Every so often, Malthus’s prediction about the impact of continued population growth on the availability of food gains particular salience. Fluctuations of food prices, environmental issues, depletion of natural resources, debates over genetically modified products are among the many reasons that prompt scientists and the general public alike to speculate about the sustainability of population growth.
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Depending on the trajectory that the fertility rate takes over the 21st century, the United Nations’ estimates of the world population in 2100 range from a modest 7 billion to an alarming 16.5 billion, with 11 billion being the most probable estimate (Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations 2015). Even though some critics are quick to claim that Malthus’s prediction has failed, in the 21st century, humankind needs to adopt significant changes to prevent a demographic disaster – and it has, in fact, already done so in several important ways.
First, it is essential to understand the argument made by Malthus in 1798. It is commonly referred to as the ‘Malthusian catastrophe’ – a term that implies an apocalyptic disaster wiping the humankind off the surface of the Earth. Indeed, there is some support for this claim in Malthus’s writing: “Gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world” (Malthus 2001, p. 42).
Surely, if this is the interpretation that one adopts, Malthus’s prediction has been failing for more than 200 years, since humankind did not experience famine on a global scale. However, a closer examination of his writing reveals that Malthus did not envision a doomsday-like scenario. Rather, he recognised the limitations that the humankind faced in acquiring certain resources: “The great law of necessity which prevents a population from increasing in any country beyond the food which it can either produce or acquire, is a law so open to our view […] that we cannot for a moment doubt it” (Malthus 2001, p. 50).
What Malthus emphasises in this statement is not that famine is inevitable but that there is a limit to how much food people can produce – this concept has become known as the Earth’s “productive capacity” (BBC 2010). The implication is that Malthus did not mean to claim that the humankind was doomed to a speedy apocalypse at the time of his writing; rather, he was saying that the resources available to people are finite and ultimately scarce.
If this is the definition of Malthus’s catastrophe that one operates with, then it becomes clear that the prediction did not necessarily fail. As research suggests, every ecosystem has a certain threshold, surpassing which threatens its health and even its existence. This threshold is known as the carrying capacity, and, on several occasions, it has been exceeded through the introduction of invasive species to a new territory.
A classic example is the European rabbits’ arrival to Australia: enjoying favourable living conditions and free from predation, the rabbits quickly spread throughout the country causing soil erosion, species extinction, and other problems (Sinden, Gong & Jones 2011). The human population threshold is yet unknown: just over the last seventy years, the population grew from 2.5 billion to more than 7 billion (Bloom 2011). Moreover, considerable differences in demographic trends exist between different regions. However, it appears that the population problem has a deadline: given the phenomenon of population momentum, the issue should be addressed by the mid-century at the latest (Smail 2002). There is an urgent need to address the problem of human overpopulation.
Opponents of Malthus’s prediction claim that, if his forecast were, indeed, accurate, the humankind would have reached its carrying capacity long ago, during the 200 years that have passed since Malthus wrote his essay. Malthus’s opponents cite two reasons in explaining why the growing human population has been sustainable thus far: demographic transition and technological and agricultural advances.
Demographic transition refers to the phenomenon whereby a given society begins to experience both lower mortality rates, thanks to the improvements in medicine and living standards, and lower birth rates, as people choose to have fewer children. While this is, indeed, the case in many developed countries, Malthus’s critics were too quick to generalise it as a global trend (The Economist 2008). Developing countries, on average, still have birth rates well above the replacement rate (The Economist 2011).
The second argument against Malthus’s prediction is that he did not take into account the technological and agricultural advances that the humankind would achieve after his lifetime. Indeed, people have reached great results in improving their food production capacity thanks to irrigation, fertilisation, mechanisation, and other related know-how (Sachs 2008). Importantly, these methods aim at improving efficiency – that is, obtaining more output for the same input. However, in many other cases, the humankind simply relies on using and spending additional resources that are not always replaceable (Sachs 2008).
For instance, even though many countries are switching to renewable energy resources, others rely on more intensive oil extraction techniques, such as the infamous fracking. Thus, when one considers technological advances, it is important to realise that most of the time people are not finding new sources of food or other resources but merely stretching the ones available to them, but the resources remain rather scarce.
Thus, even though so far historical developments have been favourable for the population growth, one cannot claim that they will remain so in fifty-year time. Interestingly enough, people do operate on the assumption that Malthus was right, as they have already implemented a wide array of measures to mitigate the impact of anthropogenic activities on the environment. First of all, it is the global commitment to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions, manifesting itself in such international treaties as the Kyoto Protocol. Importantly, the movement has garnered much support from large developing economies such as China, who has developed stringent policies to limit the emissions (Cao 2013).
People have also recognised the need to switch to renewable energy sources. Currently, many countries rely on their capacity to a great extent: in Denmark, wind energy accounts for about 40 per cent of the country’s energy consumption (Marques & Fuinhas 2011). The adoption of such policies and practices demonstrates that people have, indeed, recognised the relevance of Malthus’s prediction.
At the same time, while it is undoubtedly important to manage the humankind’s ecological footprint, more drastic changes are necessary to address the issue of population growth. It implies, first of all, population management in the developing countries: currently, the fertility rate in most African countries is as high as 5.7 children per household, and there is little observable fall infertility (The Economist 2011).
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Several policies can be implemented to address the issue, starting with improving access to education, particularly, sex education. Women should be empowered to pursue other goals in life apart from fulfilling traditional gender roles, which is a radical change for many conservative societies. Availability of birth control and family planning, as well as permissive attitudes toward them, is essential to control the birth rates in these countries (The Economist 2011).
Globally, a change in consumer behaviour is necessary: for instance, the current rate of meat consumption accounts for as much as 18 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, making it the leading global warming cause (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations 2006). While it is practically impossible to prohibit meat consumption, governments can target food waste and conduct education projects raising awareness about the meat’s ecological footprint. Ultimately, population growth lies at the core of virtually all ecological problems, so controlling it will yield important benefits for the environment (BBC 2010). Thus, people should adopt a combination of radical and marginal changes to address this problem.
When Malthus noted the limited availability of natural resources in their relation to the population growth, he was not incorrect. The fact that the humankind has not yet reached its carrying capacity should not guide decision-making in the future. Ideally, all societies need to adopt a conscious approach to reproduction and consumption as to ensure that the population growth does not get out of control. In practical terms, it can be achieved through tighter government regulation and information dissemination. In some societies, the changes will be radical as they will require an overhaul of their cultural and social practices and customs. However, many countries, specially developed democracies, are already on the right track in identifying and analysing relevant issues and designing appropriate policy responses.
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