By Donella Meadows
–October 8, 1998–
This year is the 200th anniversary of a small pamphlet that people are still arguing about. In 1798 the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus said forcefully that the human population tends to grow to the point where it impoverishes itself and starves.
Both Marxists and capitalists energetically bash that idea. Marxists don’t believe people can ever be in excess if the economy is just organized to use them properly. Capitalists mock Malthus for not foreseeing the progress that now allows us to feed six times as many people as there were in 1798.
But, to update a quip by Garrett Hardin, “Malthus has been buried again. This is the 200th year in which that redoubtable economist has been interred. We may take it as certain that anyone who has to be buried 200 times cannot be wholly dead.”
A new publication by the Worldwatch Institute is full of facts that show Malthus to be not dead, not wrong, maybe not right either. The patterns by which the human race reproduces itself are changing. Over another few decades, we will probably put old Malthus to rest at last. It’s up to us to decide whether he’ll rest triumphant or discredited.
The most striking global change is that population growth is slowing. The growth rate peaked in 1964 at 2.2 percent. In 1998 it is 1.4 percent. That’s an amazing drop. The average number of children born to a woman in India has gone down from 5.3 to 3.6. In China the average woman bears just 1.8 children, fewer than the average in the United States.
In 32 countries, including Japan, France, the United Kingdom and Spain, population growth is at or near zero. The populations of Germany, Italy, Russia, Hungary and Ukraine are actually shrinking. Another 39 countries, including China and the United States, have average families of fewer than two children, but will go on growing for another few decades because they have many young people about to enter their reproductive years.
These slow- or no-growth countries contain 2 billion people, about one-third of the world population. They are either rich industrial countries or past or present communist countries. What they have in common is not wealth, but education.
That’s one-third of humanity proving Malthus wrong. Not only did he not foresee our productive technologies, he didn’t foresee our reproductive technologies, our widespread availability of birth control and our education, employment, empowerment of women.
But the other two-thirds of humanity is chillingly close to proving Malthus right. These are the countries we like to call “developing,” where virtually all population growth is now happening. Birth rates in most of these places are dropping too, but slowly. They are growing by 80 million people a year, the equivalent of a whole new Mexico every 14 months. The United Nations expects them to add another 3.3 billion people over the next 50 years.
The Worldwatch booklet makes that forecast look impossible. It points out that the world fish catch per person has been stagnant since 1968, and that many great fisheries are now in active decline. Global grain production per person has been dropping for 14 years — the world’s farmers are constantly more productive, but they’re not keeping up with population growth.
Irrigated agriculture is particularly threatened as aquifers are overpumped and water tables fall. If the rising population and declining groundwater trends continue, Worldwatch calculates, by 2050 there will be only one-fourth as much fresh water per person as there was in 1950.
A British study estimates that forest harvests around the world are already on average 25 percent above sustainable rates.
World oil production per person peaked in 1979 and has since declined by 23 percent. Estimates from many sources predict that total oil production will start declining by 2010 or 2020 as wells run dry.
If over 3 billion more people are still to come, they will need jobs, but almost 1 billion of us, one-third of the global work force, are already underemployed. The new folks will need housing, but 1.6 billion of us now have no decent housing. They will need schools, safe water, sanitation, health care. One does not want to think about what will happen if they don’t get them.
Worldwatch does think about that, pointing out some places where Malthus is tragically right, where in spite of all our global progress, death rates are rising. AIDS is a major cause, though AIDS is primarily a symptom of poverty and poor health care. Zimbabwe is expected to achieve zero population growth by 2002 because one-fourth of its adults are HIV-positive. Other African nations are moving rapidly in that direction.
About 840 million of us are still chronically hungry, about as many as the whole world population at the time of Malthus. Each day 19,000 people die from malnutrition, most of them children. Malthus said one thing that was correct then and has been correct ever since: “The pressure arising from the difficulty of procuring subsistence is not to be considered as a remote one which will be felt only when the earth refuses to produce any more, but as one which actually exists at present over the greatest part of the globe.”
We can still prove him wrong. We know how to do it. We’ve already partially done it.
(“Beyond Malthus: Sixteen Dimensions of the Population Problem,” by Lester R. Brown, Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil, is available for $5 from Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036-1904, phone 800-555-2028, www.worldwatch.org.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998