Home / Robert Farley / Depopulation



Josh Keating and Edmund Hugh ask some intriguing questions about national depopulation:

But Hugh’s question is an interesting one to consider. I suspect that even in the bleakest, Children of Men-style population scenarios, most countries would fight to the bitter end before surrendering their sovereignty. The exception might be places like Ukraine that have a relatively recent experience as part of a larger geopolitical entity and a large ethnic population with ties to a neighboring country.

A country couldn’t be liquidated quite as neatly as a company — even if the state goes away, there’s still a chunk of land and some people living on it to deal with. The main obstacle to countries being “dissolved” may be that other countries may not want to take on the responsibility of dealing with them — what country really wants to take on a new sparsely populated, economically stagnant region?

States can survive with remarkably low population densities, especially with modern transportation and communications technology. However, social institutions designed around the concept of stable or increasing populations got troubles. A relatively free immigration/emigration regime can resolve these issues for some countries while at the same time exacerbating them for others.

There are certainly upsides to living in a continent-spanning state. The prairie and the rust belt can depopulate themselves (although some of the aforementioned institutional problems crop up) without fundamentally unsettling the social contract.

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  • dilbert dogbert

    “A country couldn’t be liquidated quite as neatly as a company”
    This brought to mind East Germany and a possible merger of NK and SK.
    Not sure that Germany has fully absorbed East Germany.

    • It took 20 years, but pretty much, yes.

  • MikeJake

    There are certainly upsides to living in a continent-spanning state.

    I made much the same argument to Loomis in defending the (mainly) white American drive to the west at the expense of Mexicans and Native Americans. It’s not that I thought it was heroic, just that it was understandable and nothing to be ashamed of by Americans today. He felt that sentiment made me an insensitve asshole.

    • djw

      That (X) has benefits doesn’t imply that committing genocide to acquire (X) is “nothing to be ashamed of.”

      • mpowell

        Yeah, but nobody alive today, or their parents, were actually involved in the genocide. Its worth recognizing the inherent violence in the society, but not much more than that.

        • DocAmazing

          Actually, the fucking-over of Indians in the US over land is ongoing. Like slavery, this is one of the “never forget” foundations of the US.

        • Rob

          But a lot of people alive today are extremely wealthy do to the genocide that occurred.

          • Mean Mister Mustard

            I doubt it’s your reference, but I am quietly satisfied that NA have learned the true meaning of revenge against the forked-tongued white man.


    • wengler

      Well the advantage of shooting people and taking their stuff is that you now have their stuff.

    • any moose

      nothing to be ashamed of by Americans today.

      thats not so much “much the same” as it is you’re a dumb, racist shithead.

  • Data Tutashkhia

    The thing is, small communities in a sparsely-populated region (or ‘country’, if we need to call it that) can function perfectly well without much (if any) hierarchy, and, therefore, without a social contract or a great variety of mighty social institutions; see, for example, 19c Jura. And if the ‘sovereignty’ (or, rather, protection from external interference) is guaranteed by some supranational entity (e.g.: EU, UN), then the national central government may not be necessary either.

    • Dave

      Hmm, the Jura is a) a département of France; not noted in the C19 for the absence of state institutions, or b) a canton of Switzerland administered in the C19 from Bern. In ether case, functional central and local govt institutions were firmly in place.

      • Data Tutashkhia

        It was very rural and isolated. And still is, as I saw, at least on the Swiss side.

        For that matter, Berne doesn’t administer much of anything in Switzerland, even now. It’s a real federation, what the US, I imagine, was originally designed to be.

        • Data Tutashkhia

          Actually, sorry, the valley I was thinking of is in France, not Switzerland. Drive east from Geneva, across a mountain pass (Col de la Faucille, for example), and you’re there. Very idyllic.

          • I think you mean “drive west from Geneva”, no?

            • France surrounds Geneva on most sides. Drive pretty much any direction other than due north from Geneva and you hit France.

