Global Population: History, Geopolitics and Life on Earth

bashfordRating: ★★★★☆

Alison Bashford. 2014. Global Population: History, Geopolitics and Life on Earth. Columbia University Press. ISBN978 0 231 14767 5.

Be careful what you wish for. Leaving aside issues on who actually produced these words, they do seem rather apposite for studies on the population numbers debate in the C20th. The problem of over-population would be solved, we were told at the time, by aiming for zero population growth (zpg) – that net increase and decrease would balance. Now, there is another cry, that of rapidly declining numbers are  approaching nations like Japan and Italy with others not far behind. On the one hand, this should be seen as quite obvious, based on the demographic transition theory, that population growth is never infinitely sustainable but must level off at some point. On the other hand, there’s a sizeable debate about which model should “win” and what the “correct” population level is anyway.

These debates are not new. Malthus opened the scoring on this debate with Essay on the Principles of Population in 1798. He was arguing for limits on population with runaway growth followed by the crash caused by starvation. The debate continued but it wasn’t until the C20th that the issues of population levels were seen as common academic and government debate. This book focusses, not on population change, but on the debates surrounding it i.e. intellectual rather than demographic change. As such it adds considerable levels of detail to an otherwise potentially bland story on demographic history. It takes the central case of Malthus’ work and then follows the ripples as they spread out through time.

Starting with the initial impact in the C19th, we are told that Malthus was not the first to consider the impact of population growth on human society. Perhaps it was not until this time that such ideas could be articulated; developments in industry and agriculture gave many societies surplus labour and food to start populations rising at the rate they did. This early development of ideas is treated as a brief prelude to the main debate. We rush through the C19th to land, mostly, in the 1920s and 30s. Just as Malthus could see how population numbers could outstrip food supply (and this was only one of hundreds of ideas he proposed – most of which are no longer discussed) so a Europe after World War One could see how population numbers might need to be controlled. To the geopolitics of WW1, we add the biopolitics (itself contentious as we can see) of populations – not just birth but migration. The need for land (or, possibly more so, territory) was always going to be a dominant theme and the nature of who could live or move there would likewise create debate.  It’s this debate, and the central characters involved in it that are analysed in the second part of this text.  The focus of the time would become the focus of the next conflict. Lebensraum  – even removing the political overtones – would define the debate. It’s not just land per se but the amount of land and the resources there alongside who might live there (and the numbers and population density they might want). It’s also about the idea of moving people from high-density to low-density areas. Here, an over-populated area might get its people to migrate to an “empty land”. Of course, as the British knew full well in Australia, empty land (Terra Nullius) is anything but “empty”. The response to that is another debate but the author does tie in the level of dispute with the amount of “empty” land available. It’s as if issues could be reduced by promoting a homogeneous distribution of global population.

Part 3 moves the arguments away from land towards food supply and population numbers. As the author unfolds the debate we see the theory of population control (fewer children, contraception, abortion) meet the practicalities of a world where such subjects are taboo. It’s fine to discuss the number of children being born; less acceptable to discuss sex. Interestingly, there’s considerable support at the time from eugenicists at a time when this term did not have it’s later connotations. Although there was a thread of concern about the fitness of population, their main argument is about the global number not its demography. Ehrlich’s later classic The Population Bomb had its precursors here.

In part 4, it’s the turn of modern population ecologists to take the argument forward. The two decades immediately after World War 2 were to lay a solid foundation for the modern debates on population. Obviously, there’s Ehrlich and others advocating, for example, zero population growth but there’s the start of the movement towards “reproductive rights” focussed on women and  the right to determine their own body’s functions.  A final chapter rushes the story up to date where reproduction and population levels are still hotly debated.

Most texts looking at population focus on the few key reports and books that are worth mentioning. Largely, this is a convenience for an author whose central point is the development of ideas not the interplay of ideas, public opinion, scientific and political debate and human rights. What Bashford has done is to stop considering the broad sweep of demography and returned to the debate at the time with all its complexity, developments and people that are normally ignored. The result is a fascinating read. Having seen numerous texts on population, I assumed it was another version in this genre. What I found instead was an intricate debate flowing around the idea of population but adding far more detail than usually seen. It was as if the topic was brought alive by adding the colour of the debate. It also left a lasting impression about what else other texts and subjects might have “missed” in the search to get central tenets clearly articulated. Rather than skim, I followed each page carefully, noting the twists and turns as this complex topic was unravelled. For anyone wanting to see behind the main headlines of population, this is a highly recommended read.

Leave A Comment