The recent passing of P.D. James reminded me of her 1992 novel The Children of Men, in which she describes the convolutions of society, politics and plain daily lives in a world without the ability to procreate. It’s the story of the last human generation. She did a moving and frightening job at picturing the possible environment. Reading the book was for me a touching experience, one of those that stays with you regardless what you believe or think possible.
In today’s world, while overall the population is still growing, there are a few places where this is no longer the case. In these cases the population is actually contracting at a rapid pace. Japan and Italy are the first two that come to mind, but they are not the only countries. These two large economies find themselves in this state because (among many reasons) of lack of reproductive “capacity” and, in one case at least, strict internal immigration rules. Couple a good dose of ill conceived ideas and a deplorable phobia of immigrants – kept alive by self-serving political figures along with associated xenophobic theories – and you have the recipe for disappearing local societies. For a poignant up-to-date picture of the Italian situation, see the excellent FT article by Simon Kuper, How Italy Lost La Dolce Vita, here. (Many thanks to one reader for passing along.)
Economists, analysts and pundits have been aware of these facts for some time. While there have been many comments and formulated opinions, no one has written extensively on the “economics of disappearance”. How would you behave if you knew you are the last generation on this planet? If you have no future how would you think about most of the things you worry about on a normal daily basis? How would such terminal circumstances affect your spending and savings behavior? Questions like these lack adequate responses or analysis. We have plenty of examples in the observation of the individual behavior of our lost dear ones, but no “aggregate” idea.
This is an “extreme” thought experiment. It’s not caused by morbidity (though my wife and children know me for extensive preparations and instructions, updated yearly, on what to do when I am no longer here) but by the frustration of looking at the two countries mentioned for the past decades, and still seeing little change and evolution of thinking. Both remain in their own “secular” space and appear to have no will power to swallow the important structural developments necessary to save them from disappearance and economic insignificance.
In The Children of Men there is one last twist that leaves you with a tiny light at the end of the long tunnel. Will we be so lucky in the real world?
PS – For a completely opposite mental experiment, read Jose’ Saramago’s 2005 novel, Death with Interruptions, another masterpiece of the extreme.
Photo Source: own picture, iPhone 6