Population size matters

Population size matters


26 | 10 | 2022


The demographic explosion successively experienced by each of the major powers explains their rise, just as the subsequent moderation accounts for their subsequent relative decline.

In the picture

Cover of Paul Morland's book, 'The Human Tide. How Population Shaped the Modern World' (New York: Public Affairs, 2019), 344 pp.

Like geography, demography does not entirely determine the destiny of nations, but it does condition it to a large extent. If the former is usually taken into account by geopolitics, no less important for geopolitics is the evolution of the population of the powers, although it may be less obvious.

In 'The Human Tide', the British demographer Paul Morland sample how since the industrial revolution made it possible to overcome the 'curse of Malthus' (exponential population growth would lead to great famine and hecatomb, since the means of subsistence would not increase at the same rate), the world powers have succeeded each other at the top as they have gone through the stages of the so-called demographic transition: reduction of infant mortality, increase in birth rate, extension of life years, large population growth.... and its second part: reduction of the fertility rate, stagnation and then a foreseeable or already materialized decline in the issue of inhabitants. Morland likens this upward and then downward movement to a tidal wave, which occurred first in some countries and is eventually happening in all of them.

The history of the modern world has been rocked - often tossed - by this tide. According to Morland, "while the human tide does not determine the course of history, it shapes it, and in many cases it seems clear that a different demography would have led to a different result". Thus, for example, he recalls that the spread of potato cultivation in Ireland catapulted the size of its population, but this was soon decimated as there was no means of subsistence for all; the point is that this occurred at a time of population growth in England (and Scotland), which delayed Irish independence. With more population, Morland argues, Irish independence would have come sooner and perhaps the partition of the island would not have occurred.

The author also points to a different political or cultural development in other scenarios. If the French-speaking and Catholic community in Quebec had continued to maintain high fertility rates beyond 1960, the 1995 referendum would have won independence for that Canadian province. And without the baby boom there would have been no rock & roll, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no blue jeans and no May '68: it was a generation "very self-confident and influential because it was a large generation".

But what might have happened at all is the subject of Morland's book, which focuses on a forensic exercise of demonstrating how the population explosion that occurred successively in different powers led each of them to become hegemonic in the world order or to seriously challenge the dominant power.

That succession began with the England of the Industrial Revolution. Morland does not resolve definitively whether the demographic boom contributed to the leap in technological progress and the production of goods or whether it was the abundance of sustenance and the improvement of certain living conditions that facilitated the reduction of mortality. The point, as the author emphasizes, is that both processes occurred at the same time. The English industrial revolution not only increased the population of Great Britain, but also fueled emigration abroad (Canada, Australia, New Zealand...) as the British Empire grew. It was this demographic vigor that enabled England to replace the old Spanish Empire on the international podium. At the time of the Invincible Armada, the population of Spain was twice that of the United Kingdom, three centuries later it was half that of the United Kingdom.

But the United Kingdom began to lose its preeminence to the United States when the latter's population reached the size of Britain's toward the end of the 19th century. At the same time, another European power, Germany, began to experience its own population explosion, while the British population was slowing down. At the turn of the century, from the 19th to the 20th century, the German population and its manufacturing output reached British figures, which would lead to the confrontation of the Great War and the Second World War. However, by the time of the Second World War, the European power on the crest of the demographic wave was Russia, while Germany was already in moderation.

Each of these ascents occurred faster and was also shorter: "The later a country arrives at industrialization, the faster it is able to adopt it and the faster is the transformation of its society, so the faster is the initial population growth. Also faster is its transition to fertility reduction, demographic stagnation and possible population decline.

The First World War has just been mentioned: the demographic explosion of the European powers in the decades leading up to that historic moment led to their perception either of being rising powers or of soon being overtaken by a neighbor. This led to their confrontation and the very way in which they carried it out: given the abundance of young men, contingents of them were thrown into the carnage of trench warfare.

On the other hand, between the First and Second World Wars, Europe reached its peak of population growth, which, together with perhaps more important considerations of international architecture, has contributed to the prolonged peace on the continent.

Morland warns that there is a "proven" link between a society's youth and its proclivity to go to war. A country with a fertility rate bordering on the population replacement rate, or below, is likely to view civilian or military losses as unacceptable, whereas they are more bearable in a country with a high fertility rate.

The war in Ukraine sample the urgency of a power in demographic decline, Russia, which so far is not being served by its usual war tactics, not based on technological development , but on numerical superiority. Moscow has certainly not made a general mobilization, but it is lacking boots on the ground - in a society, moreover, that in its demographic shrinkage assumes less easily the casualties on the battlefield.

Morland does not make a prediction about China's future, but he certainly places it on that consecutive list of powers that, thanks to their explosion in demographic growth - hand in hand with the economic development - have succeeded each other at the top of the world order until they are overtaken by the demographic strength of other world powers. China's labor force has already stopped growing and the country is experiencing accelerated aging. Without yet having fully caught up with the United States, China may begin to lose steam in the rivalry with the United States, a country that, without having excellent demographic dynamics, will maintain a better status over the coming decades.

The undoubted interest of Morland's book probably allows us to overlook the fact that at several points in the book he expresses his position staff in favor of birth control and internship abortion. These are controversial issues from an ethical point of view on which it would have been desirable that, in order to respect the possible varied opinion of the readers, the author remained on the sidelines, without deciding the discussion with his "casting vote". In any case, Morland is against the intervention of public authorities in conditioning the behavior of individuals and warns that no matter how many campaigns governments may carry out in favor of the birth rate or against it (in the latter they can be more effective due to coercive measures of various kinds subject), it is people who decide to have the children they deem appropriate, guided by social behaviors that are difficult to control.

Unlike the Malthusian thinking that pervades much of the Western intelligentsia, Morland revalues the size of a country's population, understanding its growth as an asset. And in a world to which geopolitics has returned, a larger population is now an important asset. As was the case in the pre-industrial world, in today's world where the conditions of the modern Economics are widespread, where technological advances are widespread, "the size of populations becomes more important in determining the size of a Economics".