Population or Environmental Food Crisis, Part 2: Popular overpopulation theories

This is part two of a series of articles that take a closer look on the relationship between increasing human population levels and the food production system that sustains human livelihoods. Part one can be found here. Part three will be published tomorrow. This chapter will take a closer look on popular overpopulation theories, both from the early days of Malthus and to more modern flavors of population theory.

Three theories and their scholars, Malthus, Ehrlich and Kaplan, are introduced in this chapter. What these theories have in common is that they played an important role in either reviving the overpopulation debate once again, which was the case with Ehrlich, or they helped influence the political discourse at the time, which was the case with Kaplan. Please note that these theories will not be explained in full and I will not bring up much criticism against the specific theories (trust me, there is plenty of that). If you are interested in learning more about the theories there is a plethora of articles, books and whatnot that delves much deeper into them. Google Scholar is great source of information if you, for example, want to read more about Malthus' arguments against relief and help for the poor and hungry.

These three, and many other authors, discusses in different ways how overpopulation is a threat to humanity and how we cannot avoid a devastating demographic overshoot. Their numbers on how many people the world can support strongly varies depending on what sort of progress they believe we have made and will do when it comes to technology and science, how much we have already degraded our water and food resources, and so on. But what they all have in common is a belief that a population catastrophe will happen once the natural limits are reached. Though, some authors have managed to push this idea more successfully than others.

Malthus' theory of population

Thomas Robert Malthus, born in 1766, was a British reverend and a scholar. Today he is still widely known for his controversial ideas about population levels and their limits. Malthus's population theory can be said to be the starting point of a rather passionately demography debate among academics and ordinary people alike - a debate which is still very much alive today.

Malthus anonymously published An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 where he warned about the problems with a bigger and an ever increasingly growing human population. This first essay, or edition, was more of a polemic pamphlet where Malthus tried to debunk the optimistic and utopian visions on the future by contemporary writers and thinkers who were inspired by the ongoing revolution in France. Malthus later on made new and more detailed editions to his population theory. In fact, Malthus added a total of four subsequent editions to his theory. The first one was added in 1806, the second only a year after, the next one in 1817, and finally in 1826 the fourth edition was added. These four editions are often called the "second essay". A summary view on his theory was also added later in 1830. Even though Malthus added new editions to his population theory, the greater part of his finished work still consists of material stemming from the first essay. Despite being more of a polemic essay than a scientifically supported thesis - or perhaps because of that - Malthus's first essay was widely popular among fellow academics and the general public. Malthus work was more detailed and methodological in his later editions. For the second essay he made study tours in Scandinavia, Russia, France and Switzerland - all being countries who were at that time open to British tourists.

Malthus makes two hypothesizes about the nature of the world, which he both claim to be true:

"I think I may fairly make two postulata. First, That food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state (Quoted from Malthus, 1798:70)."

According to Malthus, we humans have, and will always have, a very strong urge to copulate. Because of this, overpopulation of the human race will swiftly become fact. The problem then lies in our capacities to produce food, or more precisely our inability to feed ourselves. Malthus claimed that our fondness of breeding is stronger than our food production capabilities and technologies to feed such a large population.

"Assuming then my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man (Quoted from Malthus, 1798:71)."

If left unchecked the human population will increase in a geometrical ratio while our food production can only increase in an arithmetical ratio, Malthus warned. In a geometrical ratio the growth effectively doubles every time (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 etc) while an arithmetical ratio goes from 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on. According to Malthus, these numbers clearly shows the immensity and power of the first variable in comparison to the second and much weaker variable.

If the human population grows faster than the food production, various checks, such as famine or wars, will rebalance the situation so that the human population is kept on level with the means of subsistence. Malthus divides these population checks into two main categories: preventive and positive checks. Later on Malthus makes further distinctions between these two categories and adds the checks of vice, the checks of misery and the check of moral restraint.

Moral restraint, which is defined by Malthus as abstinence from marriage, belongs to the preventive category. Malthus advocated for a strict moral conduct towards sex. While not approving of abortion he saw contraception as a preventive check, one which belongs to the vice category. Both the checks of vice and misery belongs to the positive category. These are population checks that prematurely shorten the human life span either through insufficient food and/or bad clothing due to poverty, "unwholesome occupations" (i.e. jobs where there is a high probability of dying from unhealthy activities), diseases and epidemics, wars and plague. All these various positive checks can be divided into either the vice or misery subcategory. Those checks that appear to arise from the laws of nature, such as epidemics and famine, belong exclusively to the misery category. The other checks, those that we bring upon ourselves, such as wars, are more of a mixed nature. According to Malthus, these are checks which could be in our power to avoid. Therefore their cause is vice and their consequences are misery. If preventive checks are insufficient to rebalance the situation, then the "necessary work" will be done by war, pestilence and famine - the positive checks on overpopulation. War could therefore be seen as an "alternative" to moral restraint.

Malthus didn't see any way by which we humans could escape from the laws of nature and avoid this fate. No charity or "fancied equality" among people could help or lessen this fact. Extensive agrarian regulations would be of no help against the severe challenges that would come from unhindered human population growth, not "even for a single century". Throughout the essay one can unmistakably see how little faith Malthus has to agrarian regulations, new agricultural technologies and scientific advancements which could help improve yields. Malthus discarded agrarian controls and regulations from the state and advocated private property and ownership as the only viable solution to obtain large yields. Likewise Malthus saw the invention of new agriculture machinery as a mere convenience or luxury for the farmers, instead of a method to improve yields and an escape from the laws of nature and the checks on population. Often when the topic of the potential for new technologies arises in the essay he points out the physical limitations which man, and other animals, is subjected to.

