Courageous Conversations
by Sarah Sieloff

ollowing several centuries of rapid increase, demographers predict that the human population will peak in the 2060s and then begin to decline. As of 2020, population aging and decline is already under way in 25 countries.

I’m an urban planner, which means I’m the product of a field that developed to manage rapidly growing cities. If our collective future is going to involve shrinking, what does that mean for how we structure our cities and our economy? It’s a question that hasn’t seen nearly enough airtime, which is why I spent 15 months in Japan in 2020 and 2021 as a Council on Foreign-Relations Hitachi Fellow searching for answers.

Shrinking cities (and towns and villages) are a national issue in Japan, which hit “peak people” at 128 million in 2008. Since that point, deaths have exceeded births. Government projections estimate that Japan’s population will decline by about 30 percent by 2065 to 82 million people, or the size of Germany today.

In my quest to learn how shrinking municipalities are preparing for older, smaller futures, I visited cities, towns, and villages, interviewed local officials and organizations, and read local and national government plans. Most of the municipalities I visited had been losing population for decades, and many had shrunk by 50 percent or more from their peak.

digital illustration of skyline and people walking by
Almost universally, however, population growth remained a policy priority. It has been clear since the 1970s that Japan would start losing population in the early 21st century. Despite the early warning, planning for population decline doesn’t seem to have advanced significantly. Why?

What is most interesting about Japan is that it is not unique. Fifty-five countries are expected to lose at least one percent of their population between 2019 and 2050, and 26 of those are expected to see population contract by at least 10 percent. As of 2020, 88 out of 202 countries reported birth rates at or below 2.1 children per woman, the replacement rate needed to maintain population. From France to Sweden, China and Iran, we know that, once birth rates fall below replacement rate, the policies intended to raise them tend to have limited impact. People are having fewer children for all kinds of reasons, including urbanization, improved access to education for women, financial pressures, and shifting ideas about what makes a good life.

Widespread sub-replacement birthrates make this moment unlike any in recent human history. Declining birth rates threaten the social contract that underpins the post-World War II order, of political power in return for ever-rising standards of living, delivered by ever-expanding economic growth. Current population trends are unprecedented and potentially destabilizing, and they merit our best thinking in order to plan for a smaller future. Unfortunately, planned shrinking is largely off the policy table.

Current population trends are unprecedented and potentially destabilizing, and they merit our best thinking in order to plan for a smaller future.
The most interesting public policy problems are frequently not the ones for which we lack answers, but those for which we lack good questions, and our current demographic transition is a powerful example. It challenges the basic premise of capitalism, which since the 1500s has been predicated on more people consuming more. Population decline will influence everything from international relations to pension systems, immigration, labor markets, social service provision, and the shape of cities and transportation. Russia lost population in 2020, and China will start declining soon.

We tend to associate leadership with answers, but in a world full of unprecedented, complex challenges, asking questions is an act of leadership. Despite its importance, why is almost no one talking about planning for population decline, and anticipating the very real disruptions it will cause? Furthermore, why are very few people talking about how shifting demography could impact climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts? Our failure to ask good questions deprives us of information and insight.

alleyway of shops in Ito, Japan
Ito, Japan is a shrinking city in Shizuoka Prefecture. It is an example of a “shutter town.” On its main shopping street, many stores are permanently closed.
Japan Shrinks: An Example
I asked Japanese government officials at all levels what they thought Japan should do to prepare for a smaller future. In conversation, people were willing to admit that some degree of depopulation was impossible to avoid, but there wasn’t a clear sense of how to respond, and, perhaps because of this uncertainty, growth remained the default response. This was evidence of 一本気 (ippongi): a one-track mind. To be fair, thinking about population growth is slowly starting to shift in some corners of the policy world, but based on what I observed, growth will continue to remain a focus—either formally or informally—for the foreseeable future.

One particularly memorable example of ippongi came from a city that had lost 90 percent of its population since the 1950s. Its municipal plans noted the lack of a first-class local maternity hospital, and proposed to build one. There were about 20 births in this city in 2016, a number projected to decline along with women of reproductive age. I remember being moved by this city’s revitalization efforts, but a maternity hospital—compared to a clinic or improved medical transportation—likely wasn’t the most effective way to respond to population decline, and it certainly wasn’t going to turn around the city’s population trajectory. It was the growth imperative made manifest, and an example of the lengths to which we will go to continue to make growth possible, even when it is impossible.

I went to Japan focused on shrinking cities, but it became clear early on that attitudes toward growth were the real issue. Japan is not alone in its preference for and pursuit of growth. As former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake once said, “A city that is not growing is a city that is dying.” Perhaps this is why we fear not growing so much—because we see it as an existential threat. That might explain the anguished media reporting that greeted the results of the 2020 US Census, which showed the lowest rate of population growth since the Great Depression.

