Opinion

Edward Hadas

7 billion reasons why Malthus was wrong

By Edward Hadas
November 2, 2011

By Edward Hadas The opinions expressed are his own.

A child is born. For almost every parent, everywhere and always, the entry of a new person into the world is a welcome wonder. But economists generally have a different outlook on births. They prefer hard numbers to hope. And this week they have a big demographic number to discuss: the world’s population has just reached 7 billion.

When economists talk about demographics, Thomas Malthus usually comes up. The early 19th century British thinker decided (without providing any reasons) that people would always have more children than the physical world could possibly support. Population growth would always be restrained by death from want. At the time he wrote, the world’s population was about 1 billion. By the 1960s, the population had increased to about 3 billion people, and Malthus’s gloom was often cited. Some ecologists then claimed that the combination of industrial production and overpopulation would inevitably lead to environmental catastrophes – and many deaths from want.

And yet up to now, Malthus has been wrong, in two basic ways. First, human resourcefulness has proved much greater than he imagined. The economic story of the last two centuries has been one of increase – of people and production. The most recent years have been particularly impressive. The 135 million births this year will be almost 30 percent more than 50 years ago, according to UN data. Those lives will be longer; this year’s children can look forward to an average 68 years of life, 18 more than newborns a half-century ago. And the current crop will receive much more of the goods of industrial prosperity, from clean water and adequate food to free education and mobile phones.

Second, Malthus was wrong to assume that women would always bear just about as many children as physically possible. In the last 40 years, the total fertility rate, the number of children the average woman could be expected to bear, has declined from five to 2.5. The fertility reversal has reduced the annual rate of global population increase from 2 to 1.3 per cent since 1980. The UN expects that to fall to 0.1 per cent by 2085. An absolute population decline is quite possible. It is happening already in Japan and Russia.

Still, it cannot be proven that Malthus was wrong, that the world will never run out of stuff or that humanity’s resourcefulness will always rise to environmental, economic and social challenges. And yet – even though there is no way to persuade fervent Malthusians – after two centuries of steady progress the dire predictions look unduly pessimistic. The demographic slowdown reduces the danger of exhausting the earth’s physical resources. And while grim environmental forecasts are still easy to find, demographers these days talk more about the stresses that come with ageing and declining populations.

There will be shrinking pains, of course, and the economic and political standing of low fertility nations is likely to fall. Still, the practical challenges can be met easily. Prosperity has freed up so much labor that unemployment is now a more serious problem than poverty in most of the world. Some of those searching for work can find it caring for the old and weak. Pension promises made when populations were increasing quickly will have to be reduced, but that requires little toil; financial arrangements can be changed with a stroke of the pen.

Instead of worrying, economists should take the latest demographic milestone as an opportunity to stop thinking like Malthus – that when it comes to people, more is generally worse than less.

A good starting point would be to stop relying on GDP per capita when comparing the wealth of nations. In this calculation of average income, population is the denominator. If that increases, the per capita GDP will fall, unless the numerator – production – increases commensurately. In effect, this measure makes each new person an economic drag.

That is unfair. A new person is indeed a consumer who will need to work to avoid being a net drain on the world’s resources. But he or she is also a wonder worth celebrating. Parents know it, and economists should recognize that reproduction is a sort of production – brought forth through maternal labor and parental care. Economic activity should aim at the promotion of life, not merely at the production of stuff.  John Ruskin, a fierce 19th century critic of Malthusian thinking, declared, “There is no wealth but life… That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings”. The parents of Danica May Camacho, the Philippine infant identified by the UN as the 7 billionth, would surely agree.

PHOTO: Thomas Malthus. Wikimedia Commons.

