World power and the rise and fall of population

Modern-day demographers view the nations of the world at different stages of what’s called the demographic transition.   And what stage they’re in has a lot to do with their power on the world scene.

There are nations at an early stage of the transition, with high fertility rates (number of births per woman).  There are nations at a middle stage of the transition, with fertility rates falling but population still growing.  And there are nations at the end stage of the transition, where the fertility rate is less than needed to replace the current population.

A demographer named Paul Morland, in a book called THE HUMAN TIDE: How Population Shaped the Modern World, explained how population growth and decline is related to geopolitical power.  There are nations with small populations that are rich, and there are nations with large populations have been poor and weak, but there are no nations that are both small and powerful.

The first nation to undergo the modern demographic transition was England, Morland’s own country.  In the days of Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada, England was small and poor, compared not only to France, which was Europe’s largest nation, but also to Spain.

The high English birth rate enabled the English to grow strong and to found new nations—the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  In 1870, the English fertility rate was six children per woman.  British statesmen such as Cecil Rhodes foresaw a day when the English would overrun and rule the planet.

The high fertility rate of Anglo-Americans in the early 19th century explains their belief in their “manifest destiny” to create a nation that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Mexico was no match for the USA because its population growth had not yet taken off.  Texas and California were virtually empty when Anglo settlers poured in.

The demographic transition began in the 20th century.  The English fertility rate was down to three children per woman in 1914 and down to about two in the 1920s and beyond.

The English and French feared the higher German fertility rate.  They may have been more willing to go to war in 1914 than they otherwise would have been, because they feared Germany would have had a greater population advantage in the future.

The Germans, in turn, feared the higher Russian fertility rate.  They may have been more willing to go to war with Russia for the same reasons that the English and French were more willing to go to war with them.

Russia benefitted from its population surge.  During the Second World War, the Red Army suffered many more casualties than the Wehrmacht, but won not only through its courage and fighting ability, but its greater numbers.  If the opposing forces on the Eastern Front had been equal in numbers, Nazi Germany might have won the Second World War.

Now the fertility rate is below the replacement rate in all these countries—the USA (including all races and demographic groups, not just Anglos), the UK, Germany and the Russian Federation.

Americans, English, Germans and Russians are no longer spreading through the world.  Instead Mexicans have been moving into the United States, citizens of the former British Empire are moving into the UK and the formerly subject peoples of Central Asia are immigrating into the Russian Federation.

Morland’s history covered many other nations and all the world’s regions.  He did not of course claim that population is the only factor in world power, only that it is an important one.  There is a correlation, although not a perfect one, between the rise and decline of economic and military power and the rise and decline of population.

When I was a schoolboy in the 1940s, the world population was estimated at about 2 billion, up from 1 billion a century before.  China had a population of 400 million; India, 300 million.

We thought that these two countries were condemned to perpetual poverty, weakness and famine because of their large numbers and because their ancient cultures, as we thought, barred them from success in the modern world.

Our model of population growth was that of Parson Malthus and his latter-day followers.  They believed that the population of any nation would double every so often, unless people limited their numbers through chastity and late marriage.  They believed that the doublings of population would bring about mass death through starvation, disease and war because the land would be unable to sustain them.

Now the population of the world is 7 billion, including 1.44 billion Chinese and 1.38 billion Asian Indians.  Neither country is rich, but neither is starving and both are powerful and likely to grow more powerful.   China’s fertility rate is below the replacement rate, and India’s is falling.

Click to enlarge.

United Nations demographers predict that world population will peak at something over 11 billion, and then start to decline.  They have good hope that the world will produce enough to support the  11-some billion, although not at the level that people in today’s rich countries enjoy.

This, of course, is very good news—if true.  The story of the demographic transition is hopeful so far, but all the past record shows is what can happen.  It doesn’t show what will  happen.

Assuming the good news is true, the demographic transition will create vastly unequal populations among nations.  The nations that came first to the demographic transition, such as the English, have ended it with relatively small populations.  What is their future in a world of huge populations?

The region that came last to the demographic transition, sub-Saharan Africa, will end it with the largest population spurt of all.  The United Nations estimates that by the year 2100, one out of every two newborn children will be African.  What are the implications for geopolitical power, for economic power and for immigration?

My next post will be about nations whose fertility rates have fallen below the replacement rate.  The one after that will be about the rising tide of African population.


World Population Growth by Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie and Esteban Ortiz-Ospita for Our World in Data.

World Population Growth Is Expected to Nearly Stop by 2100 by Anthony Gillufffo and Neil Ruiz for Pew Research Center.

What’s the future of demographic history? by Paul Morland for The Article.

Is Britain’s population really shrinking?  And if so, should it bother us? by Paul Morland for The Article.



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2 Responses to “World power and the rise and fall of population”

  1. Notes To Ponder Says:

    Reblogged this on notestoponder.


  2. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    Very interesting. Low population growth means older average age. The technological west can handle this as there isn’t a dependency on hard physical labor. I wonder what will become of China where a quarter of the people are at western standards but the remainder are still one step above poverty?


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