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Tomorrow’s People: The Future of Humanity in Ten Numbers – A tantalising vision

Book review: Paul Morland tackles the notion that population growth is a bad thing

Tomorrow’s People: The Future of Humanity in Ten Numbers
Tomorrow’s People: The Future of Humanity in Ten Numbers
Author: Paul Morland
ISBN-13: 9781529045994
Publisher: Pan MacMillan
Guideline Price: £20

Today’s people are different from the people of the past. Compared to our ancestors we live longer, produce fewer children, and live in more ethnically diverse, technologically advanced, secular societies. Tomorrow’s people will be different too, and how much different will depend on the accumulation of individual choices we all make today.

For millennia ordinary people didn’t have a lot of choices. They had no choice when it came to whether wars started, the harvest failed or a natural disaster struck. They couldn’t choose to be educated, have two children, eat healthy foods or work in a particular job. The lives that people led were not the product of their choices.

Demography, which charts and analyses changes in the human population, reflects this reality. But times have changed. The author argues that the choices that we make today will determine how many people will inhabit the Earth in 100 years, how long we can live and the ethnic mix of our developed economies. It’s all up for grabs.

It is to the author’s credit that he tackles the long-held notion that population growth is both inevitable and bad, which goes back at least as far as Thomas Robert Malthus, the father of demography. Malthus famously argued in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population that population growth must hold back human progress because it would always outstrip food production and, thus, drive any improvements in global living standards back to subsistence levels.


At that time the global population stood at 800 million. The world’s population now stands at 7.9 billion, with living standards and food production increasing in parallel. It is not inevitable that a population limit will be reached anytime soon, the author says, given huge advances in agriculture and medicine.

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote the influential Population Bomb, in which he declared in Malthusian fashion that Earth was no longer able to support its population and predicted dire famines in the 1970s and 1980s. Such predictions proved wide of the mark.

Morland’s book is effectively structured under 10 main headings covering infant mortality, population growth, urbanisation, fertility, ageing, old age, population decline, ethnic change, education and food. The common theme is that while we had little choice over these things in the past, we do today.

Another central idea here is that demographic change is the driver of historic political, economic and social change. The reduction in infant mortality, rise in birth rates, increase in educational access and the flight of the young from the countryside to jobs in the city first seen in Britain made its industrial revolution possible.

The UK has long passed its demographic heyday and, in common with many countries in the industrialised west, notably Germany, only maintains its economic power today because of mass immigration to make up for the shortfall of natives, who produce less children and live longer.

Without new immigrants, the author argues, the UK would have gone the way of Japan, where economic stagnation has been the result of an ageing native population and an unwillingness to permit immigration.

China too is in decline, it seems, as its fertility rate at 1.7 births per woman is below the 2.2 rate needed to sustain the population. The scrapping of the one-child policy in 2016 didn’t increase the birthrate, and such demographic decline ultimately presages economic decline.

The future will see the world shift on its demographic and power axis towards sub-Saharan Africa, the countries of which have been derided as basket cases by the West. The rapid fall-off in infant mortality, increase in longevity and education access under way mean that nations in this part of Africa are primed for a power shift.

At the same time, western countries are seeing increases in diseases of despair such as alcoholism, obesity and suicide with a levelling-off of life expectancy. The world is shifting on its demographic axis, but, allied to this, personal choice means the future is far from certain.

Tomorrow’s people may have a life expectancy of 200 years and live according to a different timetable. The nature of parenthood may change, with children born with the genetic material of two or more parents. Future babies may be selected so that they are universally intelligent, beautiful and free of genetic disease, while the ethnic makeup of previously homogenous societies changes radically.

Nothing in the future is certain, not even the continued existence of an ethnic group or a nation. “Just as there are no more Medes or Visigoths, there is no guarantee that there will, in the future, be any Italians or Japanese,” the author writes.

This delightful demographic ramp across centuries of human history provides some tantalising clues as to where we humans might end up.

Seán Duke

Seán Duke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a science journalist