Two “L” shaped graphs highlight the extraordinary changes in human prosperity over the last twelve thousand years. After millennia of infant mortality rates of 200-300 per 1,000 and life expectancy at birth of 20-30 years, most people today are living in nations where infant mortality rates are dropping below 50, on their way to the single digit levels of the West. Global life expectancy is pushing 70 years. These “L” shaped developments contribute to the development of yet another “L” shaped curve. Look at this chart of world population:
We can get a better sense of population growth if we break the chart into two segments:
From 10,000 BCE to 5000 BCE, the global population increased from about 4 million to 5 million. Beginning in the fifth millennium, the plow was invented, irrigation began, and cities emerged. There was an up turn in population during the Greco-Roman era beginning in the middle of the first millennium BCE. Much slower growth followed in the third through eighth centuries CE. Population fluctuated until after the major European plague in the mid-1300s, after which population resumed an upward trajectory, particularly accelerating in the seventeenth century.
Many have attributed the population explosion of recent centuries to the Industrial Revolution but clearly its impetus predated the Industrial Revolution by one or two centuries. Economist Robert Fogel attributes this population growth to what he calls the Second Agricultural Revolution beginning in the seventeenth century (the First Agricultural Revolution beginning around 9000 BCE with the discovery of farming techniques.) The Second Agricultural Revolution, starting in Europe, involved a combination of improved crop rotation methods, better planting and cultivation techniques, new technology, and improved storage and distribution methods. Beginning in the early nineteenth century (c. 1820) the Industrial Revolution built upon the gains from agricultural advancements.
Robert Fogel calls the phenomenon we have experienced in recent centuries “technophysio evolution.” Technology improved agricultural to the point that vast numbers of people could eat beyond mere subsistence levels and live healthier and more productive lives. Better agriculture production also required fewer workers freeing up labor for other pursuits. These other pursuits included pursuit of new technologies that both bettered people’s lives and further improved agricultural production. Thus, a cycle of technophysio evolution was set in motion.
To understand the impact technophysio evolution has had on global population, we can look at what demographers call the Demographic Transition Model (DTM). The DTM is a model reflecting the experience of Western Europe, extrapolated to interpret anticipated global demographic trends. There are four phases to the DTM:
Stage 1: Death rates (deaths per 1,000 population) and birth rates (births per 1,000 population) vary but tend to balance each other out. Prior to the eighteenth century, this was the near universal story for humanity (although as we have seen, very slow steady growth had been the norm for many centuries before.)
Stage 2: Death rates begin to decline significantly. Birth rates stay constant for a while and then began to drop in a pattern similar to death rates. Though both are declining, the birth rate stays significantly above the death rate for decades (see the dashed line in the chart.) This leads to a significant increase in the population.
Stage 3: Death rate decline begins to slow and level out. Meanwhile fertility rates continue to decline leveling out at a later date. The population continues to experience growth but at an ever slowing rate.
Stage 4: Death rates and birth rates stabilize at or below replacement levels.
Wikipedia provides a chart for 250 years of Sweden’s history that illustrates this. Notice the parallel death and birth rates until the beginning of the 1800s. The stages are demarcated for you at the top of the chart.
Stage 2 emerged in Europe because of technophysio evolution. Increased agricultural productivity led to a surplus of food and an improved diet. Improved health and vigor meant more productive people. It reduced the death rate as people lived longer and people lived more productive lives. (Fogel notes that, in England, agriculture improved the caloric intake but the rapid urbanization created health problems that tended to retard advances in life expectancy until the late nineteenth century.) With improved health, and enough resources to meet basic subsistence needs, people began to address environmental problems like waste elimination and personal hygiene. This lessened the amount of disease and allowed more people to live longer and more vigorous lives.
Stage 3 was a period when the infant morality rate (children dying before their first birthday) was noticeably lower. Whereas only four or five children out of eight might have lived to adulthood in the past, now seven or eight children might reach maturity. Fewer children were needed to perpetuate the family and birth rates declined. Increased industrialization also meant urbanization and a departure from traditional values about family size and the role of women. Women no longer gained as much status from family. They become more educated and literate, often entering the workforce. This led to greater affluence and greater sophistication in knowing how to create a better quality of life. People become evermore empowered and greater demands were made for environmental improvements, safety, and health care.
Stage 4 has seen a stabilization of death and birth rates. Concerns about quality of life issues including environment and health have risen in importance.
Some believe there may be a stage 5. At some point our ability to extend life expectancy will hit a wall and the death rate will rise a little before stabilizing. With affluence, death rates may begin to increase because of decreased physical activity and increasingly unhealthy lifestyles like overeating. How birth rates will respond isn’t known. Whether this is true and to what degree is a subject of debate.
Now we can extrapolate the DTM to represent global changes, with one significant change. The distinguishing feature of the global model is that instead of a relatively smooth transition into declining death rates over decades, death rates plummet in a short time period. Most developing nations have experienced their population explosions in the years after World War II when large amounts of aid, vaccines, and technological knowledge were made available. Traditions and customs about family size can’t adapt as quickly. Therefore, the gap between birth rates and death rates (see dashed line in graph below) is considerably larger than with the DTM for Western nations. This leads to very rapid population growth.
Here is chart showing global birth and death rate from the 1950 with projections until 2050:
Another distinguishing feature about the global DTM is the linkage between increases in per capita income and improvements in living conditions. In the Western DTM, per capita growth in income seemed to draw living conditions to higher levels. The global experience has been more a matter of improved living conditions and health drawing per capita income to higher levels. Aid and technology transfers from the West have essentially shortened the learning curve for other nations that are following the West through the demographic transition.
It is important to note that the DTM is not without controversy. Looking nation by nation there is considerable variation in how demographic transitions are taking place. Still, the DTM serves as a good standardized that helps us frame questions about specific nations and regions. It does seem to keep capture a sense of the overall global trend.
How can we model this technophysio phenomenon we live in? Brian McLaren offers a model of is societal suicide machine in Everything Must Change. Next we will look at the economic growth machine that made possible the recent rapid growth in population while expanding prosperity.
(For a scholarly presentation of technophysiological evolution, see The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World. Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the Demographic Transition Model.)