The World’s Malthusian Problem

Politics and academia shouldn’t mix. But they do, frequently. Politicians quote and carry “science” much like the kings of old carried “religion”. Frequently citing statistics, politicians justify platforms, programs, and policies without revealing the biases and assumptions within. But you already knew that. Academics, too, play political cards and if you followed this blog you know that I’m no friend of the decidedly lefty (not the handedness for I am also a lefty!) bent of academia, particularly in Geography. I don’t mind social activism and social justice these are noble ends, but proselytizing in a dissertation, thesis, or paper is lazy. Sure, you could blame everything on colonialism – what? that’s old hat you say? what about the state? no? the petite bourgeoisie then! – but that’s intellectually dishonest. There are multiple causes to any single event, especially in the social sciences which are concerned with explaining the vagaries of humanity. Think of yourself, why do you take the route you do to get to work or school? There’s a myriad of geographic factors.

Enter the Reverend (I had no idea!) Thomas Robert Malthus (d. 1834) political economist and geographer (specifically of the sub-discipline, demography). Writing as he did in the 19th century, Malthus noted something potentially troubling – population grew exponentially. Geographers widely acknowledge that 2.1 children per woman is a stable population (that is a population that neither grows quickly nor falls). Why? One child replaces the woman and another child replaces the man. The “.1” child is to replace any other member in the population that doesn’t have a child of their own, for biological or whatever reason. Imagine a world of just one couple, and they have “2.1” children (say, year 1). The following year (year 2) the world now has 4.1 people. In year three, the two couples each have 2.1 children, now there are 8.4 people in the world. In year four, 4 couples each have 2.1 children, now there are 17.2 people. Finally in year 5, our clan has grown by 2.1 children again for the 8 couples, leaving 35 people. So a “stable” population is still growing, more or less, just not very quickly. Imagine if you bump up the number of children to 3 or 4, 5 or 6?

Living before the Green Revolution (about the 1950s), Malthus saw this exponential population growth and compared it to agricultural output, which was growing linearly at the time. If you had a crop output in year 1 of say 1 ton, in year 2 you might be able to get 2 tons with the extra labor, and 3 tons in year 3. By year 5, when there are 35 mouths to feed you would only have 5 tons of grain! To Malthus, the high population growth in the 19th century (I’m guessing people in Britain at the time we’re having 6+ kids) was simply unsustainable the world would run out of food, mass starvation and famine would ensue. To Malthus, mass starvation and famine would lower the population and thereby increase relative food supply. Of course, that’s a relatively inhumane way to solve the problem (that is, let people starve) so he advocated for more proactive solutions, including moral restraint – remaining celibate until marriage and only marrying when one was able to support a family. Clearly, Malthus was wrong in that agricultural production can, and will, grow exponentially to keep up with demand (see chart from Wikipedia). If there is an ceiling on Terra’s carrying capacity (Geographer short-hand for the total population that available agricultural land can support), we haven’t quite reached it and we’re approaching 7 billion people.

Today, neo-Malthusians apply Malthus’ general argument, that too many people are a bad outcome for almost everything. And the latest example (finally got to the current story!) is in Foreign Policy magazine. The article states that Mali’s high population growth is the “real reason” that the country is “awash with terrorists.” The article calls the 3% growth rate “unsustainable” and specifically references Mali’s carrying capacity, but leaves it up to us to figure out if that’s true or not. The article could have been written by Malthus, “in an undeveloped and largely barren land, too many people are competing for too few local resources and opportunities”. Scary, if not new, thinking. This problem of the “youth bulge” has been discussed in security circles for a while now, and its still lazy thinking.

But first, let’s talk about terrorism and the potential links with high population growth. The article makes the usual point that young men, competing for too few resources, with too few opportunities, are “deeply susceptible to the temptation of armed criminality and insurgency.” The key here is “deeply susceptible”, essentially what this article is saying is that high population growth, leads to large numbers of young men (duh), and when there’s not enough opportunities to satisfy these young men (possibility), they could turn into armed criminals and insurgents. I suppose that’s true, but the United States has its own armed criminals and we’re well under the “2.5 per cent rule”. Rather than blame high population growth, I’d point the finger at sluggish opportunity (economic, social) growth. If this growth kept pace with population (3% or whatever), most “young men” would be able to satisfy their desire for improvement.

Furthermore, I’m not sure where the Saudi Arabia 2.3% number came from, the U.S. Census Bureau reported a growth rate of 1.8% in 2005.

And then there’s the false-negatives. Serbia, perpetrator of a genocide in the few decades had a 2005 growth rate of negative 0.5%. In other words, the population is decreasing. Similarly the West Bank had an estimated growth rate of 2.4% in 2005. In Tunisia, a country that toppled its own government during the so-called Arab Spring, the 2005 growth rate was 1.0%. Algeria, Mali’s northern neighbor, had a growth rate of 1.3% in 2005. These countries have plenty of instability and violence and are growing relatively slowly (if at all). And of course, the article acknowledges the high growth rate countries without massive problems, like the United Arab Emirates (4.4% 2005 growth rate). This data comes from the international programs section at the U.S. Census Bureau.

Blaming insurgency on high population growth is lazy. Its easier to tell Mali, in this case, that you should lower your population growth. Not only is this answer lazy, its an easy political answer. The problem lies with you and your country. Of course, unfair trading terms and a legacy of colonialism don’t factor into the mix. But these aren’t the only problems, I doubt unfair trading terms and a legacy of colonialism have a demonstrable, direct impact on a decision for someone to join an insurgency and, possibly, get killed.

I think it would be much wiser and more even-handed to actually examine the multitude of reasons for why men, and women, join insurgencies and address those causes, whether they are economic, political, or social.


One thought on “The World’s Malthusian Problem

  1. Pingback: Stage 5, Demographic Transition Model: Japan’s exit to the left | Z Geography

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