This is, deliberately, a book for those with little knowledge of demography, but it does sometimes stray into textbook territory: too many numbers; too few characters and too little colour. There are places where the frenetic pace prevents Morland delving more into detail. He sets out the cruelty of China’s one-child policy, but swiftly glosses over India’s forced-sterilisation programme. The book is also arguably lopsided: focusing too much on Europe, at the expense of the rest of the globe.
These are niggles. What are fascinating are the author’s projections of where we are heading demographically.
The beauty of this book is that it links hard-to-grasp global trends to the easy-to-understand individual choices being made all over the world today. The authors roam the globe eavesdropping on conversations with young women contemplating having their own families. Whether in impoverished Delhi slums or smart European drawing rooms, women are prizing their education and economic independence. Today, child-rearing is less a familial duty than an act of personal fulfilment, and a more feminist outlook is disconnecting the need to have a child from the concept of womanhood...Empty Planet, already a gripping narrative of a world on the cusp of profound change, is even better for having been written by two Canadians, whose country remains a model of international integration. Justin Trudeau’s openness bodes well for Canada’s future, even if it runs against the current populist backlash against migrants.
The author charts the standard demographic transition after modernisation: in country after country, industrialisation, better sanitation and medical advances lead to more surviving children and longer life expectancy. Population balloons. Urbanisation makes large families economically disadvantageous. Parents register that most of their kids will live to adulthood. Population stabilises.
Paul Morland’s The Human Tide traces the relationship between demographic change and social, political and economic transformations across the world over the past two centuries. The opening claim is bold – ‘There has been a revolution of population … over the last two hundred years or so, and that revolution has changed the world’ – but Morland’s scholarly instincts lead him to avoid the headline-grabbing simplifications beloved of publishers. Take his interesting account of the role of demography in the First World War. It starts with a grandiose flourish: ‘what ultimately mattered was not superiority of courage, technology or strategy but sheer weight of numbers.’ British population growth was slowing, with Germany enjoying a higher rate of reproduction.
Paul Morland is too subtle a writer to claim that demography is destiny. However, over 300 closely argued pages he more or less persuades us that it is — that most significant events since 1800, from the Industrial Revolution, via the First World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eruption of the Arab Spring, have the growth, shrinkage or movement of populations at their heart...The book is not always an easy read, but is lucid, jargon-free and full of neat observations. More than half of Britain’s population lived in towns or cities in 1850, while this did not happen in France until 1950 — how much Anglo-French difference can be explained by that?...