Was Malthus Right?

06.26.18
Scott Hadfield
World News /26 Jun 2018
06.26.18

Was Malthus Right?

Thomas Malthus, whose most famous work The Principle of Population was published in 1798, did not believe that society’s improvement is inevitable. Indeed when things do improve, he thought, the resultant population increase becomes an obstacle to further progress. In short, as he put it, the power of population growth is greater than the power of the earth to produce the means of subsistence.

Was he right? Yes and no. No, if only because no one thing in the complex real world can have such singular explanatory power. And no, more specifically to his argument, because subsistence is no longer an issue. Yet as late as 1972 we still believed it was. The Club of Rome’s report “The Limits to Growth” argued that there were real limits and that the earth’s resources, from arable land to oil, were finite. Oil especially was thought to be running out.

We’ve seen that this view was wrong – not only has much more oil and gas been discovered but science and technology have developed alternative sources of energy, and the same is true for land use and food production. Science and technology (and perhaps capitalism and the industrial revolution) have shown us that we can continually boost the power of the earth to produce food. Indeed we now believe the earth could feed, house, clothe, transport and generally provide for a much larger population than the 7.4 billion we have now, and even the 9.5 billion projected in 2050.

But on the other hand, yes, Malthus was right, or at least he was on to something, because as my recent foray to eight developing countries suggests (China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, India, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and South Africa), wherever population growth has exploded (e.g., India, Ethiopia) while economic growth may well be impressive looked at statistically, development for the many is thwarted – they don’t benefit from that growth. But then how do you explain China, with the largest population in the world – a country that leapt from about 550 million people in 1950 to 1.45 billion today – and where rapid economic growth has benefitted hundreds of millions of hitherto poor people?

The answer may be that what makes all the difference is speed; not just the speed of growth, but the speed with which government can do the things that promote growth (infrastructure for example), and the speed with which educational and other institutions are able to adapt to a pattern of rapid growth. In India, which has seen its population almost double in the short span of 40 years, and which is on its way to overtake China as the most populous country, despite impressive economic growth since the reforms of 1991-92, progress on many fronts has simply not been fast enough. Advances in many areas, from housing to transport to banking to health care, get quickly overwhelmed by the demands of a more rapidly growing, and rapidly urbanising population. When governmental and institutional systems do advance, they do not do so fast enough, thus one step forward often becomes two steps backward.

If you look at the statistics (produced by the World Bank and others) of the eight countries I visited, six have impressive economic growth rates. According to the IMF World Economic Outlook Data for 2017, India’s economic growth rate ranks number 5 out of 192 countries; Ethiopia’s rank is even higher (number 2). Along with China, Cambodia and Laos these five countries rank in the top tenth of all countries, with growth rates above 6%. Myanmar ranks number 25 putting it in the top 13% of all countries, with only two out of the eight in the bottom half: Zimbabwe and South Africa (ranked at #112 and #175 respectively).

As for the rate of population growth, again there is good news on the statistical front. Population growth rates have dropped in all but one of these eight countries in the last 50 years (Ethiopia being the exception), though except for China, their population growth rates remain higher than the average in high income countries.

But what is clear to any field veteran of poverty alleviation work is that these statistics do not tell us about the daily life of a huge number of people on the planet, largely poor, or near poor, whose struggle to survive, much less get ahead, is fraught with difficulty. The thousands of shoe shine boys and men on the streets of Addis, the millions in India, Bangladesh, and many African countries whose “living” is entirely dependent on hawking goods in the informal economy and who line the crowded streets and dirt lanes of countless cities like Kolkata, Dacca, Karachi, or Addis, Kinshasa, and Nairobi.

These millions are not being swept along by the tide of high economic growth and while the reasons why have to do with each country’s particular historical, natural resource, and socio-political context, surely one cross-cutting explanation is the lack of capacity of governments and the accompanying institutional framework to outpace population growth (and especially the rapid movement of rural people into the cities). Unfortunately, the case of China, where a powerful government can do what it wants, where and when it wants, without regard to democratic process, is not one that ought to be or could be emulated by the rest of the world. We are left then with prescriptions that have been around for a long time – end corruption, encourage trade, make public institutions attractive enough to bring in bright, creative and enlightened personnel, etc. We have seen few examples where such changes have happened and fewer still where they have occurred quickly, but the sad truth is that the need for speed in these realms is now greater than ever. If that urgency is not taken on board by those in power, then Malthus may well have the last word.

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