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“We must avoid both catastrophism and angelism”

by archyde

La Croix: In a world where the population continues to grow and where resources seem limited, will we end up fighting for access to drinking water, arable land and raw materials?

Bruno Tertrais: Are we really going to run out of resources? It is not established. Technology, the market and the adaptability of human activity make this hypothesis unlikely. We are certainly not going to run out of oil, for example, but it is possible that its operating cost will one day become so high that companies will be encouraged to accelerate their energy transition. In terms of food, I remind you that famines have almost disappeared despite the growth of the world population. And if tensions exist, they are due to distribution problems, speculation, conflicts or bad governance, not to the scarcity of resources.

Migratory movements:

Gone are the days of fighting over scarce or scarce resources. For a simple reason: in a globalized economy – and which will remain so, Covid or not Covid -, it is easier, that is to say less expensive, to buy than to steal!

The only conflicts that persist today in this area relate to resources that are not scarce but abundant, such as minerals, precious woods… or hydrocarbons. If Turkey is pursuing an aggressive policy in the Eastern Mediterranean by wanting its share of the gas pie, it is more from a perspective of energy sovereignty than out of fear of running out of gas: it is everywhere.

Can we not fear tensions around access to drinking water?

B. T. : If there is a myth, this is it. Access to water can be a parameter in a conflict, it is never the main cause. Real water shortages are rare, localized and often result more from poor management than unavailability of the resource.

If access to water is changed, for example by building a dam, it is not to the point of bringing a country to its knees. It is a weapon that states have always hesitated to use. We can always say that it will come. For my part, I note that the water wars announced for thirty years have still not happened.

Will the face-to-face between China and the United States continue to dominate the world diplomatic scene or will demographic changes be a game-changer?

B. T. : By 2030, the relationship between the United States and Asia will remain central, economically and strategically, as it is today. Three demographic giants will dominate the scene, India, China and the United States. But an interesting phenomenon will occur at this time: the population curves of China and India will intersect. India will not only become the world’s leading demographic power – which it will not fail to take advantage of – but it could also become at this time a real relay of economic growth for the whole world, with a favorable age pyramid.

While China will age quickly. Its workforce will become less and less important while the burden of its elders, in a country which does not have a developed pension system, will be more and more heavy. As the People’s Republic draws closer to its symbolic centenary date in 2049, it will struggle to claim to be the world’s leading power. When China turns gray, India will wake up!

Will the world’s center of gravity then be uniquely Asian?

B. T. : Not at all, America will stay in third place, and that is major. This country still has a dynamic population today, even though it has long since completed its demographic transition. In addition to maintaining a non-negligible fertility, it remains a country of immigration. A trend contrary to that of Europe, whose population is on the decline, and to Russia, which has started a real demographic descent into hell. Moreover, on this horizon, it is the decline of the whole of Eurasia – Europe, Russia, China, Japan, Korea… – which is taking shape.

All these trends will continue by 2050. The only downside: the United States will lose its third place to Nigeria – which reminds us that the demographic transition is far from being completed in sub-Saharan Africa – but the scope of this development is more symbolic than geopolitical.

Can we expect tensions linked to migratory movements?

B. T. : In this matter, we must avoid both catastrophism and angelism. The general long-term trend is towards an increase in population displacement. But this increase will be slow and measured. The proportion of migrants in the world population has indeed changed little since 1960, despite less expensive travel and the possibility of staying in contact with one’s country of origin using mobile telephony. But border crossing has become, in many cases, more difficult.

Moreover, the most massive migratory flows are not those that we think of spontaneously. Migrants from the South are moving more to the South than to the North, and this more and more. There will be no African rush to Europe. They are the inhabitants of the planet who emigrate the least! The idea according to which Africa is developing and that African emigration will therefore increase is correct, since a minimum of means is necessary to carry out a migratory adventure; but to suggest as some do that 150 million Africans will arrive in Europe by 2050 is totally absurd and has no empirical basis.

Where do these tensions over migration come from?

B. T. : Western populations are changing. In 1990, the share of the foreign-born population in European countries was rarely more than 5%. It is now over 10% in half of the Member States of the Union. “White” America should become a minority by 2045-2050. Not only is the proportion of people born abroad increasing rapidly in OECD countries, but the composition of this immigration is changing. In Europe, it is now mainly from the North African continent; in the United States, from the Asian continent. Hence my hypothesis that a form of “demographic insecurity” is developing.

It is a deeper and more widespread phenomenon than it was thirty years ago. It is observed as well in countries traditionally open to immigration, such as the United States, as in countries closed to foreigners, such as the countries of the former Eastern bloc, which are experiencing a clear demographic decline.

The fact that certain political movements make this their hobbyhorse and exaggerate the extent and consequences of the migratory phenomenon should not lead to minimizing this increasingly deeply rooted perception. I see it as one of the keys, if not the key, to the populist vote in Europe and more widely in Western countries. Populism is in my opinion a “return of the repressed migratory” and a form of revolt closely linked to this question.

Some even raise the fear of a “great replacement” of European populations, orchestrated from Brussels …

B. T. : This expression is sometimes used in conservative circles in Western countries, supposed to describe a natural demographic evolution, which would even be encouraged by institutions like the European Union – which, it is true, maintains a sometimes naive vision of immigration. But this idea is hardly validated by the figures: even if the share of the population of non-European origin is increasing, the proportion of residents born outside the EU remains below 10% in the large countries.

Behind this notion sometimes hides the fear of Islam. Originally “racial”, the great replacement today would be “cultural”. Except that even taking into account the hypothesis of strong immigration, it is estimated that Europe would not have more than 15% of Muslims in 2050. Not really a “replacement” … But we can predict that the population of Western countries will be much more diverse in 2050 than it was in 1950.

Can we bet on a more peaceful future, with an aging world population?

B. T. : The completion of the demographic transition in the vast majority of countries gives hope in the medium term for a reduction in internal conflicts, since a society’s propensity for collective violence is correlated with the shape of its age pyramid.

An older world would also be a world where, other things being equal, the risk of conflict between states would decrease. There is indeed a strong correlation between median age and state of democracy: as soon as this age exceeds 29-30 years, the probability that a country is a stable democracy becomes greater than 50%. Yet one of the few verified laws of political science is that democracies do not go to war with each other.


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