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How Population Shapes The World

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Demographics are closely connected to the rise and fall of countries. Population and how it changes with the birth rate, mortality rate, and migration, can reveal a lot about the course of the past as well as the future. Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks to Paul Morland, author of the book "The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World."

"The Human Tide" by Paul Morland. (Courtesy of Hachette Book Group)
"The Human Tide" by Paul Morland. (Courtesy of Hachette Book Group)

Book Excerpt: 'The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World'

By Paul Morland

Joan Rumbold was nineteen years old in 1754 and living in the London district of Chelsea when she met John Phillips. Three years later, pregnant by Phillips and having contracted gonorrhoea, she was abandoned by him and with nowhere else to turn was admitted to a workhouse. When an opportunity to work in service came up, she was sent to nearby Brompton, leaving her son, John junior, in the workhouse, where he died two years later. This unexceptional story of desperation, abandonment and infant death would today scandalise most societies in the developed world, triggering heart-searching and finger-pointing from both the social services and the press. In eighteenth-century England, and just about anywhere else at the time, it was completely normal. It had been so since the dawn of human history. Similar stories might be told of hundreds of thousands of girls across Europe and millions across the world at the same time or earlier. Life was lived against a background of material deprivation where, for most people, every day was a struggle against hunger, disease or some other form of disaster.

Historically, it was only yesterday that life was nasty, brutish and short. Almost any account of an aspect of the ordinary person’s existence in pre- and early industrial society, whether of diet or of housing, of patterns of birth and death or of ignorance, of lack of hygiene or of lack of health, can easily shock today’s reader. For Spanish peasants in wine-producing regions, for example, all hands were required in critical seasons of the annual cycle, including mothers of small children who left their offspring ‘alone, crying and hungry in putrid diapers’; neglected, the children might end up with their eyes pecked out by domestic fowl allowed to wander in and out of their dwellings or have their hands chewed by pigs, or they might ‘fall into the fire,

or . . . drown in pails and wash buckets left carelessly on doorsteps’. Small wonder that between a quarter and a third of babies born in eighteenth-century Spain were dead before their first birthdays.

Life the other side of the Pyrenees for the ordinary French peasant – the vast bulk of the population – was little better. Today the depart- ment of Lozère is a charming region known for its kayaking and trout fishing, but in the eighteenth century most of its inhabitants were clothed in rags and lived in miserable cottages, ‘surrounded by manure’ which emitted a dreadful stink; the hovels rarely had windows and their floors were covered by scraps of canvas and wool serving as beds ‘on which the old, decrepit man and the new-born child . . . the healthy, the ill, the dying’ and often the newly dead lay side by side.3 Similar descriptions of squalor and misery could apply to most places on the globe at almost any time since humankind adopted agriculture around ten thousand years or so ago.

So much for the idyll of rural life in earlier times, a myth only possible in a society so long urbanised as to have lost its memory of what pre-industrial country life was really like. This was the life which every penniless Jane Austen heroine on the hunt for a wealthy heir was trying to avoid, if not immediately for herself, then quite possibly for her children or grandchildren in a world of merciless, steady downward economic and social mobility and no welfare state.

Rural life across most of the world today is very different from that of the eighteenth-century country dweller of Spain or France. Urban life, too, has improved immeasurably from the miserable norms common as late as the nineteenth century even in what was then the most developed part of the world. This is well captured in the memoirs of Leonard Woolf, husband of the more famous Virginia. Woolf was born in 1880 and died in 1969 and witnessed a transformation of living conditions in south-east England where, but for a decade as a colonial administrator in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he spent all his life. He wrote towards the end of his life that he was struck by the ‘immense change from social barbarism to social civilization’ in London and indeed in most of Britain during his lifetime, considering it ‘one of the miracles of economics and education’; slums, with their ‘terrifying products’, no longer existed and by the middle of the twentieth century, thought Woolf, it would be hard for those who had not experienced the London of the 1880s to imagine the condition of the poor in those days, living ‘in their lairs, with poverty, dirt, drunkenness and brutality’.4

These changes were not restricted to Britain. Stefan Zweig, like Leonard Woolf a memoirist and born just a year after him in Vienna, noticed a marked improvement taking place in the years before the First World War with the arrival of electric light brightly illuminating once dim streets, brighter and better-stocked shops displaying a ‘seductive new brilliance’, the convenience of the telephone and the spread of comforts and luxuries once reserved for the upper classes but now reaching into the middle class. Water no longer had to be drawn from wells and fires no longer ‘laboriously kindled in the hearth’. Hygiene was advancing and dirt retreating, and basic living standards were improving year on year so that ‘even that ultimate problem, the poverty of the masses, no longer seemed insuperable’.5

Scenes of misery and material deprivation can still be seen in the worst slums of the developing world or in the last holds of rural poverty. But for most people across the world, such scenes would be recalled, if at all, as something of the past, a more distant past for those in some places, a less distant one for those in others.

