Review: Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family
The Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Spring 2008 (article not available online)

Kathryn Joyce
Review: Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family
Acuity Productions, 56 min. 

Settling in to watch the counterintuitive “depopulation threat” documentary, Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family, feels disorientingly like life imitating art, or more specifically, social science imitating apocalypse cinema. Above an ominous, skeletal piano score, telegraphing a claustrophobic sense of impending doom, an assembly of prominent conservative researchers and pundits, including Nobel laureate Gary Becker and academics from conservative think-tanks, ruefully predicts a new end-of-days. Everywhere throughout the film, there is a plague of disappearing bodies, particularly children’s bodies, literally vanishing from the screen.  The children, classrooms full of them, become translucent and fade from dens, swing sets, teeter-totters, bikes and shady suburban walkways as flurries of snowflakes start to fly.  Over it all a voiceover, read by a female narrator, lends the film an eerily automated calm, recalling a familiar science fiction juxtaposition: humanity rendered impotent beside an unflappable computerized countdown. The effect is a clear arrow pointing to mankind’s culpability in its downfall, having tampered with the established order to the point of self-destruction: a timeworn morality tale science fiction lifted from religion.

The same moral is intended in Demographic Winter, but the original sin isn’t the creation of tyrannical artificial intelligence, or the destruction of the environment, but rather the failure of people worldwide to have enough children to replace their old and dying, a cultural shift in family planning and size that has led to falling birthrates globally, but particularly in the affluent, developed nations of the West. The sin that preoccupies the entire documentary – though such morally-infused terms are assiduously avoided throughout the film –is birth control and the sexual revolution, and the widespread cultural decision of women to limit their fertility. But you have to listen hard to identify that agenda, because instead of laying that argument out, the movie is a projection of social conservative fears about what changes to traditional family structures will bring, a vivid dystopia illustrated with both futuristic doomsday imagery and a catalogue of historical horrors: the disappearing bodies a gentle rendition of nuclear flash incineration; the snow that replaces them at once evoking atomic and crematorium ashes, as well as emblemizing the frostier demographic death the filmmakers envision. Either way, it signals massive dying, and in case the rhetorical stakes for the demographic winter theory aren’t high enough, the filmmakers declared, in a banner at their Heritage Foundation premiere in mid-February, that the film’s topic is, “the single most powerful force directing the fate and future of society.”

The argument put forth in Demographic Winter is a familiar one to those who have been watching conservative strategy develop over the past several years: that with birthrates falling globally over the last half-century, and in most developed nations falling below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per woman, the ratio of young to old will shift dramatically and wreak havoc upon existing social security and healthcare systems. The economy at large may also suffer, as the elderly cease spending and a smaller generation of workers is crippled by the taxes needed to support their parents. And the reasons why it’s occurring is a litany of culture-war complaints: women working, the “divorce revolution,” the sexual revolution (including cohabitation and the pill), worries, or what the filmmakers call “inaccurate presumptions,” about overpopulation and limited resources, and an affluence that leads to fewer children. It’s a massive failure to be fruitful and multiply, writ large, but again, such religious cues are kept off-screen.

The world this will bring about, according to the filmmakers, is bleak: grandparents left untended and alone in the streets of Europe as intergenerational bonds are shattered; the potential desolation of small countries such as Latvia, and a worldwide depression that will touch even those countries that don’t disappear under the sheath of snow that the film shows blanketing the entire globe. So argues Harry S. Dent, Jr., an economist who specializes in “demographic-based economic forecasting,” and who predicts that the West will follow Japan’s aging population bust.

But there’s a more insidious undercurrent to the “demographic winter” argument as well, one its proponents fiercely deny, but which nonetheless permeates nearly all of the current debate on demographic worries: that the concern is not a general lack of babies, but the cultural shifts that come when some populations, particularly immigrant communities, are feared to be out-procreating others. This has become a standard right-wing argument in Europe and the U.S., launching a series of books since 2001 that predict a coming Muslim onslaught that will displace traditional Western populations, from Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West, to George Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral, and Melanie Phillips’s Londanistan, and fostering anti-immigrant neologisms such as “Eurabia,” a term hinting at a conspiracy to “Islamicize” Europe and render the continent a Muslim colony. Coupled with cultural tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims from The Netherlands to Switzerland, “demographic winter” a potent escalation of rhetoric. The specter of this threat is raised at the close of the Demographic Winter, but broached very obliquely, through the sort of dog-whistle code that has come to characterize many conversations about racial anxieties.

“No part of the world stays dominant forever,” say Dent, toward the close of the film. “Rome was great, but now, Italy, it’s doing well, but is nowhere near ruling the world.” Another speaker, David Popenoe, of the National Marriage Project, summarizes the moral of the movie in its closing line, “Maybe the time of Western civilization has come and now we’re going into a retreat,” before the screen cuts abruptly to black. It’s a subtle-enough message that it may pass under the radar of many thoughtful viewers unaware of the background of the film and its backers.

In an interesting happenstance, Dent’s father was the late Harry S. Dent, Sr., a top Nixon aide largely credited for developing the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy,” broadly criticized as a race-baiting ploy to tap white southerners’ racial fears for political gain. Without intending to visit the father’s sins on the son, it is a poignant legacy for a film connected to a new global profamily movement that has taken has taken such marketing savvy to an entirely new level, advancing an ideologically- and religiously-driven agenda to a global audience with quiet and incisive appeals to the anxieties the Western world feels about its increasingly multicultural societies.

