Malthusian Overpopulation Concerns

Some environmental advocates claim that human population growth causes intolerable pollution and will result in a scarcity of key natural resources and mass starvation. Others have called for international programs to slow or reverse population growth and for governmental controls on natural resource use.

The origin of these claims can be traced to Thomas Malthus' "Essay on the Principle of Population," first published in 1798. According to Malthus, "the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio."

As a result, he concluded, "humanity must perpetually exist in a state of misery, as population tends to invariably expand to the point that food supplies are at the subsistence level."

  • Malthus did not foresee that technological changes would enable resource growth to outstrip population growth.

  • Nor did he anticipate the demographic transition that takes place as societies move from agricultural to technological civilizations.

    The birthrate in many developed countries is now substantially lower than the minimum required to replace the population (an average of 2.1 births per women). In less developed areas the fertility rate has also fallen dramatically and continues to decline. Among the reasons:

  • In agrarian societies, children are an economic asset, whereas in technological societies they are an economic liability.

  • Birth control has become increasingly available and culturally acceptable.

  • Infant mortality has fallen.

  • Women in technological societies spend more time on education and work, and less time on childbearing and rearing.

    The growth rate has decreased since the early 1960s, reaching 1.2 percent in 2001. If this trend continues, the world's population will likely stabilize and perhaps even begin declining before the end of this century.

    Source: David Deming, Malthus Reconsidered, Brief Analysis No. 469 March 22, 2004.

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    FMF Policy Bulletin\23 March 2004
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