The great improvements in material conditions, in nutrition, in housing, in health, in education, which have swept across most of the globe since the start of the nineteenth century, have clearly been economic but they have also been demographic, which is to say they have concerned not just the way people produce and consume but also the numbers of people born, their rate of survival into adulthood, the number of children they in turn have, the age at which they die and the likelihood of their moving region, country or continent. The improvements are reflected in the data on population and specifically births and deaths.

In a nutshell, the sorts of societies in which most people now live, as against the one into which Joan Rumbold lived and her unfortunate son was born in 1757, are marked by dramatically lower infant mortality, with far fewer babies or infants dying and almost everyone born making it at least into adulthood. They are marked too by generally longer life expectancy, in part the result of lower infant and child mortality but also of far fewer people dying in middle age and more living to ripe old ages and even to ages scarcely heard of a couple of hundred years ago. Women, given education and the tools of choice, have far fewer children in our societies. Many have no children at all and very few have the six or more common in Britain even until the middle of the nineteenth century. Having moved from the demography of Joan Rumbold’s era to that of our own, the population has grown enormously. Back in the eighteenth century there were not a billion people on the face of the earth. Today there are more than 7 billion. Just as the politics, the economics and the sociology of societies today are radically different from those of the past, so is the demography.

This process, which started in the British Isles and among sister peoples in the United States and the British Empire around the year 1800, spread first across Europe and then to the whole world. Much of Africa has not yet completed the transition, but most of it is well on its way. Outside sub-Saharan Africa there are barely half a dozen countries today where women have on average more than four children, the global norm as recently as the 1970s. There is now no territory outside Africa with a life expectancy below sixty, again around the global norm in the 1970s and close to the European norm as recently as the 1950s. The achievement of the best in the middle of the twentieth century became the global average a few decades later. The global average of a few decades ago has become the bare minimum for most of the world today. This has been achieved through a combination of the most basic and the most complex means: the increased washing of hands, better water supply, often rudimentary but critical interventions in pregnancy and childbirth, improved general health care and diet. None of these would have been possible on a global scale without education, again often rudimentary but radically better than nothing, particularly of women, allowing life- preserving practices to be disseminated and practised. It has also required achievements of science and technology from agronomy to transportation.

Philosophers of history have long debated the fundamental factors which shape historical events. Some suggest that vast material forces are most important, determining the broad outlines if not the fine detail of the human story. Others see history as essentially the story of the playing out of ideas. Still others claim that accident and chance are in the driving seat and that it is vain to look for large-scale causes behind the unfolding of events. Once historians talked of history as if it were the creation of ‘great men’. None of these approaches is fully satisfactory and none can fully explain history. The interaction of human beings over time and space is just too vast and too complex for any one theory to encapsulate it. Material forces, ideas and chance, and even great individuals and their interplay must all be comprehended if the past is to be understood.

There has been a revolution of population over the last two hundred years or so, and that revolution has changed the world. This is the story of the rise and fall of states and great shifts in power and economics but also a story about how individual lives have been transformed; of British women who within a generation stopped expecting most of their children to die before adulthood; of childless Japanese elderly dying alone in their apartments; of African children crossing the Mediterranean in search of opportunities.

Some of these phenomena, such as the fall in infant mortality from high levels in the UK, are historical. Others, such as the sheer number of Japanese dying childless and alone and the African children heading to Europe, are still very much with us and likely to intensify. The demographic whirlwind – the ever-accelerating pace of change in population – has rattled through the globe from one region to another, tearing up old ways of life and replacing them with new. It is the story of the human tide, the great flow of humanity, swelling here, ebbing there, and how this has made a vast and too often overlooked or underplayed contribution to the course of history.

The fact that life has got immeasurably better for billions – and that the world should be managing to support 7 billion people and rising – should not obscure the dark side of this story. The West, which invented the conditions that allowed so many people to survive their early years and materially to flourish, has much to be proud of. Many of its critics would not be alive today, and certainly not enjoying rich, educated lives, were it not for scientific and technical advances from pharmaceuticals and fertilisers to soap and sewage systems. Yet this awesome achievement should not lead us to overlook the marginalisation and genocide perpetrated against non-European peoples, the decimation of indigenous populations from the Americas to Tasmania, the industrial-scale Atlantic slave trade which treated black people as disposable commodities.