              • Yes, of course; but only in the (north-)westerly direction do you hit the Jura (be it the French or Swiss Jura). Mostly you end up in Savoie (part of France in recent centuries).

            • Data Tutashkhia

              Right, of course. Through Meyrin to Gex, that’s north-west.

          • If you are merely relying on what you saw driving east, or west, or north, or south you don’t really know what you are talking about.

            • There are ways to tell. If the countryside is rural and idyllic but there’s plenty of cars zipping around, well, the cars had to come from somewhere. There’s sizable chunks of land in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey that an urban person might think of as rural and idyllic, but they’re functional islands in the middle of the sprawl along the coast and the Northeast Corridor. Get away from the major highways in South Dakota, though, and things are quite a bit different.

              • The definition of the Peasantry, as opposed to an autonomous tribe or nomadic/hunter/gatherer style community is that it is a work force that is tied into a larger economy–at least in the modern era. They don’t make foreign policy decisions for themselves and they don’t have their own independent government, they don’t manufacture everything they need.

            • Data Tutashkhia

              Right. I don’t claim to know much. But Jura is where Proudhon grew up, and pretty much the place of origin (or one of them anyway) of the 19th century anarchist movement. But if you don’t like it as an example, feel free to come up with your own. Closer to your home: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchism_in_the_United_States

              You can also consider some religious ones; Anabaptists, the Amish communities in the US.

              • Its funny that you should talk about the Amish in this context–the Amish are not at all isolated from the wider economy and make money making things for the larger American economy: quilts, woodworking, etc… because they need to be able to purchase large patches of land for their large families. A farm based lifestyle requires massive capital inflow when land prices have gone up everywhere. Hence there is a turn towards production for the market–even if the tools and the methods are pre-industrial the market is people who earned their money in the industrial and post industrial economy. Which is by way of saying that hi tech money spends like low tech and even modern Amish need the green.

                • LeeEsq

                  You forgot some really delicious ice cream and pastries.

                • djw

                  Yes, the Amish reject some things about the modern world, but capitalism is definitely not one of them.

                • Data Tutashkhia

                  and even modern Amish need the green

                  I don’t know if that’s true. They trade, sure, but I don’t think it’s a requirement for their existence, or an essential part of it. And I don’t think the fact that they may sell milk and buy nail proves that they somehow connected to major institutions like Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and such.

                • wjts

                  It’s like reading an ethnography of the Amish where the only source was the imagined conversation the author had with the cartoon on the Quaker Oats box.

        • cpinva

          “It’s a real federation, what the US, I imagine, was originally designed to be.”

          and was an utter failure at. hence, the “second revolution”, resulting in the current constitution.

          • The Dark Avenger

            And that current Constitution is based on the American “failure” Constitution.

    • joe from Lowell

      without much (if any) hierarchy, and, therefore, without a social contract or a great variety of mighty social institutions

      Whoa whoa whoa. They can function without much, or any, hierarchy because they have a social contract and social institutions, not without them.

      Among small populations, the social bonds between each person and everyone else are stronger, so disputes are easier to settle between the parties, without a higher authority having to impose a solution, because people are concerned with the social implications of the episode in a manner that two strangers would not be. It is the social contract and agreed-upon social institutions that do the work which a hierarchical authority carries out in larger settlements.

      • Data Tutashkhia

        I understand ‘social contract’ as …hmm… sort of an unwritten pact between the government and the govern. The government pledges to be …hmm… benevolent (in some sense of the word), and the governed agree to obey the rules.

        In a village, you communicate with the neighbors, but you don’t have to. It’s all supposed to be voluntary. Probably won’t work like that at least some of the time, but that’s the theory.

        • joe from Lowell

          I misunderstood you, then. I’m used to seeing “social contract” refer to an agreement between the people in a society, with the government being a tool they agree to have to execute that agreement, not as the government being something distinct from the people.

