Malthus revisited

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(HOST) Recently, the United States reached another population milestone, prompting many pessimistic predictions about the future. But commentator Olin Robison thinks we may be over-reacting.

(ROBISON) O.K. So there is now, according to the Bureau of the Census, 300 million of us. That is a lot of people. At least it sounds like a lot until you compare this number with the populations either of China or India.

My late Mother used to have a backwoods saying which she used whenever she thought someone was worrying about something they didn’t need to be worrying about. She would say they were “borrowing trouble”.

There has been a good deal of speculation – especially in the so-called “liberal” press – as to whether there are now or soon will be too many of us. The World Wildlife Federation has just released a report claiming that by the year 2050 we will need the resources of two planets like Earth to support all of us.

Worries of this sort are not new. They are Malthusian. I remember as an undergraduate at university repeatedly hearing that word used by professors and I was too timid to speak up and confess that I didn’t know what it meant.

Well, dear friends, it means worrying and fretting about population growth. Thomas Malthus wrote, way back in 1798, in London, a number of dire predictions about population growth. Malthus believed that population growth would soon outstrip world food production and then all sorts of really bad things would happen. On many university campuses you can still get an argument about Malthus – some believing that he was basically right; only that he had his projected timing wrong.

I am among those who simply believe that he was wrong; both then and now; that he was a well-intentioned alarmist who gave us both a word and a concept that are really useful. But wrong nonetheless.

The Malthusian notion that the World’s population would continue to expand both indefinitely and exponentially is almost certainly wrong. World population growth no longer appears to be endless. There are indeed worrisome trends. It certainly is the case that the more affluent societies become, the lower the birthrate falls. Consider both Italy and Japan as examples. And, however creative and insightful Malthus was, he did not see the dramatic increases in agricultural production that would now appear to be nowhere near eventual capacity. It seems likely to me that any Malthusian limitations on world population growth are more likely to come from over-dependence on carbon based energy and on eventual global shortages of fresh water than on shortages of food – although one could easily argue that the shortage of one could lead to the shortage of the other.

There was a major article in the prestigious Financial Times of London a few days ago saying that the major problem facing the United States is that of overcrowding. I suppose that if one lives in one of America’s big cities it would be easy to believe that. But I don’t.

Anyone who flies over the continental United States and looks down from the airplane sees mostly unsettled land. This is not yet, thank goodness, an overcrowded country.

The US population reached 200 million in 1967. We are projected to reach the 400 million mark in 2043 – a number fed both by a strong birthrate and by continued immigration.

So, if you must worry about something, worry about something else. To worry about this – at least right now – is simply to borrow trouble.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.

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