Environmental Malthusianism: integrating population and environmental policy.

Author:Hardaway, Robert M.
Position:Symposium on Population Law

    When Thomas Malthus warned of the dangers of overpopulation in his 1798 Essay on Population, he was concerned mostly about food.(1) Malthus warned that if the world's population was permitted to expand unchecked, growth would be checked by starvation and disease and humankind reduced to subsistence.

    Today, although starvation does serve as a modest check on population expansion in underdeveloped areas of the world, world population continues to expand at an incomprehensible rate.(2) Every one-third of a second, at about the speed a machine gun fires its bullets, the planet earth somehow makes room to accommodate an additional human being.(3) Every eighteen days, the world's population expands by a number equal to the entire human population of the world in 5000 B.C. Every five months the population expands by a number equal to the number of humans living in 1575. Every year from now through the twenty-first century, ninety million people will be added to the world population.(4) The world's population has doubled in only three and one-half decades since 1950.(5) This Startling rate of growth is not expected to stabilize for forty to fifty more years.(6)

    So was Malthus wrong? Well, yes and no.

    Perhaps one-tenth of the world's population suffers from starvation, or at least malnutrition severe enough to affect resistance to disease. Nonetheless, the majority of the five and one-half billion human beings alive today eat, if not heartily, at least as much as is needed to fuel the unabated and unprecedented expansion of the human race. Indeed, the rate at which the human population is expanding today is far greater than it was in 1798 when the population was one-fifth its present size.(7)

    Certainly Malthus did not take into account the degree to which the opening of the new world would provide resources to support population expansion for many years to come. Nor did he anticipate the extent to which technology, modern fanning techniques, and the Green Revolution would spur growth in food production.(8) But have such developments refuted basic Malthusian theory, or have they simply delayed the dreaded day of reckoning when Malthusian theory will be vindicated with full force and virulence?

    Frankly, the vindication and broad public acceptance of Malthusian theory has not been aided by the small and vocal group of Malthusian doomsayers who perennially predict eminent disasters of resource depletion or mass starvation. Computer models found in books such as Donella Meadows' 1972 The Limits to Growth(9) and her 1992 I'm-really-serious-now Beyond the Limits(10) have been dismissed by skeptics as just more Malthusian cries of wolf. (Meadows' computer models had predicted, among other disasters, that gold would run out by 1981 and that oil would run out by 1992). Such hyperbole has provided grist for a growing body of increasingly influential anti-Malthusians, who maintain that population growth is not only not a problem, but actually a very healthy phenomenon necessary for continued economic growth and continued increases in the human population's standard of living. Although certainly sincere, much of this work has been counter-productive inasmuch as it has diminished in the public consciousness the integrity of basic Malthusian assumptions. It gives the anti-Malthusians the chance to say again and again `I told you so,' and to relegate the Malthusians to the level of the soap box and the religious fanatic carrying the placard "The End is Near."(11)

    A group of theorists led by Julian Simon and Simon Kuznets, for example, have argued that when population expansion causes a shortage of resources, human ingenuity is spurred to create substitutes, as when a shortage of ivory in the last century led to the invention of celluloid.(12) They also point out that a large population makes possible the exploitation of economies of scale principles, such as the mass production of automobiles.(13)

    Ester Boserup, in her 1981 book Population and Technological Change,(14) observes that it has been overpopulation which historically has led to the creation of a highly developed human civilization. She cites the example of ancient Mesopotamia, which over a period of 8000 years became very densely populated: "Gradually, the population changed from primitive food gatherers to people who applied the most sophisticated systems of food production existing in the ancient world."(15) Thus, overpopulation led to the development of infrastructure, roads, and "the creation of cities [which] allow[ed] for greater specialization and more efficient organization of the economy."(16) The larger population in turn permitted a more efficient division of labor.(17)

