Is demography destiny?
Europe reached a historic turning point in 1998. The population expanded to 728 million and then, for the first time in centuries, stopped growing. According to projections Europe will be the only continent in the coming centuries which is effectively becoming emptier. This development provokes wildly different reactions. Some rave about full employment and paint a future of smaller classes, more parking spaces, fewer traffic jams and shorter queues. Some also hope that this will send out an important signal to those countries whose populations are still rapidly expanding. Others fear that a shrinking number of tax-payers will necessitate a less generous state and lead to rising poverty. Predictions of depreciating human capital, rising public debt and collapsing social-security systems provokes anxiety.
Demographic change and intergenerational justice
There are many indications that this demographic change will strain the public finances, lead to problems for the social security system and cause public debt to increase. The environment should, however, benefit from a shrinking population (although this is not necessarily the case if people live longer). The loss of biodiversity and the flooding and erosion problems caused by too few trees and too many paved surfaces might be eased by a shrinking population in any case, even if a population’s life-style and resource consumption has a much greater effect on the environment than its raw size.
Demographic change is already well under way. In the short to medium-term strategies will certainly be needed to make the most of the positive aspects and to minimise the negative ones as much as possible.
It will probably make sense to de-centralise public utilities and ameneties as much as possible, setting them up to serve a smaller number of people who may be spread over a wider area. Constructed wetlands could deal with sewage and waste water of relatively small settlements in a clean, green and pleasant way, municipal taxis could make more sense than big busses and emty gyms could serve as showrooms. Shrinkage is not necessarily bad.
Demographers point out that lag-effects (“population momentum”) mean that shrinking populations are unavoidable in the developed nations of the world, at least in the near term. Measures taken now could only start arresting the decline after around 2050. Herwig Birg has calculated that the population of Germany would only stop shrinking by around 2080 if the fertility rate reached the replacement rate (the rate at which the population size remains stable) by 2030. Even if 150,000 young people migrated into Germany every year the population would carry on shrinking until 2068. Populations are like tanker-ships: they take a long time to steer.
If Germany is to be, say, around 70 million strong then the birth rate needs to rise as soon as possible and not just when the population has shrunk to this size. That would be about 30 years after midnight, so to speak.
Deaths have exceeded births in Germany since 1972. Only immigration has prevented the population shrinking in the meantime. Since it is hoped that immigration will help plug the gap in the coming decades it makes sense to develop policies which promote managed immigration and integration.