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  • Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth by Alison Bashford
  • J. R. Mcneill
Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth. By Alison Bashford. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 480pp. $50.00 (cloth).

Alison Bashford, or more likely a publicity director at Columbia University Press, has chosen a bad title for a good book. This book is not about global population and still less about life on Earth. It is, rather, a detailed and insightful study of ideas within the Anglophone world, ca. 1920–1950, about the specter of population growth, the imbalances of population density around the world, and the proper role of birth control and migration. The book nominally continues to 1968, but its treatment of the later decades is thin compared to that of the earlier ones. It is built around a handful of characters, some famous and some now obscure, who wrote with varying degrees of anxiety and urgency about population issues. John Maynard Keynes, H. G. Wells, Julian Huxley, and Margaret Sanger are here. So are George Knibbs (1858–1929), unknown outside Australia today and probably not well remembered even there, and Warren Thompson (1887–1973), an American demographer known only to demographers attuned to the history of their profession. Bashford’s cast includes two Indian intellectuals, Sripati Chandrasekhar (1918–2001) and especially Radhakamal Mukerjee (1889–1968), among the legions of Britons and Americans. The sheer number of characters, a dozen major and several dozen minor ones, entering and exiting Bashford’s stage makes demands [End Page 645] upon readers, as Tolstoy did in War and Peace. Many readers will find it densely populated with cameos.

These characters were all “children of Malthus,” in Bashford’s phrasing. Among Malthus’s worries, it seems, was living space (as well as the inevitability of immiseration). The later generations of greatest concern to Bashford shared this worry, in large part because they believed World War I had arisen due to shortage of living space. Without adequate living space and the chance to produce sufficient food, populations would again attack their neighbors. Nazi obsession with lebensraum seemed to confirm this outlook. It is one of Bashford’s strengths that she shows how population thought and geopolitical anxiety in the Anglophone world were often connected in the inter-war years.

It would have been interesting to see comparisons with German, French, Soviet, Japanese, and other intellectual traditions with something to say about population and living space. Perhaps in her next book.

The research underlying Bashford’s book is partly archival and partly in the published writings of her subjects. She has pried into the private papers of about a dozen authors on population, as well as the holdings of a few organizations, including the Eugenics Society, and the units of the League of Nations and United Nations that were concerned with population. Her characters left behind substantial oeuvres, of which she seems to have read every word.

The result sometimes left me searching in vain for the forest among the trees. Bashford includes many synopses of books and articles. She includes an account of a 1927 population conference sponsored by the League of Nations in loving detail. For my taste, too many paragraphs begin like one on page 258: “Zoologist Wilfrid Agar put the basics clearly in a 1937 talk, ‘The Eugenics Outlook for the Future.’” (A thorough summary of Agar’s talk follows.) Seven parts of the book have been published before, including one in this journal in 2008, which might help explain the occasional submersion of the main themes amid the quotations and synopses.

When she does lift her gaze from her documents, Bashford spices her chapters with keen aperçus and important arguments. Her assessment of Margaret Sanger is insightful and (I believe) original, emphasizing Sanger’s use of a widely endorsed peace agenda to support her (less widely endorsed, at least in the corridors of power) agenda of women’s health and birth control. She does not shy away from Sanger’s enthusiasm for eugenics, either. She brings to light the forgotten and fascinating arguments of Mukerjee, who felt that it was only fair that [End Page 646] underpopulated lands such as...


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