In 1974 the first world conference on population ever to be held took place in Romania. The uneasiness of an informed few about the demographic outlook had for the first time found a forum for the human race to consider its numbers. A quarter century later, the unwilled, apparently still uncontrollable and accelerating rise in world population, which had been going on for a couple of centuries or so, was seen by many more to pose global problems, even if their exact nature remained uncertain because of incomplete information. Accuracy in computing populations still eludes us. We can only estimate to within a couple of hundred millions how many people are now alive. Nonetheless, the likely degree of error probably does not seriously distort our impression of what has happened. In round numbers, a world population of about 750 million two and a half centuries ago more than doubled in a hundred and fifty years to reach about 1600 million in 1900. It then took fifty years to add the next 850 million or so; by 1950 the world had about 2500 million inhabitants. The next 850 million were added in only twenty years, and now the world’s population is over 6000 million. This can be set in a still longer timescale. It had taken at least 50,000 years for Homo sapiens to number 1000 million (a number reached in 1840 or thereabouts) while the last 1000 million of the species has been added in only fifteen years. Until only a few decades ago the total was growing faster and faster, perhaps reaching its peak at a rate over 2 per cent per year in the later 1960s.

Such growth made the spectre of Malthusian disaster walk again for some, although as Malthus himself observed, ‘no estimate of future population or depopulation, formed from any existing rate of increase or decrease, can be depended upon’. We cannot be sure what might further change the pattern. Some societies, for instance, have set out to control their size and shape. Such efforts, strictly speaking, are not entirely new. In some places, murder and abortion had long been customary ways of holding down demands on scarce resources. Babies were exposed to die in medieval Japan; female infanticide was widespread in nineteenth-century India and returned (or, perhaps, was acknowledged openly again) in China in the 1980s. What was new was that governments began to put resources and authority behind more humane methods of population control. Their aim was positive social and economic improvement instead of the mere avoidance of personal and family distress.

Only a few governments made such efforts and economic and social facts did not everywhere produce the same response, even to unquestionable advance in technology and knowledge. A new contraceptive technique spread rapidly, with radical impact on behaviour and thinking, in many western countries in the 1960s, while it has yet to be adopted with anything like the same alacrity by women in the non-western world. It was one of many reasons why population growth, though worldwide, did not everywhere take the same form or provoke the same responses. Though many non-European countries have followed nineteenth-century European patterns (in first showing a fall in death rates without a corresponding fall in birth rates), it would be rash to predict that they will simply go on to repeat the next phase of the population history of developed countries. We cannot assume patterns of declining natality in one place or one society will be repeated elsewhere - but nor can we be sure that they will not be. The dynamics of population growth are exceedingly complex, reflecting limits set to them by ignorance and by personal and social attitudes hard to measure, let alone manipulate, and while we wait for these dynamics to become clearer some poor countries cannot for a long time hope to achieve demographic equilibrium. In Europe, natality only began to drop in the last couple of centuries when prosperity in a few countries made it attractive to have smaller families; few of today’s countries showing fast population growth are anywhere near that point. Better medical, nutritional and, above, all public health provision may well make things worse. Advances have been colossal since 1900, yet there are many places where they have yet to cut into mortality as dramatically as they had already done in Europe in the century before that. When and where they do, humanity’s numbers may rise faster still.

Infant mortality is a helpful rough indicator of potential for future growth. In the century before 1970 this fell from an average of about 225 per thousand live births to under 20 in developed countries; in 1988 the comparative figures for Bangladesh and Japan were 118 and 5. Such discrepancies between rich and poor countries are greater than in the past. There are comparable differences of life expectancy at all ages, too. At birth in developed countries it rose from slightly over 40 in 1870 to slightly over 70 a hundred years later. It now shows a remarkable evenness; in 1987, for example, 76, 75 and 70 years respectively in the United States, the United Kingdom and the USSR. Such differences between them were insignificant by comparison with those then separating them from Ethiopia (41) or even India (58). Yet the Indian baby faces prospects of survival enormously improved over those of his or her predecessor in 1900 - let alone those of French babies in 1789.

In the immediate future, such disparities will present new problems. For most of history, all societies resembled pyramids, with large numbers of young people at their base, and a few old. Now, developed societies are looking like tapering columns; the proportion of much older people is larger than in the past. In poorer countries, the reverse is true. Over half of Kenya’s people are under 15 and two-thirds of China’s are under 33. To talk simply of overall population growth therefore obscures important facts. World population goes on growing mightily, but in ways that have very different origins and will have very different historical implications and effects.

Among these are the ways in which population is shared out. At the end of the twentieth century, it was distributed between continents roughly as follows:



% of total 13-5

Europe (including Russia)









South America and the Caribbean



North America



Australasia and Oceania



The fall from Europe’s mid-nineteenth century share of world population (a quarter) is striking. So is the ending of four centuries in which emigrants of European stocks had left the continent to spread around the world; until the 1920s, Europe was still exporting people overseas, notably to the Americans. That outflow was much cut down by restrictions on entry to the United States in that decade, dwindled further during the Great Depression, and has never since recovered its former importance. On the other hand, immigration to the United States from the Caribbean, Central and South America and Asia surged upwards in the last decades of the twentieth century. Moreover, although some European countries still sent out emigrants (in the early 1970s more Britons still left the country each year than there were immigrants to it from abroad), they began also from the 1950s to attract North Africans, Turks, Asians and West Indians, seeking work they could not find at home. Europe is now, overall, an importer of people.

