To 'Suffer' or 'Enjoy' Depopulation?

A Happy New Year to everyone!

A disused elementary school in Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, Japan. One of many schools closed due to reduced numbers of children.

A disused elementary school in Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, Japan. One of many schools closed due to reduced numbers of children.

Original growth temperate rain forest, also in Sado.

Original growth temperate rain forest, also in Sado.

A couple of days ago I promised that my next blog post would be about international migration in Japan, but I couldn't resist saying something about this article that popped up unexpectedly in today's Guardian 'Japan suffers lowest number of births on record as population shrinks' (1 January 2015).

What a great example of the perspective that depopulation is a 'problem' that requires a 'solution', with that solution presumably being to stop decline, either by increasing the birth rate to replacement level or drawing in immigrants from other countries. Japan, according to the headline, is 'suffering' a declining birth rate and a widening gap between that and the death rate, resulting in depopulation.

Viewed from a global perspective, isn't over-population usually understood as the more pressing problem? Shouldn't the headline read 'Japan enjoys lowest number of births on record'? Isn't the current environmental footprint of humanity approximately 1.5 Earths (Global Footprint Network, 2014)? Surely fewer people is exactly what is needed right now.

In common with most complex issues, perspective is key here, as is scale of analysis; putting these two together delivers diametrically opposing viewpoints in this case. Seen from the national scale perspective Japan is experiencing a depopulation crisis that threatens serious economic and social consequences; viewed at the global scale, Japan's depopulation might be seen as light at the end of the long dark tunnel of an environmental crisis of existential proportions. Depending on whether one is in Shiga (growing) or Akita (shrinking), the local perspective could deliver either an optimistic or pessimistic assessment. 

If we ignore the global or local perspectives in favour of the national, then the more Japan's demographic circumstances are understood as a negative 'problem', then the more that policy interventions and resources will tend to be directed at attempting to arrest demographic shrinkage by increasing fertility to replacement levels, which is indeed what the Japanese government has been trying to do in recent years. However over the long term this approach is likely to accelerate global environmental change and imperil future generations' sustainability more severely.

Perhaps I am being too much of a contrarian but, if a solution is what is required in these circumstances - and I don't necessarily agree that one is needed - I think the more intelligent, but more difficult, approach should be to celebrate Japan as a pioneer in the science of depopulation by finding out what benefits can be gained and applying them more rigorously in other areas of the world that are experiencing similar demographic trajectories.

And I promise that I will write about international migration very soon.

References

Global Footprint Network (2014) World Footprint: Do We Fit on the Planet? Global Footprint Network Website, Accessed: 1 January 2015.

Guardian (2014) Japan suffers lowest number of births on record as population shrinks, Guardian Website, 1 January.