7th June 2021. Demographics | History

The coming population transition;

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#1: The coming population transition

One of the ideas that sat behind my half of the recent IET John Logie Baird lecture, looking out at the long-run future of media, was that a number of systems are moving from the acceleration phase of the S-curve to the deceleration phase. This is true of a number of systems: population (where growth rates have already peaked); oil production, which is peaking around now, depending which analyst you believe; and, according to one forecaster, global GDP. 

(Stylised S-curve. The pink line shows the inflection point. After that growth rates start to fall)

One of the consequences of this is that, sooner or later, global population will peak and then start to fall. The UN’s official projection sees a peak of around 12 billlion late in the century; most other demographic projects see a peak of around 9 billion somewhere in the middle of the century. 

The difference in the two versions depends almost completely on whether you believe that we’ll see the same rapid declines in fertility in sub-Saharan Africa that we’ve seen elsewhere in the global South. 

So it was interesting to see a recent piece in the New York Times arguing that a world of decelerating population would represent a change in kind from what we’re used to. (The NYT has an aggressive paywall, so I have linked to a more accessible syndicated version). The change has already started:

(N)early everywhere (outside of sub-Saharan Africa), the era of high fertility is ending. As women have gained more access to education and contraception and as the anxieties associated with having children intensify, more parents are delaying pregnancy, and fewer babies are being born. Even in countries long associated with rapid growth, such as India and Mexico, birthrates are falling toward or are already below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family.

Once started, declining birthrates have their own momentum. There are fewer girls to have children, and as women, they are generally choosing to have smaller families. It creates a reinforcing loop in which population growth first stalls and then falls. 

While lower population numbers will help ease pressures on resources and biodiversity, and potentially on climate change. We not ready yet for the type of societies these might be—because we’ve got used to a world where an increasing number of young people pay for the old.

The article looks at South Korea, which has the lowest fertility rate in the world: 0.92, way below the replacement rate of 2.1.

Expectant mothers in many areas can no longer find obstetricians or postnatal care centers. Universities below the elite level, especially outside Seoul, find it increasingly hard to fill their ranks; the number of 18-year-olds in South Korea has fallen from about 900,000 in 1992 to 500,000 today...

To goose the birthrate, the government has handed out baby bonuses. It increased child allowances and medical subsidies for fertility treatments and pregnancy.

But all of this has made no difference to the birthrate. Instead, the shift feels like a deep cultural change. We have seen similar stories in other countries.

In fact, the British medical journal The Lancet published projections last year that suggested that by 2100 183 countries and territories globally — out of 195 — will have fertility rates below replacement level. The effects are particularly strong in China, which could see its population halve by 2100. 

So it sounds like a change we’ll need to get used to. As a species, an ageing population is a new phenomenon. But population contraction may not be a bad thing:

Demographers warn against seeing population decline as simply a cause for alarm. Many women are having fewer children because that is what they want. Smaller populations could lead to higher wages, more equal societies, lower carbon emissions and a higher quality of life for the smaller numbers of children who are born.

Jonathan Salk and David Dewane, not quoted in the article, published a short book in 2018 on this population transition. (It’s an update of a 1981 book Jonathan wrote with his father Jonas). They describe it as the transition from Epoch A to Epoch B, and expect a change in values as a result. 

(Source: Salk and Salk, A New Reality, 2018)

We are hitting those limits and need to make adaptations. Those adaptations include going from competition to cooperation, independence to interdependence, constant growth to a state of equilibrium, and going from an “either/or” philosophy to a “both/and” philosophy... What conferred advantage when things were accelerating and growing without limit is no longer advantageous. In order to adapt and survive, we necessarily have to make this shift in values.

#2: Visualising history

I became quite intrigued with a post on Public Domain Review  about visualising history—typically on large grids—which originated in Poland and headed west to the United States and Canada. Maybe one of the images will help explain why:

Antoni Jażwiński’s Tableau Muet, based on the original “Polish System” for charting historical information, later revised in France and the United States, 1834 

The system originated in Poland in the 1820s and was popularised by a military engineer, Jozef Bem, in the 1830s and 1840s. The Polish educator Antoni Jażwiński helped to refine it:

In Jażwiński’s original chart, [seen above] each main 10x10 box is a century and the rows separate decades. Within a century box, each individual square is a year, each color a nation (with shading for different monarchs or governments), and symbols can stand for marriages, wars, treaties, and other types of events. Should one become proficient with this system, they can peer down on the history of the world, summarized on a surface not much larger than a chessboard.

He also explored using the method to create visual memnonics: 

One of the most striking of these was the idea of “chronological constellations”, laid out in part two of his Méthode polonaise (1835). Here historical events marked in the grid would become guiding points within a larger shape, as stars function in a heavenly constellation — “sometimes it's a chair, a sickle, a boat, a letter of the alphabet, etc.”

The method spread west, first to Franche and then to North America, where it became something of an educational technology. 

In particular, it was popularised by the work of the educationalist Elizabeth Peabody, who subdivided the squares so they could hold more information. Nelson Loverin abstracted these a bit in his version.

Nelson Loverin’s version of the “Polish System” or “centograph” in Loverin’s Chart of Time (1882). 

Peabody didn’t just see this as being about education. She thought it was about democracy, because the stakes of forgetting were high:

Chronological knowledge is a gateway to democratic power, she believed, recalling “the time, within the memory of our living parents, when the boundaries of nations, and their relations in space to each other, were known only to the few cultivated persons who had sufficient activity of imagination to picture them out by means of descriptions in words”. The Polish System fixed this: no longer did a student have to create a picture of the world out of words — now global history could unfurl on a grid before their eager eyes.

Which all reminded me of Milan Kundera’s famous line in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.

Update: Since I posted Friday’s piece on Naomi Osaka, I noticed a column in The Atlantic by sportswriter Jemele Hill that positioned the dispute between Osaka and tennis’ Grand Slam tournament organisers this way: as part of wider argument between top performing athletes and sports bodies:

“Who controls a sport—the leagues that organize the competition, or the athletes who actually play? When athletes have direct access to fans via social-media platforms, what role should traditional sports media play? And when athletes, particularly athletes of color, feel mistreated by tournaments, sports leagues, and media outlets alike, what recourse do they have?”


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