Yet present patterns may not remain unchanged for long. Asia now contains over half of mankind, China one fifth of it, and India a sixth, but some of the huge growth rates that have produced these numbers are at last beginning to fall. In Brazil, where population increase ran at more than twice the world rate in the early 1960s, it does so no longer, though Brazilians continue to grow in number. As in other Latin American countries where standards of living and life expectancy for much of the population are not much better than in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church has been blamed, because of its long record of opposition to birth control and abortion, but that can hardly be the whole explanation. The attitudes of Latin American males and the social disciplines that impose large families on many poor Latin American women - who were, until recently, almost unquestioningly complaisant - may matter just as much. Meanwhile, the most alarming growth rates are to be found in the Islamic world; Jordan, at the 1990s rate, would double its population in sixteen years, and Iraq grew only a little less vigorously at 3.5 per cent per year, while Saudi Arabia’s much smaller population grew at a startling annual rate of 5.6 per cent.

There is, none the less, evidence from some developing countries of reduction in family size in the last thirty years. Undoubtedly, this is partly due to official efforts. Though communist regimes had never traditionally welcomed ideas of population stabilization or reduction, in the 1960s both China and the USSR began to encourage people to delay marriage and have smaller families. China pressed forwards with measures of legal regulation, tax incentives and social pressure, though at the cost of the reappearance of condemned practices of female infanticide. The Indian government spent large sums on publicity and propaganda for contraception, and some for sterilization, but with limited success. Revolutionized neither economically as Japan had been, nor by any political attack on its traditional institutions as China had been, India remained a predominantly agrarian society, profoundly conservative in ideas and institutions. Outside a tiny minority within her elites, India maintained, for example, a vast and traditional inequality in the status and employment prospects of men and women. Were attitudes towards women now taken for granted in Europe or North America (and often denounced there as inadequate) even slightly more prevalent in India, they would be likely to raise dramatically the age of women at marriage, thus reducing the number of children in the average family. But such a change would presuppose a break with India’s traditional ways, opportunities and structures of authority which would be much more radical than the winning of political independence in 1947. Deeply entrenched traditions and culture cannot be got rid of painlessly and no country should be expected to find it easy to shake off so much.

Perhaps we need not be too gloomy. Fertility has tended to fall in developing countries when economic well-being increases. Even when countries like India have not been able to generate obvious improvement in the lot of their masses, Latin America provides evidence that such improvement eases the way to a decline in natality. The still-expanding influence of civilization in the European tradition, however it is packaged on arrival, remains the most powerful solvent of traditional ways that history can show. Change in population structure seems in one way or another to accompany it as unavoidably as the weakening of religious culture, the building of factories or the liberation of women - and such a list could be much extended.

Differences of population and changes in them affect the comparative strength of nations, although they are not simply to be equated with differences of power. Resources and culture come into the matter, and power for one purpose is not always power for another. Nonetheless, power and population are related in many ways. China, for example, has a population so large as to make her virtually unconquerable. But there is not always so direct and obvious an equation. Towards the end of the twentieth century, estimates recorded the ten largest states in population as:



































(In 1997, Germany’s 82 millions made her the largest European country)

On any reckoning, that list contains the three most powerful countries in the world; they were not, of course, the three most powerful a hundred years earlier. Some of the ten are also very poor. While China’s social transformation has forged ahead, others on the list are still sunk in a poverty that for some of them looks insurmountable, whether it is absolute, because natural resources are few (Bangladesh) or relative, in that they are swallowed up by population growth which is too fast (India and Indonesia) and has overtaken the cashing of the cheque of development. Newly generated wealth has in such cases been at best largely consumed in longer life expectancy. But it is not easy, though tempting, to generalize; India’s agricultural output doubled between 1948 and 1973 and she was thought to be about to enter a period of self-sufficiency in food, yet this barely held the line for a population growing at the rate of a million a month.

World population was changing in another way, too; as the twentieth century ended nearly half of it lived in cities. The city is becoming the typical habitat of Homo sapiens. This was a remarkable change from most of human history. It registered the fact that cities have been losing their old killing-power. In the past, the high death rates of city life required constant demographic nourishment by country-born immigrants in order to keep up numbers. In the nineteenth century, city-dwellers in some countries had begun to reproduce themselves in sufficient surviving numbers for cities to grow organically. The results are startling; there are now many cities whose numbers of inhabitants are literally uncountable. Calcutta already had a million in 1900, but now has more than fifteen times as many; Mexico City had only 350,000 inhabitants as the twentieth century began, but ended with over 20 million. Other impressions can be derived from the longer term. The world had only five cities of more than a halfmillion inhabitants in 1700; in 1900 there were forty-three; and now Brazil alone has seven of more than a million. Sanitary regimes and public health measures have moved more slowly in some countries than others to make such changes possible, and the tide of urbanization is far from ebbing.

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