New book on demographics seeks to explain why population growth in the industrial age always leads to a stagnant or falling population

A human tide hit Earth’s beaches, prairies, desserts and mountains like a tsunami at about the turn of the 19th century and will subside only at the turn of the 22nd. That human wave is the population explosion that started in English-speaking countries at the beginning of the industrial revolution, but quickly spread to Europe, Asia, Latin America, and now finally to Africa.

But as British demographer Paul Morland details in The Human Tide, the expression “human tide” not only describes 300 years of unprecedented growth in the population of humans, but also the mechanism by which that growth was achieved. 

Morland begins by listing the limited number of variables that determine if a country’s population will rise or fall:

  • Average number of children born to each woman
  • Mortality rate of infants
  • Average life span of individuals
  • Immigration and emigration.

For centuries before the industrial revolution, human populations tended to grow extremely slowly, sometimes shrinking or stagnating. The population had hit its Malthusian limits, named after Thomas Malthus, an English theologian who postulated that population growth would always run into the limits imposed by Nature. Scarcity of resources would always lead to the misery of famine and poverty and thus place a natural limit on human population.

Of course Nature’s limits expanded tremendously when humans started to transition to the use of carbon power (coal, oil, natural gas and the electricity created burning these hydrocarbons) instead of human, animal or rudimentary forms of wind and water power. At about the same time, the increase and spread of scientific knowledge reached a critical mass leading to improvements in sanitation, medical care, transportation, tools, agriculture, engineering, safety standards and dozens of other aspects of human existence that gave people more material possessions while increasing their lifespans and decreasing the number of babies dying before one and five years of age.

Greater abundance leads to the human tide, first in Great Britain and the United States: the average life span increases and infant mortality declines while women begin having more children—in some countries, many more children, spurred on by society’s greater wealth. This rising tidal wave causes both the population and its rate of growth to soar, sometimes aided as in the case of the United States and Canada by large numbers of new arrivals from countries experiencing rampant population growth. The average age at death increases, usually by decades, but the average age of individuals declines. The population becomes better educated and the standard of living rises, sometimes marginally and sometimes in spectacular fashion. The country is more able to find soldiers for war and industrial workers for factories, and thus often sees its ability to project power regionally or globally expand. People begin to depopulate rural areas in favor of cities.

But then something funny happens. Educated women tend to have fewer babies, so the average number of births per woman falls, often under the level at which the population starts to shrink. Infant mortality and life expectancy rates stabilize. Population growth stops and even turns negative. Meanwhile, because generations of an expanding population are followed by generations of a declining population, the overall population ages. The result: the population no longer expands and in many cases starts to contract. Only nations that continue to have large numbers of immigrants continue to grow after native-born women start having fewer than the replacement number of children, e.g., the United States from the 1970’s until the installation of the Trump anti-immigration project. 

The human tide thus consists of precipitous population growth which creates a much younger nation followed by stabilization and decline of the population, now much older. The later in history a population experiences the tide, the faster it plays out: it took much longer in the United States and England than it did in Russia and Germany, which likewise underwent a chronologically longer wave than China and Latin America have.

BTW, Morland reports good and bad news about an aging population. The good news is that an aging population is less likely to go to war and will usually experience lower rates of crime. The bad news is that older populations tend to produce fewer innovations. Morland, among others, also worries needlessly that taking care of a very old population is a major challenge to society; these so-called experts don’t seem to realize how easy it is to reroute working adults from taking care of children to taking care of seniors. Almost as easy as rerouting people from oil fields and coal minds to solar panel and wind turbine manufacture, installation and maintenance. All it takes are the funds and the collective will to educate and reeducate—something the United States had after World War II and China seems to have now. 

According to Morland, the human wave—a large increase in population followed by stabilization and some decline—explains much of the history of the past 200 years, for example, the global rise and fall of Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan, the current tensions in the middle East and the looming rise of China, Brazil and Africa, the last continent to experience the wave.