Comments
8 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Unfortunately, most Malthusian-thinking overpopulation fearmongers seem to overlook issues such as inequality and bad infrastructure as the real problems, and they see people as just consumers and not producers. There are actually many reasons to celebrate 7 billion. This milestone proves how ingenious we are, that we’re better at keeping more people alive longer now than ever before, and we have more brains to create and develop more useful technologies and innovations to accommodate a growing population. Yes, there are still problems of starvation and lower standards of living for many on the planet, but neither history nor mathematical logic bears out the conclusion that population pessimists reached of resource scarcity. Where there are these problems, we need to go about creating more for everyone rather than curbing our numbers. In the Victorian times, the world’s population was a small fraction of what it is now, yet there was still poverty. What changed and improved our lives in the West was not going down from 1 billion to less, but improving sanitation, healthcare, our general standards of living, and discovering and taking advantage of scientific breakthroughs. We should see humanity as a solution and not the problem. I came across a spoof recently that parodies the many ridiculous overpopulation fears and paranoia – it is hilarious and brilliant! http://www.worldbytes.org/get-off-my-pla net-happy-birthday-7-billion/

Posted by Benny_7 | Report as abusive
 

Hadas, you are such a corporate shill. You are certainly not a journalist. It is fascinating that the right sidebar contains an ad for Shell Oil, because that is the centerpiece for the absolute destruction of your “argument,” such as it is.

See, Malthus had no idea that the world’s population and growth would be subsidized by oil. Malthus has always been criticized for his failure to adequately account for technological advances, but there was no way for him to factor in the explosive growth of oil extraction, refining and application to everything from food production, to transportation, to housing, and as a driver for technological advancement itself.

But YOU do not have that excuse. If you weren’t so busy touting corporate polly-anna nonsense, perhaps you would be aware that the regime by which this population has been sustained is nearing collapse. Maybe you would know that the U.S.’s ability to extract oil at a net energy-returned-on-energy-invested (EROEI) peaked about 1973, and the world’s production peaked around 2005. More likely, I suspect you ARE aware of these things, but you cannot be honest about them.

Maybe you could be honest about the fact that in the absence of a massive investment in a stable alternative energy source, which has not been done and likely will not be done in time, that these 7 billion people are living on borrowed time. That these 7 billion people are facing a resource deficit in the near future, such that the Earth’s resources are likely only adequate to sustain a maximum of 2 billion people, if that.

But it won’t happen. Because you do not speak for those 7 billion people; you are admittedly directing your optimism toward “economists,” and by extension, the financial elite. And your message: Don’t worry, be happy, because we can soak these poor bastards all the while we bury their heads deeper in the sand with our rosy propaganda. Things are good!

How do you sleep at night?

Posted by BowMtnSpirit | Report as abusive
 

Malthus’ premises might be wrong, but the fact remains that Earth is running out of vital resources with which to support a much smaller population than the 7-billion now extant. The depletion of fossil fuels and exotics like rare earths, for example, receive a fair amount of press, which they should, since they enable technologically advanced societies to exist. Fossil fuels are the source of nitrate fertilizer for high-yield crops; the other vital agricultural input, phosphate, is mined, and once used, dissipates as run-off or percolates down into near-surface strata. Neither constituent is recoverable, and there are no substitutes that will support the food needs of those 7 billion for more than a dozen decades or so, much less the projected 9 to 10 billion of 2050. Of course, water, whether potable or reclaimed, is already in short supply in most of the world, and indeed, its lack in sub-Saharan Africa has diminished what in the best of times has been a hardscrabble existence. The drive for economic growth is both a boon and bane for humankind. Over the short term, economic growth brings with it prosperity, at least for those who are its beneficiaries. But over the long term, economic growth in tandem with population growth will only exacerbate the depletion of the abovementioned critical resources. Plus, the accumulation of externalities (e.g., greenhouse gases, water pollution) in the environment will see the diminution of the general population’s quality-of-life. Technological fixes and scientific advancement will only carry us so far, despite the claims of leaders in industry and politics. At the dusk of civilization, an unsustainable population will no doubt be seen as the problem.

