Sunday, February 28, 2016

The "Limits to Growth" was right: Italy's population starts declining.




The "base case" scenario described in the 2004 edition of "The Limits to Growth", an update of the original study sponsored by the Club of Rome and published in 1972. Note how the world's population is supposed to start declining some years after the peaking of the world's economy. We are not yet seeing this decline at the global level, but we may be seeing it in some specific regions of the world; in particular in Italy.


More and more data are accumulating to disprove the legend of the "mistakes" that has been accompanying the study titled "The Limits to Growth" (LTG). For instance, Graham Turner has shown how the historical data for the world's economy have been following rather closely the curves of the "base case" scenario presented in 1972. But the fact that this scenario has been working well up to the beginning of the 21st century doesn't mean it will keep working in the same way in the future. The base case scenario describes a worldwide economic collapse that should start at some moment during the first two-three decades of the century. Clearly, the world's economy has not collapsed, so far, even though it may be argued that it is giving out ominous signs that it is starting to do just that. But, we can't yet prove that the base case scenario was right.

Yet, the LTG collapse scenario is an average over the whole world and we may imagine that some sections of the world's economy should collapse earlier, and some later. And, indeed, it appears that some local economies are collapsing right now. It may be that a country like Italy is already well advanced in this process, so that we shouldn't be not just seeing the decline of its GdP, but also the start of an irreversible population decline. And some recent data indicate that this is exactly the case: the LTG base case scenario is playing out in Italy, and probably not just in Italy.

So, let's try to make a qualitative comparison of the LTG scenario and the actual data for Italy. First of all, the scenario shows how the consumption of natural resources is supposed to reach a maximum and then decline, followed by a similar trajectory for the economic output. We are already well past this point in Italy. As you can see in the figure below, from a previous post on Cassandra's legacy, Italy's consumption of hydrocarbon fuels (by far its main source of energy) peaked in 2005, followed by the peak in the GdP in 2008. Considering that the GdP is a measure of the overall economic output of a country, we can take it as proportional to the parameters that were indicated as the industrial and agricultural production in the LTG study (the data for 2015  indicate a small GdP increase for Italy, but that changes little to the overall trend).


So, we may say that the base case LTG scenario has been playing out in Italy in terms of the behavior of the economy of the country. But, if this is the case, at some point we should expect another curve of the scenario to peak and start declining: the population curve. And, indeed, we seem to be seeing exactly that. Here are the most recent data from the Italian statistical agency, ISTAT



You can see the remarkable jumping up in the mortality rate for 2015: it corresponds to 165,00 more deaths than births. Despite the influx of immigrants, Italy has lost 139,000 residents in 2015; not a large loss (0.23%) but it is significant. And it had never happened during the past few decades. Also, Italy sees for the first time in decades a reduction in the life expectancy at birth (from 80.3 years to 80.1 years for males and from 85 years to 84.7 years for females).

What have been the causes of this population decline? There are several, and the torrid summer of 2015 has surely played a role in killing more old people than usual, as you can see in the figure below (again from ISTAT)



Then, other causes have been proposed; the general aging of the population, the economic crisis, the worsening diet, pollution, the higher costs of medical care, and more. But the point, here, is not to discuss these various causes, most of which probably had a role in the decline. The model doesn't describe the details of the process, nor it is detailed to the point of considering different age cohorts. It is a quantitative description of a relatively simple phenomenon: a population under stress because of reduced resource availability and pollution will react by an increasing number of deaths in its weakest age groups: the elderly ones. And this is exactly what we are seeing in Italy: a decline in population following the decline in GdP.

Of course, we only have data for one year and we cannot say if what we are seeing is a long-term trend or just a statistical fluctuation. Yet, it is hard not to think that the degrading economic, social conditions in Italy, as well as the degradation of the ecosystem, are not taking their toll on the population. And that we are indeed seeing the LTG scenarios playing out.





17 comments:

  1. Same for Japan.

    http://www.japantoday.com/category/national/view/japans-population-at-127-11-mil-in-2015-down-for-1st-time-since-1920

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    1. good morning
      link does not work.
      thank you

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  2. Sorry, but I don't see any kind of link between resources and population here. Italy is a developed country. There is nothing similar to starvation.

    It's simply that aging has limits, and because births has been low for years below the replacement level (below two childs per couple), and the limits of the life length is reached by genetic limits, no matter which healthcare you have, in some point deaths become higher that births.

    So the limits of the population are reached not because resource limit, but the people has chosen to have so low level of children that the people declining is inevitable (until the births level raises again, of course).