          In a village, you communicate with the neighbors, but you don’t have to. It’s all supposed to be voluntary.

          That’s exactly my point. We seem to be saying pretty much the same thing.

          • Dave

            If either of you think that village communities, at any point in Euro-American history, “ran themselves” without externally-validated means of imposing communal authority, you are at least 95% wrong. If you think they “ran themselves” without using the power of the majority to impose collective patterns of behaviour, for reasons of economic necessity, you are nudging 99.999% wrong…

  • Jameson Quinn

    Prairie and rust belt? What about the sun belt? When the days-per-year over 110 degrees rises towards three digits, I don’t think a whole lot of people will want to keep living there.

    • Excellent point. My grandparents were among the first retirees to Sun Valley. It takes a mort of invisible, often immigrant workers to keep those age restricted communities functioning. Without robots, air conditioning, cheap fuel, deliveries the retirement communities will hollow out and stop functioning as soon as some tipping point is reached. I think that’s already happening in Florida where there isn’t a rising crop of elders who can afford to retire (sell their old homes and roll the money over into retirement homes) so the elderly who are living in retirement homes now can’t sell out and move to nursing homes. Eventually the housing style of the gated community built around common interests or age is going to crumble because it can’t function half empty and the people living in it can’t function without younger people to help them.

      • mpowell

        When do you anticipate a shortage of low paid workers? Before the existence of robots that can duplicate those tasks? Retirement communities are one of the few things that make sense in the planning of this country.

        • Back in 2006, at the first robotics conferences I attended, there was a lot of talk—including formal talk, in formal, plenary presentations by Japanese attendees—about the Japanese national plan (supported by essentially all the relevant major Japanese corporations except Sony) to ensure that “within 10 years” eighty percent of elder care in Japan would be performed by robots.

          With three years left to go, I’ve stopped hearing anything about that project (and it had already basically gone down the memory hole even before the amazing failure of Japanese search-rescue-and-remediate-in-harsh-conditions robots to arrive to deal with the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster: iRobot provided the first, and the most, help along those lines, or so I have been told). Nor have I heard or seen anything much about American robots that inclines me to think they’ll be stepping in to “duplicate those tasks” any time soon (if ever).

          Of course I don’t have access to proprietary information. Do you?

          • mpowell

            I’m not anticipating the development of this kind of care/tech in the near future, but I am anticipating the existence of plenty of low paid workers for a long time. Automation may eventually substantially increase productivity such that with the right politics, standard of living dramatically increases, but this is the same thing that would most likely provide elderly with robotic care. I don’t see a likely path to no robots and no cheap labor.

            • I’m not anticipating the dearth of low wage workers–but I am anticipating the inability of the former elderly middle class to pay for them. I am also anticipating an increased need for such workers–home health care, taxi drivers, house cleaners but standalone senior communities require that those people be furnished with either cheap gas (so they can get to work at long distances in their cheap cars) or cheap public transportation. A mixed age economy and housing situation would actually be better for Seniors and better for the work force needed to help them survive but we won’t get one.

    • Linnaeus

      A few months ago, a friend and I were talking about places we’d like to live, and I said half-jokingly that I wouldn’t want to live anywhere south of the 37th parallel because of climate change.

  • JoyfulA

    Depopulation has also taken place in Ukraine by foreign adoption and by the current equivalent of mail-order brides.

    I know several Brits, writers, who’ve moved to Poland and one who’s moved to Serbia. I don’t know why they haven’t moved to Ukraine.

    • burritoboy

      Poland is a lot richer than the Ukraine, among other things.

    • ajay

      Depopulation has also taken place in Ukraine by foreign adoption and by the current equivalent of mail-order brides.

      Which suggests an interesting new deterrent for use against countries like Russia, which are highly aware of their demographic problems: “Cut off our gas again,” the German Chancellor warns, “and we will issue ten million EU permanent residency permits, one for every Russian woman of childbearing age.”

