Paul Morland headshot and Human Tide book cover

The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World

In the 1798, English economist Thomas Malthus described a common phenomenon: successful societies tended to increase their populations until food systems couldn’t keep, triggering population collapse.

He correctly described much of recorded history before him. Ironically though, just as he was writing, the first few rich states were escaping the “Malthusian trap” with the rapid improvement in food production efficiency. For the next two centuries, successive waves of countries beat the trap, and saw their populations soar. Only now do demographers look out into the future and expect population decline by 2100, thanks to slowing birth rates.

The remarkable acceleration and now deceleration of population growth is the human tide that is described in the 2019 book by demographer Paul Morland called “The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World.” I’m fixated by how big global trends like these shape empire, and Morland’s book does a fine job explaining the trend. I recommend it. Below I share my notes

My notes:

  • Malthus wrote of the population trap (societies historically had grown too big before they collapsed for food insecurity) just as England escaped his curse
  • Mirroring rich world trends: Queen Anne (1665-1714) had 18 pregnancies but none survived; Queen Victoria (1819-1901) had 9 children all of whom survived to adulthood and Elizabeth the Queen Mother (1900-2002) had two children (the most recent Queen Elizabeth and Margaret)
  • The remarkable acceleration and now deceleration of population growth is the human tide
  • In 1950, there were 2-3 Europeans for every African; by 2100 there will likely be 6-7 times as many Africans
  • Countries with lower fertility rates make less war — they have more children to lose
  • From 20th century between states, the 2000s have seen far more within state ethnic battles
  • Demography: births, deaths and migration
  • Afghanistan’s death rate was lower than the United Kingdom because of how much younger it’s population was — and it’s death from war was far lower than gains in nutrition
  • Israel: high fertility rate (births per woman) but low crude birth rate (number of births relative to population , because it is older))
  • Did population boom cause Industrial Revolution or vice versa?
  • Between 1800-1900 the French population fell behind England and United Kingdom broadly, and in turn it did not industrialize anywhere near as much or as rapidly
  • Ireland potato famine happens as the rest of the UK is surging
  • Luxembourg can be small and rich but because of free trade that big armies and big domestic markets elsewhere made possible
  • Fernand Braudel: the Spanish could conquer South and Central America but they could not grasp it (author argues that’s in part because its population was too small)
  • Jefferson wanted Saxon chiefs Hengist and Horsa on the US seal from the time before Norman conquest; Anglo Saxon gave Americans a term other than English
  • The states interest in demography is to ensure soldiers, taxes and maybe some farming too
  • We don’t really know how birth rates began to fall initially: yes, later marriages but within marriages was there less sex or better timing (in the act or within menstrual cycles)? Or historic forms like extending breastfeeding like an Egyptian method? There are anecdotes in letters and diaries of pullout and abstinence
  • Germanys rise to early 20th century was combination of post-Mathus population book and unification which gave in 1870s a power
  • Britain’s higher emigration contributed to its raising a smaller army then Germany but able to call in closer allies
  • Spanish Armada: Spain had twice as many people; 300 years later Spain had half as many people
  • Marie Stopes’s Planned Parenthood received less pushback than Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant (in 1870s, they shared birth control pamphlets)
  • The Johnson Act’s influence on US immigration was representative of how European immigration stopped after First World War; congressmen wanted a homogenous nation — showed little understanding of the looming demographic battle
  • Madison Grant: The Passing of the great race in 1919; rising tide of color against white world supremacy by Lothop Stollard
  • At nearly 1900, German population was nearly 3/4 of United States; by 1941, Germany was half of US
  • Frank Notestein demographic transition
  • The baby boom surprised, and filled the US immigration gap that 1920s legislation closed
  • Marilyn French 1977 The Women’s Room: feminism literature grew to explain women not being entirely dependent on for family support: youth culture made 1960s but the baby boom was an aberration and demographic transition continued to lower rates
  • Younger populations have more crime
  • Benefits need either 40% reduction or increase retirement age by 7 years in Netherlands to adjust social benefits for elderly in an older population
  • The Soviets learned it was hard to run modern multilingual army as it’s Russian population aged and it’s Caucasus and other Soviet countries tried to fill in
  • “Yellow peril:” Russo Japanese war awakens Europeans to that Japan is first non European country making it out of “mathusian trap” and can compete
  • China: from 2AD until middle 17th century had 60 million residents, held back at least 5 cycles of famine, epidemic and war; then 430m by 1850; 470m in 1947 and 600m in 1952 (numbers were likely wrong showing 5% annual growth but stirred a debate
  • From 1979-2015 an explicit one child policy in China though already in 1981, urban fertility was half of rural
  • “Individuals left to their own devices, if informed and enabled to make their own decisions, will tend to make decisions in their own interests which are in the interests of society, at least when it comes to the need for falling fertility rates” (218)
  • Asian Six: Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia
  • A century ago Argentina was as rich as Switzerland
  • Egypt in 1800 had 3-4m people, no different than in 1300 or even Common Era; then doubled in nineteenth century
  • Islam against infanticide which may have been common
  • Jewish population still below pre Holocaust levels (in 2022, it nearly reached it)
  • India’s sterilization program in 1970s
  • “If the biggest global news story of the last forty years has been China’s economic growth, the biggest news story of the next forty years will be Africa’s population growth”
  • European slave trade: 12m Africans; Islamic slave trade: as many as 14m but maybe lower. These abs tough geography kept Africa particularly low on population
  • What would much longer life expectancy do to demography?
  • Does the West’s declining interest in sex reduce population?

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