Thomas Malthus once said, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Albert Einstein might argue, on the other hand, “Necessity is the mother of all invention,” albeit in another context. So, which is it? Are we doomed to unchecked population growth followed by Malthusian catastrophe, or can we avoid it through increased food production, decreasing population growth rates, or some other means?
To say Malthusian catastrophe is inevitable is completely unwarranted. Is it possible? Certainly – it is only logical that if human population reached levels which far outstripped food supply, the resulting global famine would create easily ignitable tensions between nations, and facilitate disease through malnutrition and crowding – both contributing to a potentially massive death toll from starvation. This is a chilling prospect to be sure, but the words “plausible” and “likely” should not be confused. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that we may have already have moved away from the path towards such collapse. Even if that is wrong, it is incredibly unlikely that it is already too late to avoid through aid and intervention on behalf of developed nations to those nations most at risk.
First, according to Boserup’s research on agriculture development, Malthus’s hypothesis that population growth results from the intensification of agriculture is unjustified, and it is more likely that increasing agricultural productivity is the cause of population growth rather than the effect. The problem in establishing this conclusively, of course, is that growth rate and food production increases occur over long periods of time, and it is thus difficult to determine definitively which factor preceded which in a historical context.
Perhaps more condemning to those who prophesize doomsday scenarios, Brown et al.’s article on the population problem shows that we may have in fact already moved beyond the ‘danger zone’ of a Malthusian catastrophe. Today, there exists a wide range of levels of development between nations, far more substantially so than in Malthus’s time. This spread in the demographic data available to contemporary researchers show that as nations become more developed, fertility rates do not increase exponentially as predicted, nor even linearly, but eventually plateau or potentially even decrease. This concept, demographic transition, has many contributing factors, many of which are uncertain. Still, even if these influences are poorly constrained, the overall trend towards replacement rates of reproduction is well established. The best example of steady...