  • There are quite a few very sparsely populated countries that have existed as viable states for a long time. Russia, particularly its Siberian and Far Eastern regions has always been sparsely populated relative to the rest of Europe or China. More extreme cases are Outer Mongolia, and some of the states in the Sahel region. I can not think of any recent cases where independent states have ceased to exist due to population collapse. Somalia descended into anarchy, but not because it had too few people. I suppose if the Vietnamese had not invaded Cambodia that the state might have collapsed due to population loss. But, the Vietnamese were able to maintain a Cambodian state structure during their occupation which has survived their military withdrawal.

  • steve

    Depopulation burdens the social contract in other non-obvious ways, especially for those in more populous regions, unless mechanisms exist to rebalance political power as populations shift.

    See e.g. the Senate.

  • Thomas Ware

    Well, yeah, as the prarie and rustbelt depopulate I’d really rather they didn’t come here. They should go somewhere where they can be with their own kind of people. Texas, or the Carolinas, maybe even Arizona. Somewhere where stupid is acceptable.

    Seriously, you don’t want move here. We’ve volcanoes. One blew not to long ago. And forest fires bigger than most of those states. Our coasts and metropolitian areas are already experiencing annual flooding and tidal surges well above the historical average, and have a very likelihood of surviving the nine plus earthquake scientists tell should have happened yesterday. Seriously, you don’t want move here.

    No fear.

    • Linnaeus

      Well, yeah, as the prarie and rustbelt depopulate I’d really rather they didn’t come here. They should go somewhere where they can be with their own kind of people. Texas, or the Carolinas, maybe even Arizona. Somewhere where stupid is acceptable.

      Ah, “enlightenment”.

      • DocAmazing

        Tell you what: they can come here, same as Chinese or Guatemalan immigrants. They can cross over illegally, or they can apply for state citizenship.

        Meantime, they have not been without agency: if their current homes are in disarray, they had some role in that happening, and it’s a piss-poor idea to ask them to replicate those mistakes in a new region.

        • Linnaeus

          I understand that the problems that various parts of the country are encountering are in part (but not completely) due to the agency of those living there, in the past and the present. I was objecting to 1) the vast overgeneralization about people in prairie and “rust belt” states as being stupid and 2) the curious claim that those places are equivalent to Texas, North Carolina, etc.

  • The main obstacle to countries being “dissolved” may be that other countries may not want to take on the responsibility of dealing with them

    Romania sure didn’t want Moldova.

  • The problem with this discussion is that “depopulation” happens in various ways that interact rather problematically with labor and property issues. There are cities in the US that are already “depopulated” as their factories shuttered and jobs left. People get left living precariously in the rubble, literal and economic, because they either own their own property and can’t liquidate it and move, or they are squatting or renting in someone else’s property and can’t afford to move into a new, higher density location. If we were still a nomadic people, following our food or the frontier, this wouldn’t be an issue but depopulation happens now as parts of the populace get up and move to follow their jobs and parts are left behind to hold down the fort, or because they are immobile. And the way they are left behind stretches public services because the private property part of our economic interfaces rather badly with the tax base/ government part of our economy.

    There is a reason why during the recession towns and rural areas tore up roads and stopped paying for watering of public parks and street lights. This makes sense but the private property system means that you can’t force people to move closer in to make provision of goods and services easier and less expensive.

    As fuel becomes more expensive and workers become scarcer people are simply not going to be able to afford living out in rural areas in isolation, or suburban areas that are being hollowed out, but they also may not be able to afford to move into cities and towns either. There’s going to be a lot of population shifting as some go one direction and others go another. And there’s going to be a lot of discomfort and misery at the fault lines between these different economies and social relations: elders stranded in formerly functioning rural areas, homeless people in nucleated high density cities.

  • Mrs Tilton

    It’s Edward Hugh.

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