    These anti-Malthusians further cite the theories of labor postulated by William Petty(18) and Adam Smith.(19) As Petty illustrated, "[i]n the making of a Watch, if one man shall make the Wheels, another a Spring, another shall Engrave the Dial-plate, and another shall make the Cases, then the Watch will be better and cheaper, than if the whole Work be put upon any one man."(20)

    Adam Smith followed up on this theory with his example of pin production, in which "a single worker might tam out at most twenty pins a day, a factory employing a team of ten workers manages to produce twelve pounds a day, or 48,000 pins, 4800 per worker."(21)

    In her 1988 book The War Against Population,(22) Jacqueline Kasun presents a diagram purporting to show that there is no statistical relationship between rates of population growth and rates of economic growth, concluding that "[m]any countries with high rates of population growth have high rates of per capita output growth, while the converse is also true."(23) She also points out that some of the places with the highest population density, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Netherlands, also have some of the highest per capita output growth rates.(24)

    The anti-Malthusians have also enjoyed support from organized religion. A gathering of bishops assembled to defend the Pope's ban on birth control has asserted that the earth could feed forty billion people, or eight times the present population.(25)

    Views on population that are influenced by religious views on such practices as family planning and birth control are in accord with the classic and traditional view of population as a source of ultimate wealth. As Joseph Schumpeter has noted, with rare exceptions, kings, philosophers, and economists alike have traditionally been enthusiastic about all increasing population:(26)

    In fact, until the middle of the eighteenth century, they were as nearly

    unanimous in this `populationist' attitude as they [had] ever been in

    anything. A numerous and increasing population was the most important

    symptom of wealth; it was the chief cause of wealth; it was wealth

    itself--the greatest asset for a nation to have.(27)

    To be sure, traditional Malthusians have their counter-arguments. While conceding the basic point that resource shortages may spur the invention of substitutes, they point out that air, waterways, and soil have a limited capacity to sustain an expanding population, regardless of how many resource substitutes are invented through the application of human ingenuity.

    Massimo Livi-Bacci, for example, made this point with his illustration of the population isolated in a deep valley. Initially, the fertile and easily irrigated land is cultivated on the plain along the river. As the population expands, however, it becomes necessary to cultivate the more difficult to irrigate and less fertile land on the slopes of the valley. Although further expansion of population may be made possible by even more intense cultivation, the gains are limited because eventually the point is reached when additional inputs of labor no longer effectively increase production, and returns per unit of land or labor ultimately diminish.(28)

    The Catholic bishops' assertion that the earth could feed and sustain forty billion people(29) is based on highly unrealistic assumptions. The assertion would further require that all humans agree to live on a subsistence vegetarian diet, and--in an assumption which is particularly galling to Malthusians--that all farms are as productive as a specific laboratory farm in Iowa (a feat unmatched by other Iowa farms, let alone the degraded farms of the third world).(30) In addition, the estimate is based on other unrealistic assumptions, such as: 1) all food is evenly distributed, 2) all available crop land is deforested without soil erosion, 3) heavy use is made of fertilizers containing phosphorus that pours into the oceans, 4) no livestock is raised, and 5) no cash crops such as coffee or cotton are grown.(31)

    An interesting question to those who assert the viability of a population of forty billion might be as follows: assuming that such a population level is somehow achieved, would religious or political principles then be compromised to permit no greater expansion? In other words, if forty billion turned out to be the absolute limit of the earth's capacity to support humans and the alternative to placing limits on population expansion was indeed mass starvation on a Malthusian scale, would the encouragement rather than prohibition of abortion and birth control then become morally defensible and in accordance with deeply held religious principles?

    Assertions such as those made by Kasun that some of the most densely populated countries have the highest standard of living have been refuted by Paul Ehrlich. Referring to such assertions as examples of the "Netherlands Fallacy," Ehrlich points out that "[t]he Netherlands can support 1,031 people per square mile only because the rest of the world does not. In 1984-86, the Netherlands imported almost 4 million tons of cereals, 130,000 tons of oils, and 480,000 tons of pulses (peas, beans, lentils)."(32)

    With regard to Kasun's diagram purporting to show no...

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