suffer from but a misuse of the power we possess or not a proper application of it. Science gives power but remains impersonal, purposeless, and almost unconcerned with our application of the knowledge it puts at our disposal. It may continue its triumphs and yet, if it ignores nature too much, nature may play a subtle revenge upon it. While life seems to grow in outward stature, it may ebb away inside for lack of something yet undiscovered by science.

Bill Totten


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