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A Critical Evaluation Of The Revelance Of Thomas Malthus

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Human population is a key driver in any given economy because it is a source of labour which pushes all economic responsibilities. The theme of population and more specifically, overpopulation has been in the popular mind for the last thirty years or more. Schools, governments, international legislative bodies, interest groups and the media have all but insured that the public sees the issue of population as a problem, and increasingly, in reference to natural resources and the environment. At the heart of population-resources-environment debate lies the question: can earth sustain 7 billion or more people? How one answers this question depends greatly on whether or not one sees population as a problem. Over the years, two main theories of population sustainability contributing to the idea of the balance between population and resources has emerged and stood the taste of time.

Thomas Malthus in his essay “An essay on the principles of population” published in 1798 offered one of the widely known theories in population studies. An alternative viewpoint came from Ester Boserup in 1965 through her book “The conditions of Agricultural Growth: The economics of agrarian changes under population pressure”. This essay will critically evaluate the relevance of these two major theories in their attempt to explain the relationship between population and resources. Thomas Malthus, a British economist born in 1766 presented one of the major theories in population studies in his essay which was published in 1798. His essay criticized the views of the utopians who believed that life could and would definitely improve for humans on earth.His core principles were based on the premise that food is necessary for human existence. He argued that because of the natural human urge to reproduce human population increases geometrically i.e.1,2,4,16,32,64 etc. however food supply, at most, can only increase arithmetically.

He wrote ‘population, when unchecked, increases at a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetic ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second’ (Malthus T.R, 1798).Malthus meant that human population tends to grow faster than the power in the earth to produce subsistence. He therefore suggested that the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal. However, Malthus also argued that there are preventative checks and positive checks on population that slow its growth and keep the population from rising exponentially for too long, but still, poverty is inescapable and will continue. According to Thomas Malthus, preventative checks are those that affect the birth rate and include marrying at a later age (moral restraint), abstaining from procreation, birth control, and homosexuality. Positive checks are those, according to Thomas Malthus, that increase the death rate. These include disease, war, disaster, and finally, when other checks don’t reduce population, famine.

Necessity is the mother of invention, this sentence sums up the theory which was developed by Ester Boserup. In 1965, Ester Boserup, a Danish economist asserted that an increase in population would stimulate technologists to increase food production. As Boserup said any rise in population would increase demand for food and this would act as an incentive to change agrarian technology and produce more food. Boserup believed that people have the resources of knowledge and technology to increase food supplies (Boserup, E. 1965). She assumes people knew of the techniques required by more intensive systems and used them when the population grew. That is to say demographic pressure such as population density promotes innovation and higher productivity in use of land e.g. irrigation, weeding, crop intensification, better seeds and labour e.g. tools and better techniques.

In simple terms, Boserup suggested that the more people there are, the more hands there are to work. ‘Under pressure of numbers, with more mouths to feed people put more labour and more intense effort feeding themselves, and find ways to get more food production out of the land. They cultivate the land more intensively, they add extra manure, extra fertiliser, and extra water and improve their crops’ (Marjie, B. 2003). In contrast to Malthus, instead of too many mouths to feed, she emphasized the positive aspects of a large population. She suggested that population growth has enabled agricultural development to occur. The principles of population remains an influential theory in population studies but is it relevant in modern times? Perhaps a critical evaluation of Malthus’s theory would help in answering this question.

Malthus was right in that indeed there has been a population explosion. In 1798 the population was 9 million people we have now passed the 6 billion mark (Matt, R. 2007). In Africa, there have been repeated famines, wars, food crisis and disastrous floods. However as……..noted ….Malth us wrote his essay in 1798 before the industrial and agriculture revolution therefore he excluded technology from his theory therefore making it slightly inaccurate. He could not have seen changes in farming technology that enables us to produce tons of food to sustain the growing population. Therefore for Malthus, available productive farmland was a limiting factor in population growth. With the industrial revolution and an increase in agricultural production, land has become a less important factor than it was during the 18th century. It seems that many of the problems of having a finite land area and possible food shortages has been overcome by technology.

‘The industrialisation of farming methods, land reforms have all increased food production. Technological improvements have led to an increased amount of cropland due to irrigation and alternative sources of fuel have been discovered, HYVs seeds have been used to prevent starvation in parts of Asia’ (Thinkgeogwiki,2008). He also failed to predict that the reduced population growth as countries develop economically and progress through the later stages of the demographic transition model. The demographic model of transition suggested that a population’s mortality and fertility would decline as a result of social and economic development. It predicted that all countries would over time go through four demographic transition stages; high stationary, early expanding, late expanding and low stationary.

