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No resilience in low fertility

By Graham Cooke - posted Monday, 2 May 2011

A medieval English peasant ploughing a patch of land for his feudal lord in say, 1250, would not have noticed a great deal of difference if he had been transported 500 years into the future to a nation on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

At that time in Australia, around 1750, the oldest civilisation on earth had remained little changed for an incredible 30,000 years.

Adapting to change, or at least rapid change, has never been part of the human condition, and the pace of change we are faced with today is testing our resilience on a number of fronts. Throughout recorded history wars have been fought and empires have risen and fell, but these are incidents in a continuum rather than change. The forces that destroyed the Roman Empire in the West in the fifth century did not differ greatly from those that brought about its destruction in the East a millennium later – essentially mismanagement and decadence succumbing to a vigorous and aggressive opponent in both cases.


But change did come with the Industrial Revolution and it came in spades. Technology progressed from the horse-drawn cart to the steam engine, to the horseless carriage to manned flight to space travel in, historical terms, the twinkling of an eye. As an example we can note that the power of our modern machines is still measured by the equivalent number of horses it would take to do the same job.

Humanity has been forced to adapt and has often not been good at it as new industries and the skills required to operate them had to be learned virtually overnight. To take one example, mining: a boutique industry through most of human history, suddenly it became the essential driver of the new 19th century economy. The resulting human toll as tens of thousands of labourers were lured underground, trying to cope in an alien environment with little or no training, was horrendous. Today mining is still one of the most dangerous and deadly occupations on earth – ask the Chinese.

Mining is an extreme example, but it presented problems that were at least partially soluble – by legislation, improved technology and ultimately social pressures.

Other changes are more insidious and less capable of being managed, and here lies the biggest challenge and the biggest test of human resilience.

In Australia we have spent millions of dollars on trying to wean our population from the destructive addiction to tobacco. At this point it might be remembered that the weed has been a part of European social culture for around 600 years, and only a mass market product since the middle of the 19th century. By the 1930s and 40s the addiction had spread so widely that it was believed a majority of the population smoked regularly. By the 1960s its links with lung cancer and other illness such as heart disease had been firmly established. In this country a costly and continuing effort has beaten back the number of regular smokers to around 20 per cent, but the problem shows no signs of being beaten completely and any reduction in anti-smoking campaigns could lead to a resurgence.

As one problem begins to recede another presents itself. Television has been around in most developed countries for about half a century; video games for 20 years or so; Richard and Maurice McDonald opened their first fast food restaurant in California in 1940. But in just a few decades the combination of passive entertainment and lazy eating is producing a Western society that is sedentary, overweight, obese and more prone to diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Life expectancy in the developed countries, which has been on the rise through most of the 20th century and into the 21st, may actually begin to fall. It is quite possible that the current generation of young people may be the first in 100 years who do not live as long as their parents.


And finally, the greatest and most malevolent danger human society faces – age. On average we are as a group in the West, with increasing signs that it is happening elsewhere, growing rapidly older. We are not replacing ourselves with the children who will be the workers producing the tax money that we will need for our care as we progress into old age.

This is an incredible change for a human population that has, with a few setbacks resulting from wars, pestilence and famine, steadily increased over the entire length of prehistoric and recorded history. It has resulted from a combination of factors – the ability to regulate our fertility, increasing prosperity, and social pressure to work to finance material goods has resulted in couples postponing childbirth or, in increasing instances, putting it off for good.

Demographers have seen this coming since the baby boom tailed off in the 1960s, but governments did nothing, often because it seemed such a distant problem, but also because this was something so outside their normal experience they succumbed to paralysis and the hope the problem would somehow solve itself.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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