Is Europe’s Population Problem Really One?

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):

CC-licence: Breßler from de.wikipedia.org

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.

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9 thoughts on “Is Europe’s Population Problem Really One?

  1. You may look at the problem in two different and very general ways ( at least).

    1. Humanity is part of the environment. Consequently whatever we do it is a natural process of change with all resulting consequences. If so then our attempts to change and resist are an artificial attempt to change a natural sequence of events.

    2. Humanity is a foreign and predatory body. If the aim is to protect the Earth then we should eradicte humanity ie. ourselves.

    In my view we fit into the first category and whatever we do it is part and parcel of the process of change. Species die out and it is possible that one day we will cease to exist. For some of us that seem be the best solution
    as faras the environement is concerned. Having said that it seems to me some of us put us in the latter category.

    Regards,
    .

  2. Of course 1) is true. We are a part of the environment. We are a species like every other in many ways and may cease to exist some day (the Earth might be glad if it happens). But there is one (big) difference: we are a species blessed with what we commonly call conscience consciousness (and, sometimes, some traces of intelligence as well). At the same time, like all species, we want to survive. So, while all we do is in some way “natural”, there are actions endangering our survival in the long term, and there are other that give us more chance to keep on existing. Our conscience consciousness is supposed to help us to choose the “better” or “optimal” way of living.

    Currently it looks like we behave as if we wouldn’t really care for the long-term survival of our species. It is my right to point out to that and try to change it, for I think it is worthwhile. I would be glad to know that humanity is going to do well in the future – even though I don’t really “like” humans.

    Honestly, I don’t really understand your point: do you want to suggest that we shouldn’t try to make our world “better” (i.e., effectively, improve the odds that our species survive), since all we do is “natural”? For the consequence of such thinking would be to call for not doing anything – also called fatalism. I hope, I haven’t understood your point rightly.

  3. @ vandermerwe:

    But it’s a false dichotomy. Really, it’s not as if we had to choose only between joining the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement and our sacred, God-given right to do whatever the hell we want to with the environment.

    It’s more like “with great power comes great responsibility”.

  4. @ Zielonygrzyb & asmoeth

    In a way we are like elephants – power, intelligence, well developed social structures and ability to destroy. If a leaf is beyond reach an elephant will topple a tree. The elephants do care for their own but do not really go beyond that. In a way this is how it works – forces of nature do the rest.
    We may believe that ageing and decline in population numbers in the developed world is of our own choice and deeply rooted in our scentific considerations – to the benefit of the environment. Could be, but it also might be a result of nature’s intervention with the final results neither know nor understood by us.
    As for “save the world” I am of the opinion it is another “hobby” of powerful, rich and “bored” nations which seem to think there is nothing more to be achieved.

    Regards,

  5. @ vandermerwe:

    There is one are two huge differences between us and elephants: the latter are not able to destroy their own livelihood (we are – indeed, it is what we have been doing for a few decades already), and the former (we) are harming their (our) environment not necessarily while satisfying our basic needs/making sure that we survive. Driving cars or polluting rivers as a byproduct of apparel manufacturing don’t make our chances to survive higher.

    We may believe that ageing and decline in population numbers in the developed world is of our own choice and deeply rooted in our scentific considerations

    It is by no means our own choice. In the aggregate, as a society, we hardly welcome the declining population. This is another example of a social dilemma. But that’s not the point – I only wanted to show that Europe’s current demographic transition is not necessarily a bad thing, that it depends on the vantage point.

    There is a difference between “saving the world” and trying to make it at least a little bit better. Effectively there may be no difference, but the former appears much more arrogant. And, by the way: what’s wrong about that? If you welcome not caring about the world, you shouldn’t bother if there is somebody who cares.

    One last point: there are many people in the developing world who have engaged in “saving the world”. Just look at the list of laureates of the Right Livelihood Award (a.k.a., the Alternative Nobel Prize). It’s not just a hobby of some “bored rich”.

