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Resource stewardship

Population Resource Relationship

Pessimistic views 

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), theory of population

Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

  • Thomas Robert Malthus was born near Guildford (England) in 1766. Malthus went on to Cambridge University, earning a master’s degree and became a professor of history and political economy in Hertfordshire.
  • He was the first economist to propose a systematic theory of population.  He articulated his views regarding population in his famous book, Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

Although Reverend Malthus grew up during the Industrial Revolution, he was a product of traditional Europe-that is, preindustrial, pre-growth society. He believed that economic life depended on the productivity of land, so that ultimately it was the land that determined the level of existence.

He believed that there was a finite optimum population size in relation to food supply and that any increase in population beyond this point (Malthusian Catastrophe) would lead to a decline in the standard of living and to war, famine and disease.

His theory was based on two principles:

  1. In the absence of checks, population would grow at a geometric or exponential rate (1, 2,4,8,16, 32, 64, 128, 254 and so forth)
  2. Food supply at best only increase at an arithmetic rate (1,2,3,4,5)

Effects on Family size and subsistence level of income

Malthus convinced that the “passion between sexes” would cause men and women to procreate, and as long as there was enough food around to feed a growing family, the family size would increase. If the family does not obtain at least subsistence level of income some of the children will die because the parents would not be able to feed them. Once they fall below point D, widespread famines occur and there would be numerous deaths in the society, according to the Malthusian doctrine

Positive and preventive checks in Malthusian theory

Malthus indicated that the human species was destined to poverty and a life of misery unless the rate of population growth was retarded by positive checks and/or preventive checks. Preventive checks decrease the fertility rate and positive checks increase the death rate.

preventive checkspositive checks
Abstinence from marriageLack of food
Delay in time of marriage
Disease and war
Sexual abstinence and moral restraintfamine


Malthusian Theory of Population

Criticism of Malthsian View

  • The key assumption that Malthus made was that there was a very slowly improving technology or a fixed technology condition. Malthus grew up in the period of Industrial Revolution, when this assumption certainly did not hold, but he was a product of an era when technology in fact had not changed very quickly. His assumptions were certainly true in agricultural societies, in which technological changes were very slow. Increase in productivity has been a result of improved technology.
  • In many situation, as real income rises, the survival rate of children may increase, but the demand for children may fall. Japan and many parts of Europe have already experienced stable population, even the population is declining in many cases.  So population increase in not a result of passion between sexes and increase in real wage of family.
  • We do, however, still find the Malthusian cycle acting in various less developed countries in Africa today. Although the critics believed it is more of a result of poor governmental policy, responsible for reduced food availability in those countries. Many African governments spend at least four times as much on their military arsenals each year as they do on agriculture. Ethiopia asks the rest of the world to provide the country with more food, yet in 1990s, more than 40 percent of Ethiopia government’s budget went to its oppressive military establishment.

Optimistic view

Anti-Malthusian view of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)

Anti MalthusianResource Optimist view

Danish economist Esther Boserup (1910-1999) who believed and popularized “necessity is the mother of invention”

Boserup examinated different landuse systems (from shifting cultivation to multicropping system) and their intensity of production. In her famous book, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure, Boserup suggested that in a pre-industrial society, an increase in population stimulated a change in agricultural techniques so that more food would be produced. Population growth will thus enable agricultural development to occur.

Increased food production since Malthus time (support for Boserup’s proposition)

There have been many ways since Malthus time by which food production have increased many folds. These include:

  • Intensification
  • Extensification
  • Draining marshland
  • Reclaiming land from sea
  • Cross breeding and high yield varieties
  • Slope terracing
  • Greenhouse agriculture
  • Improved irrigation techniques
  • New food such as soy
  • Using artificial fertilizer and pesticides
  • Crop diversification etc

Anti-Malthusian: Balanced view of Julian Simon

The Ultimate Resource (1981)

  • Simon challenged the Malthusian catastrophe—that an increase in population has negative economic consequences;
  • Population growth will drive up demand for resources and the price will rise. High price will encourage entrepreneurs to find out new resources.
  • According to Simon, ingenious, resourceful humans had the capacity to invent and to safe guard growing population

Pessimistic views of the Neo-Malthusian (Revival of Malthusian concept)

Paul Ehrlich- the population Bomb, 1968

  • Ehrlich, a biologist, maintained that the rate of population growth was outstripping agricultural growth and the capacity for renewal of Earth’s resources.
  • Each year food production in the underdeveloped countries falls behind their rapid population growth and people go to bed hungrier.
  • The battle to feed all of humanity is over. Population growth on Earth is still too high, and will eventually lead to a serious crisis. He warned that millions of people would starve to death in spite of any crash program embarked upon.

Neo- Malthusian view of the Club of Rome

The club of Rome was a global think tank, comprising heads of the states, high level bureaucrats, diplomats and scientist, economists and business leaders. Club of Rome signifies a group of world citizens, sharing a common concern for the future of humanity.

  • Started to act as a global catalyst for change
  • Identification and analysis of crucial problems that humanity is facing
  • To influence public and private decision makers
  • Raised considerable public attention with its report Limit to Growth

Limit to Growth project- commissioned by the Club of Rome

The project was produced by the System Dynamic group of MIT from 1970-1972, funded by Volkswagen Foundation of Germany and was headed by Dennis Meadow and others of MIT.

They used system dynamic theory and computer modelling to predict the earth’s carrying capacity.

The Limit to growth was determined on the basis of the five following factors

  1. Population
  2. Agricultural production
  3. Natural resources
  4. Industrial production
  5. Pollution

Many of these factors were observed to grow at an exponential rate. It demonstrates the short period of time within which corrective action to be taken. If the predicted growth is correct then there is an alarmingly short time for preventive action.

Some alarming predictions of Limit to growth model-

  • Huge capital would be required to cope with the problems.
  • It would become impossible to sustain growth
  • End to growth may occur as collapse – an uncontrolled decline in population and human welfare

Beyond the Limit, 1992 Report by Meadows, Randers and Meadows

20 year update –Rio conference 2002 review of the LTG group- Rio+10 conference in Johannesburg

  • Growing evidence that humanity is moving further into the unsustainable territory
  • To reach sustainability, humanity must increase the consumption levels of the world‘s poor while at the same time reducing humanity‘s total ecological footprint.

2004 Study of Paul Ehrlich and Kenneth Arrow 

  • Central concern has shifted from population growth to consumption ratio
  • The idea that growing human numbers will destroy the planet is not significant but over consumption will.

Optimistic view of prof. Hans Rosling in 2010:

It is possible to achieve a balanced population growth and resource relationship through sustainable development and equitable justified consumption.

The Role of UN Sustainable Development Goals and progress made towards meeting them 

Research Link: About the Sustainable Development Goals 

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