Anti-Malthusian for a Green Revolution

May 23, 2007 at 6:24 pm Leave a comment

Thomas Malthus presented a theory of population growth in 1798 that draws attention and advocacy even today. Known as the Malthusian theory, it is based on two premises:

 

1.      Humans tend to produce prolifically, that is, geometrically — 2, 4, 8, 16, 32

2.      The capacity to produce food and fiber expands more slowly, that is, arithmetically — 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Thus the population will eventually exceed the food supply unless population growth is checked by society. If growth continues, surplus populations will be reduced by war, disease, and famine.

Source: Clawson, D., Johnson, D., Haarman, V., Johnson, M. (2007) World Regional Geography. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. (p.33) 

Neo-Malthusians promulgate doom-and-gloom predictions about population growth claiming that even though Malthus left quite a bit out of his theory, the population/production crises has not been averted, simply delayed. What did Malthus leave out, and why does it matter?

Malthus most likely anticipated that the general population would continue to reject birth control on moral grounds. He could not have anticipated the wide availability of convenient methods of controlling conception, as well as the secularization of culture which led to a growing disregard for Roman Catholic reproductive mores in developed nations. The current natural rate of increase in highly urbanized nations with industrialized economies (less than 1.0%) reflects this.

Click here for larger map. 

The United Nations Population Fund and the World Health Organization have partnered to create highly successful campaigns to provide access to family planning and education to large portions of the population, with an emphasis on less-developed nations. The years since the 1994 (and especially the 2004) caucuses have seen marked improvement in family planning policy in almost all countries.

China, which is home to nearly 20% of the world’s population, is slated to have a population of 1.376 billion by 2010. According to the China Population Information and Research Center, the birth rate has continued to drop steadily, from 1.40% to 1.24% from 2000 to 2003. Zhao Bingli, vice minister of the State Family Planning Commission, estimates that in the 30 years since family planning legislation has been introduced, exponential population growth has been averted, and 300 million births have been prevented.

From the Agricultural Revolution that began 10,000 years ago in rural villages that allowed people to start to specialize their occupations instead of simply living hand to mouth and producing all their own food for their family unit, to the Industrial Revolution in the mid 18th century that allowed large quantities of goods to be produced in factories, rather than by hand, human advancement has a way of catching up with population growth in previously unimagined capacities. We are currently in the midst of an Information Revolution. What could this mean for population? Many are concerned about job migration; tech companies are outsourcing skilled jobs to developing nations. In addition, labor investment is shrinking as jobs are automated. This serves a purpose that societies need for advancement. When people are left with extra time once taken up by consuming tasks, cultural advancements occur which in some cases go on to become full-fledged revolutions.

Revolutions are organic movements, usually spurred by innovative technology development (domestication of plow animals, printing press, steam engine, the internet). There cannot be a call to revolution per say, at least there has not been a historical example of this that I am aware of. But if there could be a call and response for a new revolution, what should it be? I think what we need next is a Green Revolution. What scientific or technological advances would make it possible for us to inhabit the earth without doing so much damage that we cannot remain here?

Malthusian theory is outdated and inapplicable. The revolutions that have taken place since humans have inhabited the earth have kept up with population growth. Population growth is steady to negative in most developed nations. Furthermore, steps are being taken to curb growth in underdeveloped areas. As medical care reaches depressed regions and slows the death rate, birth control and education are also reaching populations and curbing birth rate. Urbanization also contributes to population rate deceleration; rural families view children as an asset to help with farming and ranching, while larger families are a financial burden on city dwellers who tend to give birth to fewer children on average. In 2007 the world’s population crossed the threshold to become more than 50% city dwelling. This trend continues as cities utilize technology to be able to provide food, housing, and social services to a larger and larger population while the birth rate in these urban areas shrinks at a respectable rate.

With a Green Revolution we stand a very strong chance of applying our growing technical knowledge to advances that will allow for moderate population growth with less impact on nature than ever before. We must continue efforts to curb rapid growth in developing nations, but we must also look to the future with an eye towards less impact on our environment.

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