Environmental Malthusianism: Integrating Population and Environmental Policy

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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. …