‘The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World’ by Paul Morland


2019, 282 pages & notes

…demography is not an external factor, injected into a society from the outside and simply having a one-way impact; rather it emerges from society itself and is as much caused by its environment as it is shaped by it. Nonetheless causal links can be traced from demographic patterns in the way the world works and the way in which events unfold. And while the human tide does not determine the cause of history, it moulds it, and it seems clear in most cases that different demography would have led to a different outcome.  (p.236)

As is often the case when I have read a book that has influenced my thinking, it seems that all of a sudden there are examples and illustrations all around me. China’s population, which we were convinced was going to ‘swamp’ us, is suddenly in decline; the US reports the slowest population growth in a century; Tony Abbott warns of a Western extinction crisis; Dick Smith keeps publishing his overpopulation advertisements; and in my own little family I am absolutely revelling in the birth of four grandchildren in four years.

Paul Morland, Associate Research Fellow with the Dept of Politics at Birkbeck College UK, starts his book with England in the 1800s, as the industrial revolution is gathering steam (literally!). He argues that the rise in population and the industrial revolution were each reliant on and fed each other.  Both rose, then stabilized.  The rise in population resulted from a decrease in infant mortality and the increase in life expectancy, and the reduction in children that springs from education of girls.  Furthermore, this pattern has occurred and will continue to occur in societies across the world, albeit influenced by pro-natalist politicians, dictators, immigration and epidemics/natural disasters. This, in a nutshell, is his argument: that population growth eventually stabilizes, even in societies that threaten the West today with their demographic fecundity.  He likens it to a film that starts screening in a cinema at different sessions.  Even though you would see a different part of the film in each individual cinema, they all end the same way.

His book is divided into three parts. Part I is an introduction to Population and History. Population growth matters because it spurs economic growth, but it also makes it possible to wage war without fears of running out of replacement soldiers.  Part II focuses on Europe: first, the spread of the British Empire, second, the German and Russian Challenges particularly leading into WWI, third, the West since 1945 and finally, Russia and the Eastern Bloc since 1945.  Part III is titled ‘The Tide Goes Global: Beyond the Europeans’. Here he deals first with Japan, China and East Asia where the aging of the population can be seen again and again;  then the Middle East and North Africa, where populations are booming in the midst of  (and perhaps, in themselves, fomenting) instability; and a concluding section ‘Nothing New Under the Sun? Final frontiers and Future Vistas’. He identifies Sri Lanka as the ‘goldilocks country’ in terms of population – not too much, not too little  (I wonder if he factored the Tamil ‘outflow’ as part of this?)

He argues that the future will be ‘more grey, more green and less white’. It will be more grey, because the world’s median age will be 40 by 2100. An older world generally means a less-bellicose world (because societies with older populations tend to fight fewer wars), but it also means that there is a smaller cohort to provide the resources to care for an older population.  Green? He optimistically predicts that an increased population – because it will increase, before it stabilizes – will force technological change to meet ecological demands, in the same way that improved technological techniques have averted the Malthusian disaster that was predicted for so many years.  And finally, it will be less white as immigration, especially from the Middle East and Africa, will bring changes to formerly Anglosphere societies.

This is an amazingly broad book, sweeping right across with globe, with even Australia and New Zealand getting a look in. It combines statistics (which made my eyes glaze just a little) with human anecdotes (which brought me back to life again). I think, however, that he is too cavalier with his attitude towards the environment. There’s plenty about people, but he is almost silent about the planet on which they are living – and this is a bad oversight, and one that almost undercuts his whole argument.

That said, however, the book brings demography, which is often an unspoken force, into the spotlight. And once you’ve seen it, you see it everywhere.

My rating: 7.5 / 10    I am really troubled by his ignoring the environmental question

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library


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