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The Great Population Spike and After: Reflections on the 21st Century

Author(s):Rostow, W. W.
Reviewer(s):Guinnane, Timothy W.

Published by EH.NET (June 1999)

W.W. Rostow, The Great Population Spike and After: Reflections

on the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. x + 228 pp.

$35.00, ISBN: 0195116917.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Timothy W.

Guinnane, Department of Economics, Yale


The approaching millennium seems to have reminded academic historians, or at

least their publishers, that there is a future. The genre is welcome even if

the intellectual content is often low; Barnes and Noble sells far worse than

the musings of someone who has thought hard about the past 200

years and who wants to speculate about the next 100. This book is an example of

such musings. The first part of the title suggests a focus on the single issue

of population, but the subtitle is more important. The nine chapters of this

book are a set of

reflections on three issues that Rostow thinks will be important in the next

century. The first is the world-wide slowdown in the rate of population growth.

The second is the limited role of the United States in a post-Cold War world.

And the third is the

state of the inner cities in the U.S. Rostow introduces the volume as “an

extended essay on the 21st century” (vii). The connection among these three

themes appears to be that they will all be important issues in the 21st

century. But it might be more ac curate to say that Rostow is primarily

concerned with the power and influence of the United States in the coming

century. The deeper connection among these three themes is the way they bear on

that power.

This book has some interesting, if not novel, contributions and a wealth of

semi-biographical anecdotes that will make it of some interest to scholars

studying the intellectual currents of our time, or perhaps the careers of

academics who had the unusual career path of someone like Rostow.


, to get at these nuggets the reader must wade through far too much restatement

of material that has already appeared elsewhere. Foremost among this unneeded

restatement is Rostow’s famous (or infamous) stages theory of economic growth.

Little here requires the repetition of this argument, but (another) statement

of the argument occupies a long section of the book. A brief appendix suggests

how seriously Rostow still takes it;

he as much as suggests that a correct understanding of the stages model can

help us to predict the experience of the period 1997-2025. Slightly less

frustrating is Rostow’s long digression on the intellectual history of the

limits to growth. This is a condensed paraphrase of his Theorists of

Economic Growth (New York, 1990), and readers who are interested in

Rostow’s views on Malthus, Keynes, and others would more naturally turn to the

book-length discussion.

The actual arguments of the present book are not without interest, even if they

are hardly original. On population Rostow

presents what must be called a surprisingly balanced, informed view. His title

signals that he has grasped a fact that still eludes many alarmists: rapid

population growth today is confined to only a few regions of the world. Rather

than the global population catastrophe feared three decades ago, we seem

headed for a maximum population of about 10 billion people, and in some regions

population has already began to decline in size. He also devotes some

discussion to the serious problems that population growth may still cause in

our world, including environmental degradation and social strains caused by the

inability of some societies to provide sufficient economic and social

opportunities for their population. Rostow deserves credit for a sensible and

balanced approach to this issue. In the world of policy-oriented discussions

of population most writings are little more than dogmatic restatements of the

basic positions of either Paul Ehrlich

(“the sky is falling”) or Julian Simon (“the more people the better”).

The stress on population growth here invites comparison to Paul Kennedy’s

Preparing for the Twenty-First Century (New York, 1993) both in its

general theme and in its (partial) stress on population and population

problems. Rostow and Kennedy both

note that population growth rates accelerated sharply in Europe during the

eighteenth century, and in much of the non-European world after World War II.

The earth now has a population of some six billion people, compared to just one

billion only two centuries ago. Rostow and Kennedy agree that these population

developments set the stage for the twenty-first century, and in many ways

define or exacerbate the problems human societies will face. But the two

authors conceive of population trends in very different ways. Rostow stresses

the prediction of stabilization and the hint of decline. His title, with its


suggests that this largest population of ten billion people will be just

that–a spike, perhaps with important, long-term consequences, but not the

long-term fate of the world in itself. Rostow sees strains in the next few

decades, during which population growth will continue in several societies

ill-equipped to handle its consequences, but his argument is couched in terms

on a passing danger.

