February 03, 2007
History is Demographics
Why is Palestine on fire while Lebanon dances in the street? Both have diverse Muslim popluations that are in direct conflict with Israeli power. Both have popular violent Shia "resistance" movements that are agitating for dominance. If anything, the violence of Hizbollah and the factional divisions in Lebanon exceed anything seen in the Palestinian territory.
But somehow, when a fuse is lit under Lebanon it remains peaceful, while Palestine blows up. Here is a simple graph that explains the physics of conflict.
Sons and World Power
In his (eccentric) book Söhne und Weltmacht, (Sons and World Power) University of Bremen historian Gunnar Heinsohn argues that the there is a simple explanation that lies behind conflicts as diverse as modern Palestine, Sudan, the 1980's civil war of El Salvador, the 1960's Cultural Revolution in China, the 1940's Imperialism of Japan, the 1490's Crusades from Europe, and the 1770's American Revolution. The cause? An excess population of 15-to-29-year-old men. A "youth bulge".
You can see a youth bulge by plotting a country's population pyramid. As you can see above, Palestine is suffering through an enormous youth bulge. Yet Lebanon's youth bulge has passed. Heinsohn's prediction is that Lebanon will not have a second civil war, simply because it does not have the demographics needed to support conflict.
Lebanon's demographics are very different from those in the West Bank, but, interestingly, today's West Bank looks almost exactly like Lebanon in 1975, that is, Lebanon as it stood on the brink of fifteen years of civil war.
While Heinsohn's explanations and conclusions run the danger of oversimplifying the causes of war, it does seem clear that he is right in one thing: population pyramids are worth watching.
Population Pyramids at Other World Hotspots
Let us take a look at the demographics of other hotspots around the world.
The population pyramid for today's Iran reveals a 15-29-dominated culture that suggests a potential for volatility. But the fertility rate has been dropping, and unless Ahmadinejad succeeds in his effort to alter Iranian family planning policy, in ten years, Iran's youth bulge will have passed.
Despite the talk about danger on the Korean peninsula, neither the North nor the South appear demographically armed for conflict. Nor is China in the mood for trouble. These are all countries full of middle-aged people, like the United States. The same sort of picture suggests that when Castro passes away, an aged Cuban population will not rise in violence.
India and Pakistan, on the other hand, are a real cause for worry. Not only do the two nuclear states have a history of conflict; they are demographically armed to the teeth, with a youth bulge that will persist for years. Perhaps the world should spend more effort to try to defuse that powder keg.
More Demographic Visualization
As you can see, the U.S. Census Bureau has a nice tool for taking a peek at population pyramids from around the world. Really, what I'd like is for a tool to be able to plot and animate this sort of data more quickly on a global scale. Something like a Gapminder animation.
What is Gapminder? It is a Swedish foundation that has developed some remarkable visualization tools devoted to improving understanding of global development.
This TED talk by Gapminder founder Hans Rosling is worth a watch. It is a real eye-opener.
The most striking four-dimensional visualization tool presented by Rosling is something you can play with online at tools.google.com/gapminder.
I would very much like to plot population pyramids on Gapminder's scatterplots, and I am looking forward to Gapminder's continuing work.Posted by David at February 3, 2007 07:33 AM
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