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Book Review


Livi-Bacci, Massimo.  A Concise History of World Population, Fourth edition (Malden, Mass:  Blackwell Publishing, 2007). 279 pp, $38.95.

     Massimo Livi-Bacci's  A Concise History of World Population  is the latest edition of a widely praised book first published in English in 1992.  It has been updated to include recent research and statistical data, including a section on migration, China's family planning efforts, the slave trade, the impact of HIV, and—perhaps most interesting—projections of world population to 2050.  

     The first three chapters deal with major concepts and issues concerning demographic history.  In chapter one, the author introduces the mechanics of population growth, examining the biological and environmental factors that need to be understood if we are to make sense of this important aspect of world history.  He then provides an overall picture of human population growth, identifying three great population cycles: from the first humans to the beginning of the Neolithic era, from the Neolithic era to the Industrial Revolution, and from the Industrial Revolution to the present.   It is clear that the overall picture is of a remarkable demographic expansion of humans from a fairly rare animal to our densely populated world today.   The second chapter looks at factors such as climate, disease, land, food, energy, and settlement patterns that help explain the irregularity of demographic history, which include periods of growth, stagnation, and decline.   A third especially valuable chapter deals with the relationship between demographic growth and economic development.   The author introduces the various theories of population growth, from those of the seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers who assumed a growing population was a sign of prosperity to the pessimists Malthus and Ricardo and their modern successors.   Livi-Bacci presents their arguments with a wealth of historical examples that support, contradict, or complicate the various models .  He does not seem to endorse any particular theory, but rather prefers to show the merits and complexities of the various schools of historical demography.

     The fourth and fifth chapters deal with the most recent cycle of demographic expansion that began in the late eighteenth century.   Chapter four examines the demographic history of Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America and Japan.   Chapter five then reviews what Livi-Bacci regards as the very different pattern of demographic expansion of the "poor countries" of Asia, Africa and Latin America.   His central point in these two chapters is the sharp distinction between the nature of demographic history in the West and in the developing countries.   In Europe there were no "explosions" of population: instead, population rose steadily in the last half of the eighteenth century and throughout most of the nineteenth century, accompanied by a gradual decline in mortality and modest increases in fertility.   Between roughly 1880 and 1920 Western countries also saw changes in fertility rates as people began having smaller families.   This process was uneven, beginning in France in the 1820s, moving to Italy and Russia only a century later.  The author points out that Europe's agricultural productivity was never able to match its rapidly growing population and that it was only migration, coupled with the opening of highly productive agricultural lands in the Americas (along with improvements in transporting this food), that sustained Europe's nineteenth century demographic expansion.   In most of the rest of the world, changes in modern medicine, hygiene, and transportation that reduced the mortality rate came more suddenly than in Europe, leading to a sharp spike in the population growth in the mid-twentieth century.  This, along with the fact that fertility rates were generally higher in Asia, Africa, and Latin America than in the West led to population growth rates that after 1950 were more than twice the levels ever experienced in Europe.  This then brings the author back to the issue of whether population growth is a hindrance or help to economic growth. Again, Livi-Bacci finds the question difficult to answer since there are so many variables, and since the environmental and cultural situation of each society differs.    He eventually concludes with the opinion that in many countries economic development would have been faster with slower population growth, in others it probably made little difference, and in some population growth may have been helpful .

     The final chapter deals with future trends, projecting population growth patterns to 2050.  He envisions a world of nine billion people, with almost all the increase occurring in the developing world.   These figures provide a useful perspective for the world historian.   For instance, in 1950 Europe had over 21 percent of the world's population and Africa had 8.8 percent. In 2050, this will be more than reversed with Africa containing 21 percent of humanity and Europe only 7.2 percent.  The environmental challenges, the issues of HIV, the great migration from poor to rich countries are concisely presented.   In this chapter he addresses the issue of whether or not there is a maximum sustainable size—is there in fact a limit to how many people the planet can support?  After reviewing the varied opinions on the topic, Livi-Bacci concludes that the idea of maximum sustainable size has "so many conceptual difficulties as to be virtually useless for predictive purposes." (205)   At the end of the book he departs from the careful neutrality presented earlier by suggesting that we may have trouble increasing food production.  He explained that ninety-two percent of our increased agricultural output since 1950 has come from intensification of existing land, since almost all cultivated land had been developed by that date.   In the past, population growth did provide economies of scale that made the production of goods and services more efficient, but he argues that it is "likely that we are entering a historical phase-of indeterminate length- during which population growth will cease to provide economies of scale and may well produce overwhelming diseconomies." (p.220).

     Livi-Bacci's skill at explaining complex demographic issues makes this a book accessible to any non-specialist and probably to undergraduate students as well.   Major points are clarified by a rich and fascinating variety of historical examples such as the remarkably prolific French Canadians, the birth control policies of India, and the author's own research on the Black Plague in Tuscany.   There are also many useful charts and graphs.   The book does, however, have its limitations.   While the author draws on research findings from around the world, there is much more on Europe than elsewhere.  The very short bibliography is inadequate as a guide to further reading, and the book may be too detailed on demographic patterns for it to be used as a text in undergraduate courses.   Nonetheless ,  A Concise History of World Population should be an indispensable reference for every teacher and researcher of world history.


Michael  J. Seth
James Madison University


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