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    1. Oatleg, of course all these are interpretations of the data, and subjected to skepticism. However, nobody ever said that the expected population reduction would be caused by starvation; it is much more complex than this. And the point is that in Italy we didn't saw a dramatic drop of births (a choice) but a dramatic increase in deaths (surely not a choice)

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    2. But it's Italy. I'm spanish and I don't have direct data from there, but in some regions of Spain, including mine ( León ) occurs something similar, and the raise of deaths are mainly by aging. It's only the limits of lifespan. There is countries with low birthrate that it only maintains the population because lifespan is growing yet, but genetics has limits, and because Mediterranean area has one of the most longer lifespans of the World, there is no much way to growing it, so we reach lifespan limit soon.
      These populations, without greater birth rates, it reach declining soon. My city is declining now, but there is no more reason that lifespan limits and low births numbers.

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    3. This increase in death rates may just be due to the higher number of people entering old age, simply because the cohort is larger than previous cohorts (baby boomers are approaching old age, and they will obviously increase the death rate of any developed country, because they are the biggest segment of in their populations). This does not contradict the LGT model, but it might indicate that population adjustment due to economic constraints decreases birth rate without increasing death rate (at least at this point in time). Perhaps limits manifest themselves in the job market first, increasing youth unemployment and restricting immigration (immigration occurs in Italy mostly because it's a route to get to Germany and all the other countries where these limits will appear later, due to their higher industrial output, and they still require cheap labour). Until I have a look at the size of the cohorts which are going to enter old age, I do not think this analysis sounds very convincing, to be honest.

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  3. For several years in Italy there has been a birth rate below the replacement level. This resulted in the reversal of the age pyramid. Now it is clear that with an inverted population pyramid sooner or later the deaths will outnumber the births. That's all. (Keep in mind: perhaps the low level of births is due to the economic difficulties linked to exhaustion of resources. In this sense the LTG predictions may be true (very) indirectly)

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    1. The LTG model doesn't say that the population decline is due to a specific cause. It only assumes that the reduced availability of services and of goods and the increased pollution will affect both the birthrate and the death rate. The result is that, at some moment, these effects will increase the death rate, and hence cause a population decline. That's exactly what we are seeing right now in Italy (and not only in Italy).

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    2. OK, but it is one thing to say that the population will decline because they will die young, and another to say that they will die old and there are not enough young people to replace them (which should be seen as a favorable thing to a better overall balance between population and territory - and hence the big problem of immigration and its sustainability, because people prefer espatriate rather than die off young in their courtries)

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    3. An example of the consequences can be found here. The German economic research foundation Stiftung Marktwirtschaft, publishes an annual ranking of "honorable states", ie the state capacity to meet its financial commitments towards future generations. This is done by calculating for each state "explicit" public debt (the one commonly reported in the press) and "implicit" public debt (ie the sum of the State's commitments towards future generations - pensions, education, health care and the like).
      Here you will find the ranking of 2014 - surprisingly enough (or maybe not) Italy is the only nation below the fateful threshold of 60%. This also explains why young people want to flee Italy: there are no more opportunities in the near term. But in the long run (when we are all dead, as Keynes says) other States will find themself managing an explosive situation.

      http://www.stiftung-marktwirtschaft.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Generationenbilanz/EU-Nachhaltigkeitsranking_2015_Diagramm.jpg

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  4. Interesting article as usual, could be a bit off fun watching the next decade or so. its the young that I feel for

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  5. A population is hard constrained by resources when death is driving by unadaptable circunstances, like lacking of food, water or be exposed to extreme temperatures. Resources reduction could drive short term raising of death, for example by lowering things like healthcare, but this things could be compensated easily through higher birth rates, so it's a short term way.

    This has importance, because we are NOT negating the limits of population, but it's a completely different thing between raising death rate and lower lifespan dramatically and lower birthrate voluntary and reach population equilibrium without heavy suffering.

    The italian case seems this case of voluntary limitation (perhaps unaware and cultural driven, but voluntary in any case).

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  6. Here are my thoughts on the same topic (in Italian), with a focus on the diminished returns of biomedical research and the growing inability of the health systems to pay the costs of innovative therapies: https://stopfontifossili.wordpress.com/2016/02/26/linsostenibile-pesantezza-dellessere-longevi/

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  7. I've read recently that the volume of global trade and global GDP has also declined in the past few years. Does this also fit into the Limits to Growth scenario described above?

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    1. There is no "GDP" parameter in the LTG model. It is an inference that the GDP measures the output of the industrial and agricultural sectors, that are instead parameters in the model. But, surely, the decreasing volume of trade is a symptom that something is wrong in the economic engine

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  8. I think we can sum it up in a few words. Too many people, too few resources.
    This ain't going to end well for anyone and I think a lot sooner than the graph suggests. When things start to unravel they tend to unravel quickly.

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  9. Some of the consequences of prosperity are: physical inactivity, obesity, hipercolesteronemia, consumption of snuff, alcohol, drugs, medicines abuse, etc.

    Reducing these bad habits would reduce the mortality.

    And a reduction of the GDP will aid to it.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)