The greatest single factor in the history of human population growth has been developments in technology and the associated social changes arising from it. From the first development of tools to the development of agriculture and the later rise of industry, technology has expanded the resources available for the support of large populations. A commonly-topic covered in PHD programs in economics or sociology, many academics have been looking at how the current technological landscape will affect population growth. However, the current era demonstrates how technology can also provide social influences that can reduce the rate of population growth.
The first important fact to consider is that technological growth helps drive population which itself helps drive technological progress. This is due to the ability of technological improvements to increase the agricultural productivity of both individuals and societies, and thus allowed for a boom in available resources which provided sustenance for a larger population. Furthermore, efficiencies in agriculture allowed people to pursue other trades in academics and philosophy which helped set the foundation for many more innovations to come.
The first major era of population growth came with the rise of tool making. These were extremely simple tools, allowing the use of fire, sharpened weapons and the use of wood as a tool material. The earliest shaped stone axes may have been developed over 1.8 million years ago, by Homo Erectus. Spears made it easier to fend and hunt wild animals, while fire provided light, heat, and more importantly, the ability to cook and preserve food. This allowed early groups to support larger populations, albeit still nomadic ones.
The development of agriculture and the subsequent rise of sedentary populations resulted in the next surge of population growth. With the development of urbanization, agriculture allowed for the rise of specialized classes, such as scribes and metalworkers that earlier societies were not able to support. This allowed for increased population growth and reduced the average death rate. With the rise of larger urban and semi urban populations, the birth rate increased in addition to an increased average lifespan.
The rise of industry, such as mass production and mass transit systems was embodied by the invention of the train and railroad. These transformations vastly increased the reach of urbanization, the value of specialization, and the freedom to support non-agricultural workers. It was in this period that the greatest increase in human population growth occurred. In more advanced nations, the trend had also been shifting towards urbanized, as opposed to rural and pastoral populations.
The long-term trend as we transition from the industrial age to the information age today has manifested a reversal of traditional trends of increasing population growth. In nations such as Japan and Germany, non-immigration related population growth is actually entering negative territory. Thus, technological and social change is now having a retarding effect on population growth, especially in the developed world.
The rise and fall of population growth rates is inextricably tied with technological developments. As they drive both the economy and society, transformations in technology will continue to have a central impact on population growth. The challenge for the future will be to accommodate for an increasing (albeit at a slower rate) population but more importantly devising a way to take care of an overall aging global population.