Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Demographic transition

Demographic transition: theory of population dynamics

As people or a society transitions from traditional to modern, traditional gender or family roles + high birth rates continue for a generation or more, creating a youth-heavy population in line to multiply further.

1. Traditional cultures with subsistence economies generate high birth rates counter-balanced by high infant mortality & short lifespans => population replaces itself.

2. Modernizing cultures overproduce for profit and reinvestment. Experience with improved nutrition and hygiene, lower infant mortality and longer lifespans, and higher standards of living lead to education and vocational opportunities for women, along with access to birth control.

As families rise to middle-class status, they begin to control births, intensify education, opportunity, living standards for 2-3 children (a.k.a. "hothousing").

Religion can influence birthrates--viz. the "Quiverfull" movement among homeschooling white evangelicals in USA, Televangelists' and cultural conservatives warning against "white genocide" (Pat Robertson), or attributions of high Mexican American birthrates to Catholicism--but middle class status usually neutralizes.

(For instance, a born-again couple down my suburban block has a vanful of children, but b/w their house and mine is a gay couple that rescues dogs, a NASA worker and tech wife with 1 child, and my house same as next door. Next door on the other side is a second-generation Mexican American family with two children and up from them a born-again couple with one child.)

After transition to modern, low birth-rates + longer lifespan > age-heavy population, post-reproductivity, not enough children to support medical needs of elders? (Aging white demographic)


Paul Kennedy, Preparing for the Twenty-First Century (1993)

12 The real differences [between our time and the first demographic and technological revolution] are not in the nature of our global problems, but in their greater intensity now compared with the late eighteenth century [when Europe felt the problem].  The earth again confronts a population explosion, not in the developed societies of northwestern Europe [where the first revolution took place] but in the poverty-stricken regions of Africa, Central America, the Middle East, India, and China, involving billions rather than millions of people.  At the same time, we are witnessing a knowledge explosion in an extraordinary number of fields of technology and production.  In both respects, the impact is larger, and much more swiftly and widely felt.  In the eighteenth century, the global population was adding another quarter of a billion people every seventy-five years; today, such an increase occurs every three years.  Meanwhile, our integrated world of science and communications has immensely quickened the pace of technological change.

          Although few, if any, of our political leaders appear willing to face the fact, the greatest test for human society as it confronts the twenty-first century is how to use "the power of technology" to meet the demands thrown up by "the power of population" . . . .

19  The impending transformations—particularly the race between demography and technology—will affect some societies and classes more than others . . . .

22 In 1825, as [Thomas] Malthus was making the final amendments to his original Essay on Population, about 1 billion human beings occupied the planet, the race having taken thousands of years to reach that total.  By then, however, industrialization and modern medicine were permitting population to rise at an increasingly faster rate.  In the following hundred years the world's population doubled to 2 billion, and in the following half century (from 1925 to 1976) it doubled again, to 4 billion.  By 1990, the figure had advanced to 5.3 billion.  It is true that the increase has slowed in recent decades, because overall fertility rates are decreasing in many countries.  Even among today's fast-expanding populations of the developing world, demographers expect average family sizes to decline in the future, as urbanization and other factors cause a demographic transition and numbers begin to stabilize.  But that is decades away—even if those forecasts are correct—and since the globe's enlarging population continues to beget more people than those who die, the effect is like a giant supertanker at sea beginning to slow down.  As it decelerates, it still has a considerable way to go before it stops. . . .

24  Why are the populations of certain countries growing so fast?  The simple answer is that they are now in the same position as England and France were in Malthus's time—that is, they are basically agrarian societies in their first generation of enjoying a significant decrease in mortality rates.

25 The irony is that this population explosion is chiefly the result of Western health practices, especially immunization and antibiotics . . . .  Yesterday's perfectly natural wish to cut infant mortality in the developing world has resulted in today's unintended consequences . . . .  In the poorest and fastest-growing continent of all, Africa, which now contains about 650 million people, the total is forecast to increase almost threefold, to 1.58 billion, by 2025.  Nigeria could expand from 113 to 301 million, Kenya from 25 to 77 million, Tanzania from 27 to 84 million, Zaire from 36 to 99 million, without corresponding increases in resources—indeed, with resources shrinking.

Reasons why human population keeps growing

1. Evolutionary dynamics: a biological species succeeds by increasing, crowding out or exploiting other species.

2. Humans are programmed to love children.

3. If human societies default to war, the military needs bodies.

4. It takes a lot of poor people to support a rich person. (If human values are based on the profit motive, a continuously expanding market is necessary for continuously growing profits.)

5. Patriarchal religions require many offspring "made in his image." The more fundamentalist the religion, the higher the birthrates.


Application to Colonial-Postcolonial History

(Much of this is based on wide reading rather than concentrated study; therefore subject to prejudicial assumptions. Refinements planned for future.)


1500s-early 1900s: European colonization of non-European or Developing World

Europe modernizes from subsistence economy with high mortality rates & replacement-level population dynamics (cultures mostly rural and traditional w/ identities strongly determined by family, gender)


increasingly urban, industrial, surplus economy w/ decreasing mortality rates and exponential population dynamics due to better nutrition, sanitation, medicine.

Surplus European population migrates heavily to Americas and Australia, less heavily (but still significantly) to Africa, Asia, New Zealand and Pacific Islands.

Third World / colonized world remains mostly in subsistence economy, but in contact with modernity, population increases especially through modern medicine and hygiene.


Twentieth Century, esp. 1940s-1960s: postcolonial or decolonizing period

Infant mortality falls in developing world. Population dynamics for colonizers? Armies were all-male. Administrators were often married and had children, but middle-class status may have precluded numerous offspring. Outside of settler colonies (e.g., USA, Canada, Australia, where indigenous populations were decimated by European epidemics and collapse of indigenous economies), colonizing peoples must have felt increasingly outnumbered.

Examples of black-majority revolutions over white administrative colonization: Caribbean states like Jamaica; South Africa, where apartheid repressed growing black power and population.


Transnational Migration, 1960s-present

current First World population dynamics

With the world's highest standards of living, the First World's former colonial powers enter steady declines in birthrates and lifespan extensions. Italy and Japan usually compete for the lowest birthrates in the world. The base population of the USA operates at replacement levels except for immigration, which not only adds more numbers but brings people from traditional cultures who favor higher birthrates. (One measure of socio-economic class in USA is "age at first birth"—the higher the age, the higher the class.)

Immigrants and their children in First-World nations may be upper-middle-class professionals, but many more serve as a source of labor, especially in service niches that care for aging First-Worlders. Otherwise, traditional industrial employment such as "line-workers" is farmed out to poorer, non-unionized regions of the United States and to underdeveloped nations, or is otherwise reduced by technological progress, which eliminates mid-level workers.

First-World nations are increasingly "gray," top-heavy in age, with populations straining the safety net of social welfare states. An argument in favor of US immigration is that youthful immigrants support Social Security for aging white Americans who have only 1 or 2 children who don't intend to support their elders as in a traditional culture.

A growing population has so far been essential to capitalism's insatiable need for new and growing markets. However, except at the very top of capitalist societies (the Kennedys, Romneys, Waltons, Perots), most of the First World limits child-bearing for a number of reasons.


Developing World & Transnational Migrant population dynamics

The Developing World is the source of most population growth. In contrast to the First World, the Third World is youthful and bottom-heavy, creating high demands for increased education and employment.

In terms of population dynamics, the Developing World finds itself in a similar profile as the First World in previous centuries: more children are born than can find employment, land, opportunity in their native countries.

Therefore, just as the First World formerly sent its excess population to the colonies, the former colonies now send their excess population to the former colonizing nations.


World and national population has doubled in my lifetime, from 3.5 billion in 1950 to 7 billion in 2011.

(150,000,000 USA in 1950 > 308,000,000 USA in 2010)

World population is projected to grow to 10 billion by 2100, but projections vary and conditions might change.

The sustainable "carrying capacity" of Earth is estimated between 1.5 and 5 billion.

'The world’s population is seven billion and counting. “Whether the stable population will be 1.5 billion or 5 billion,” he said to me, “the question is: How do we get there?”' (Carlo Rotella, "Can Jeremy Grantham [investor] Profit From Ecological Mayhem?" New York Times 11 August 2011)


  • Default solution: rising standard of living represses reproduction (but so far a rising standard of living requires growing markets; i.e., it takes a lot of poor people to make a rich person)

  • Education and improved status for women: women in developing world limit births when their status and education rises +

  • Access to birth control


[ ]x

Census count finds decreasing white population in 15 states

By Carol Morello, Washington Post, 29 September 2011

[Instructor's note: This article shifts from class to race but applies to Demographic Transition if whites are regarded as dominant culture.]

Non-Hispanic whites are a dwindling share of the U.S. population, with their numbers dropping in the Northeast and Midwest and growing only modestly in the South and West, the Census Bureau said Thursday.

Whites declined in 15 states, almost all in the industrial and farming states from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, and from Kansas to Ohio. They also declined in California and three Southern states, including Maryland.

A Census Bureau analysis of the 2010 count showed that the number of non-Hispanic whites rose over the decade from 194.5 million to 197 million, but the 1.2 percent growth rate fell far short of the national increase of 9.7 percent. Non-Hispanic whites are now 64  percent of the population, down from 69 percent a decade ago.

The census also reported that the black population grew by 12 percent. African Americans now make up almost 13 percent of the population, a small increase over the decade. More than half, 57 percent, live in the South, up from 55 percent a decade ago. And six out of 10 blacks live in 10 states, including Virginia and Maryland.

The census analysis of the nation’s white and black population underscores the transformative nature of growth in the 21st century. The number of Hispanics and Asians is soaring, the number of blacks is growing slowly and whites are almost at a standstill.

Hispanics are an ethnic group of people who can be of any race. Most Hispanics identified themselves as white. The number of whites who indicated for the census that they are Hispanic increased by 56 percent.

Whites who are not Hispanic are getting older on average, and have low birthrates that, when coupled with the high birthrates of Hispanics and Asians, make whites a smaller share of the population with every census count.

Even when Hispanics are included, the percentage of whites in the total population still declined over the past decade, from 75 percent to 72 percent.

Whites increasingly are gravitating to the South and the West. The white population grew by 4 percent in the South and 3 percent in the West over the decade. But it dropped by more than 1 million people, or 3 percent, in the Northeast and by 300,000 people in the Midwest, less than 1 percent.

Some states experienced outsize growth in the white population. The number rose by 10 percent or more in Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Wyoming.

The decade also witnessed a large increase in the number of people who identified themselves as multiracial.

Every state saw its multiple-race population jump by at least 8 percent, and some of the largest increases were in the South. The number of multiracial people more than doubled in the Carolinas and came close to doubling in Georgia and Delaware. Nine of the 10 states with the biggest increases were Southern states.

The number of people who said they were white and black more than doubled and was the most common combination.


Helen Epstein, Talking Their Way Out of a Population Crisis

New York Times 22 October 2011