The world is going through a massive demographic transition. It is a century in and has at least another century to run. Life on this planet, and even the planet itself, will be very different by the time it is over. This is the ‘peoplequake’, as Fred Pearce has named it, the boom in human population, and this is his book exploring the subject.
I’ve read plenty about population, from various points of view. This is one of the most balanced books I’ve come across. It sets out the facts of population growth, the direction of current trends, and then assesses these facts from a whole variety of angles. The first thing to remember is that population growth is its broadest context is not a straightforward upwards graph towards inevitable destruction, as the more panicky end of the environmental movement would have us believe. It certainly looked that way in the middle of the last century, when mothers were having five or six children. In fact, the fertility rate peaked in the 1960s and has been falling ever since.
Add a lifetime of 70-80 years on to that moment of peak fertility and you can see where we’re headed – a peak population scenario. Around 2070, the world’s population reaches a natural peak and then begins to decline. “If you are over 45, you have lived through a period when the world population has doubled. No past generation has lived through such an era – and probably no future generation will either. But if you are under 45, you will almost certainly live to see a world population that is declining – for the first time since the Black Death almost 700 years ago.”
To look at it another way, the ‘peoplequake’ is in many ways a population bulge. It starts as a baby boom, moves into a youth bulge, and then works its way out towards a ‘grey bulge’ of retirees. This is where it starts to get interesting. Is it a coincidence that Japan is the oldest country in the world, and that its economy hasn’t grown for 20 years? Or what about the revolutions sweeping the Middle East, considering that the average age in Egypt right now is 24, or 22 in Libya? Pearce doesn’t address all of those questions, but the book opens the box on demographics and all kinds of ideas come tumbling out.
All around the world, fertility is falling. From that five or six children 50 years ago, fertility is now around 2.6 births per woman. In many countries the birth-rate has fallen below the replacement level, and populations are declining. Italy, Germany and Russia all have falling populations, as do Japan and South Korea. Australia is paying bonuses to couples who have a baby. Singapore is the only country in the world where the government runs dating agencies. What does this mean? How will an aging population affect our politics, economy, and society?
One thing is for certain – meddling in population control is a dangerous thing. The opening chapters of the book tell the history of population studies, from Robert Malthus to the inhuman legacy of eugenics. We’ve forgotten far too many of the horrors detailed here, from the Malthusians who opposed food aid during the Irish famine, to the 60,000 forced sterilizations in the US between the wars, or the millions of poor men talked into vasectomies for cash in India. Any advocate of population control needs to read this book and see the kinds of things that can happen when that thought begins to become policy. If we’re not aware of this history, we’re likely to sleep walk into the same atrocities.
On the plus side, those decades of experiments have shown us what does work – emancipating women, and making contraceptives available.
There’s plenty more here to think about. Pearce looks at urbanisation and population, at the empty farming villages of Eastern Germany, and discusses the endless question of whether or not consumption is more important that population. For the most part, Pearce leaves the conclusions pretty open, making Peoplequake a great book for thinking through the population question for yourself.