THE HUMAN TIDE: How Population Shaped the Modern World
Hachette India; Pages 344, Rs 599
The Human Tide is a demographer’s take on questions such as why the industrial revolution first took place in Britain; why the United States and Russia emerged as superpowers; why America voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016, and Britain for Brexit; and why there is growing support for far-right parties such as the Front National in France and the Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany.
Describing population as “a supreme force in history”, Paul Morland, an associate research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, writes that whatever the role of the inventions that powered Britain’s industrial revolution, a burgeoning population that churned out more resources and provided an expanding market for goods was a leading cause of the industrial boom. The UK economy grew from less than one-third that of France in 1700 to a third larger by 1914, while the UK population went from less than half of that of France to 15 per cent more over this period.
Demographic trends matter greatly. Without one such trend — the decline in the share of the US population classified as “white European” — Mr Obama would not have been elected president in 2008. Another — Mexican emigration to the US —caused a backlash among (still dominant) white voters and saw Mr Trump being elected president in 2016. It was demography again that played a key role in the emergence of the US as a superpower after World War II. By the end of the war, the fact that America’s population was a multiple of that of any other European power ended both the military and economic dominance of the European powers.
But in the developed world, the era of rising populations has long gone. The last quarter century has seen a greying of societies, caused by later marriages, fewer births and increased life expectancy. By the end of the current century, many developed countries (Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan, for example) will see steep net declines in population. Pensions in the developed world are set to double as a proportion of GDP by 2050 unless there is significant reform, and the greater demands of older people on health services will also be a fiscal challenge for a developed world where budgets are already under strain and debt-to-GDP ratios are perilously high. In the face of ageing populations, developing countries will have to cope with growing old before they grow rich. This could lead to a global epidemic of elderly people going to their deaths alone, uncared for and neglected (this is already happening in Japan, a rich country that is also the world’s oldest society).
Mr Morland sheds light on demographic trends in South Asia as well. Since independence, India’s fertility rate has fallen from nearly six to barely two and a half children per woman. Within India, fertility is highest in the poorer states of the Hindi belt and lowest in southern states such as Kerala where, along with Tamil Nadu, it is below replacement level. Sri Lanka’s fertility rate has been hovering at a little over two children per woman (the replacement level) for the best part of thirty years, making it in demographic terms a “Goldilocks” society.
The surprise package is Bangladesh, which has brought its fertility rate down since independence in the early 1970s from nearly seven children per woman to fewer than two and a half — not by accident but through the provision of family planning clinics and women family planning counsellors who travel from village to village. Its population is expected to stabilise at around 200 million by 2050, while India is likely overtake China as the world’s most populous country, but not before 2027. Pakistan and Afghanistan, with stubbornly high fertility rates, are laggards but are likely to get there eventually.
For those in India worried by the menace of the Chinese dragon, Mr Morland has words of cheer: “With decline of its fertility rate, India is set to enjoy a demographic dividend as China’s fades. In part because of its slower economic development, in part because of its culture, India has the prospect of a long demographic dividend to enjoy, while China faces imminent challenges of a declining workforce and an ageing population.”
With the global population expected to balloon to 11 billion by 2100, are we headed for an environmental catastrophe? Mr Morland actually expects the world to become greener. With better educated, better networked humans having more access to information, the role of technology and innovation will be even more important, he argues. Appropriate investments can lead to crop yields per hectare outpacing population growth more easily, allowing land to be returned to nature (as has happened in Japan and Bulgaria). In the developing world, too, Mr Morland? Seriously?
Mr Morland offers remarkable insights — albeit entirely from the demographic perspective — into the progress of human society over the past two hundred years. However, demography as a subject can be a little dry. You can do justice to the book only if you study it like you would a textbook.