  6. “the latter are not able to destroy their own livelihood ”

    Yes, they are able to do just that.

    I have not used words “right” or “wrong”. Shouldn’t it be the case that before we get to really big things we should sort out things much smaller. Look at the mess the world is in. One cannot believe what is going on in Europe – a scenery more associated with the developing/third world ( South America(?), Africa(?)). Forget for a moment other parts of the world.
    Going back to the starting point of this discussion. Declining population numbers might be seen as an environmental blessing in disguise. But do we know the population levels at which a modern ( in fact complex) society will be still functioning? Are we sure the decline, once initiated, can be stopped at will or reversed. Some historians link the decline of Roman Empire ( amongst other things) to a declining birth rate.
    If we turn the clock back and start living as our grandfathers had done would it benefit the environment? How true is this? There is an interesting book by H.Melville ” Moby Dick or The Whale”. The story aside, the book indirectly tells us that 200 years ago, without modern whale hunting tools, human beings had managed to decimate whale population.

    Regards,

  7. I sometimes wonder whether you are discussing with me or with someone else…

    Shouldn’t it be the case that before we get to really big things we should sort out things much smaller.

    If you are going to have a ride with your car and you suspect that the brakes are broken (a big issue), will you go to the mechanic to let him fix the air conditioning system first?

    One cannot believe what is going on in Europe – a scenery more associated with the developing/third world ( South America(?), Africa(?)).

    What do you mean?

    But do we know the population levels at which a modern ( in fact complex) society will be still functioning?

    We don’t know. The fact is that in societal matters we mostly don’t know until we experience something. That’s what I am writing about here all the time. Furthermore, I’ll repeat myself: I am not calling for a demographic transition (it is already taking place, whether I want it or not). I just have tried to show that it may be a good thing.

    Some historians link the decline of Roman Empire ( amongst other things) to a declining birth rate.

    I’m currently reading a very interesting book – “The Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb. And I found his comment on such “findings” by historicians striking – it is easy to find “causes” ex post. A lot of them. But there is no way to find out which is the “true” one (and, for that matter, whether there is a “true” one). Furthermore, you cannot project what happened with the Roman Empire into the present/future. These are two quite different worlds.

    If we turn the clock back and start living as our grandfathers had done would it benefit the environment?

    Who said that we should?

  8. “What do you mean?”
    About Europe? Europe is in a mess, don’ you see that?

    ““The Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb. And I found his comment on such “findings” by historicians striking – it is easy to find “causes” ex post.”

    But here is the problem, we find we have erred “post factum”. So be careful with applauding declining population numbers.

    “Who said that we should?”

    One may get to that conclusion after analysing various ideas to “save the world”.

    “Furthermore, you cannot project what happened with the Roman Empire into the present/future. These are two quite different worlds.”

    Why not? This is still the same world populated by human beings. What about “Moby Dick” case. Is it also irrelevant?

    Regards,

  9. Europe is in a mess, don’ you see that?

    I would be pleased if you could get a little bit more concrete. And, whatever you mean, I don’t see the point here – I haven’t written anything about ignoring Europe’s problems.

    It was intentionally that I wrote “causes”, and not just causes. I wanted to emphasize that it could well be that demographic structure had nothing to do with the decline of the Roman Empire – we don’t and probably cannot know (although you are right, there might have been a link – but about the consequence of that, see below).

    One may get to that conclusion after analysing various ideas to “save the world”.

    I thought we are discussing my post, not “various ideas to “save the world””. And, if you insist on discussing them, get concrete! Which ideas?

    Why not?

    Hmm… Let me think… You worried about the possible negative impact of declining birth rates on society. Then you made the inference that we should worry since some historians that the Roman Empire and its society fell apart because of declining birth rates. Now, tell me, how many similarities do you find between the societal structures of the Roman Empire and today’s Europe?

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