Book Club

The Chair read for you Demography and ecology from Jacques Véron

Published on 29 January 2020

Jacques Véron is a demographer and director of research at the national Institute of demographic studies (Ined). His work focuses mainly on the relationship between population, environment and development. The purpose of his book “Demography and ecology1 is to clarify the current issues in the field of demography and ecology, while reporting on the complexity of the dynamics at play.

The size of the world’s population is often accused of being the source of current environmental issues. For instance, the explosion of population growth in the 20th century has coincided with ecological awareness, natural resource depletion and a global deterioration of the environment (loss of biodiversity, climate change, land overuse, etc.). Given that the population is expected to reach 11 billion by 2100, according to the United Nations average scenario, new generations concerned by ecology are increasingly wondering whether to give up on having children. This book will not provide the reader with a categorical answer to this question. On the contrary, the author adopts a systemic and dynamic approach to the relationship between demography and the environment, and the reader understands that there is no obvious and exclusive relationship between these two variables.

From a “carrying capacity” point of view, i.e. the number of human beings that the earth can support in the long run, it is true that everything else equal, the acceleration of the world’s population growth faces the physical constraints set by the amount of natural resources available. However, this argument, which ultimately supports the Malthusian thesis, becomes invalid once corrected for the “standard of living” effect. It can easily be understood that for the same population size, a European does not generate the same impact on his environment as an African indeed. This effect is often underestimated and raises the question of the relevance of the “world population” measure as an indicator of environmental transformation. Thus, a scientific challenge consists in agreeing on definitions for the words “population” and “environment”, even before trying to measure environmental changes. To capture heterogeneous ecological effects and facilitate comparisons between countries, the concept of ecological footprints becomes very interesting as a tool to quantify the relationship between population and environment.

Moreover, this book reminds us that the relationship between demography and the environment is not a one-way street. In order to grasp all its mechanisms, the notion of environment can only be approached as a dynamic system that influences and is influenced by demography in return. Indeed, the environment determines the geographical distribution of the population, migration, but also economic development. Demography in the scientific sense is therefore not limited to measuring the size of a population at a given time. The most telling case is that of extreme climatic events, in the face of which all human beings are far from equal. The author raises that the level of risk and vulnerability of populations cannot be dissociated from the level of development of the economy indeed, at the local or national level. An important variable at the confluence of “ecology-demography-development” research fields is also health. For example, deforestation and the installation of water infrastructure such as dams or irrigation systems can contribute to the spread of malaria in countries where it is prevalent. Increased human mobility is also a factor in the transmission of epidemics, such as the coronavirus that has infected North America and Europe through travelers from China.

After reading this book, it becomes clear that environment-demography-economy relations are rarely mechanical, and that the whole scientific challenge is to isolate and determine the cross-effects at play.

Anouk Faure, Research fellow « Long term modeling of the European Union Carbon Market »

1 Jacques Véron, « Demography and ecology », La Découverte Edition, Collection « Repères », March 2013, 128 Pages