The Empty Playgrounds of Tomorrow: Europe's Negative Growth

July 03 2008 / by jcchan / In association with Future
Category: Culture   Year: General   Rating: 5 Hot

By JC Chan

In the next eight seconds 34 babies will be born to the world. Of these five will be from India and four will be from China. In ten years China will be the dominant English speaking country in the world. With world population exploding and shifting so dramatically, it’s easy to envision a future with billions more humans inhabiting Earth than do today. But that may not be the case.

Consider the scenario presented in the sci-fi film Children of Men (2006), a bleak vision of Earth in 2027 where humans have mysteriously lost fertility and the ability to procreate. In one scene, a scruffy-faced man named Theo, played by Clive Owen, and a woman named Miriam walk across the dreary rust of an abandoned school playground. Sitting on the squeaky swing set is the African woman they are protecting, miraculously nursing in her hands the first newborn the Earth has seen in over a decade. Miriam recalls her days as a nurse delivering births. She notes that over time fewer births were recorded until the day they ceased altogether.

“As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices,” she grimly states.

The backdrop for the film is a future England that has adopted a survivalist policy as it attempts to police millions of incoming immigrants into concentration camps to preserve the little remaining natural resources they have left. When I first watched Children of Men, the idea of humanity wiped out by widespread infertility seemed a little far-fetched. Certainly there are many other, more viable ways for us to go: nuclear weapons, terrorism, a nanotechnology nightmare, a super-resistant bacteria strain, asteroids, global warming.

Growing up in the 90’s, schools and media have always drilled into my head the post-war baby boom, exponential growth, limited allocation of resources, and recycling, oh lots of talk about recycling. (Note: I am an avid recycler.) Still, though we can and should do something about issues like global warming and runaway population growth, scenarios like the reality of the 2027 in Children of Men remind us that there may well be other formidable challenges on the horizon that may not be so much in our control.

Case in point, a recent NYTimes Sunday Magazine article by Russell Shorto entitled “No Babies?” addresses the very real possibility of population decline. Shorto examines the sleepy Italian town of Laviano in Southern Italy, a spectacular sight with magnificent steep slopes and wild poppies adorning medieval fortress ruins of a fortress, in which a population of 3,000 has fallen to just 1,600 and still dropping.

This has caused such alarm that the Laviano’s mayor has created a new fund to give any woman that would rear a child in the village, a sum of 10,000 euros ($15,000). Though the plan has resulted in a slight uptick in residents, Laviano is still steadily losing population. (cont.)

A study conducted by the UN in 2002 predicted that 75% of the developed world will hit a below-replacement fertility by 2050. This means that Eastern Europe will lose a third to a half of its population by 2050, of which has been steady declining since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As people live longer and longer and less babies are born, there will be a smaller workforce to support the elderly, this is called graying of the population, where the elderly will outnumber the young in developed nations. Parts of Europe like France enjoy a traditionally earlier retirement age, where only 39% of those aged from 55 to 65 still hold jobs.

Ironically, it is also France who enjoys a healthy replacement rate that it shares with Ireland due to its large family programs and economic child-bearing incentives, averaging two children per couple compared to Spain’s 1.15 or Latvia’s 1.16. It is estimated that by 2025, a good third of Europe’s population will receive pension funds.

What does this mean to Europe besides its cultural implications? We think of typical Italian families with five, six or more children, but at present, a small town in the Italian Alps is hosting more funerals than baptisms.

Ever heard of Bandai? Yes, it’s a Japanese toy company, but did you also know that Bandai has a plan in place to give $10,000 to those employees for every second child? Japan too is facing a declining population crisis – they are actually greying the fastest!

As it stands, Japan has been facing in this decade its lowest birthrate since the records began. Japanese men are expected to live 77 years and Japanese women, 84 years. With Japanese aged 65 or older to make up 27% of the shrinking population by 2020, one wonders when it will be the elderly that will be taking care of the young one day.

Make no mistake about it, developing nations are booming at an alarming rate. Reproduction rates in parts of under-developed regions like Nigeria and Pakistan are exploding. Three and a half billion Asians are expected to join the world’s population by 2050, but if indications show, even those nations won’t be growing forever, as China is beginning to feel the effects of graying with its one child policy.

At present, one young Chinese will need to support four elderly people. Countries like Armenia, Cyprus, Sri Lanka and Thailand are also facing a low replacement fertility.

I remember learning about the “demographic transition” where a nation’s population will follow a exponential path as it advances from a undeveloped nation to a developed one. The demographic transition attempts to explain the shift from high birth and high death rates to low birth and low death rates with the overall population starting slow but eventually shooting up over time.

It is divided in four steps with the population shooting over the ceiling at the end. This means happy and plentiful people, correct? But as what you’re seeing, perhaps we missed a fifth step on the chart as actual population starts to drop. Something that we aren’t too familiar with, but are starting to see its effects. This PDF has a good explanation of the fifth stage of demographic transition.

Perhaps the end of humanity will not arrive as spectacularly or gloriously as movies such as Independence Day, Armageddon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Transformers, Mad Max, or the Matrix trilogy suggest.

Maybe it’s not evil aliens bent on conquest or a rogue A.I. like HAL 9000 that will be our end but a more quiet and slow doom as depicted in Children of Men. The Total Fertility Rate of Italy is 1.38, Russia is 1.34, Latvia, 1.29, Belarus, 1.20. I look at these numbers and hope they aren’t the beginning of a more sinister trend.

Allow me to conclude by quoting political scientist Paul Treanor about demographic collapse in Europe:

“It is no longer possible to say simply, that the end of the demographic transition is a stable population. Perhaps a shrinking population is “normal” – as growth was once considered to be “normal”. Perhaps a shrinking population is characteristic of any planets with an advanced technology. If so, then Latvia and Estonia have also answered a theoretical question of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). The famous question, used by those who do not believe in extra-terrestrials: if there are billions of advanced civilisations, why are they not here to visit us?

Look at the table of Latvian population, project it 10,000 years into the future, and you have an answer: there are not enough aliens to build a spacecraft. All those huge galactic federations in science-fiction films, with billions of billions of alien inhabitants, may simply reflect mistaken demographic theory.”

Photo by J.C. Chan.

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Comment Thread (1 Response)

  1. The problem of declining population in the developing world has the potential to make existing problems in both developing and industrialized countries more pronounced. Presently in the third world there is a “brain drain” happening. This is were the more skilled members of theses countries leave their homes in order to seek better oppritunities in the more developed societies. Conversely many indusrialized socities fear that schemes, such as social security, will be bankrupt by the time many that contribute to them (in the present) have retired.

    Posted by: observer35   July 06, 2008
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