The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World
Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline
Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson
While the tides of history are generally explained by the technologies and resources developed by nations and cultures, such as the Acheulian axe, gunpowder, agricultural surpluses, stock markets and penicillin, two new books deploy the weight of numbers to arrive at unusual insights. Paul Morland argues the superficially obvious, that history is shaped by the interplay of populations and their needs, while Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson look 30 years into the future, when the most advanced nations will begin to show declining numbers. The two books illustrate how far demographic thinking has moved on from the inevitability of the Malthusian crisis. With the benefit of hindsight, the apocalyptic notion that conditioned policymaking for over a century now seems naive, because in the interim, we have seen that human creativity can play the numbers game at least as well as Mother Nature, and can, for instance, innovate high-yielding crops and high-paying work to combat hunger. Or, it can simply strike camp and migrate, reducing the demographic burden.
The fall in fertility which Bricker and Ibbotson refer to has been seen already in the greying of Japan, where the proportion of the elderly is growing apace, while there are not enough young people to care for them, and technologies like robotics are being deployed to bridge the gap. However, their fieldwork in diverse locations shows that a breeding slowdown is due in population growth leaders like China. India, they suspect, will reap the demographic dividend that we don’t tire of talking up but never seem to be able to mine, and “could enjoy decades of Goldilocks years, with a large young population generating and consuming wealth.” Perhaps the Prime Minister is ahead of his time in headlining population growth as a problem in search of a solution. Perhaps, for the time being, it is a solution. But this, too, shall pass.
Historically, though, Morland points out that Malthus had set the course. He refers to the extraordinary success of British colonialism, which produced the biggest corporation of all time, the East India Company. He suggests that the success owed to Britain’s ability to “people” the colonies, because the British Isles were in the throes of a population explosion at the right time. Waves of adventurers and clerks were pushed out of the home countries by Malthusian forces, and took over trade, administration, education and the military in distant parts. He quotes the historian Fernand Braudel on the dwindling fortunes of Spain, England’s main competitor in the colonial game, which took but could not hold Central and South America for want of numbers. And, after the Spanish Main was colourful history, the immigrant-rich US could effortlessly settle California, Arizona and New Mexico because there were too few Spaniards or Mexicans to impede their progress.
Though Bricker and Ibbitson’s work is posited on falling population growth rates, looking ahead, they predict a shift of power in the West driven by a wave of migration. Canada is taking in three times as many immigrants as the US, and some entrepreneurs and makers of opinion and policy are looking for an even higher rate. In about 50 years, the falling curve of the population of Germany, which currently leads Europe economically, politically and morally, could intersect with the rapidly rising curve of Canada. Currently, Canada is a minor player in international affairs, but the authors suggest that the sheer weight of numbers could give it heft in the 21st century.
Of course, that would depend on Canada being able to sustain its multicultural political ethic. Local nuances would matter, too. The black earth of Saskatchewan would probably turn more productive with more labour, and the Yukon could do with one more city, besides Whitehorse. But how would immigration socially and politically affect Nunavut, the Inuit-majority state which was delimited just 20 years ago, and which is the biggest and second-most sparsely populated of the northern states?
Immigration breeds autochthonous resentments, and the globalisation of labour has encouraged anxieties which powered the rise of the nativist right in several nations all over the world. The Empire Windrush dropped anchor in London in 1948, bearing over 1,000 immigrants from Jamaica in the first wave of the empire coming ‘home’ to roost. Since that time, following a long period of rampant racism in the UK, the tide turned with Tony Blair’s Labour government aggressively promoting multiculturalism. The atavistic insularity that Brexit represents will probably turn the tide again.
Britain, which enjoyed the greatest success in controlling its colonies by the weight of numbers is an exemplar of national attitudes to the tides of migration. Attitudes hold the key to populations and their influence. Operation Paperclip, the US covert project which assimilated World War II German scientists, including Wernher von Braun and his V2 rocket team, won the war technologically for the Allies. At the same time, the haunting picture of the corpse of the child Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach is a reminder that because demographic change is unsettling, it also evokes powerfully negative politics.
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