Part of this undercurrent to the film is clarified by its backstory. Demographic Winter was produced by Barry McLerran, executive director of a conservative Utah-based grant making organization, the Family First Foundation, and Rick Stout (also editor), a Brigham Young University graduate. The film was shot, in substantial part, at the 2007 meeting of the World Congress of Families (WCF), an international, interfaith gathering of conservative and religious right activists and scholars who cross religious and denominational lines to work together on profamily social issues, uniting all the “Children of Abraham” against gay marriage, abortion and birth control, no-fault divorce and sex ed. If it’s a familiar line-up of issues to American political observers, it should be: the organizers and key sponsors of the Congress are overwhelmingly prominent figures of the U.S. evangelical, Catholic and Mormon right. When they gathered last year in Warsaw, the filmmakers – tied closely to the Congress as the board of McLerran’s Family First Foundation is composed entirely of WCF leaders and speakers – were on hand to interview speakers for the Conference’s theme: “Beyond Demographic Winter: Springtime for Europe and the World.” The optimistic “springtime” solution to “demographic winter” was promoting aggressive pronatalist policies that would encourage a traditionalist family structure they call “the natural family.”

Part of the undercurrent of the WCF was the Congress’s slogan that Poland, as a devout exception to Europe’s secularist norm, could “save” the continent “again” by leading a religious, profamily resurgence. The “again” referenced a 17th Century battle between Poland’s “Holy Army” and the invading Ottoman Empire: an ancient holy war between Christians and Muslims that, WCF organizers implied, was now being replayed in the maternity ward. It seemed a clear message about Europe’s increasingly visible Muslim populations: that they were, in the words of one WCF speaker, “too many, and too culturally different from their new countries’ populations to assimilate quickly…They are contributing to the cultural suicide of these nations as they commit demographic suicide.”

But that speaker, a leading U.S. Catholic anti-contraception activist, is not present in the film. Nor are the conference’s scores of religious right activists. Nor even, following editorial changes to the film made after its February premiere, are a number of leaders who appeared in the film’s trailer, including WCF organizers who spoke of the coming death of Europe, and a France inhabited entirely by non-natives. The orthodox religiosity which informs the profamily movement that gave birth to this film has been disappeared as summarily as the children vanishing in frame after frame of the movie, leaving a shell of social science arguments and a vague binding of “values” to depict what is, in truth, an argument deeply shaped by conservative Christian politics. 

There’s a reason for the deletion, besides possible responses to or anticipation of criticism. Demographic Winter is an entry in the growing canon of profamily scholarship that seeks to make an “air-tight case” for the theological ideas of the “natural family” based on social science alone, de-sublimating Biblical claims into research-driven theories.

And so research is what makes up the film, interspersing commentary with footage of decaying European ruins and dramatizations of failed modern families, and graphics ostensibly explaining those ruined buildings and marriages: charting declining fertility, projected depopulation, economic forecasts, and speculative correlational arguments about divorce’s relation to poverty, academic failure, and even environmental waste (due to increased single-parent households). The effect is an onslaught of data, some of which has been criticized by liberal organizations as misleading, often delivered without context besides the invisible rubric of the profamily agenda: that the traditional family as defined by American religious conservatives isn’t just desirable, but is necessary for the survival of the world.

Yet, here and there, the ghost of orthodox theology informing the film reappears. The voiceover explains, “As a society, we don’t like to talk about the causes of fertility decline. We don’t want to possibly offend other people. The really chilling thing about demographic winter is that none of these causes can be easily fixed. It’s who we are, who we have become increasingly in these post-modern times.” Other speakers signal their value-judgments, as a Manhattan Institute researcher derides young adults who postpone marriage until their late twenties as “child-men” incapable of responsibility in the new era of sexual freedom and increased gender equality, and another conservative sociologist lays fertility declines at the door of “value changes…attitudes, values, beliefs, characteristics of the individual.”

But there’s hope, the film declares, in academics coming to revalue a “very old institution”: meaning the natural family, in its traditionalist, patriarchal fullness, from expectations of fertility and gender-appropriate roles to difficult divorces and abstinence promotion. It’s a religious right platform, minus its traditional center, God. But speaker Phillip Longman, a centrist Democrat at the New America Foundation who works with the profamily movement on demographic issues, summarizes the implied ultimatum: Certain kinds of human beings,” just like the “sterile pagan nobility” of the fading Roman empire, “are on their way to extinction. People who for lack of faith don’t go forth and multiply.” The only solution Longman sees, quickly dismissing the progressive “Swedish model” welfare state that subsidizes more equitable parenthood, is a “return to traditional values: patriarchy, properly understood.”

For all its academic prestige and sci-fi conceits, this is the thrust of the demographic winter argument and the conservative ideology it quietly promotes. The guiding agenda of the film is almost entirely submerged, iceberg-style, so only the secular veneer of social science shows. While there is certainly room and need to work on the issues raised by demographers concerned about falling fertility, this documentary is no neutral starting point for that discussion. What lies below its surface is immense.