No Easy Solution: Demographic Fatigue

Demographic fatigue, social instability, and environmental degradation are clearly linked. Demographic fatigue can be described as a state of a government being financially drained by rapid population growth. It results from attempts to engage the needs of more and more people for education and jobs, while still addressing environmental problems (Brown, Gardner, & Halweil, 2006, p. 83). Governments of developing countries are hampered by demographic fatigue in dealing effectively with emerging challenges in the health and wellness of the people and the environment of their country. It becomes a destructive circle – by attempting to meet the needs of more people, environmental and social problems are introduced or exacerbated, impeding meaningful progress in solving any of these problems. It has been suggested that the concept of demographic transition might hold a solution to rapid population growth – by encouraging and accelerating further modernization, it is argued that population growth will stabilize and alleviate the problems of demographic fatigue (Brown et al., 2006). Considering the environmental problems that existing modernized countries face though, the wisdom of the demographic transition approach is questionable…

…This is apparent when considering agricultural intensification and the attendant dangers of resource depletion, air and water pollution, and environmental degradation (Netting, 2006, p. 13). Instead of exporting the problems of developed countries to developing countries, a focus of research should be on better understanding the links between modernization and low population growth. It might then be attempted to realize the stabilizing effects of modernization without the destructiveness of, for example, industrialized agriculture.

The challenge of demographic fatigue and environmental degradation is clearly linked to rapid population growth, economic dynamics, and environmental degradation.  This makes it apparent that it is a complex problem with diverse interdependencies, and breaking out of demographic fatigue is no easy task. According to Ethelston (2006), it is often the case that governments, though convinced that the symptoms of demographic fatigue are obstacles to economic and social development, are ambivalent about providing a means to improve the situation. They often attempt to implement one-sided measures to control population (such as focusing solely on female contraceptives), fail to properly educate their citizens on the need for population stability, or experience resistance from the lower classes of their population (Ethelston, 2006, p. 114). In attempts to create jobs and improve economic situations, the pressures of demographic fatigue allow environmental racism and clearly lead to environmental degradation, such as seen in the deforestation in Africa for commercial exportation to more developed countries (Dalby, 2006, p. 122). It has also been argued by Kaplan that environmental degradation is a security concern, though the gross inadequacy and colonialist attitudes of this argument have been critically revealed by Dalby (2006). Nonetheless, since governments are responsible for security, it stands to reason that if a government is experiencing demographic fatigue and resources are stretched thin that the possibility of social instability and not meeting security requirements is real. This is not a result of whimsical environmental degradation as Kaplan seems to have argued, but degradation as a by-product of environmentalism being given a lower priority than economic measures intended to deal with demographic fatigue.

The link between population growth and environmental degradation is also evident in the area of agricultural sustenance. According to Boserup (2006) there is a relationship between population density and land use. This results in a change of practice forcing land that would once be allowed to regenerate through periods of being left fallow, to be cultivated more rapidly, resulting in degradation of the soil (p. 76). In spite of the impact that population has on the environment, efforts by governments suffering under demographic fatigue to curb population growth have proven inadequate.  It seems unlikely that such efforts, which mostly aim to influence female reproductive behavior or provide education to the population, are having the desired effect (Ethelston, 2006, p. 114). The cultural implications of family planning are complex, especially when moving from culture to culture, as becomes evident in the study of African fertility presented by Bledsoe, Banja, and Hill (2006). The diverse cultural attitudes to reproduction must be considered and this prevents a unified solution for the global problem of population growth and the resulting environmental degradation.

Through this brief summary, the interdependent challenges of demographic fatigue become clear. It emerges as a self-perpetuating cycle that severely challenges governments in meeting current social and environmental challenges, and prohibits them from being prepared for new problems. A solution to rapid population growth is clearly required. Though it seems that the statistics Brown et al (2006) cite might confirm the effectiveness of modernization in promoting low population growth, the danger of modernization cannot be ignored. It also is a logical fallacy to assume that since modernization seems to lead the way to low population growth that it is the only avenue available to us.  The fact that lower population growth has less impact on the environment is apparent, but in contrast, it is unlikely that modernization is the only way to realize population stabilization. While it should be acknowledged as one possible avenue, it is a risky one, and should not be blindly accepted or entered into. Though a solution to demographic fatigue cannot be proposed in the scope of this paper, it should be acknowledged that more thought and research is required in order to identify precisely why modernization has a stabilizing effect on population, and more importantly, what other avenues might be taken in order to realize these results.

Works Cited

Bledsoe, C., Banja, F., & Hill, A. (2006). Reproductive Mishaps and Western Contraception An African Challenge to Fertility Theory. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 87-112). New York: New York University Press.

Boserup, E. (2006). Some Perspectives and Implications. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 75-79). New York: New York University Press.

Brown, L., Gardner, G., & Halweil, B. (2006). Beyond Malthus: Sixteen Dimensions of the Population Problem. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 80-86). New York: New York University Press.

Dalby, S. (2006). The Environment as Geopolitical Threat: Reading Robert Kaplan’s “Coming Anarchy”. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 118-135). New York: New York University Press.

Ethelston, S. (2006). Gender, Population, Environment. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 113-117). New York: New York University Press.

Netting, R. (2006). Smallholders, Householders. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 10-14). New York: New York University Press.


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