Humanity is approaching an historic transformation. Towards the end of the 21st century the world’s population will very possibly begin to decline in number, and East Asia is in the vanguard (Figure 1). This is being achieved in nearly all countries not via coercion, but voluntarily, as female emancipation and education, urbanisation, and economic development spread across the world, lifestyles and life choices change, and medical knowledge and technologies advance.
Figure 1: Actual and Projected Population Change in East Asia 1950-2100 (in millions. Japan and South Korea left hand scale, China right hand scale). Source: UNPD (2013). Note: Medium variant projections and variable fertility.
Depopulation is almost certainly good news. Current rates of resource consumption considerably exceed nature’s capacity to reproduce itself sustainably. Indeed, in 1997 humans burned fossil fuel energy equivalent to greater than 400 times the annual net primary productivity of the earth’s current biota (Dukes, 2003); and the rate has been accelerating since then.
Most resource consumption is taking place in rich countries, whose populations and economies had been growing more or less continuously for hundreds of years. Fortunately, the 20th century trend towards exponential population growth has slowed, and in some countries gone into reverse, as fertility rates decrease to below population replacement throughout most of the developed world. Fertility is dropping rapidly in developing countries too. UN Population Division data show that only 9 per cent of the world’s population now live in a country with a high rate of fertility (UNPD, 2013).
Although it is generally agreed that the Earth’s bio-capacity would be better conserved if resource distribution inequalities were addressed and people in developed countries learned to consume less (Dorling, 2013), we need to be realistic about whether that is sufficient. Even if these measures were to be implemented soon the positive effects would probably not be enough on their own to resolve the various existential crises that our children and grandchildren may inherit from us. A transformation towards global depopulation – particularly as it is occurring mostly in high consumption developed countries – may give us some extra leeway.
As a respectful gesture towards Bloom, Canning and Sevilla’s (2003) ground-breaking work on the 20th century ‘demographic dividend’ – which argued that population growth, economic development, and changes in fertility have gone hand in hand to raise hundreds of millions of people out of poverty across previously under-developed regions – I call the next stage in this process the ‘depopulation dividend’. This is the post-growth phase in world development where depopulation has the potential to contribute substantially to achieving a sustainable society and economy in the 21st century. This may even be achieved without people having to endure a drop in their standards of living. It may even be possible that people will experience an improvement in their quality of life precisely as a result of a decreasing population.
As yet little empirical research has been done on the impacts and outcomes of depopulation; mainly due to problems of data availability because so few areas of the world have been depopulating for long enough to be able to make some accurate calculations. Consequently, it is crucial that, as ageing and depopulation become more widespread among developed countries, we search out regions where robust data has been accumulating for some time in order to discover whether depopulation can deliver the benefits that are often assumed to be automatic and, if not why not. In this way policies and practices can be implemented with the intention of realising the maximum possible ‘depopulation dividend’ for a community, region, or country.
Among the few areas of the world where depopulation is occurring right now, Japan is of particular interest. Significant is its role as the most developed country in Asia, a world region that is rapidly expanding economically and demographically, but whose populations are also expected to begin to shrink in the coming decades. With approximately half of the country’s land area having been depopulating since at least as far back as 1990, and a government that is assiduous in harvesting detailed information on its citizens’ circumstances, Japan is one place where one can perform empirical tests of common assumptions about the relationship between human behaviour and environmental change.
Figure 2: Index of Total Energy Consumption and Carbon Output by Shrinking and Growing Prefectures in Japan, against GDP Growth, 1990-2008. Sources: METI (2011) and World Bank (2011).
Preliminary evidence emerging from Japan shows that fewer people may not automatically deliver reduced resource consumption , at least while adjustment to community shrinkage is taking place, or an improved life experience for the remaining residents of communities experiencing advanced ageing and depopulation. Although the accepted wisdom is that reduced numbers would deliver environmental benefits, Japanese data indicates that total energy consumption and carbon output rises with decreases in population size and density (Figure 2). There are many reasons why this may be the case, such as over-capacity in depopulated areas driving down private and public investment in capital and infrastructure, leading to falls in land and building efficiency as farms, residential properties, public buildings, and offices are abandoned. Or the closure of public facilities such as schools due to reduced demand and consequent increases in consumption of fuels in transportation by those that continue to use such facilities. Again, more research needs to be done to find out what the causes might be and to measure them, in order to develop countermeasures.
