Hervé Le Bras and the Critique of Demographic Reason, by Luciano Nicolini (n°104)
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The book by Hervé Le Bras “Addio alle masse. Critica della ragion demografica”(1) (“Goodbye to the Masses. The Critique of Demographic Reason”) has been published in Italian, six years after its publication in France.
This is an essay which gives cause for reflection, but which, in my opinion, fails to convince readers of its basic argument, which is that the demons most commonly cited by demographers (overpopulation, the ageing population, immigration), are little more than a form of scare mongering.
However, let us proceed step by step.
The author tackles the issue of overpopulation after some debatable observations on the etymology of the term “population” which, contrary to what certain authoritative dictionaries state, he claims derives “from the Latin verb depopulari, meaning to destroy, or devastate” and the characteristics of censuses carried out before the XVIII century.
“In the majority of cases – he writes- the catastrophic scare mongering of demographers is displayed in extremely long-term forecasts” but “it is an illusion to believe that demographic predictions are any better than political or economic ones, or that their horizons are any broader”. (……) “With no connection to political and economic forecasts and with no exact knowledge of their relationship to the population, it is impossible to come up with reliable, demographic forecasts”. (…)
“It is with this type of long-term comparison between developed and developing countries that, since 1945, the fear of a population explosion in the southern hemisphere has arisen, along with a more speculative fear of an implosion in northern countries since 1974”. But, in his opinion, “today, three fundamental aspects have changed: the birth rate has fallen, and is still falling rapidly, in all the major countries of the south; growth in northern countries has continued, after a generation, in spite of a birth rate of less than 2.1 children per woman; and, finally, the distinction between developed and developing countries, as expressed by the euphemistic North-South divide, is no longer relevant”.
These are statements with which one can only concur. However, the decline in the birth rate which is taking place in the majority of southern nations has not caused population growth to cease; the growth in many northern countries, largely due to immigration from the south, only aggravates the situation; and, lastly, the north-south divide in the world, which might conceivably be of interest to those who fear the loss of their own power, has no relevance to the real problem, which is the overpopulation of the planet.
The second theme discussed in the essay is that of the aging population.
“When the birth and death rates fall, the percentage of the population over a certain age, let us say 65, increases” and “aging of the population, as defined here, appears inevitable. Is this - the writer wonders - a dangerous phenomenon?” (…) “The fear of aging - he continues –is directed at three fundamental aspects: the first concerns the increase in public spending on health, the second the payment of pensions, and the third the capacity of society as a whole to innovate”.
However, he claims that the assertion that an aging population increases its spending on health is yet to be proved, as “the state of health of a population develops at the same rate, and perhaps more rapidly than, life expectancy”: so that, in his opinion, “the problem of age distracts us from the problem of aggressive therapy”. As far as payment of pensions is concerned, he claims, with valid arguments, that “the future of pensions is a question of institutional choice and not a demographic curse”. As for the reduction in the capacity for innovation, he notes that “the adoption of new technologies and new ways of thinking depends on social organisation and not on biology or numbers”.
These are astute observations. Nevertheless, even if we accept that the state of health evolves at the same rate as life expectancy, it is likely that this will still have a cost (aggressive therapy notwithstanding); moreover, from an anthropological perspective, I would not rule out the possibility that youth has, in general, a greater propensity for generating and welcoming innovation(2).
“Of all the factors linked with population, the most difficult to predict is migration”. With regard to this, Le Bras highlights “the figures relating to annual migration, positive or negative, based on World Bank predictions, and the figures effectively recorded by the United Nations between 1995 and 2000”; these, in his opinion, differ widely. “The World Bank figures”, he continues, “do have something in common with those of the United Nations: they are low. The annual figures for migration from all developing regions to developed nations is currently 1.9 million people” and “estimates of the numbers of those living in a country other than that of their birth indicate a maximum of 150 million (…) It can be demonstrated that, a century ago, international migration was decidedly more common than it is today. Taking the United States as an example (…) Around 1900, annual immigration at times exceeded 1 million people, with a peak of 1.3 million in 1907”.
This data is useful, especially for us as Italians, to make sense of a phenomenon which, because of its recent nature (Italy, until twenty years ago, was regarded as a country of emigrants) frightens us disproportionately, but which should not make us forget that if emigration from poor countries is limited, it is perhaps only because their inhabitants are so poor that they cannot even afford to emigrate.
Therefore, with regard to a “population explosion in the southern hemisphere”, it would seem somewhat premature to conclude that “the fuse has burnt down with no explosion” and that “migratory trends are towards limited, staggered waves of specialist workers in a context in which this is generally the norm”. The arguments used by the author to support his views appear generally valid but insufficient to prove it conclusively.
(1) Hervé Le Bras: Addio alle masse. Critica della ragion demografica, Milano, Elèuthera, 2008 (original French edition, 2002)
(2) Danilo Mainardi: L’animale culturale, Milano, Rizzoli, 1974