In the Spring 2008 edition of The Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Kathryn Joyce did a review of the film Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family. Joyce wrote:
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.
Perhaps it is time to re-look at what was said in this film.
One of the most ominous events of modern history is quietly unfolding. Social scientists and economists agree — we are headed toward a demographic winter which threatens to have catastrophic social and economic consequences. The effects will be severe and long lasting and are already becoming manifest in much of Europe.
This ground breaking film draws upon experts from many different disciplines and reveals in chilling soberness the dangers facing society and the world’s economies, dangers far more imminent than global warming and at least as severe.