Quality of life for the remaining residents of depopulated areas has also declined substantially in many areas in Japan (Matanle, 2006). Property markets have collapsed with the increase in the number of abandoned buildings, hindering geographical and social mobility, among other things; 7.57 million homes, or 13.1% of all houses in Japan, are currently empty due to a combination of depopulation and tax incentives (Otake, 2014), and the number is increasing. Many older people now live in neighbourless communities, lacking the means to effectively maintain their own safety and security. Mountain hamlets are becoming overgrown and the mostly elderly residents are at increased risk of attacks from bears, or their homes being raided and ransacked by monkeys, and their farms being torn apart by wild boars and deer (See Matanle, Rausch, et al (2011) for a comprehensive account of the impacts of ageing and depopulation in Japan’s rural regions).
Photos: Rural depopulation in Japan has resulted in over-capacity in buildings, infrastructure and land. Clockwise from top-left: Empty houses in Mikasa, Hokkaido; a disused elementary school in Niigata Prefecture; empty shops and offices in Ueda City, Nagano Prefecture; and an abandoned and overgrown farmhouse in Kochi Prefecture. Photos: © Peter Matanle.
Experience has shown that Japan’s developmental pathways are often repeated elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia. With an ecological footprint 55% higher than the world average and seven times the country’s land area (Global Footprint Network, 2011), Japan’s economy is unsustainable, and other Asian countries experiencing high-speed economic growth, such as China, may reach similar rates of resource consumption soon. It is of the utmost importance that, if Japan can realise a ‘depopulation dividend’, then its experiences may be replicated across the whole East Asian region.
Since it is in the vanguard of what is becoming a truly global phenomenon, rather than being seen as the leader of an increasingly unsustainable rush to economic expansion across the East Asian region, might Japan therefore play a more useful role as the world’s laboratory for understanding the potential consequences of population shrinkage and, through both its successes and failures, provide worldwide leadership towards a more sustainable future?
This is a subject that I am currently researching and am eager to pursue in collaboration with other researchers around the world. We now have a Facebook page for our group, called ‘Researching the Depopulation Dividend’ – or ReDD, and would welcome new members to join us and contribute to our ongoing conversation. So, if you have managed to read this far then, thank you, and please get in touch to see if we might discover some common ground for future collaboration!
Bloom, D, Canning, D, and Sevilla, J (2003) The Demographic Dividend: A New Perspective on the Economic Consequences of Population Change, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
Dorling, D (2013) Population 10 Billion: The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive it, London: Constable.
Dukes, JS (2003) Burning Buried Sunshine: Human Consumption of Ancient Solar Energy, Climatic Change, 61: 31-44.
Global Footprint Network (2011) Data and Results: National Footprint Accounts, Global Footprint Network Website, Available at: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/gfn/page/footprint_basics_overview/, Last accessed: 9 April 2014.
Matanle, P (2006) Organic Sources for the Revitalization of Rural Japan: The Craft Potters of Sado, Japanstudien, 18: 149-180.
Matanle, P, Rausch, AS, with the Shrinking Regions Research Group (2011) Japan’s Shrinking Regions in the 21st Century: Contemporary Responses to Depopulation and Socieconomic Decline, Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.
METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) (2012) Todōfuken-betsu enerugii shōhi tōkei (Prefectural energy consumption statistics), METI Website, Available at: http://www.enecho.meti.go.jp/info/statistics/regional-energy/index.ht, Last accessed: 9 April 2014.
Otake, T (2014) Abandoned Homes a Growing Menace, Japan Times Online, 7 January, Available at: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/01/07/national/abandoned-homes-a-growing-menace/#.U0TXNq2SwdU, Last accessed: 9 April 2014.
UNPD (United Nations Population Division) (2013) World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision (Volume 1: Comprehensive Tables), UNPD Website, Available at: http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Documentation/pdf/WPP2012_Volume-I_Comprehensive-Tables.pdf, Last accessed: 9 April 2014.
World Bank (2011) Data: Japan, World Bank Website, Available at: http://data.worldbank.org/country/japan, Last accessed: 9 April 2014.