GEOG 128
Geography of International Affairs

The Return of Malthus



  • A growing population is the biggest threat to the environment.
  • Although people in core countries consume more, strict demographic controls are needed everywhere to solve the problem – even severely coercive tactics where necessary.

To Watch

Watch Three’s a Crowd? The Battle Over Population and Reproduction, through minute 11:39.

Transcript of Three’s a Crowd? The Battle Over Population and Reproduction Video


ADRIAN SCOTT, PRINCIPAL OF ENABLE SOLUTIONS: We have a finite planet. We've already consumed the accessible high grade deposits of most of the crucial non-renewable resources, and it's worse for the renewable resources. We are already consuming more than the natural machine can replace. This means we're literally eating into our capital such as the breeding stock of a fishery. Once that capital is gone, the resource ceases to exist totally. The poster child here is climate change, but that's not the only crisis, there are many others such as extinctions, deforestation, destruction of the soil. Solving this problem requires we reduce our total impact on the planet and on its ecosystem. This impact is made up of only three factors: the average affluence per person times the effective technology measured as a percentage (the lower being better) times the number of people. To reduce humanity's impact, we have to reduce one or more of these three. Especially in the environmental movement, the focus is on reducing affluence totally, but that isn't going to work. Most of us will simply refuse to adopt a third world standard of living that it would require to succeed. Others believe that our ingenuity will produce the new technology needed to allow us to have the same standard of living, but with lower impact, however this faith is rooted in the market mechanism with rising resource prices making it profitable to supply the new technology as a business. Logical. Yet for many key resources, drinking water may be the crucial one. Government prevents prices from rising, so if the market simply doesn't get back the signal. Moreover, the scale involved. It takes a great deal of money and considerable time to develop and distribute a new technology. That leaves only population reduction, fortunately, this one works. The UN estimates that an amazing 1/3 of current births are unwanted. Simply avoiding these would reverse population growth. When women learn about contraceptives and have access to the means for it, they in general reduce their fertility voluntarily, substantially and quickly. No coercion is needed, and the cost is very, very low. The problem here isn't carbon emissions, that's a symptom. The underlying cause is absolutely clear, there are too many of us.

DR. AUSTEN IVEREIGH, CATHOLIC COMMENTATOR; LEAD ORGANISER OF WEST LONDON CITIZENS: The lens through which the populations view the problems of the world is is one of pathologic anxiety and I use pathological in it's correct and proper sense meaning an obsessive focus on one side of the problem. The multiplication of human beings is in itself a frightening and awesome phenomenon from we as a planet and as a population need to be defended. Ever since Malthus argued that without war and pestilence and famine human numbers would outstrip food production, ever since the late 1700s there has been this same pathologic anxiety reoccurring in almost every generation. Production on the whole has increased along with population growth, and there is no reason to think this wouldn't continue. The key resource is human beings, not the key problem. Large families in poor countries are on the whole a necessary response to the absence of opportunity, the need for rural communities to be self sustaining. Those are the problems that need to be dealt with. The population debate has now moved on to the impact of the demographic growth on the environment. Now human beings are looked at not as primary consumers of dwindling resources, but now as emitters of greenhouse gases. So suddenly if we reduce the number people, we reduce the emissions and therefore somehow solve our environmental problem. This is merely a tactical shifting of the ground on the part of the populationist. They know that their arguments about the need for fewer poor people are unacceptable, so they're now trying to seize a share of the moral ground which is now occupied by the green movement. But I'm afraid the same arguments hold here too. People are the source of resolving the green crisis, the ecological crisis, not simply the cause of it. I believe openist life is the center of true development, and what I mean by that is that our focus must be on the welfare of human beings, it must start from human need. It must trouble us, it must keep us awake at night. The people born into poverty and without opportunity. And we need to organize our societies and our planets so humans are nurtured into life and not chased off the planet.

