Malthus Laughs Last : Long Term Demographic Decline



Almost all through my childhood and youth, I have read that Malthus and his theory were wrong. In later writings, he was seen as a bit of an oddity, somewhat like the first “boneshaker” bicycles with their huge front wheels and small back wheels…..wasn’t it obvious that it would be more comfortable to have both wheels of the same size?

Declaimer: This article written was originally in March 2013, and some of the data points may be outdated.

In the same vein, wasn’t it obvious that human ingenuity would work on every problem of supply and delimit productivity, find alternative materials, increase yields, and do whatever it takes? And that would create an unlimited supply of ingenious human beings, which is what led Malthus to ponder upon his theory in the first place.

Who Malthus is

But for those of you who don’t know who Malthus is (i.e. those born after 1980), let me start at the beginning. Malthus propounded that mankind’s rampant and unfettered consumerism would create shortages of most economic goods, including vital ones like food, thus causing famines, war, and shortages, which would reduce the population to ‘sustainable’ levels, i.e. the levels that the Earth could naturally sustain, based on its then ‘potential’.

… and therein lies the tale. Malthus himself belied this belief in subsequent writings, moderating it to just a cap on human progress. But others took up his slogan, twisted it to hyperbole, and built up “end of the world is nigh” kind of stories, very similar to the Mayan calendar’s end of the world on 20.12.12.

What Malthus may have said is barely remembered, but his name is linked to a theory that is now discredited, that finite resources will put a cap on populations. His name is brought up every time somebody needs to point out how human ingenuity has stayed ahead of various resource crunches. The current debate on global warming and the subsequent explosion of various technological options to meet the “energy crisis”, is just one more example of how humans have always beaten the Malthusian clock, so to speak.

Always, that is, except in one area. And that is demographic decline itself. If economic progress means the ability to beat coming resource shortages with increases in supply-side productivity, or the ability to find alternate products to satisfy demand, then that (economic progress) should itself lead to the logical increase in the (procreative) productivity of the people who produced it, in the first place….i.e. a population explosion.

the major country demographics of the developed world.

But it doesn’t. At least, you would not get that idea if you were to look at the major country demographics of the developed world. In almost every country that “developed” before 1950, you have an aging workforce. Even in middle-income (East) Asia, 30% of women are unmarried; 45% of the voting population of the United States is single, mind you, despite immigration and all its attendant impact on fertility.

Why can’t Japan, which has the most obedient, TQM-oriented population in the world, simply tell itself to produce more babies? While China may have rammed through its one-child policy, I would like to see Germany try and use Hitlerian methods to push through a 3 (or 5) baby norm.

So back to Malthus now. He was looking the wrong way, believing that the trend would end because of some externality, some brake that Nature would force upon mankind. He forgot that mankind carried its own braking system; fertility drops faster in countries that show rapid economic (and subsequently, sociological and educational) progress. From even South Asia to Africa, this rule is working.

At the extreme end, there is Japan, Italy, Germany, etc. with their declining populations, putting a cap on their legendary productivity. And the size of the problem seems to be in direct proportion to their actual economic (productivity) progress.

For those “end of the world”-ers who rail at rising human populations and rue the environmental damage that it brings upon the planet, this should be sweet news. The whales of the world can regenerate as there will be fewer Norwegians/ Japanese to decimate them; not really, because the Chinese are around the corner…

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