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September 16, 2019

Factfulness: Malthus is Wrong – Fortunately

Thomas Robert Malthus wrote in 1798 that any increase in food supply would lead to increased population but that the increased population would decrease the food supply per person so there would be no benefit to increasing the food supply. The food supply cannot be expanded infinitely so eventual starvation is inevitable. In various guises this Malthusian view of the world informs much of current thinking even though the date of Armageddon keeps getting pushed back.

Fortunately, according to Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, Malthus is wrong. Many causes of infant mortality have been eliminated in most of the world. According to Malthus, the population in those places should be exploding. According to Rosling and UN demographers, the exact opposite is happening. The higher the percentage of children who survive, the slower the population grows. The UN predicts the world population will be stable by 2100.

The reason for this apparent contradiction is the behavior of women when birth control (which didn’t exist in Malthus’ day) is available and when most of their children survive. Women who are confident that their children will survive have less children. Even though most of the world is not affluent, it is no longer at the lowest level of poverty. In most of the world public health, mainly clean water and vaccination, has drastically reduced child mortality. In that same most of the world, despite a few counter examples, women get almost as much schooling as men and both genders get more schooling than they used to. Basic nutrition is available.

The poorest 10% of families in the world average five children per woman; the remaining 90% average just two children. In that happier 90% of the world, population growth is limited by choice, not by death as it is the remaining 10%. Isn’t that a great sentence to be able to write? BTW, according to Rosling, improvement is continuing – especially in Africa. Focus is needed on the remaining 10%, of course, but progress is happening almost everywhere.

Malthus saw progress as impossible because of a negative feedback loop – more survival meant more people and exhaustion of limited resources. Progress is very possible when there is a positive feedback loop; higher survival rates mean slower population growth and eventually a stable population. That’s huge.

The implication of coming stable population is enormous. Assuming population will continue to grow exponentially is like assuming we’re on a ship sailing towards the edge of the sea: we’ve got to turn around no matter how difficult that is or we’ll die. Knowing that population will stabilize is like discovering that there is land beyond the horizon: we must survive until we get there, of course; but we can maintain our course. Most of our public discussion of pending food shortages or climate change assume the apocalyptic Malthusian view. Think how many more options we have knowing that view is false.

There’s still a resource problem, however. Most of the world has a low birthrate and, partly as a consequence, affluence is increasing quickly. Those who are leaving poverty behind want to have as many cars, as much meat, as big houses, and as much tillable land as the minority who’ve already reached affluence. The demand on resources is increasing much faster than population. Many, including Rosling, believe that the world will become very inhospitable for humans if everyone is responsible for as much greenhouse gas emissions as rich people are responsible for today. He believes that it is unreasonable to solve this problem by denying affluence to those who don’t have it and that we affluent must reduce our resource use.

I’m more confident than he is that we can solve the equation by making more resources available and using available resources more efficiently rather than degrading our own lifestyles; but, either way, since population is becoming stable, the problem can be solved. Fortunately Malthus was wrong!

For more on Factfulness see:


A Convenient Urgency

Facts are Stranger than Fiction

Also see:

“There Are No Facts About the Future”

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