Posted by billbritton | Report as abusive
 

GDP per capita “tells the truth” when comparing the wealth of nations in that GDP falls as the number of mouths increases, unless production – increases commensurately. In countries without adequate land that can be productively farmed with available water, each new person IS an economic drag. Each person inherits an ever-smaller piece of the existing “economic pie” of any society whose GDP is steady or falling. The difference is one of propaganda versus fact.

Unrestrained reproduction in third world societies is the dragging brake on this world that will eventually stop all progress toward a better life. That is an “inconvenient truth” to those who would apply the wisdom of a pre-industrial world to “be fruitful and multiply” to a world increasingly as challenged by the pressures of irresponsible reproduction as animal shelters. The first human to live to be 1000 may have already been born.

The undeveloped countries are breeding at a rate they have already proved for many years they cannot provide for. Each day, week, month and year springs forth from their wombs ever more mouths that will have no access to meaningful education or a meaningful way to apply their labor to improve the quality of life in their society. They function solely to produce urine, feces and more of themselves. Their miserable lives have no possible use or purpose except cannon fodder, yet the developed world is ever expected to feed them FOR FREE.

Labor that is “freed up” by prosperity is a curse on any society that cannot find productive use for it. That’s why America has the highest rate of incarceration in the modern world. We have far, far too many for which our society has no “place”. There is some truth to the saying that “The Devil finds a use for idle hands”.

Prosperity springs fastest from the soil of inovation, and minds are the sharpest tool in the human tool kit. Just as the sledge hammer can be used to build the railroad, so can it be used destroy the engine that pulls the train. The battle for the future of the human race is whether the fruits of what success we achieve is invested to improve our quality of existence or wasted such that our big blue marble becomes a big brown marble utterly devoid of sentient life.

In the thousands of years of recorded history no belief system whose primary rewards lay in some “hereafter for eternity” has put sufficient priority on “man’s getting along with each other on this earth” to end or even lessen the ceaseless squabbling that seems destined destroy us all. Their leaders would divert all of man’s resources to their temples and salaries if they could.

It is their refusal to accept their moral responsibility to change an unacceptable and unjust “here and now” that leaves it to the “rest of us” to forge a consensus able and willing to say “ENOUGH”. Only we can chart mankind’s course to a better future and harness the necessary forces to progressively proceed in that direction.

Unfortunately, those who benefit from the status quo are the very ones who advocate that “Economic activity should aim at the promotion of life, not merely at the production of stuff”. They would have us all walk instead of ride or fly, do without the music, dance and theater, eat tubers instead of steak and drink ever dirtier water instead of wine for the apparent goal of extracting every human female egg from the womb and seeing it brought to term and into the pirhana pond our earth would thus become.

This author suggests that “Some of those searching for work can find it caring for the old and weak.” I suggest he talk to the people who do this in nursing homes and you will find few “inspired” by the hopelessness and drudgery of such employment. Mostly these positions are occupied by those who can find no other employment because of their past, below average in intelligence, income, potential and of few dreams. He is an elitist that would never personally have to seek such employment, but thinks it just fine for “others”.

He eulogizes a society that could, would and should break it’s “pension promises” “…with the stroke of a pen”, just because it can. In my humble opinion any society that makes good faith promises and then does not honor them is as much a real and present danger to it’s citizens as it’s enemies.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

Regardless of whether Malthus was right or wrong, there is another consequence of unending population growth that the field of economics has failed to recognize – the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption. As population density rises beyond a critical tipping point, further increases in population density and overcrowding drive down per capita consumption. It is the very reason that the average Japanese live in dwellings less than a third the size of the average American’s – not because they like living in cramped “rabbit hutches,” but because there is no room for anything else. And it is the same reason that low per capita consumption characterizes every densely populated nation on earth, making such nations utterly dependent on manufacturing for export in order to gainfully employ their bloated labor forces.

