Demographic Crises

Too Few People, Too Many People

Saral Sarkar

The NYT article ‘Germany: Too Few People?’ by Daley and Kulish (13.08.2013) evoked several thoughts and old memories. One of the most serious problems of the life of humankind on the earth, the population problem, is also the easiest to understand. The first time I became aware of the problem of exponential population growth I was just about nine years old. It occurred to me that my parents were just two persons. Then they produced six children, and in twelve years our family became 8 persons strong. I thought it cannot go on like this. After all, my father's income was limited. I expressed my worry to my brother, who was only a year and a half older than I. He said I was talking nonsense. We were standing on the banks of a pond when I started the conversation."Look at the pond", my brother said, "when it rains, hundreds of thousands of raindrops fall in it. What happens? Nothing." He was right, I thought, although I was not quite satisfied.

I could not pursue the topic then. But I never forgot this conversation. Later, as a grown up person going to college, I came to learn about the population theory of Malthus. Our lecturer in political economy criticized it: A human being, we were told, is not born only with a stomach, he is also born with two hands. He can produce the things he needs.

In retrospect, I think my ten and a half years old brother had actually understood the problem better than our college lecturer. It is true, in a pond in Bengal nothing ever happens that is special. In the summer months the water level sinks due to evaporation. But in the following rainy season a lot of water falls into it from the sky. The pond is again full. There is always water in it. My brother had intuitively understood the principle of steady state, of a dynamic, i.e. cyclical, steady state.

In contrast, the picture of a human born with two hands made me remember a frightening but happy-end fairy tale I had read in my childhood: A demon had descended upon a village and he said he would destroy everything. The villagers despaired. Then a little girl went to the demon and beseeched him to spare whatever was still standing. The demon said, he would accede to her request, but only under one condition, namely, the girl must continuously give him enough work to do. Otherwise he must resume destroying things, because he cannot stop working. The deal was done. The demon stopped destroying and the girl gave him one meaningful work after another, build a good house for every family in the village, build a good school building, build a good road, build good furniture for everybody etc. etc. etc. The demon did everything. But soon the girl ran out of good ideas. The danger loomed that the demon would again begin destroying. Then the girl hit upon an idea. She gave the demon one of her curly hairs and asked him to straighten it. The demon said that was too little work for him. But the girl insisted. The demon began his work. He pulled it and pressed it between his fingers again and again, but to no avail. The hair won't get straightened. The demon was thus kept working for ever. The village was saved.

The problem of this fairy tale village is very much like the problem of today's German economy. My childhood worry about the growth of our family was a miniature replica of today's worry about the growing world population. And with his picture of the pond where nothing really changes except the water level my brother anticipated the steady state ideal of ecologists. Only, 68 years ago, my brother did not know, nor did I, that there were things like torrential rain followed by devastating floods and years-long drought due to meager rainfall.

Over the decades, Germany's accumulated industrial capital has assumed a demonic size. The demon wants to work continuously, do something—constructive or destructive, does not matter. It does not matter whether a house is built or demolished, the companies doing the work make profit. The most unbearable thing is machines lying idle. But this demon still needs laborers—despite all progress in labor productivity. And here a serious, frightening problem has come up: German women are producing too few children. After all, today's children are tomorrow's laborers.

It is a demographic crisis of a sort that is difficult for most people to understand. Haven't we been hearing for several decades now that the world is overpopulated? Haven't the governments in many countries been trying to reduce the rate of births? Hasn't the first report to the Club of Rome (1972) warned us of the unwelcome consequences of welcoming the birth of many children?

If it were just a problem of finding laborers, that would be very easy to solve. Laborers can be imported from many countries where there is an excess of young people crying for jobs. In fact, in the 1960s, Germany and most other industrialized countries of Europe solved their problem of labor shortage in this way. But they soon realized to their dismay that the easy solution they had found had a sour note. They wanted to import laborers, but human beings came. Human beings can supply labor, but they can also be a nuisance. The imported laborers soon settled down where their newly found good jobs were; later, their wives and children followed; they married and produced children. The governments and the native people of the host countries (most of them, at any rate) did not like this development. They would have liked an arrangement in which the imported laborers would work for nine months and then go home for three months and come again for nine months and so on. In the beginning that was the arrangement in Switzerland. But the bosses of the economy did not like this arrangement. And of course, their wish prevailed. Soon there were too many of these immigrants.

When, in the mid 1970s, a recession set in in the industrialized countries of Europe, the governments of the host countries tried to get rid of as many of the immigrant laborers as possible. In West Germany, where the great majority of the immigrant laborers were Turks, Chancellor Kohl offered them a premium for leaving Germany of their own accord. But to no avail.

What troubled the Christian European countries most was that the immigrant laborers were mostly Muslims. When Kohl made his above mentioned offer in the early 1970s, he said in a conversation with Margaret Thatcher, the reason for his initiative was that the Turks had a very different culture, that it was so very difficult to integrate them.

Already in the early 1980s, I could observe xenophobia in Germany. One could read graffiti like "Turks go home". Black and brown people were often attacked on the streets. There were two cases of arson of houses inhabited by Turks. Several persons were killed in these events. In the 1990s Neo-Nazis attacked foreigners from all poor countries including those coming from Poland. Their slogan: "Germany for Germans, foreigners get out". Similar xenophobic incidents have been taking place in almost all European countries. There is a fear in some countries, e.g. in Belgium and the Netherlands, that the locals will soon become a minority in their own country. Asylum laws have been tightened. The situation became worse after 9/11.