Malthus' population theory was not just popular among the general public, it also influenced, as well as provoked, many contemporary academics and scholars. Some of the more well-known of these were Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In various works, Darwin notes how Malthus and his population ideas had inspired him in his own development of the theory of evolution. Marx and Engels responses towards Malthus theory of population were a bit more resentful. Engels describes Malthus theory as "this vile, infamous theory, this revolting blasphemy against nature and man." Marx was not kinder in his responses to the population theory, calling Malthus "a shameless sycophant of the ruling class".

Modern Overpopulation Theory

As we could see in the previous chapter, Malthus both provoked and influenced many academics and scholars. His theory of population might have been proven wrong, but his work did inspire to a whole host of different Malthusian theories. In this chapter some of these more modern overpopulation theories are presented.

In a cover story, titled The Coming Anarchy, published in February 1994 in the distinguished Atlantic Monthly magazine, Robert Kaplan presented his gloomy and Malthusian inspired vision of a future world stricken by the horrendous effects of overpopulation. According to the article, the world is headed towards violent anarchy where states and societies will collapse and be replaced by private armies and organized criminals. This "downward spiral of crime and social disintegration" was blamed on the environmental degradation of our natural systems and a demographic explosion, i.e. overpopulation. Kaplan argued that the violence and chaos that were taking place in West Africa would spread to other regions of the world. As the violence and ecological problems spread, more and more people will be forced to seek shelter in urban environments. This in turn will create even more social disintegration, ecological degradation and violent conflicts. Kaplan therefore believed that the population crisis and the degradation of our environment would become the main national-security issue for the US and other developed countries in the coming century.

Kaplan's article was written during some of the worst and bloodiest moments in the history of Africa. Less than two months after the publication of his article the Rwandan genocide took place. So it's not that surprising that Kaplan's population theory was taken seriously by the US administration and former President Bill Clinton, who himself specifically cited the article in a speech to the National Academy of Sciences in June 29, 1994. Later on Kaplan's article "became practically de rigueur citation for Cabinet members appearing before Congress.

In 1968 Paul Ehrlich presented, with the publication of The Population Bomb, his own Malthusian inspired population theory. The book has significance, mostly because it helped revive the demographic debate once again. But also because, compared to many similar efforts at the time, this contribution dwelled deeper into not just overpopulation but also into the link between growing population numbers, overconsumption and environmental destruction. Ehrlich had been making the rounds in the US media trying to lift the population issue into the medial and political spotlight again. Because of this he was approached by David Brower, founder of the American environmental organization the Sierra Club Foundation, who suggested that Ehrlich should publish his theory in time to influence the upcoming presidential election. Paul collaborated with his wife Anne Ehrlich on the book and future revisions on their theory. But because the publisher insisted on a single author, only Paul Ehrlich was credited for the book.

Their reasoning has many similar characteristics to Malthus's thinking on overpopulation. While acknowledging our genetic urge to copulate, Ehrlich blamed the dramatic population growth on industrialization, and more importantly improvements in medical science. Medical science, especially its effective public health programs, has improved the lives of countless of people and drastically helped to increase birth rates. The Green revolution and the ever increasing industrialization have both played important roles in increasing human population levels. But "the development of medical science was the straw that broke the camel's back".

While recognizing the potential the Green Revolution has for increasing food production and staving off future famines, Ehrlich also warned about the environmental downsides of the Green Revolution. Ehrlich believed that the Green Revolution would bring both developmental and socio-economic problems as well as potentially severe environmental consequences - especially when it comes to its heavy use of water, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Ehrlich warned that the implementation of the Green Revolution in developing countries would result in the same environmental disruptions that is the case today in more developed countries. Kaplan notes how much of India's economy and food production relies on dramatically shrinking natural resources and declining water levels, as well as the high levels of urbanization and violence among the different ethnic and religious groups. With all this, Kaplan says, "it is difficult to imagine that the Indian state will survive the next century." Kaplan links the declining water levels with the Green Revolution. While having successfully increased India's yields, the Green Revolution also comes with severe environmental drawbacks. Moreover, Kaplan also warns about possible future effects that climate change can have on the country's agriculture sector.

According to Ehrlich there are only two solutions to the population problem, the first one being the "birth rate solution" where famine, wars or pestilence increases the death rate. This "solution" is similar to the positive checks that Malthus talked about. The second solution, and the one which the authors advocated for, is population control where we humans intentionally and actively take measurements to reduce global birth rate. There would be no environmental or food crisis to speak of if the human population was reduced to around one or half a billion individuals. Sure, we would also need to make some minor changes in our technology usage as well as improving and making the distribution of the world's resources more just and fair. But population control would still be the only real solution in avoiding the "final collapse".

When Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb their views on the future were bleak. They warned that the world was on the verge of a Malthusian style catastrophe and that the "battle to feed humanity" had already been lost. They proclaimed that the birth rate solution with its wars, famines and diseases would most likely be the agency most responsible for reducing human population levels in the coming decades. Several decades has passed since the book was released, but they are still confident that the collapse will come - any time now - especially considering the rising levels of consumption globally.

Fears about an imminent population crisis has popped up into the spotlight now and then since Malthus introduced his theory in the late 18th century. The most recent appearance was in 2011 when the world population reached seven billion. Before then, the population problem was intensely debated during the food price crisis of 2008-2009. The causes to the food price crisis was also debated in Sweden. Here it was Marit Paulsen, the somewhat well-known Swedish politician, who connected the rising food prices to overpopulation and claimed that organic agriculture couldn't sustain the growing numbers of people. Only large-scale agro-industries and more pesticides could maintain a sufficient food production, Paulsen claimed.


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Simon Leufstedt
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