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Generation games

A slowing birthrate is a sign a society is advancing, says David Willetts, but has it slowed too far in Europe?
The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World by Paul Morland (John Murray, £25)
Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson (Robinson, £20)

The most profound change that any society goes through is the demographic transition: it is the route to modernity. In pre-modern societies there are high birth rates and high mortality rates. Any surges in population are usually reversed by epidemics and famine, since such societies lack the means to feed the extra mouths.

In the late 18th century, Malthus analysed all this with brutal clarity, ironically just at the point when the Industrial Revolution was, for the first time, giving societies the opportunity to escape this miserable cycle. First, improvements in food supply, living conditions, hygiene and medicine mean many more children survive into adulthood so the population surges. Then with other changes, not least contraception, birth rates start to fall and the population reaches a new equilibrium at a much higher level. First we stop dying like flies and then we stop breeding like rabbits. The early stages of the Industrial Revolution involved enormous human misery; but soon England and other western countries showed how to escape the resource constraints Malthus thought were fixed. He had thought resources could not grow as fast as the population, but with technological and scientific advances they could. The power released by coal massively exceeded the old woodburning economy, for example. The classic refutation of Malthusianism is that the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones. The neo-Malthusian pessimists such as the Club of Rome authors of The Limits to Growth (1972) were also wrong—the world has fed a growing population.

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InProspect's May issue: Tom Clark explores how British politics has ended up in crisis and suggests that a proper constitution could have avoided the current chaos and may well be necessary now to avoid the same problems in the future. Elsewhere in the issue: Kevin Maguire profiles Labour deputy leader Tom Watson who says that “if needs must” he would join a government of national unity. Max Rashbrooke examines Jacinda Ardern’s government in New Zealand and the ways the country is being transformed, ultimately suggesting that it could be an example for Britain to follow. Also, Stefanie Marsh follows the work of a donor detective who is helping children conceived by anonymous sperm donation to find their biological parents and Francesca Wade shows how Virginia Woolf is inspiring a new generation of women writers.