How do We Manage Major Population decline? No-One Has a Playbook…

A friend wondered if there were any lessons from Japan’s experience of population decline.

The “lesson” from Japan is that no-one has a playbook for managing decline.  Global population has been going up for so long.  So everyone has an opinion on how to manage growth.  But how do you manage….

  • Shutting down whole towns?
  • writing off or maintaining under-utilized or surplus infrastructure?
  • the debt/asset valuation consequences of the above.  (rhyming with “the thing that will make global warming real to most indifferent ordinary people will be when banks will no longer write mortgages and no-one will insure coastal-region homes near (rising) sea-levels…”)

Decay is a very different process than growth.  Per the Cleveland example below, how do you nudge/force people out of their home into smaller clusters so you can start shutting down un-needed fire stations?  When do you stop maintaining the road to reach some dying town? Un-building is very different from building.
One lesson we do have from Japan:  decline will happen faster in some places than others.  The least desirable places look like the Zombie apocalypse.  The top 15% living in the “attractive” places don’t notice a thing – at least until “the deplorables” get your attention by, for example, voting for Trump… 🙂

We will see the same unbalanced dynamic across borders.  Per the Lancet paper, most poor countries are shrinking too.  So the “immigration solution” is just rich countries draining the poorer countries even faster than their population declines would naturally.

Note also that Africa is the only region that will be producing net new people. So “encouraging immigration” really comes down to “encouraging African immigration.” Think about that for a bit. Maybe envision Donald Trump opining on that particular subject…?

Another lesson from Japan.  The immigration solution will run smack into deeply embedded nativist-to-straight-out-racist cultural strains in the US, Europe, AND Asia. The good news? A lot of people will eventually learn to cope with having an African-trained doctor if the alternative is no doctor at all. The bad news? That process will involve a lot of conflict and magical thinking.

More to the point, the world hasn’t even started hollowing out. Like climate change, that will happen gradually and then suddenly.  We live in interesting times.

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