One of the biggest challenges currently facing many European countries (as well as, e.g., Japan) seems to be the contraction of its population – i.e., exactly the opposite of what is the problem globally. When you ask a politician or an economist, or a demographer, you will be told that this challenge is a really daunting one – it calls into question one of the foundations of European wealth, the welfare state. However, tough as the demographic overthrow is in the short to middle run and seen locally, it is worthwhile to ask whether it is in the long run and when a global view is taken, too.
It is well-known that the “optimal” demographic structure of the society is a stable one, visualized by the stationary population pyramid. Meanwhile, in many European countries the tendency is toward a contracting pyramid-structure, as exemplified in the following picture (it shows the projected demographic structure of the German population in 2050):
The consequences of this so called stage five of the demographic transition can be dire. In Europe they are already beginning to be felt. The most problematic issue appears to be the transition of the workforce structure – ever fewer people are working, ever more are pension receivers. Since the system in most countries is so that the currently working are effectively financing the current pensioners, it comes to tensions and deficits in the pension system. At the same time, tax revenues are declining, since there are less workpeople to tax; health care expenditures are rising, since elder people are more prone to illnesses (and, what is often forgotten, we are able to treat ever more disabilities, thus further raising overall costs); xenophobic sentiments are also rising, since people fear to be “outreproduced” by the more fertile immigrants from poorer countries.
All these are short- to middle-term consequences. They are dire and to handle them is a great challenge for European societies. Nevertheless, less population is not necessarily only a bad thing – especially when the long run and global aspects are considered.
It is rather improbable that European populations contract until they vanish. Sooner or later they are going to stabilize – though at a much lower level than the approximately 750 million people inhabiting the continent today. When that happens, we should be glad – a smaller population means less pressures on ecosystems and the Earth’s resources, more space for everyone, less congestion etc. Since one of humanity’s greatest worries is that of overpopulation, it cannot be entirely bad if there is going to be significantly fewer people somewhere. Of course, Europe’s demographic contraction alone is by far not enough to solve the global population problem. But is can and should be seen as a contribution.
The fact is that, as was emphasized by ecological economists since the 60’s, humanity’s environmental impact = per capita resource use * population, with a broad definition of resources. Trivial as this equation appears, it contains a very important message – the fewer people living on Earth (assuming a constant per capita impact), the lower their impact on the global environment, especially when these people have a high per capita resource use (as Europeans do). Furthermore, this is equally true for local environments. If you made a trip through Europe, you wouldn’t find many intact ecosystems – despite the fact that the Europeans’ needs have become so big that much of the environmental distortions necessary to satisfy them take place outside of the continent. So, if there were meaningfully less people in Europe, their pressure on resources in Europe as well as elsewhere would become lighter – even though Europeans are only slightly more than 10% of the world population. The long run considered, we can only welcome such a development.
So, is Europe’s population problem really one? Yes, it is. The transition period during which the population contracts has already begun, and it will not be easy to handle it. The European welfare state model may well need a deep reform. And it may well be that this transition period will be painful. But, on the other hand, there is a positive side of this demographic challenge. It can contribute to a process of lessening humanity’s pressure on the Earth’s resources – the resources our livelihoods are fully dependent on and which we have ever less of. Indeed, it is possible that, in the long run, we (or, more aptly, our descendants) will be better off because of what we are now considering a great problem.