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Who's afraid of population decline? A critical examination of its consequences

David A. Coleman, University of Oxford
Robert E. Rowthorn, University of Cambridge

The analysis of population decline and its consequences has been overshadowed by population ageing, perhaps because decline is axiomatically assumed to be negative in all respects. This paper shows that its causes and its effects are very diverse. Decline can be a response to environmental, economic or political distress; provoking emigration, higher mortality or restricted fertility. But in Southern Europe and in East Asia the reality or prospect of decline has arisen in benign situations with more subtle causes. The process of decline and its end product of smaller population have different consequences. Using a variety of examples, and economic models, we show that modest rates of decline may be manageable and scarcely perceptible. Smaller population size may be irrelevant to most aspects of political, social and economic welfare and beneficial for environment and sustainability. In the future, adaptation to it may in any case become unavoidable.

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Presented in Session 139: Depopulation: Trends and the impact of policies