New Internationalist

A brief history of population

Issue 429

Includes a murky past.

1 Ups and downs
Before the development of agriculture in around 10,000 BCE the world is believed to have had a population of around a million. By 300-400 CE, the combined eastern and western Roman empire alone numbered around 55 million people. Recurrent plagues halved Europe’s population between 541 and 750 CE. By 1340 world population had risen again to more than 440 million, but so devastating was the Black Death that by 1400 human numbers had dropped by nearly a quarter. (It would take roughly 200 years for Europe to regain its 1340 level.) During the Middle Ages, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), a North African polymath, produced the first scientific and theoretical work on population, development and group dynamics – the Muqaddimah.

2 Conquest and food
After 1400 world population grew more steadily. One reason was food. New crops that had come from the Americas to Asia and Europe during the 16th century contributed to population growth on these continents. The indigenous populations of the Americas, however, were decimated by diseases brought by European colonizers. During the agricultural and industrial revolutions in Europe, child life expectancy improved dramatically. The percentage of children born in London who died before the age of five decreased from 74.5 per cent in 1730-49 to 31.8 per cent in 1810-29. Europe’s population doubled to almost 200 million during the 18th century, and doubled again during the 19th century, thanks to improved living conditions and healthcare.

3 Enter Thomas Malthus
At the end of the 18th century, a Church of England curate and mathematician, Thomas Malthus, concluded that, if unchecked, populations would be subject to exponential growth. His influential 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population argued that population growth would outstrip growth in food production, leading to ever-increasing famine and poverty. He was wrong: population continued increasing but so did food production thanks to improvements in agriculture. His pessimistic view was a reaction against Enlightenment thinkers Antoine-Nicolas Cordorcet and William Godwin who argued that social misery was caused by defective institutions which could be addressed by reform. Malthus reckoned welfare measures merely intensified impoverishment since they allowed the poor to breed more.

4 Right people, wrong people
During the period of industrial expansion Europe’s population increased rapidly. This was considered a good thing by governments and opinion-makers, who associated prosperity and military security with growing numbers. Racial and Darwinian thinking encouraged the idea that the presumed ‘superior’ and ‘fittest’ people would flourish and grow. But the British privileged classes noticed – and became obsessively concerned – that the ‘unfit’ lower social classes were reproducing faster than they were. In America in 1907, sociologist Edward Ross argued for a package of policies that would encourage ‘capable’ people to have children, imposing birth control on ‘over-prolific people’.

5 Race, empire, eugenics
Fear of blacks breeding faster than whites and of immigrants overwhelming the Anglo-Saxon population became widespread in early 20th century America. Meanwhile, in Britain, imperialists held that the maintenance of the Empire required a steady increase in the population of the ‘English’ race. Such concern led to the establishment of the Royal Commission on Population in 1937. When the British Eugenics Society set up its Population Policies Committee in 1938, the aim was not to increase fertility at random but to ‘improve reproductive power of the eugenically good’. The horrors of Nazism, and the role that eugenics played in the extermination of Jews, Roma, disabled people and homosexuals, meant that after World War Two such views were less explicitly expressed.

6 Booming babies
In 1947 the United Nations Population Commission met for the first time. Concerns about population became global. Now the people deemed to be ‘breeding too fast’ were those in the so-called Third World. ‘These people are problems, even hazards, for all those countries of the world… as areas of economic dependence, as explosive centres of unrest and as possible disturbers of world peace,’ wrote US sociologist JO Hertzler in 1956. In 1958, Yale University demographers Ansley Coale and Edgar Hoover produced a seminal thesis that rapid population growth had a negative impact on economic development. Birth control became part of US foreign policy directed at developing countries. Comparable baby booms in North America, Europe and Australia did not arouse such concern.

7 Population and other bombs
During the Cold War, ‘strategic demography’ took off, with experts examining population growth in terms of security risk. One specific fear was that the burgeoning yet impoverished South might be inclined to communism. Population was growing fastest in Asia and John Robbins’ 1959 book entitled Too Many Asians was typical of the period. For him the Indian state of Kerala exemplified the problem: the highly populous state had just elected a communist government. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best-seller, The Population Bomb, warned of mass starvation. Like those of his predecessor, Thomas Malthus, Ehrlich’s dire predictions did not materialize. But his book was highly influential, nonetheless.

8 ‘Development is the best contraceptive’
Population became an increasingly politicized area. Controversy raged, consensus was rare. Was high population growth the chief obstacle to development or was poverty at the root of population problems? At the World Population Conference in Bucharest in 1974, the main message to emerge was that ‘development is the best contraceptive’. The following two decades saw a rapid expansion of access to family planning services on all continents, with a widening range of technologies available. But coercive practices in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and China undermined public confidence.

9 Women at Cairo
In September 1994 the United Nations co-ordinated an International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. An agenda focused strongly on women’s rights emerged. Despite fierce opposition from Christian and Muslim religious conservatives, the conference achieved consensus on the following four goals: universal primary education and women’s access to education and training; significant reduction of infant and under-five mortality; reduction of maternal mortality to half the 1990 levels by 2000 and half that again by 2015; access to a wide range of reproductive and sexual health services, including family planning, and active discouragement of female genital mutilation. A subsequent backlash by traditionalists in the US Bush Administration led to drastic cuts in funding for family planning.

10 Environment
Concerns about biological limits to growth were already being expressed in the 1980s but in the past decade they have been asserted with renewed vigour. Climate change has added urgency to debates on population and the environmental limits to growth.

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