Revisiting Malthus this Population Day
By Sanshita Vij
Amidst this pandemic, on the occasion of World Population Day, let us discuss an interesting theory (almost prophetic) about population and limited resources. The United Nations Development Programme started the observance of 11th July as World Population Day to mark the date in 1987, when the world reached a population of 5 billion. The day is observed to discuss issues related to population control, family planning, adoption, reproductive health, sustainability, and a wide array of related issues.
From 10,000 BCE till now, the world population has grown from 4 million to 7.7 billion, by 1925x times! The population growth had been slow till 1700. It was only until a little later than 1800 that the world population hit 1 billion. Another billion was added by 1928, the next by 1960, 4 billion by 1975, 5 billion by 1987, 6 billion by 1999, and finally the 7th billion by 2011. As is obvious, the pace of human growth has been very rapidly increasing in the last century.
This exponential growth has been because of the rapid spread of modern civilization, urbanization, and the consequent improvements in health and an overall increase in living standards. As more and more people survive till reproductive age, death rates are falling, and birth rates are rising. As per current trends, the human population is predicted to go up to 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion by 2050, and 10.9 billion by 2100!
Keeping this in the same light as the limited resources, we can understand how there stands a possibility of acute shortage of resources, which is what Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus theorized back in 1798.
Let us explore what Malthusian Theory of Population is. Human population grows in a geometric progression i.e. 2 humans have 3 kids, these then have 3 more each, who then have 3 more kids and so on, forming a progression where each generation is 3 times the previous. On the other hand, food production only grows in an arithmetic progression, due to limited land and with more people working on the land, the additional product is lesser (due to the Economic concept of Diminishing Returns). Therefore, food can grow from 1 tonne to 2 tonnes and then 3 tonnes and so on.
Malthus predicted that due to this gap between population increase and food supply increase, there is bound to be a shortage of food supply, which may also be termed as an excess of humans. He proposed that nature has its ways of ‘eliminating’ this excess demand. This can be done through positive or natural checks on the population or negative checks. While the positive or natural checks may be famines, earthquakes, starvation, or wars, preventive checks include human-made checks such as family planning, late marriage, and other ways to control human population growth. By following these, humans can avoid facing the catastrophic effects of positive checks. The theory then describes a ‘trap’ situation where human population growth is stunted due to the limited availability of resources.
So why are we discussing this today? The theory is all the more relevant in the times of a pandemic that we are facing, where many experts are recalling the theory and drawing similarities of the Coronavirus to a positive check on the human population. Previous pandemics and epidemics have been recorded in human history such as the Black Death pandemic which wiped out 30-50% of Europe’s population in the 14th century, and the Spanish flu from around a century ago which killed 50 million people worldwide.
With all this in mind, it is tough to not compare the current COVID situation to a positive check predicted by Mathus centuries ago. It is no secret that human activities have a huge impact on the environment in indirectly observable ways such as deforestation, gas leaks, etc, and other prolonged ways such as climate change and the rising sea levels.
While the theory has its flaws, one of which is that food production picked up the pace all over the world and grew manifolds unlike the arithmetic growth predicted. Due to globalization, the non-availability of land has been overcome and technological advancements have accelerated food production like never before.
Despite these fallacies, the theory has given rise to a new modern approach to the conservation of resources and humans’ impact on the environment, called the Neo-Malthusian view. When Malthus first wrote about his theory, the primary resource was food and hence, his theory was majorly based on food supply. This new school of thought also takes into consideration other resources such as non-renewable and renewable natural resources- food, energy, and water. The view is that these resources are limited and are not enough to support growing human needs and population. There may be checks on the same if conservation of resources is not practiced. The proposed solution is to save resources, practice the required checks on population growth and switch over to other ways of sustainability, to avoid the wrath of nature.
Edited by Eesha V Sheel
Image source- Wikimedia