Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Malthusianism Isn't True

Written by johnleemk on 1:09:31 pm Apr 16, 2007.

Nowadays, it is not uncommon to hear alarmist calls about the problem of overpopulation. "The Earth can only support so many people," they cry. Based on this assertion, they argue that huge sacrifices must be made if we are to maintain our present standard of living, or alternatively, that our present standards of living must not be maintained at all.

This argument is actually far from recent, and is commonly known as Malthusianism. This philosophy takes its name from Thomas Malthus, an economist from about two centuries back.

Malthus observed that the population grows geometrically, or exponentially. However, the food supply grows at an arithmetic rate. In mathematical terms, while we are increasing our numbers in powers of 2, our food supply appears to grow at a much slower rate.

Malthus concluded from this that the population would either increase to a point where all hell would break loose for humanity, and/or a vast majority of mankind would have to live in squalor, because the Earth cannot provide the same standards of living for all.

It seems amazing that anyone still holds such an opinion today, when all the data we have flatly contradicts the facts Malthus had at his disposal, and used to draw his conclusions.

The population is no longer growing so dramatically. Many countries — surprisingly, even non-affluent ones like China — are now suffering from birth rates that are too tiny to replace the population, let alone grow it. The world population itself is anticipated to peak at about 10 billion, and no more.

Meanwhile, all indicators suggest that there is enough room, even with present technology, to house much more than these 10 billion people. One commonly quoted figure suggests that the whole present population of the world could fit into highrise buildings in the American state of Hawaii alone. (This is, of course, ignoring all the logistical problems like working the land, and is merely an illustrative image.)

Our food supply does not seem to grow arithmetically. It may do so without technological change, because there is only so much land and water and nutrients in this world, but technology does not stand still. It moves forward, and as Buckminster Fuller noted decades ago, we are constantly able to do more with less thanks to the march forward of technology.

Does this mean that concerns about the world's growing population are totally unsubstantiated? Of course not. Global warming is one problem to be considered, naturally, but there are other issues.

For one, it is undeniable that much of humanity lives in dire conditions, barely eking out a living — especially in Africa. That there are people dying of starvation is particularly deplorable when there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone, but much of it is discarded or hoarded because of anti-dumping regulations.

The unnatural surpluses arise in the first place from the foolish policies of Western countries. the United States and European Union are the two biggest offenders, granting some farmers USD50 worth of subsidies for every cow they own — while there are Africans living on less than a dollar a day.

There are also issues with power generation. Even putting global warming aside, the harmful polluting effects of many sources of energy we currently use are very well documented. The non-renewable nature of these resources also makes it imperative that we look into alternatives.

None of these problems ought to be solved with drastic cuts in population growth. Slowing down population growth is obviously a good thing for an economy, because it's hard to guarantee everyone a decent standard of living when "everyone" keeps growing and growing. But at the same time, we run the risk of growing too little, to the point where nobody's left to run society.

Considering the technological potential out there, it seems foolish to decide we need to make drastic sacrifices in our standards of living or that we need to drastically reduce the size of our population. Technology can and will take up the slack in many of these areas; in others, the right incentives, such as an appropriate tax on polluting energy sources, can create the necessary push. Malthusianism is simply an untenable philosophy.

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