Non-Fiction Reviews

How Population Change will Transform our World

(2016) , Oxford University Press, 14.99 / US$24.95, hrdbk xxi + 234pp, ISBN 978-0-198-78409-8

(2016 / 2019) Susan Harper, OUP, 9.99 / US$14.95, pbk, xxi + 236pp, ISBN 978-0-198-78399-2


The latter half of the 20th Century and the first two thirds of the 21s is seeing the human population transform from one of near-exponential growth to one of near stability albeit at a size many times that it was a century ago. Everyone has heard of things like 'the population bomb' and demographic change. But is there really a population bomb and what exactly is the nature of this demographic change? Sarah Harper provides a fascinating graphically illustrated and well researched summary of current demographic trends. This is a topic that will affect every person on the planet not to mention the fate and future of many non-human species.

Thirty years ago the concern was, as Sarah Harper points out, everyone was concerned about how we would stop the global human population from reaching 24 billion, but today with two-thirds of nations close to or below stable population replacement of about two children per couple the questions today are very different.

Today (2016), she points out, the maximum world population is likely to be around 10 billion.  In How Population Change will Transform our World she looks at the current population demographic trends in various regions of the world and how these each contribute to the way the global and various regional populations are likely to change this century.

Of course the immediate elements of population demographic change are key things like childhood mortality and life expectancy but there are others such as literacy, prevalence of early marriage, and so forth. And then again, very much affecting the individual lives behind the numbers, there are things such as the changing patterns of consumption (health and education) and production (work) across lifetimes as folk age.

Now, one thing Sarah Harper does not do is to pull all these together into a global whole; that she leaves for the reader to do. Indeed nowhere in the book is there a graph of the UN's population projections for the century. Nor is there discussion of things such as population-resource overshoot whereby a population grows beyond the Earth's carrying capacity (whatever that might be and which also is not discussed). That the author has left this leg work for the reader is in one very real sense a blessing as the post-WWII demographers of the 20th century have got things spectacularly wrong and so one might say that an undergraduate student's guess as to what might happen in the future is as good as anybody else's, provided that that guess is an informed one, and what Sarah Harper is doing is providing much of that background information.

This book will not only obviously be of relevance to those studying human population demographics be they demographers themselves, geographers and so forth. Indeed, those with an interest in science and SF (many of this website's regulars) who also are concerned in our species' and planet's likely future will find this book rather fascinating, and it not being long does mean that the interest is held through to the end.

Yet those coming to this book's subject from the life sciences outside of human demography such as those into human ecology, biology and other sciences will quickly realise that demography really is behind the times as a discipline. This is nowhere better exemplified by the poor nomenclature that demographers use.  Joel Cohen noted this in passing in a footnote in his book How Many People Can The Earth Support?, over 20 years ago, back in 1995.  The thing is demographers use the term 'fertility' in a way that would be unpardonable if done by any bioscience or ecology student.  Demographers muddle 'fertility' with 'fecundity'; the rest of bioscience does not!  Let's be clear, 'fertility' is the potential for someone to have offspring, while 'fecundity' is the actually realisation of having offspring.  It is possible to be highly fertile yet have no offspring (which is what contraception is all about), or one may not be very fertile (through having a low sperm count or whatever) yet still be highly fecund having many offspring.  Yet demographers persist in using the term 'fertility' when actually they mean 'fecundity'. (Perhaps if as students demographers were all told to write an essay on the role of hormones in developed nations' watercourses on fecundity and fertility in those nations they might begin to see sense.) Sarah Harper perpetuates this misuse, but don't blame her, this is a widespread flaw in the discipline of human demography: so perhaps it is no wonder demographers got things so wrong in the past.

What we end up with in How Population Change will Transform our World is a snapshot as to how our lives are changing in various parts of the world that will enable readers to think about what the next few decades have in store for us. And if you doubt the relevance of this demographic change to us all, while I was reading this book and writing this review, news came in that in England and Wales women over 40 are having more babies than the under 20s for the first time in nearly 70 years. This is all part of the bigger, global picture.

The paperback only came out in 2019. Notwithstanding the afore 'fertility' 'fecundity' confusion that curses much in demographic academia, this paperback dates little from the hardback three years ago: the issues are still germane and the ground Harper covers still hugely relevant.

Jonathan Cowie

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