The rise in nineteenth-century life expectancy in Britain was a great achievement but the Irish famine should not be forgotten. The fall of child mortality across Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century is to be celebrated but does not compensate for the barbarity of two world wars and the Holocaust. Infant mortality has fallen across the Middle East but this has contributed to the youth and instability of many societies where a mass of young people, unable to integrate into the workplace, resort to fundamentalism and violence. Rejoicing in the lengthening of life expectancy in large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, we should not forget the Rwandan genocide in 1994 nor the appalling loss of life in the wars in Zaire/ Congo in the years shortly thereafter. Account should also be taken of actual or potential environmental damage posed by rising populations. The story of the human tide should not be a ‘whiggish’ one, that is, one painting a cheery picture of endless progress towards the light with History moving ever onwards to higher and brighter prospects. It is not surprising that such a view was common among much of the British elite in the nineteenth century, when the British found themselves the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world; it is not a view which can be supported today.

But for all the caveats, proper acknowledgement should be made of the great achievement that is the vast multiplying of human numbers and the provision of billions of people with a standard of living and health care and education which the wealthiest of earlier ages would have envied. The story of the human tide should be told warts and all, but it should also be told for what it is: nothing short of a triumph of humanity. The slave ships and the gas chambers should not be forgotten, but their horrors should not blind us to the fact that today countless parents like Joan Rumbold can confidently fear little for their children’s health and that billions from Patagonia to Mongolia can expect to enjoy lives which, from a relatively recent historical perspective, are breathtaking in their richness and longevity. And this multiplicity of lives has increased the stock of human creativity and ingenuity, contributing in turn to achievements from vaccines to placing a man on the moon and to – however incomplete – the spread of democracy and human rights.

What This Book Is About – and Why It Matters

The Human Tide is about the role of population in history. It does not argue that the great trends in population – the rise and fall of birth and death rates, the swelling and shrinking of population size, the surges of migration – determine all of history. Demography, it argues, is part but not all of destiny. The case is not made here for a simplistic, monocausal or deterministic view of history. Nor is the claim made that demography is in some sense a primary cause, a first mover, an independent or external phenomenon with ramifications and effects in history but not causes preceding it. Rather, demography is a factor which itself is driven by other factors, numerous and complex, some material, some ideological and some accidental. Its effects are varied, long-lasting and profound, but so are its causes.

Demography is deeply embedded in life. In a sense, it is life – its beginning and its ending. Population must be understood alongside other causal factors such as technological innovation, economic progress and changing beliefs and ideologies, but population does explain a great deal. Take for example the ideology and perspective of feminism. It is impossible to say whether the feminist movement prefigured demographic change and drove it or rather resulted from it, but we can chart how the two have worked together. Today, fem - inist ideas have permeated almost every aspect of (a still imbalanced) society and the economy, from the acceptability of premarital sex to female participation in the workforce. However, the revolution in social attitudes to sex and gender may not have taken place along these lines had it not been for the invention of the Pill and the fertility choices this allowed. But then again the Pill, in turn, was the product not just of the genius and grit of a number of women and men but a change in attitudes to sex, sexuality and gender which meant that research into it became acceptable within academia and fundable by both corporate and philanthropic interests. The ideology of feminism, the technology of the Pill and changes in social attitude towards sex and childbearing have all played a role in reducing fertility rates (that is, the number of children a woman can expect to have in her lifetime) and these in turn have had their own profound impact on society, the economy, politics and the course of history. Asking what came first – the social will or the Pill – is something of a chicken-and- egg problem; the story of the interplay between these forces can be told but it is futile to try to promote one as the supposed ‘prime’ or ‘ultimate’ cause and demote the others to mere effects.

Likewise, it would be a mistake to substitute a demographic for a pseudo-Marxian view of history, replacing ‘class’ with ‘population’ as the hidden factor that explains all world history. To leave demography out, however, is to miss what may be the most important explanatory factor in world history of the last two hundred years. For millennia, the same bleak story could be told of steady population progress reversed by plague, famine and war. Since around 1800, however, humankind has increasingly managed to take control of its own numbers, and to stunning effect. Demography has gone from the slowest- to the fastest-changing discipline. Population trends no longer move at a snail’s pace, with occasional shocking interruptions like the Black Death. Fertility and mortality fall with growing speed and transitions which once took generations now take place in decades.

Excerpt from The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World, published by Hachette Book Group, Inc. Copyright © 2019 by Paul Morland. 

This segment aired on March 18, 2019.


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