Why is growth so central to our thinking, beliefs, and expectations? What makes shrinking so threatening? And what do we think growth actually delivers? Is it wellbeing, social stability, or an abstract concept like gross domestic product (GDP) growth, which since the mid-twentieth century has served as a proxy for all these and more? While population and economic growth have been closely related for much of human history, a smaller population doesn’t necessarily have to be synonymous with worsening conditions. What would it take for a smaller future to also be a livable one? Why can’t we focus on the possibility of shrinking without declining, and why is there no space to ask this question?

building covered in plants
An abandoned building covered in vines on the Miura Peninsula, south of Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture.
Growth or Bust? Population Decline and Climate Change
Population decline raises another issue: climate change. The parallels between policy responses to both are striking. Denial and delay abound.

If we want to effectively navigate both climate change and population decline, we need to ask better questions, because lack of preparation now creates more serious disruptions later.

Many may insist that we have not yet reached the limits of growth. The issue is that continuing to grow until we hit those limits will render the earth unlivable. We have enough resources to feed and house everyone on the planet. Growth for growth’s sake serves no one, and it does nothing to ensure that we leave future generations the livable planet we owe them.

Confronted with the destructive realities of growth for growth’s sake, we often invoke green growth as an alternative model, under the unspoken assumption that it will allow us to continue with growth as usual.1 But as a Zen priest explained to me in Japan, the problem with “sustainable development” is that development still connotes growth, which communicates that living sustainably will not require us to give anything up. This is false. Despite producing more clean energy year after year, economic growth and increased demand for energy means that, in many places, these new renewables are merely supplementing fossil fuels, not su.2

Population decline will be economically, socially, and politically disruptive, but it is not inherently bad, morally problematic, wrong, or unnatural. It is the aggregate result of millions of deeply personal, individual life decisions. It also represents an opportunity to approach climate change differently. If population decline is going to reduce consumption in mostly rich, high-emissions societies, why are we not thinking about how to leverage this change? This may be an opportunity to cut emissions, if we can seize it by planning accordingly.

To apply a simple value judgment to a phenomenon as complex as population decline distorts and confuses the conversation. It doesn’t help us think creatively about the disruptions we know are coming, and what opportunities those might yield. Particularly at the under-explored intersection of population decline and climate change, it is clear that, sometimes, the questions we ask are as important as the answers we receive.

Questions As a Form of Courage
Chief among those questions is “What do we believe about growth?” Frequently, we assume that growth, whether of populations or economies, is desirable, positive, inevitable, and linked. To be clear, growth does generate benefits: increased life expectancies around the world and a decrease in global poverty over the last several decades are two examples.

But we also know that the way we’ve been doing business cannot continue in a carbon-constrained future with a smaller population. What other models can we imagine and experiment with? Is an enhanced sharing economy part of the answer? Can we draw lessons from steady state economics and other similarly creative economic models? Most importantly, can we be curious and clear-eyed instead of fearful as we confront our assumptions about the value and necessity of growth? When we fail to imagine alternatives, we end up asking the wrong questions, or not asking questions at all.

What I observed in Japan demonstrates the qualities our current global situation demands of leaders. Journalist Aryn Baker asks, “If my daughter inherits a damaged planet…what does that say about the values my generation cultivated in its dogged pursuit of perpetual growth?” Neither public policy nor public conversation reflect what we know intuitively, that unending growth of any kind is not possible.

Some climate change models end at 2100, but we know that these impacts will continue and may intensify over centuries, if not millennia. Preparing for a climate-changed future starts now, with how we think, build, and lead, and all these activities need to be grounded in a brave new set of questions that start with our relationship with growth. For my part, I’m continuing to probe these issues through the Pacific Council on International Policy’s Amplify Fellowship.

The best place to start is with the demographic trends that are in front of us. They invite questions that will determine the shape and quality of our collective future. I encourage all of us to find the courage to ask them.

1Hickel’s most recent book, “Less is More” (2021, Penguin Random House) is one of several recent books that offer new takes on conventional neoliberal economic models.

2For a more detailed analysis, see Hickel’s “Less is More.”

Sarah Sieloff
Sarah Sieloff is an urban planning practitioner, researcher, writer, and public policy expert advancing economic and ecological resilience in the Pacific Northwest and internationally. Sieloff is a 2020 Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi Fellow, and actively continues her fellowship research into Japanese municipalities’ responses to depopulation, most recently via an Amplify Fellowship at the Pacific Council on International Policy. Sieloff holds a Master in Public Affairs from Princeton University and a BA from Eckerd College, and is a Truman Scholar.