Danny Dorling

Yale University Press, £14.99

Review by Iain Macwhirter

Social commentators and tech evangelists love to talk about how society has “speeded up”. How social change is happening too fast for our hominid brains to keep up. Whenever I hear this,

my hominid brain goes back to the 17th Century.

In 1649, parliament beheaded King Charles I in an act of regicide that echoed across the world. Then came the Civil War, the first ever Republic and Britain’s first dictator in Oliver Cromwell. Diggers, Levellers and Ranters were challenging hierarchy and turning social relations upside down. Yet, only 11 years later, in 1660, the monarchy was restored, and kings were back. That’s fast.

So I was more than willing to entertain Danny Dorling’s thesis, contained in a book that is subtitled The End of the Great Acceleration – and Why It’s Good for the Planet, the Economy, and Our Lives. He argues that society is not speeding up in the way some claim in books like James Gleik’s Faster – The Acceleration of Just About Everything. Indeed, Dorling does an excellent and entertaining job of showing that most of this is bunk.

Dorling, the Mackinder Professor of Geography at Oxford, is a self-confessed statistical obsessive who likes to take the measure of everything. In the course of doing so, he says he found that just about everything measurable is actually slowing down, and has been for decades: population growth, GDP, Wikipedia entries, data clouds, even technological change itself measured in terms of transformative inventions. There’s been nothing much since the middle of the last century when computers came along.

About the only things he measures that are rising are debt and the temperature of the climate, though even the rate of increase of CO2 emissions is topping out. The coronavirus crisis will almost certainly hasten the decline in emissions since we are entering a deep recession. This book was written before the pandemic, but Dorling insists that it is merely accelerating a trend already well underway.

Slowdown is a contrarian thesis that is very hard not to like, especially as we all sit here at home unable to move around. However, I’m not entirely sure we can really assume that everything is getting slower; the spread of a certain virus is racing along and has changed society out of all recognition in just a couple of months.

Speed is anyway a subjective experience and not suited to statistical validation. Young children get bored because time passes much more slowly than for adults. There is no real way of measuring this, yet just about everyone testifies to it. Danny Dorling is, of course, aware of the subjective dimension of time. But I think this applies to societies as well. Societies slow down as they age and social relations become ossified, but have a habit of speeding up again as new social arrangements are born. As Lenin said: “Sometimes decades pass when nothing happens and then weeks pass when decades happen”. Decades may be about to happen as soon as lockdown ends: the long wave of neoliberal globalisation certainly looks to have come to a halt.

What Dorling’s book is really about is the dramatic decline in the world’s birth rate – this is the slowdown par excellence. In Africa, for example, where families were having six or seven children only 30 years ago, they are now having three and a bit, European countries like ours now have birthrates well below the level of replacement.

Dorling estimates that the world’s population, currently 7.8 billion, will top out at around nine billion in 2060 and then fall sharply to 7.4 billion by the end of the century. This will come as a surprise to many apocalyptic environmentalists, such as Jonathan Austen, author of Save the Earth...Don’t Give Birth. The United Nations forecasts that the world’s population will be more than 11 billion by the end of the century – that’s a huge difference. If Dorling is right, this has massive implications for the management of scarce resources and climate change.

Professor Dorling is by no means the first demographer to claim that the population explosion is a myth. Respected demographers including Wolfgang Lutz have been saying much the same. In an age of environmental pessimism, this revelation has turned Danny Dorling into a global optimist. He believes the slowdown is leading us inexorably towards a “stable” society in which equality and kindness become the norm. Income inequality is already reducing. “Great economic inequalities are very hard to sustain”, he says, “during and following a population slowdown”.

Dorling insists that he isn’t a utopian, but he certainly sounds like one: “A time is coming when rampant consumption will wane; when it is recognized that wealth does not engender happiness...when the lives of most people will be improved by better organization and cooperation, not by more competition”.

It all sounds a bit like Labour’s 2019 General Election manifesto, and I’m not sure these speculations are entirely justified. But his rosy vision makes a refreshing change from the dystopian outlook of many on the Left.

“We will also see fewer despots, less destruction, and less extreme poverty” he announces, without much evidence to back this up. “Social and environmental problems that we currently worry about will not be problems in the future”. Well, maybe.

Dorling is biting in his criticism of the American author Steven Pinker’s 2018 book Enlightenment Now, which noted many of the same positive social trends: the reduction in global poverty, the rise in literacy, improvements in health and longevity. The difference is that Pinker regards these as a product of enlightened governments harnessing the productive power of the market economy. Dorling hates capitalism so much he perhaps can’t see the demographic wood for the trees.

The decline in world population, like the decline in poverty, is largely down to the spread of market capitalism across the planet – most obviously to countries like China and India. Women have fewer children because of contraception, education and the expansion of urban jobs which do not require hard physical labour.

Dorling claims the “stable” societies that preceded capitalism were in many ways superior. “Most were fed well enough not to get too fat or too thin. Most societies appear to have been more relaxed; individuals were often more autonomous. Members of hunter-gatherer societies, in particular, enjoyed a great deal of leisure time,” he says. They also lived half as long as we do, were constantly threatened by famine and wild animals and had little expectation that their children would survive. As for feudalism, it was stable but hardly relaxed, especially for serfs who did all the work and were owned body and soul by their lords.

We can all agree with Dorling’s contempt for the greed and debt economy that has emerged over the last 35 years. But it is facile to deny that liberal capitalism and free trade has helped liberate millions from poverty and ignorance.

I really like Danny Dorling’s work – I’m a fan. But Slowdown lacks a sceptical editor of the old school who might have asked the following question about some of his speculations: Danny, what were you smoking when you wrote this?

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