Following the human tide

Demographics again?  Yes, I keep honing this powerful tool in the futurist’s toolbox.  Demographic analysis sheds a lot of light on the future of society in general, and of education in particular.

Today I’ll touch on a recently published book that might be useful for many readers.  It offers a good account of current changes, forthcoming developments, and how they got that way.


The Human Tide
(Paul Morland, 2019) is an accessible introduction to the demographics of the past two centuries.  It helps us understand how we went from growing our populations to fearing overpopulation to grappling with a population decline instead.

One major theme in the book is a persuasive argument that demographics play a key role in world events. For example, Morland explains the Soviet crisis of the 1980s as driven in part by population trends. (164ff)  He 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)

To make this case and to explain how it came about, Morland establishes a narrative framework based on a tidal metaphor, of floods and ebbs. It starts with Britain in the early 19th century, right after Malthus publishes his grim analysis.  After centuries of very slight growth, the British population suddenly started rising, in tandem with economic output, breaking the Malthus framework.  This rising British tide continued into the 20th century, whereupon it transformed into something quite different.

Country after country would experience pretty much the same thing: suddenly growing population, often with economic expansion.  Morland describes this using the neat analogy of a flood followed by an ebb. He dubs this whole process, 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, growing a bigger population while feeding it.  In turn, that larger demographic powered economic growth by providing more workers and consumers. (50) Further, a major economic boom can drive an extra 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).

After that flood, what brings about the successive ebb? Later modernity.  More precisely, a mix of factors, including better public health and improved medicine, which combine to push 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 feminist movements and the impact of secularism.  Greater access to birth control obviously shaped the ebb as well. (142)

One 20th-century cultural aspect caught my eye, and it’s one we don’t think much about in the 21st. 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)

Other than this, government policies 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 book as I do most things, with an eye on the future. What does Morland anticipate, 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 become a planetary challenge. (276) Greener means that the existence of 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)

My audiences and clients have heard all of this from me.  I beat the demographic drum very loudly and steadily, partly because it’s so important, and also because few people want to discuss it (which is interesting).  On an immediate level, Morland’s “transition” model is already starting to alter the student body and the incoming student pipeline.  On another level, we rarely admit that education changes demographics (through educating girls and women, through medical research, through public health), but we play a key role nonetheless.

The Human Tide is useful book, and one my audiences can appreciate, 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!  The British model and focus lay too heavily on Morland’s pages.

Once you realize that gap, you can follow up with further reading elsewhere. Otherwise, I commend The Human Tide to anyone interested in education, modern history, and especially the future.

(earlier version posted to Goodreads; thanks to Joshua Kim for the recommendation)

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2 Responses to Following the human tide

  1. Joe Essid says:

    I hope, in old age, to watch the tide slowly ebb. Nothing would do more to end our environmental calamities than a population that stabilized at a few billion souls.

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