In The Human Tide, Morland labors to make sure his history doesn’t come across as supporting the view that Europeans and Americans are superior to other people because of their technologies and values. Anyone who takes the long view of human history knows that Europeans have dominated politically and economically only over the past 200 or so years and that the rest of the world has almost caught up, and done it faster than it took ancient Rome to catch up with Greece, or Europe to catch up with the Arab world and China in medieval and early modern times. It’s a bit of a challenge, however, to argue against European superiority if you limit your history to 1800-2016. Morland succeeds, and that’s to his credit.

Unfortunately, Morland falls victim to that other great irrationality proffered by right-wing pretending to present well-researched truth: he believes in the invisible hand of the marketplace, which he extends to population growth. Morland reveals his bias inadvertently when discussing China’s decades’ long efforts, now apparently ending, to limit its population by mandating a one-child policy. 

Morland berates China both for the one-child policy and it harsh implementation, which evidently included jail time, taking children from parents and forced abortions. His argument is that the invisible hand of the human tide would have lowered the population without China’s draconian policy.

Two enormous logical errors. The first is easy to explain—if China had not enforced a one-child policy, its human tide would have lasted longer and crested higher. The policy did work, although it has resulted in the same problems faced by all rapidly aging nations. 

The second error has to do with the very idea of the “invisible hand,” whether in economics or in the natural growth of human populations. Let’s first remember that if we postulate, as right-wingers always have, that the invisible hand emanates from the natural order of things, then we have to conclude, based on the evidence of paleontology and the laws of physics, that the invisible hand’s goal is the extinction of humanity. After all, upwards of 95% of all species ever to exist are now extinct, thanks to the invisible hand of evolution. Moreover, the laws of thermodynamics predict a state of complete entropy in which it would be impossible for life to exist. So instead of accepting any invisible hand, humans should intervene to protect and extend our species, for example through population control or laws that offset the unequal distribution of wealth that all unimpeded markets quickly produce.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the human tide has washed across the shores of different nations in different ways precisely because of dozens of interventions made by societies and their leaders: Build up an army or not? Support rising fertility or support population control? Outlaw or encourage abortion and birth control? Educate women or not? Welcome immigrants or shut the borders? Negotiate trade agreements or invade other countries? Make masses of people move or engage in ethnic cleansing? The invisible hand consists of many conscious efforts, which is why the human tide has not played out the same way everywhere, the way in which an experiment involving the release of a heavy and a light object from a tower would always yield the same results.

China had the right idea. We should promote one-child policies everywhere, although I am opposed to any kind of physical coercion like jailing or forced abortions. Rather, societies can encourage lower birth rates as follows:

  • An active campaign using all media and public education advocating a one-child policy
  • Continued education of women and their integration into all levels of the economy and government.
  • Free birth control and abortion and the removal of most restrictions on abortions.
  • Financial penalties for ignoring the one-child policy. I would propose that when a woman gives birth to more than one child, both the woman and the father of the baby should be assessed an additional 5% on their gross income and an additional 5% on their net assets from the birth of each additional child until it turns 30. 

If every woman had one child only, the population would be cut in half in one generation, which would go a long way towards solving many of the world’s problems, including the global environmental disaster we face. I know I’m an extremist, but we are seriously taxing the carrying capacity of the Earth and if we fail to reduce the human footprint, the four horses of the Apocalypse—natural disasters, famine, epidemics and war—will surely do it for us.

The problem with any kind of population control strategy, be it extreme or mild, is that most economists have refused to consider how to structure a growing or stable economy delivering a high quality of a life to all when the population is shrinking. Economists have also refused to consider how to make sure that the hidden costs of economic actions are assumed by the producer, the seller or the buyer; think of the medical cost to treat people suffering from diseases caused by air pollution as an example of a hidden cost unpaid by manufacturers or car owners.

Morland fails to take a stand on whether the enormous growth in the population of humans over the past 200 years represents a threat to the continued existence of the human species. Maybe he hopes that by the time the world stabilizes its population at nine or ten billion people we will have developed the technologies needed to sustain such a heavy load of wide-screen TVs, private motorized vehicles, plastic straws and air conditioning. Of course to think otherwise would require him to admit that the invisible hand of the human tidal wave has to be controlled and directed, as does the invisible hand of the marketplace.

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