Bryan Alexander's Reviews > The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World

The Human Tide by Paul Morland
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bookshelves: demographics, history

Human Tide is a useful and accessible introduction to the demographics of the past two centuries.

One major theme is a persuasive argument that demographics play a key role in world events. For example, Morland explains the Soviet crisis of the 1980s driven in part by population trends (164ff), argues that Japan needed a population boom to power its imperial adventure (201), and that 20th century decolonialization was made possible in part by colonial population declines and a childbirth boom among the colonized. (228) The recent Syrian civil war was driven by a youth bulge. (243) Elsewhere, the book sees Islamic fundamentalism as having "direct demographic roots… There is evidence of a link between fertility and religious intensity found in Islam, just as there is in other religions…” (240)

Across those historical events, Morland establishes a population framework based on a tidal metaphor. Starting with Britain in the early 19th century, the world experienced a population flood followed by an ebb. He calls this, rather blandly, “the demographic transition”:
A population will stabilize at a higher level once it has experienced growth as it moves from high birth rates and high death rates, through high birth rates and falling death rates, to low birth rates and low death rates.” (111)
What caused these huge changes? The flood came about thanks to early modernity. Industrial growth, urbanization, and population expansions worked together. (50) An economic boom can drive a baby boom, as with the US in the 1950s. (136) In addition, political and religious tensions can drive higher birth rates, as with Muslims in the Soviet bloc (231) and post-WWII Israel and Palestine (which Morland dubs "competitive breeding”, 249).

What brings about the successive ebb? A mix of factors, including better public health and improved medicine, which pushed infant mortality down. (73) Rising female literacy plays a huge part. (106) So do cultural factors: “later marriage to the very questioning by the LGBT movement of what it means to be a man or woman,” plus feminism and secularism, as well as more access to birth control. (142)

One cultural aspect caught my eye. Soviet gender politics depressed births:
The ideal Soviet woman was politically conscious (and therefore, almost by definition, literate), living in a town of city and probably employed in a factory; she was bound to have fewer children than her illiterate peasant mother. (106)
Governments can influence births a little bit, but not much, as the example of Soviet bloc Romania shows (188). In fact, that story reveals a libertarian theme in the book: “the human tide is best managed by ordinary human beings themselves and not by their self-appointees engineers” (218)

I read this with an eye on the future. What does Morland see, especially as he views "[m]uch about demographic as 'baked into the future' and is certain to happen" (274)? In a handy phrase, the human race will become more grey, more green, and less white. (274) We will become more peaceful and suffer less crime; on the flip side, we'll be less prone to risk taking. (275) Paying for pensions will be a planetary challenge. (276) Greener: fewer people, eventually, will give more space to nature, and more people living in cities means some greater efficiencies. (278) Less white: Anglo-Saxon and European population growth is stalling and falling back, along with much of east Asia; in contrast, we're experiencing a boom in Africa. (279-80) This could lead to more immigration, such as a possible flood of Egyptians into Europe, should that nation's fragile economy collapse.(235-6)

A useful book, but with one limitation. It is a deeply Anglocentric work, starting with Britain (which is understandable) and never really letting go of the UK. European nations generally receive more attention to closer they are to Britain, and that pattern continues in many ways for the rest of the world. Certain nations are treated far too lightly - namely India, likely the world's most populous in a few years!

Once you realize that gap, you can follow up with further reading elsewhere. Otherwise, I commend The Human Tide.
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Reading Progress

May 4, 2019 – Started Reading
May 4, 2019 – Shelved
June 12, 2019 – Shelved as: demographics
June 12, 2019 – Shelved as: history
June 12, 2019 – Finished Reading

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