The Numbers Game

Istanbul, so they say, is a city that people fall quickly in love with. Even those that don’t particularly like cities find an endearing quality that makes the place at least endurable.

I have almost finished Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Thereux, who spends some in the city. Having read many of Thereux’s travel books, I have him down as a pretty vehment city-hater. But even he says that the city has charm, and that, unlike many other cities, he could happily spend many days within it.

Local author Orhan Pamuk, whose book Istanbul I am half-way through writes in a capitivating and enchanting manner about the cities many treasures.

Having spent most of last week in the city, I feel that I should perhaps give my initial impression of the place.


Sure, the city is quite charming, in a city-like way. But the image that will stay with me longest is the masses of people walking through the streets, all hours of the day. Pushing, rushing, jostling…

At first, I enjoyed the press of people – especially whilst quaffing a beer in a little street, playing backgammon and people-watching.

But the attraction quickly wore off, as I became more and more weary of fighting my way through the crowds to get anywhere.

Turkey, of course, is a youthful country – boasting a much more favourable demographic balance than any EU member state. Which is one reason that the EU would quite like Turkey to join. On the flight coming back – Turkish Airways – there was a leaflet, giving information about investing in Turkey, which highlighted the benefits of a country having such a young, dynamic and skilled workforce. 24 million people, apparently.

Yesterday, just before we left Turkey, I was introduced to a Polish scholar who was researching the role of Islam in post-Soviet countries. He was himself a recent Muslim convert – interesting in itself in a country of fairly committed Catholics.

He had been recently looking at the demographic structure of Soviet countries, and reported that, in most of Russia, the population has been declining for a number of years (last year was the first time it has grown in ages, apparently).

However, in the Islamic provinces of Russia – and Islamic former provinces of the Soviet Union – the population has been increasing.

The assumption here being that rising population is good. Falling population is bad.

But I question: good or bad for whom?

Now everyone is talking about the need for countries to produce more births, to pump up the number of people that can usefully contribute to society – and therefore drive economic growth. This is clearly good for the country.

But perhaps not so good for the world as a whole, which is already frightfully overpopulated.

I find myself casting my mind back to geography lessons at school, when our teachers would always lecture us about the dangers of over-population. We’d watch greusome videos of mice breeding in boxes, which, when they reached a critical mass, would slaughter each other.

“This will happen to the human race,” our teacher would say, gravely.

Whatever happened to such sentiments? Are such lessons still given at school, I wonder?

Now, all we ever seem to here, is: Oh no, falling populations! We must find a way to get people to have more kids!

But perhaps this isn’t the answer. If people continue to have less kids and the world’s population actually declines, isn’t this a good thing? Eventually, the older citizens of the world will die and the demographic imbalances will correct themselves.

Sure, like any economic readjustment, there will be pain in the near-time. But, eventually, this could be better for all.


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