The point I want to make here is that Germany's labor shortage problem cannot any more be solved easily by importing foreign laborers from poor countries. The .government is willing to allow highly skilled ones to immigrate, for a limited period. But the hundreds of thousands of young and unskilled foreigners who want to come here (or to some other rich European country) to work and earn money are neither getting a visa nor asylum. There is firstly the fear of the country being swamped with foreigners. Secondly, there is also the fear of trouble from xenophobic mobs.

For the leaders of Germany, there are only three possible solutions to this urgent problem: (1) let all the unemployed people of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Eastern Europe work in Germany, which is already largely possible under the terms of the EU treaties; (2) somehow motivate German women to produce more children; (3) accept a stagnating economy.

The first solution requires one to assume that the said countries will never recover from recession and stagnation, that they would not need the labor of about half of their young population in future. Given the prevailing economic ideology, that is difficult to assume. Moreover, the German economy simply cannot offer opportunities to so many unemployed and unskilled Southern and Eastern Europeans. Of course, many middle-aged women from Eastern Europe are working in Germany as unskilled low-wage nurses caring for the growing number of highly aged Germans. But soon the Eastern European populations will also be aging. In this context, Daley and Kulish mention Latvia and Bulgaria, the populations of which are diminishing faster than that of Germany. As for energetic young people, already now, many Portuguese, Spaniards and Italians with qualification, skill and entrepreneurial ability needed for working in modern industries are feeling compelled to migrate or migrate back to the Latin American countries; the Portuguese even to Angola and Mozambique. The rest without sufficient qualification or skill would rather live off their national welfare benefits and reside in Hotel Mama than try their luck in Germany. For even German workers at comparable rungs of the labor hierarchy-ladder cannot live off the low wages they get and hence have to apply for supplementary welfare benefits.

The second solution has little chance of success. Modernity and emancipation have had the effect of reducing the desire to have children. Also the prevailing neoliberal capitalism makes it hard to combine motherhood with a fulltime job, because it severely saps the energy of all workers, especially women workers. And many of those women who want to have a child simply cannot find a man willing to start a family with them. Total lack of job security simply discourages men from bearing responsibility. In comparison to the rest of Europe stuck in an endless economic crisis, Germany is an island of prosperity and low unemployment. One can therefore imagine how difficult it is in the other countries to decide to start a family with a plan to have two children.

The third solution, accepting a stagnating economy, is an anathema to most people—not only in Germany, but in the whole world. Unfortunately for such people, however, that is the only realistic, I even think inevitable, solution to the demographic crisis of the sort we are here talking about. In rich developed countries, where the demographic transition has already taken place—in Germany it was in 1972 -, it is not likely that the population will grow again. Statistics quoted by Daley and Kulish show that it is shrinking and will shrink further, while it would simultaneously be aging. It may at the most be kept from shrinking—through desired and/or undesired immigration from countries suffering from overpopulation. But given the fear of being swamped by poor black, brown and yellow foreigners, given the fear of the country losing its white Christian identity, more rigorous laws and rules will be put into effect for preventing immigration.

It is convincing to argue that for the rich industrialized countries a stagnating economy—better still, a shrinking economy—is a good solution to their demographic crisis because it also constitutes a contribution to solving the world's ecological and resource crises. So, downscale the economy deliberately (if it is not being downscaled by the current economic crisis) in order to adjust it to the demographic reality. The white European peoples experiencing the demographic crisis will not die out. Their women, in spite of being modern and emancipated, do want to become mother—on average of two children—as the examples of France and some Scandinavian countries show. At some point of the now ongoing decline the birth rates will again rise -probably with the coming of a more humane social system, an eco-socialist one. That would bring about a steady-state population. So there is no need to worry on that score.

But there are reasons to worry about the demographic crisis in the less developed countries, which is of the opposite kind. In many of these countries, the population is bursting at the seams. There are too many young people desperately trying to find a job, and too few new jobs can be created. In India, the population is growing at the rate of 18 million every year. The Prime Minister says India's economy must create every year 8 to 10 million new jobs in order to integrate the young people in the work force. For some time, in the years in which the Indian economy was booming, growing at the annual rate of 8 to 9 per cent, its bosses welcomed the population growth as a guaranteed source of cheap labor. They even called it India's "demographic dividend". But despite this dividend, India's economic growth rate has recently been falling. The inexorable logic of limits to growth cannot be defied after all.

For reasons stated above, advanced industrialized countries are by all means preventing large-scale immigration of cheap surplus laborers from the less developed countries. Even the huge resource-rich Russia, the population of which is also shrinking at an alarming rate, is closing its doors to laborers from Central Asia. Therefore, also for the overpopulated less developed countries there is no easy solution to their demographic crisis. If they do not want to see that their citizens die of drowning in the Mediterranean Sea or the Indian Ocean off the coast of Australia, they must now seriously begin the work of downsizing their population.

Vol. 46, No. 11, Sep 22 - 28, 2013

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