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Population and resources - Malthus and Boserup
Over and under population
The Club of Rome
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Malthus and Boserup
Optimum population plan
Population and resources

Think about it!

A 2009 estimate from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggested that the UK’s population could rise as high as 71 million people by 2033.  This caused an outcry and heated debate between politicians and people who either see nothing wrong with that and people who on the contrary want to see strict controls put into place on the UK’s population (and in most cases on the migration element).  But why was this the case?  The answer lies in how people view the delicate balance between population and resource provision in different ways.

Over and Underpopulation


Changing populations can be viewed in relation to how many resources are available to support that population.  Indeed, overpopulation is a condition where there are too many people living in a nation or area relative to the natural resources (food, water, fuel, building materials etc) that exist in that place (the UK could be considered overpopulated in terms of food supply as we only produce 60percent of the food we consume).  In contrast, under population is where there are too few people living in an area to efficiently exploit and use the natural resources within that area (e.g. Northern Canada has huge mineral wealth but too few people to exploit those minerals because of climatic constraints).  The ideal situation or any government is OPTIMUM POPULATION, where there is a balance between the population size and the amounts of resources available. 


The reality of achieving OPTIMUM population is difficult in practice because of 2 main reasons:

Population sizes are not static but DYNAMIC and grow or shrink over time.

Technology changes, allowing the exploitation of natural resources that might not have previously been available (e.g. technology has allowed us to farm increasing amounts of land in the UK that 200 years ago would have been inadequate for farming).


A good example of a country that has tried to manage OVER and UNDER population within its borders is Indonesia.  Here, the government launched a massive transmigration program.


Thomas Malthus and Esther Boserup

There have been 2 major contributors to the idea of the balance between population and resources, pessimistic (doom and gloom) of Thomas Malthus and the optimism (the glass is half full!) attitudes of Esther Boserup.

Malthus lived in the 18th century and wrote an essay on the principles of population.  In this essay he stated that population growth would be checked or stopped by various factors.  His argument was essentially that population grew geometrically (1,2,4,8,16,32) whereas food production and resource provision grew at a slower arithmetic rate(1,2,3,4,5,6).  He concluded that because of this more and more peasants and subsistence farmers would live poorer and poorer lives until some checks came into place.   He proposed that there would be positive checks, which raise the death rate; and preventative ones, which lower the birth rate. The positive checks include hunger, disease and war; the preventative checks, abortion, birth control, prostitution, postponement of marriage and celibacy.


The alternative viewpoint came from Esther Boserup, who suggested that human innovation and technological advances would allow food production to keep up with population growth. Boserup was a Danish economist and published The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure.  She argued that when population density is low enough to allow it, land tends to be used intermittently (not frequently – with gaps in time to allow land to recover), with heavy reliance on fire to clear fields and fallowing to restore fertility. It is only when rising population density reduces the use of fallowing (and therefore the use of fire) that fields are moved towards annual cultivation. This reduces fertility, and to deal with this people expanded efforts at fertilizing, field preparation, weed control, and irrigation. This process of raising production at the cost of more work at lower efficiency is what Boserup describes as "agricultural intensification".

So who is right?

Malthus’ theory on population growth has proved to be correct and has grown to a staggering 6.8Billion in 2010.  There have also been many local famines within regions, natural disasters, water shortages to check local population growth.  However, the number of famine deaths has decreased over time, and population growth in some parts of the world such as Europe has stabilised or stopped.  So who is right? It seems that many of the problems of having a finite land area and possible food shortages have been overcome by technology.  The industrialisation of farming, the green revolution, GM crops, improved farming methods, land reform have all massively increased food production.  Indeed, some of the poorest countries in the world can still export food to raise foreign earnings and gain investment from TNCs.  However, some people still hold the Malthusian view that catastrophe is imminent.  This is because population continues to rise rapidly and many of our farming practices are heavily dependent on unsustainable substances such as crude oil. In addition, there may be less famine deaths but hundreds of millions of people survive on very basic diets leading them to be malnourished rather than undernourished.  So population size and density does have a negative impact upon their lives.


JULIAN Simon and The Club of Rome

More current views come from the deceased Julian Simon, and the Club of Rome. Julian Simon supported Boserup’s view that humanity would innovate its way out of disaster.  "We now have in our hands—really, in our libraries—the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven billion years." (Simon along The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving 1995).

The Club of Rome are a group of industrialists, scientists, economists and statesmen from 10 countries. They published ‘The Limits to Growth’ in 1972 which reached the basic conclusion that if present growth trends in world population continue and if associated industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime in the next 100 years. Five variables were examined in the original model, on the assumptions that exponential growth accurately described their patterns of increase, and that the ability of technology to increase the availability of resources grows only linearly. These variables are: world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. The authors intended to explore the possibility of a sustainable feedback pattern that would be achieved by altering growth trends among the five variables. The most probably result will be sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.  The Club of Rome really bring the idea of SUSTAINABILITY to the population and resources argument. The question now becomes who do you believe?