Abstracts from The Employment Dilemma and the Future of Work

4. A Long Term global Aspect of the development of the population3

The Industrial Revolution and its transformation of society and human life was the spark that led to an immense population growth often described as an explosion. The last two centuries were certainly not the first phase of rapid population growth in human history, but they unquestionably experienced the most dramatic of such increases. Earlier increases were usually compensated in ensuing years in part through the effects of plagues, famines and war. The Industrial Revolution, however, had a major impact on these regulative factors.
It is estimated that the world population at the beginning of the agricultural age, around 10,000 BC, lay somewhere between five and ten million people, mostly living in Eurasia. They were still engaged in hunting and gathering, forming widely spread groups or clans of about four to five families with 20 to 25 members in total. The population density never even reached one person per square kilometre and varied greatly by region and due to meteorological conditions. Plagues were still not a major factor due to the low population density, but violent deaths and times of scarce food together with high death-rates of new-born children kept the average life-expectancy fairly low.
With the introduction of the first agricultural techniques, man had to settle down to work the fields. This led to a greater independence from short-term environmental changes and made the support of an increased population possible. The agricultural society could feed substantially more people than the preceding pre-neolithic one and growth rates rose to about 0.5% to 1.0% in a favourable year. But the appearance of settlements brought an unto then unknown factor of population control into existence: the plague. This new phenomenon had a decisive impact on the demographic situation since in some years the death rates could jump from a usual level of about 30 to 40 per 1000 inhabitants to ten times as much. This sudden disappearance of up to half the population meant a catastrophe, but it kept otherwise uncontrolled population growth at bay. As a consequence, for nearly 12,000 years afterwards, the world population did not always grow steadily but at a fairly constant rate until it reached about 650 to 850 million in 1750, the birth-date of the Industrial Revolution.

Figure 1: Population Growth
Source: Cipolla, The Economic History of World Population.

Due to the exploitation of new energy sources, more efficient production systems and advances in medicine and hygiene as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, previous limits for population growth were overcome. in the industrialised society famines became uncommon thanks to the scientific and more efficient approach to farming and an improved infrastructure that made food shipments from one location to another in shorter time possible. The introduction of new drugs and especially the discovery of vaccines together with superior hygiene and sanitation contained the plagues. During the ensuing two hundred years war, as the third exogene force, should exert the strongest influence on population growth.
Within one hundred years, from 1750 to 1850, world population nearly doubled from around 750 to 1200 million. It then grew even faster until reaching 2500 million in 1950 and today, in 1996, there are close to 6 billion people living on this planet.
Demographically, the trend of a growing society can be explained by increasing life-expectancy in general and falling death-rates, especially among new-born and children, that overcompensated the decreasing birth-rates. Only rather recently do we experience a situation where in some early-industrialised countries the birth-rates have fallen below the death-rates, causing the population to shrink ‘naturally’, i.e. not as a consequence of famines, sudden plagues or war action.
These developments display a close correlation to the beginning and the extent of the transformation towards an industrialised society in different regions of the earth. At the start of the industrialization process in England in 1750, the yearly death-rate was 30 per 1,000 inhabitants. Fifty years later, when the percentage of people working in the agricultural sector had decreased to around 40%, the death-rate had fallen to 23‰. Other nations experienced a similar development: Germany’s death-rate fell from 27‰ to 18.5‰, France’s from 24‰ to 19.5‰ and Russia’s from 40‰ to 29.5‰, all between 1850 and 1900, the times when the industrialisation process began in these countries. Today, peacetime death-rates for most countries tend to be substantially lower than 10‰.
While the industrialisation had an immediate impact on death-rates and life-expectancy, the drop of the birth-rates lagged substantially. This created a situation where for some decades the population of countries in course of industrialisation displayed accelerated growth. Today, we can observe this phenomenon in many developing countries where only a more mature economy promises to retain population growth.

3 Most of the statistical evidence in this chapter has been extracted from the following sources: Cipolla, C. (1962): The Economic History of World Population; Cipolla, C. (1974): The Fontana Economic History of Europe, Vol. 1-4; UNDP (1995): Human Development Report 1995.

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