MARK WALPORT, DIRECTOR OF WELLCOME TRUST: The first thing that we're all going to agree about, I'd say for anyway, is that coercion isn't the answer. We're asked whether it's moral imperative that we should alter population. I don't think it's moral imperative, I think it's actually a judgment based on evidence. When a population reproduces in the presence of finite resources, then at some point a catastrophe happens to that population. And I think the issue in the sense of population control is that it will happen. The question is will it happen nicely or will it happen nastily? Will we in fact go on reproducing at the rate we are? In which case something ghastly will happen, we'll run out of resources, we're soiling the planet, or in fact will human development mean that actually we're in enabled to control our population? So, I think the essence is if we are going to get there it has to be through choice, and what we have to do is enable people's choice. And again, I think if you look at the evidence, there's this process which is called demographic transition. And one can look at the evolution of the populations in the following way. In a completely undeveloped environment, the death rate is very high because the conditions are unsanitary, there's often infection, and the birth rate is very high as well. In that situation you have a very balanced population. What's happening in the developing world and what's happened in all societies at different stages of development, is that the death rate has gone down, the food supply has improved, sanitation has improved, basic healthcare has become available, and that's the situation in which you get very dramatic population growth. But then, as populations become urbanized, as there's a transition towards development, as contraception becomes available, children survive, they require education, they go out to work, and people actually start making choices about whether they have children or not. And that's why contraception is so important in the choice people make. And then we get to the situation in the most developed countries in the world where birth rates are actually in many countries below replacement rates. So, I think we can see actually a natural evolution where it becomes to people's advantage not to have too many children. They way that we're going to engender population change in the development world, is actually by making sure we reduce child mortality, we reduce maternal mortality, we feed children better. But where I depart from you radically, is that at that point those populations need contraceptives. But what I would just emphasize in closing that choice requires access to free contraception.

DR. ELLIE LEE, LECTURER IN SOCIAL POLICY AT UNIVERSITY OF KENT: I think we need to repose this debate in the way it happened, and has happened historically. Over time, the debate around population has really been one that's posed between two perspectives. One which broadly speaking you can call antinatalist, so that's to say one which tends to represent birth, population is a problem for development. The other pronatalist sees birth and population growth as positive for development. So that's the kind of line of debate. I think there's a need to repost the issue because where I'm coming from, actually these two movements and these two outlooks on the world have more in common than sets them apart. Both movements are either pro or antinatalist, perceive reproductive decisions and what happens in people's family life an entirely appropriate area for intervention in the interest of the greater good. So both movements pose to us the idea that is societal problem and the way that we should go about resolving this societal problem is to encourage people to have more children or less children. And I know this panel is set up as if we sort of argue two against two. I don't mind this, but I actually think it's three against one and I just want to make my position clear on that because I'm opposed to everybody else. [LAUGHTER] I very, very strongly oppose the idea that we should see reproductive life and family life as an area of society which we seek to manipulate and influence in the interest of the greater good. I think in whichever form it takes, the moralization and politicization of private life is a really problematic thing to do. I think private life is a very fragile thing. Our privacy is a hard win gain. It's taken a very, very long time for civilized societies to develop ideas about privacy and intimacy which we culturally hold in high regard in which we value. And we seize to protect it's space an area of freedom in which individuals can shape their own destinies, make decisions that they conceive are right. From my point of view, what I perceive as the most important moral imperative, it matters more than anything else, is guarding that realm of freedom and privacy and intimacy. Both pronatalist and antinatalist movements, have really moved back from suggesting that they have anything to do with coercion or the state or laws or anything like that. No, no, no that's not turfs, we're not into the one child policy. If you're antinatalist, we're not trying to ban abortion. If you're from the Catholic church, all time telling us what they're into is empowering women. And this brings me to my second point which is I think there's a huge level of dishonesty about what they're really saying to women here. At the very least, women should expect from them a level of honesty about what they're saying. Which is what they are really saying, is they think women make bad, wrong decisions. What the Catholic church and the pro-life lobby really thinks is that women shouldn't have abortions and I think it would actually love it if there were laws that made abortions much harder to get. I very much doubt Adrian would be manning the barricades if the Government did introduce a two children policy. In opposition to that policy, I think he would probably applaud it. Women want to have sometimes three or four children because that's the way they perceive it to be best, pursue their family and develop their family. Even if those pregnancies are unplanned, then they come to private decisions with their partners in the context of thinking about their family life is the way to resolve it. I'm just saying that where all these women who got into this situation because they didn't have proper contraception, I just think isn't true. That's not why women have more than two children. So if you're really saying stop at two, what you're really saying is that if you decide to have three children or four children you are doing something which is morally wrong and at least you should have the honesty to come out with that position and be clear about what you're really saying to women.

What many Neo-Malthusians fail to consider is that environmental degradation in the periphery is often connected to consumption in the core. Think about it, we don’t just outsource manufacturing (labor) to China and other semi-periphery and periphery states. Natural resource extraction (for oil, lumber, etc.) as well as raw resources for manufacturing goods and textiles are not primarily located in core nations—poor semi-peripheral and peripheral nations are the sites of such resource extraction. Our consumption in the core contributes to environmental degradation in the global south.