Kennedy, on the other hand, is more pessimistic in his assessment of both

population trends and their impact on future social problems. Part of his

pessimism stems from a greater stress on regional problems and the

multi-lateral problems posed by huge disparities in wealth. Rostow

acknowledges these problems but minimizes them as amenable to wise

statesmanship and perhaps a bit of good luck. And part of Kennedy’s pessimism

doubtless reflects his greater stress on environmental problems, problems which

have replaced Malthusian gloom-and-doom accounts among those who point to the

negative consequences of population growth.

A second theme in The Great Population Spike takes us back to the role

for which Rostow is best known, foreign policy. Here he draws

a distinction between the U.S. as a “superpower” (which it no longer is, he

argues) and the U.S. as the “critical margin.” This distinction turns on the

observation that the United States no longer has the power to act unilaterally,

and so must build coalitions of nations to achieve its goals,

and on the related observation that few international efforts in our day can

succeed without the active participation of the U.S. What Rostow calls the

critical margin is of course not new; to take one relevant example,

many observers argue that the Gulf War was a true coalition effort, while the

Vietnam War was not, and that it is Gulf Wars the United States will conduct in

the post-Cold War world. This discussion is the best example of a habit that is

the book’s

strongest and weakest point: Rostow is very inconsistent about citing other,

relevant works on his subject, and often the most recent works cited are

several decades old. Consider chapter seven, which outlines and elaborates on

this idea of “the critical


This chapter includes precious few references to the works of international

relations theorists and the other academics whose business it is to think about

such matters. At the very least, given his career, the reader expects Rostow to

contrast his views with those of a Henry Kissinger or someone else who

experienced the limitations of super power first-hand. Failure to cite much

academic literature from international relations theory might be a good thing,

as anyone who has tried to read through

that morass of Great Powers, Hegemons, and Spheres of Influence probably

knows, but it is difficult for the reader to understand how Rostow’s views

differ from anyone else’s because he does not tell us what others think.

Perhaps Rostow deserves some credit for restraint; unlike Kissinger, whose

memoirs include a great deal of vicious score-settling, Rostow seems content

not to draw sharp contrasts between himself and people who have often been his

harsh critics.

The most novel part of the book is also the most puzzling. By his account,

Rostow has spent the past decade engaged in a project that studies and

advocates preventative measures to deal with the many and considerable problems

facing inner cities in the United States. The reasons for this are somewhat

unusual (Rostow is concerned that urban problems will distract American

interest and resources from its responsibilities as a global power), and even

more unusual is someone of Rostow’s political and intellectual leanings arguing

that inner-city problems are an entirely predictable response to the collapse

of economic opportunity for many residents. Consider the following statement,

which summarizes Rostow’s view of the etiology of inner-city problems:

A powerful converging set of economic and technological forces sharply raised

the level of unemployment in the inner city and simultaneously reduced in the

minds of young men and women future prospects for good jobs.

This perceived narrowing of realistic options led many young people to accept

life on the streets. (p.167)

William Julius Wilson would presumably

agree. Rostow, to be sure, later blames the “neocolonial” welfare system for

exacerbating these problems,

but Wilson would agree with some form of that argument as well. The remainder

of this

section has most of the virtues and faults of the earlier parts of the book.

Rostow clearly cares deeply about this issue, and links it to his overarching

theme (which remains the ability of the U.S. to influence events around the

world). But very little

other work on urban poverty or other urban problems is mentioned, and it is not

clear how much Rostow has done to learn from the enormous, relevant literatures

in economics, sociology, and other disciplines.

In the end, this book is not the place to go for a monographic treatment of

any of its themes, nor does it provide a useful introduction to current

research in any of the areas it covers. Much of it consists of repetitions of

material and arguments Rostow has published elsewhere. The book is quirky,

uneven and not very scholarly, and its author seems to presume that few other

scholars are writing anything worth reading. Yet the book will be of use to

some, primarily because of the role its author has played in intellectual and

policy circles over the

past 50-plus years. Free-form musings such as those contained here tell

usually tell us more about their author than the future, and the author here is

of considerable interest.

Timothy W. Guinnane is Professor of Economics at Yale University. He is the

author The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in

Ireland, 1850-1914- (Princeton University Press, 1997), and is currently at

work on a book about the development of Germany’s credit cooperatives.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative