Western civilisation is on the brink of a collapse like that of ancient Rome because the modern generation does not want the responsibility of bringing up children, the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has warned.
He singled out falling birth-rates alongside the addiction to debt, the breakup of the family unit and a growing gap between the super-rich and the rest among a handful of major crises facing Britain and other European countries which neither governments nor the market seem able to solve.
But ultimately, he said, European society as we know it “will die” because of the demographic crisis.
His intervention, in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, makes him one of only a handful of public figures in recent memory to raise the alarm about declining fertility rates as a serious social problem.
He also warned that Britain is losing its national “memory” and cultural identity because people in the digital age simply have shorter attention spans and have little grasp of history.
And he dismissed the standard of debate in the run-up to the EU referendum as shallow, parochial and “fusty” as if “from the 1950s” rather than the 21st century.
He was speaking after receiving the Templeton Prize, which, at £1.1 million, is the world’s biggest annual award, for his work promoting religious understanding.
In his address as he received the prize in Westminster recently he warned that societies had taken the trend towards outsourcing to new extremes by delegating responsibility even for moral decisions to companies or governments.
He said that, for example, many increasingly “outsource” responsibility for picking up the pieces from failed relationships to the welfare state.
But among a list of problems he said neither the market nor the state could ultimately solve he singled out the “collapse” of birth-rates throughout Europe.
This, he said had led directly to “unprecedented levels of immigration that are now the only way the West can sustain its population”.
But he added that there had been a “systemic failure” to integrate new arrivals.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, he said similar falling birthrates had been the hallmark of the last days of the Roman Empire.
There was, he said, “no question” that this poses a serious threat to the future of western civilisation as we know it.
“The contemporary historian of ancient Greece and ancient Rome saw their civilisations begin their decline and fall, both the Greeks and the Romans attributed it to falling birth rates because nobody wanted the responsibilities of bringing up children,” he said.
Both the Greeks and the Romans attributed it to falling birth rates because nobody wanted the responsibilities of bringing up childrenLord Sacks
“They were too focussed on enjoying the present to make the sacrifices necessary to build the future …. all the historians of civilisation have told the same story.”
Although birth rates in Britain rose in the first decade of the new century – a trend fuelled partly by immigration – they have since fallen back to similar levels to those seen in the early 1990s.
The most recent official figures show that just over 695,200 babies were born in England and Wales in 2014 – 21 per cent below the peak seen during the 1960s baby boom.
At the same time the population is becoming older, with the number of people over 75 rising by 89 per cent in a generation.
The Office for National Statistics pointed out that this would, however, be significantly higher were it not for high levels of immigration.
They won’t be integrated into Europe because when a culture loses its memory it loses its identity and when a culture loses its identity there’s nothing left for people to integrate intoLord Sacks
“Europe is going to die because of this because Europe can only maintain its population by unprecedented levels of immigration,” said Rabbi Sacks.
“Now those could be integrated into Europe but they won’t be integrated into Europe because when a culture loses its memory it loses its identity and when a culture loses its identity there’s nothing left for people to integrate into.”
Crucially, he argued that the demographic change could be linked a loss of religious faith in the West, which for centuries has been associated with a high regard for the institution of the family.
“Contemporary historians … right now, have failed to find a single historical example of a society that became secularised and maintained its birth rate over subsequent centuries,” he argued.
He added: “That’s how great civilisations decline and fall.
“The weird thing is that the only people who refuse to acknowledge this really are the new atheists all of whom are worshippers of a figure up in Heaven with a long beard, Charles Darwin.
“And if Charles Darwin taught us anything it is judge species by their reproductive success.”
He insisted that mass immigration would not provide a long-term solution to the demographic crisis because the UK is increasingly ill equipped to integrate new arrivals as it was forgetting its own national identity and history.
There are two very powerful historical narratives, one for leaving, one for staying, but nobody has tried to do thatLord Sacks
“The debate has been great and vigorous but what is it turning on? How much money will this cost us; will it make it easier or harder to control immigration.
“These matters … are important but in the long run the fact is that we have historical narratives that should have been spoken about and haven’t.
“One is the historical narrative of England, that extraordinary history that runs all the way through from Shakespeare to Elgar to Blake. The second is the other narrative, of Europe in the 20th Century, two world wars, tens of millions of deaths and the original vision … the people who really passionately believed and believe in Europe were people who came through the Second World War and vowed let is create a Europe where this can never happen again.
“There are two very powerful historical narratives, one for leaving, one for staying, but nobody has tried to do that and it tells you that it is very difficult to speak in these memory terms and narrative terms at all.”
The root of the problem, he said is global epidemic of diminishing attention spans in the age of social media.
He explained: “People forget how Britain won its freedom – you know: Civil War; that extraordinary thinking through in the 17th Century done by John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke.
“Freedom doesn’t just happen.
“You have the classic example of this, the Arab Spring, 2011. Now people start Googling and using Facebook, tyrants are toppled and you think, that’s it you press a button and Google will do the rest.
“Yes, tyrants were deposed but what succeeded them was not freedom but anarchy.
“And indeed terrible anarchy of a kind that we know basically from Hobbes after the wars of religion of Europe when he spoke about the stave of nature as being the war of every man against every man in which life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.
“[That] is a precise description of life in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Somalia or Libya today. People think freedom is the default option, that it’s the default setting on your phone.
“Freedom is not a default setting anywhere, freedom has to be fought for.”