A recent article in the Guardian newspaper claimed that an emerging ‘crisis’ was being seen as ‘ageing populations place shrinking economies under ever greater strain’, adducing as evidence increasing abandonment of villages in places as far apart as Spain and Japan. This prompted responses such as this, perhaps to be expected in the Guardian, that more immigration was the only solution.
The article however conflated two quite different things – population size and population location. Japan’s total population of 126 million is the same as it was in 1995, albeit having dropped 2 million from its 2010 peak. But compared to 1995, the urban population has increased by 17.5 million. Thus since 1995 the non-urban population has more than halved from 28 million to only 10 million while the total population is unchanged. So when the article speaks of thousands of abandoned villages because of declining population levels the prime reason is declining rural population as a percentage of total population rather than because of declining total population.
In Spain, population has dipped by a little under 1% over the past decade following 15% growth in the previous decade from 2000 to 2010. With a population now very much higher than in 2000, it is internal movement within Spain rather than national population decline that means “3,000 ghost villages now haunt the hills” as youngsters have left the villages for better opportunities in the towns and cities, just as in Japan.
Bearing in mind the economic incentives for population to move from rural to urban locations, it cannot be that immigration is the solution. Of course immigrants could be imported to restock abandoned villages and small towns, but what would they do? Surely the young have left because there aren’t livelihoods to be made there anymore? Many countries in Europe, especially in the South and East, have had over-large rural population for decades, a symptom of very slow modernisation, and it is entirely natural and probably desirable that surplus population in inefficient farming sectors should move to urban environments and escape rural life that offers little. Of course some rural depopulation is damaging and over-rapid. Bulgaria is the paradigm, provoked – as in Romania – by over-hasty EU membership which has seen people leave these countries altogether in droves.
Areas of the world, and indeed of nations, that once provided work and livelihoods do not any more because of the changing nature of economies, notably the industrialisation and globalisation of food production. This means – certainly in higher income countries – that the network of small agricultural enterprises that underpinned rural economies and their populations are no longer tenable.
Rural depopulation is most often a consequence of increasing lack of economic opportunity, not vice versa, and so the appropriate response if that depopulation is a bad thing is not seeking to increase that population, but providing new economic opportunity.
It would be a disaster to seek to import large numbers of immigrants from even poorer countries around the world in the vain hope that they can make livelihoods for themselves in areas where the indigenous population cannot.