It is also this inverse relationship and disparities in population density that lie at the root of the global trade imbalances that have brought the global financial system to the brink of collapse.

In this piece, Hadas says that we should ignore GDP per capita. On the contrary, GDP is meaningless unless expressed in per capita terms. The fact that macroeconomic growth is failing to keep pace with population growth only proves that the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption is already at work. And, since per capita consumption and employment are inextricably linked, rising unemployment is inescapable as long as population growth continues.

Just because Malthus’ warnings about food shortages seem to have been proven wrong so far (at least to those of us with plenty to eat), it is no reason to not consider the other economic ramifications of never-ending population growth. Burying one’s head in the sand and deriding anyone who dares to challenge this economic conventional “wisdowm” as a Malthusian is no less ignorant than than those who clung to the belief that the earth was flat and lay motionless at the center of the universe.

Until economists get over the beat-down their field endured at the hands of the other sciences over the seeming failure of Malthus and once again consider the full spectrum of ramifications of overpopulation, the world is doomed to ever-worsening unemployment and poverty.

Pete Murphy
Author, “Five Short Blasts”

Posted by Pete_Murphy | Report as abusive
 

As we pass the 7-billion mark, there has been renewed criticism of Thomas Malthus and his view that humankind’s future was not necessarily on an upward slope because of the pressures derived from population growth.

Malthus’ premises, and certainly his calendar, might have been off, but the fact remains that Earth is running out of vital resources with which to support a much smaller population than the 7-billion now extant. The depletion of fossil fuels and exotics like rare earths, for example, receive a fair amount of press, which they should, since they enable technologically advanced societies to exist.

Fossil fuels are the source of nitrate fertilizer for high-yield crops; the other vital agricultural input, phosphate, is mined, and once used, dissipates as run-off or percolates down into near-surface strata. Neither constituent is recoverable, and there are no substitutes that will support the food needs of those 7 billion for more than a dozen decades or so, much less the projected 9 to 10 billion of 2050.

Of course, water, whether potable or reclaimed, is already in short supply in most of the world, and indeed, its lack in sub-Saharan Africa has diminished what in the best of times has been a hardscrabble existence.

The drive for economic growth is both a boon and bane for humankind. Over the short term, economic growth brings with it prosperity, at least for those who are its beneficiaries. But over the long term, economic growth in tandem with population growth will only exacerbate the depletion of the abovementioned critical resources. Plus, the accumulation of externalities (e.g., greenhouse gases, water pollution) in the environment will see the diminution of the general population’s quality-of-life.

Technological fixes and scientific advancements will only carry us so far, despite the claims of leaders in industry and politics. At the dusk of civilization, an unsustainable population will no doubt be seen as the problem.

Posted by billbritton | Report as abusive
 

This piece provides convincing proof that possessing multiple degrees do not indicate possession of intelligence. This is a prime example of ignorance of the subject matter.

That he would say “A good starting point would be to stop relying on GDP per capita when comparing the wealth of nations.” is adequate evidence of the authors total lack of understanding of the “real world”.

Posted by ClydeB | Report as abusive
 

A Mad Max dystopian vision of ravenous mobs fighting each other for scarce resources is more appealing and makes for a much better movie plot than the one proposed here: economists should think more about the real worth of “human capital.” I’d like to see someone try to film that blockbuster. Boring.

Not only are the overpopulation disaster scenarios more emotionally rewarding, I think what attracts people to them is a vestigial religious impulse. Bleak prophecies of hunger and impoverishment caused by overpopulation is the secular modern’s equivalent of the more overtly religious impulse to prophesy the impending doomsday. “Repent, the End is near,” is basically the same as “Conserve! Or we’re all going to starve!”

BowMtnSpirit’s (nov 2 @ 5:13) quasi-religious, emotional, haranguing of the author of this article as a shill for Big Oil has all the elements. Very Savanorola.

Posted by mattmugg | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •