The Politics of Population Change: Launch of Book and Research Group

This post was contributed by Guy Collender, Communications Manager at Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations

The links between politics and population change – often deemed too controversial for debate – were explored during a frank discussion at a book launch held at Birkbeck.

Speakers urged academics and society to recognise the many implications of unprecedented and unfolding developments addressed in the new book Political demography: How population changes are reshaping international security and national politics.

The Population, Environment and Resources Group – a new part of Birkbeck’s Politics Department – was also launched at the event on Thursday 19 April.

Professor Eric Kaufmann, of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics and co-editor of the book, described the range of population dynamics affecting politics. Birth rates, urbanisation, sex ratios and the age structure of a population all have far-reaching consequences for nations, ethnic groups, religions, civilizations, and development.

He explained how we are living through “unprecedented” demographic shifts as the “population explosion” which began in the 20th century is being followed by a “fertility implosion.” These trends are much more exaggerated today in the developing world than they were during the demographic transition – the progression from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates – in the developed world between 1750 and 1900.

Kaufmann mentioned that such “great unevenness” promises to result in dramatic change. He suggested, for example, how high birth rates, a young population and high unemployment  – a combinations of factors relating to population – might lead to violence.

Fertility as a weapon

Monica Duffy Toft, Associate Professor at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and co-editor of Political Demography, focused on the use of fertility as a political weapon in her presentation on “wombfare.” She said: “In international relations and politics numbers matter. If numbers shift and the political institutions do not this will lead to problems. It becomes a conflict if one group is out-birthing another.” In particular, Toft referred to the political importance of fertility between different groups in Lebanon (Christians and Muslims), and Israel and Palestine (Jews and Arabs, Jews and Muslims).

Population dynamics in Africa

Dr Elliott Green, of the London School of Economics, referred to the interaction between population and conflict in Africa. He emphasised Africa’s low population density, which has led to communal land rights as there is more demand for labour than land, and the existence of large states. Green discussed the phenomenon of rural to rural migration, and conflict between settler and native groups, particularly in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which have both experienced population growth rates of four per cent since the mid-20th century.

Sensible debate needed

Professor Tim Dyson, of LSE, reiterated the significance of the demographic transition. He declared that “nothing is more important” in explaining the growth of democratisation as fertility decline leads to a greater proportion of adults in the population, and adults demand a voice in how they are governed. The positive impact on women’s lives because of fertility decline was also mentioned.

However, Dyson warned about the virtual disappearance of demography as a discipline in the English-speaking world, and the widespread aversion to raising population concerns, as well as discussing climate change. He added: “Human beings everywhere do not like to talk about difficult issues. We should be able to talk about these things in a balanced, sensible and civilized way.”

Listen to the podcast of The Politics of Population Change

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