Another Decade, Another Billion

Is a Malthusian catastrophe imminent?
It took the world more than 200,500 years to reach its initial population of one billion; it is predicted to take only twelve years to go from six billion people to seven billion people. The United Nations forecasts that the seventh billion person will be born near the end of 2011, indicating that the world’s population has more than doubled since the 1960s.

But what exactly does it mean to have seven billion people on the face of the earth? The global population growth rate is as high as ever, and worries about climate change and resource depletion are increasingly commanding greater attention. Do we react to this monumental landmark with worry and caution or with celebration at the prospect of more life and a higher life expectancy? Do we condemn the unrestrained birth rate or celebrate the leaps in medical advances that have reduced child mortality rates?

According to the New York Times, in 2010, 267 humans were born and 108 died every minute. Theses numbers, along with concerns of climate change and resource depletion, seem to point directly to a Malthusian catastrophe. Malthusianism is a political and economic school of thought first developed by Reverend Robert Thomas Malthus. According to Professor Nzinga Broussard of Claremont McKenna’s Robert Day School of Economics and Finance, Malthusian Economics can be defined as an “ideology based on the fear of population growth in a world with a fixed amount of resources. This fear is based on resource depletion.” This concept, first developed during the time of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, demonstrates that unrestrained population growth is exponential but growth of the food supply is linear. This problem can potentially lead to what is known as a Malthusian catastrophe, which will force society to return to subsistence level conditions as a result of overtaxing available agricultural resources.

There are a few gaping holes in the Malthusian way of thought, however. Professor Broussard believes that this ideology is incomplete, as it fails to incorporate many prominent contentions and solutions outside of its spectrum. First of all, when push comes to shove, humans have historically found new ways to sustain the lifestyle they are used to. From bronze to iron, from coal to oil, humans have found new ways to sustain themselves when their existing lifestyles have been threatened. While this certainly doesn’t assure resource depletion or scarcity won’t be potentially devastating, it does leave room for optimistic solutions to the catastrophe. Secondly, Malthusian ideology does not take into account the rate at which technological advancements are produced. Food production, according to Malthus, grows linearly, yet food production in developing countries has tripled since the 1960s. This drastic increase in food production, sustainable or not, shows a growth rate higher than that of a linear one.

It’s not all famine, global warming and an influx of bawling babies. The fertility rate of many developed and developing nations has also been declining for a long period of time. A closer analysis of the problem indicates that the developing world is growing by eighty million people a year, while certain nations of the developed world are struggling to maintain current populations. In order to maintain the current population, or a zero percent growth in population, each woman should give birth to 2.1 children. According to Eurostat, the population of Europe peaked at 1.4 billion people in 2010. When accounting for the population increase, however, it was realized that 900,000 of the 1.4 million population influx in the past year was a result of rising immigration. Fear of the death rate overtaking the birth rate in Europe has already started to surfaced. If the world starts following Europe’s lead, then perhaps the threat of a Malthusian catastrophe isn’t as imminent.

For the first time in recent history, nations of the developed world are fearful of low birth rates and high life expectancy rates. The bridge between the number of people entering the working class and the aging population has widened, leaving citizens ready to challenge the health and social security systems in place. With a low birth rate, open immigration policies may be one way to make sure that the population of the nation remains steady and the elderly have a stable social security plan in place.

Birth and death rates aren’t the only gap that is widening. With the richest five percent of nations consuming 33 percent of the world’s resources, the gap between the availability and usage of resources is drastically widening. If every person in 2011 were to live by normal “American” standards of consumption, the world’s population would be using 660 percent of the world’s natural resources-obviously exceeding available resources. This value doesn’t even make any allowance for the next two billion people who will also soon populate the earth. According to the New York Times, if every individual in the world lived by American standards, the world could only support 1.4 billion people. The bottom three billion people of the world, those who don’t have access to the luxuries of the American lifestyle, consume only 3 percent of the world’s resources. This clearly indicates that one of the most jarring problem of population growth is inequality.

On the flip side of the situation, forecasters from The Economist predict that it will take fourteen years for the population to increase from seven to eight billion and twenty five years for the jump from eight to nine billion- much longer than it will take for us to go from six to seven billion. These statistics provide hope with their prediction that the current rise in population growth is a historical peak. This change isn’t only due to the dropping fertility rates in developed nations, but also due those in developing nations. The fertility rate among Iranian woman has dropped from seven children per family to two in past fifty years. Some have even predicted that by 2050 half of mankind will be living in a place where the fertility is at or below the replacement rate.

Professor Ward Elliot of Claremont McKenna’s Government Department pointed out how growing populations act as a double edged sword when it comes to food production. He commented optimistically that “The more people, the more economies of scale, and well, the more things you make more effectively.” The idea of economies of scale was yet another economic idea that Malthus failed to account for when he inaccurately predicted that food production would always be linear. Professor Elliot followed up that comment on a grimmer note by saying, “But on the other side are the diminishing marginal returns. The higher up the hill you have to start your agriculture production, the less fertile the land, the less you produce. Too bad there’s this burden on the youth to take care of my generation.” He also pointed out that the more people who are born, the lower the portion of the individuals’ taxes that will go towards social security benefits for the elderly population. If this rational were to be applied in the long term, however, we’d have an ever expanding population growing simply for the purpose of supporting the generation above them. Such fantasies can only be tolerated in a world where resource depletion does not exist.

Mankind is at an interesting point in history. There have never been more of us on the planet, or a generation that has lived as long as our own. The real problem with a growing global population comes from classism and racism, and essentially which groups of people should and can afford to have more children. The question is not if another billion people on this planet can be sustained, but how and where they are more likely to be sustained. A full-out Malthusian catastrophe doesn’t seem plausible in the near future, but the need for a new approach to immigration, resource distribution and medicinal advances does. Our earth is going to get a little more crowded, but perhaps also a little more cautious in the process.

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