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Population Crises: the Malthusian Specter?

by Betsy Murphy


        While the “developed” world approaches a zero population growth rate, the more populous “less developed” nations continue to grow at unprecedented rates. Given the current population growth rate, the world will add an extra one billion people in just eleven years (Findlay 1995).  Such projections have sparked renewed concern regarding the implications of population growth.  All sides agree that the current population growth rate is too high given the world’s finite resources. However, little agreement has been reached not only regarding the consequences of this growth, but also regarding what course of action should be taken.

        At the current rate for developing nations, population growth results in a doubling of the population every thirty-five years.  In forty developing nations, where growth rates are even higher, populations are projected to double within just twenty-four years (Findlay 1995). With almost three-quarters of the world’s population living in developing countries, the pace at which these most populous nations progress toward stable growth rates is the crucial determinate of world population growth.  Experts predict that every developing nation will reach the fourth demographic phase sometime during the next century. However, because this transition depends on a wide range of social and cultural factors, its timing is difficult to predict.

         Yet even when fertility rates decline, populations often still experience dramatic population growth due to high numbers of women of childbearing age. “High birth rates from one generation produce increased numbers of potential mothers in the next (Findlay 1995, 156).”  For example, while Brazil’s total fertility rate fell from 5.8 in 1965 to 3.3 in 1990, the absolute number of births during this period increased more than 40% due to the youthful population structure (Findlay 1995). Therefore, the world population will continue to experience substantial growth, even after all nations reach replacement level growth rates.

        What impact will this growth have on future populations?  Neo-Malthusians see a clear relationship between increasing world populations and increasing famine, poverty, and malnutrition.  Malthusian projections have been studied and dismissed often in the past, and many projections of neo-Malthusian scientists have failed to come true.  Yet this had not deterred most people from supporting Thomas Malthus’s general premise that there is a direct causal relationship between hunger and population pressure.

        However, many see famine, hunger, and malnutrition as “remediable afflictions of humanity that could be eliminated” (Hendry 1988, 3). This Marxist view asserts that poverty is not the result of increased populations, but of the structural forces that produce uneven life opportunities. It is not the absence of food that determines whether starvation takes place, but whether a group commands the economic and political might to acquire such resources.  With technological advances increasing the resource base faster than the increase in population growth, it is clearly the organization and control of resources and not the lack of food that causes the continued malnourishment of more than 500 million people (Findlay 1995).

        Yet the developed world often takes a neo-Malthusian stance to avoid discussing the impact of economic and political inequalities.  For example, many fear that population pressure leads to environmental collapse.  Asserting that it is the unchecked population growth in the developing world that is causing the greatest environmental degradation, western leaders “continue to demand preventive checks on population growth in less developed countries rather than accepting the financial and political costs of carrying out checks on pollution in the developed world” (Findlay 1995, 171).

        Not surprisingly, there is a profound split between the developed world and the developing world on what course of action is to be taken. While both sides agree on the need to limit population growth, the developed world does not subscribe to the developing world’s belief that “development is the best contraceptive” (Kates 1995, 628).  Instead, representatives of industrialized nations argue that Western financial aid cannot keep pace with current rates of population growth (Findlay 1995), and that government-sponsored programs to reduce fertility must be successful before development programs will be beneficial in providing the socioeconomic changes required to fertility rates (Kates 1995).

        Current statistics regarding population growth rates may cause panic, but do they imply a “population crisis”?  Neo-Malthusians and Marxists continue to debate this question, defending or refuting the direct causal relationship between population increases and poverty.  What is clear is that an immediate resolution to this debate and a consensus on what should be done is crucial, as what all parties do agree is that the world’s population is approaching the earth’s total carrying capacity and something needs to be done.


References Cited
Findlay, A.  1995.  Population Crisis: the Malthusian Specter?  In Geographies of global change: remapping
     the world in the late twentieth century, ed. R. J. Johnston, P. J. Taylor, and M.  J. Watts, 152-174.
     Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 
Hendry, P.  1988.  Food and Population: Beyond Five Billion.  Population Bulletin 43:3-7. 
Kates, R.  1995.  Labnotes from the Jeremiah Experiment: Hope for a Sustainable Transition. Annals of the
      Association of American Geographers 85:623-640. 


*This paper was prepared for a California State University Fullerton Graduate Seminar.