This graph of European urban population over history shows some dramatic declines, suggesting that there may have been historical analogue to our upcoming world population decline. And there have long been rumors that at least elites often had low fertility. Searching for quotes, I’ve
Many of these examples seem to correlate with resource limitations. In an agrarian society, if the amount of land is limited, increasing population leads to privation. This may be expressed in terms of not wanting to divide land to maintain status, but if there are more people on the same amount of land, with static technology, they will all be poorer and eventually starve. Describing this as a fundamentally social process rather than a social response to resource constraints seems like a reach.
Modern technological societies are built on childhood education. This puts economic stress on parents, both because education itself is expensive and because children are no longer a source of income. Such societies also use the production of women, reducing the amount of time women can devote to childrearing, further increasing the downward pressure on fertility. All of this would be true, regardless of social norms, so it seems odd to claim that social norms drive this, in preference to this being the social response to changing conditions.
Beyond that, at least some of the concern over this trend comes from a belief that unless the workforce keeps growing, technology will stagnate and progress will cease. If that is the case, however, removing women from the workforce in order to increase fertility would have the same effect.
My own expectation is that we will find a series of technological improvements (increased longevity, more efficient fertility and childrearing, improved allocation of resources) that will stabilize the population and maintain technological (defined broadly) progress. Whether population increases at that point will probably depend on how well we have addressed the other needs (land, waste, and energy) that constrain human population.
You should take a look at Augustus’s Moral Laws (Lex Julia). He’s often described as a devout social conservative (aristocratic, traditional Roman virtue and family structure), and the laws lend credence to that. They offer a glimpse of what Augustus thought had changed amongst his peers. They don’t seem to have worked in the long run (which is informative if we’re thinking about where to make the changes), and many were repealed soon after his death.
Since I do not have access to the original journal articles I would like to drop my questions here:
Question 1: To what extent do these sources represent the attitudes and practices of the societies they describe? Do they primarily reflect the perspectives of the elite and not their society as a whole?
Question 2: What were the gender roles and dynamics involved in decisions about infanticide and fertility? How much autonomy did women have in making these choices?
Question 3: How did religious and ethical beliefs influence these practices? Did they change over time within different cultures?
Question 4: What family planning or birth spacing methods, if any, were used as alternatives to infanticide in resource-constrained situations?
Question 5: What was the demographic impact of widespread infanticide and fertility restriction among elites at the societal level? How did populations stabilize?
Good post, Robin, raising a fascinating idea. I'm very curious about pre-industrial population decline.
However, one question: how many of these stories are about the elite, rather than the total of a given society's population? I know there are serious limitations with sources on this score.
This seems to be more about infanticide than about fertility.
Polytheistic societies just did not have the same attitudes towards shame and murder.
The graph's claimed low of only 10,000 people living in cities in the Greek dark ages seems unlikely. What's the ultimate origin of this claim?