On the other hand Boserup argued that the changes in technology allow for improved crop strains and increased yields. Over the years genetically modified crops have been developed and a ‘Green revolution’ has occurred. Human kind has been able to adapt and has been innovative thus it has been able to sustain itself. However her idea is based on a “closed” community as Marjie, B. (2003) pointed out. In reality they are not closed because of migration in and out and therefore it would be difficult to test Boserup’s theory. If Boserup is right then the most advanced technology should be found in places which are closest to a Malthusian crisis (defined as a forced returned to subsistence level conditions once population growth had outpaced agricultural production). High–tech agriculture should therefore only be found in places with large populations of near starving people. Unfortunately, the places with the food shortages tend to have high living standards and plenty of food.

‘Boserup also admits that overpopulation can lead to unsuitable farming practices which may degrade the land. For instance population pressure is one of the reasons for desertification in the Sahal region putting fragile environments at risk,’ Grigg D. (2010).. Boserup’s theory therefore can’t work indefinitely. At some point, the population may get so huge that we can’t feed no matter how inventive we are. Indeed to feed more mouths, people have to dig deeper into the environment, to divert more biological productivity for themselves, to demand more from soil, to use more water, more fertilizer etc. the question is can the environment really sustain this kind of pressure in the long run? Her central argument that intensification reduces labour productive remains unproven, according to Grigg D. (2010) in his abstract of ‘Ester Boserup’s theory of agrarian change: a critical review’. There are few people who would agree that an increase in the frequency of cropping is the only possible response to population pressure. The assessment in this essay has shown that Malthus was pessimistic while Ester was optimistic.

‘Malthus’ essay was emphatically conceived as a refutation of the enlightenment’s faith in progress. In Malthus’ view, no change in the political, economic, or social system could eliminate poverty, famine, and pestilence’ (Elwell, F. 2001). The theories of Malthus and Boserup even though they are two opposing theories they do have some similarities. They are both based on ‘closed’ communities which at a global scale is not true. They are similar by the way that they both agree that a rise in population will increase demand for food. However they completely differ on what consequences will be. Although it is questionable whether the principles of Malthus developed two hundred years ago that were revolutionary and controversial have any relevance to the modern world, his theory influenced how we view issues to deal with population studies.

His theory also influenced the formulation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It was Malthus who was responsible for the concept of the struggle for survival, or natural selection, upon which the theories of Spencer, Darwin, and Wallace later depended. As Darwin put it ‘this is the doctrine of Mathus applied to the whole animals and vegetables kingdoms’ (Barlow,N. & Darwin C. 1993). Malthusian ideas are often supported by western governments because it highlight the problem of too many mouths to feed, rather than the uneven distribution of resources. It is very important to note that a general limitation of this evaluation is the fact that Malthus and Boserup lived through different eras that resulted in the theories being published based on how the world was in that particular period.

Thomas Malthus lived through the 18th century to 19th century while Ester Boserup lived through the 20th century. This time frame is essential due to the fact that these theories were divided by the industrial revolution, which automatically means that the view on the world was different. In conclusion, it is not probably right to choose between Malthus and Boserup because they lived in different times and each was right in his/her own time. Both theories can be right and are relevant. Malthus is talking about the potential for a population to face environmental limits while Boserup is talking about overcoming those limits through culture and technology. Perhaps the best approach is to take into account both theories whenever making policies relating to population studies.

Barlow,N. & Darwin C. 1993. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin .W.W Norton & Company Boserup, E. 1965.The conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure. Aldine, Chicago Elwell, F. 2001. A Commentary on Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population as Social Theory. Lewiston: Mellen Press. Grigg D. (2010). Ester Boserup’s theory of agrarian change: a critical review. Retrieved 21st April 2013, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/12311646/ Malthus, T. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.2001.Library of Economics and Liberty. Retrieved 22nd April 2013, http://www.econlib.org/library/Malthus/malPop.html Marjie, B. 2003. Thomas Malthus. Essay on Population. Retrieved 21st April 2013, www.thomas%20malthus’s%20Essay%20on%20population.htm Matt, R. 2007.Thomas Malthus on population. www.about.com

Thinkgeogwiki, 2008 Malthus Vs. Boserup. www.thinkgeogwiki.htm

Boserup, E. 1965.The conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure. Aldine, Chicago Elwell, F. 2009. Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Mellen Press. Malthus, T. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the
Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the speculation of Mr Godwin, M Condorcet, and other writers. London: J Johnson Pertersen, William. 1979. Malthus. Heinemann, London. 2nd ed 1999

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