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Neo-Malthusians believe we may still be heading for some kind of population crash

Neo-Malthusians believe we may still be heading for some kind of population crash thumbnail

Ever since Thomas Malthus published “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798, positing incorrectly that humans’ proclivity for procreation would exhaust the global food supply within a matter of decades, population growth has been a hot button issue among those contemplating humankind’s future.

Indeed our very success going forth and multiplying, paired with our ability to extend our life expectancy, has meant that we are perpetually pushing the limits of the resource base that supports us.

When Malthus was worrying about the planet’s “carrying capacity,” there were only about a billion of us on the planet. Today our population tops seven billion.

While better health care and medicine along with advances in food production and access to freshwater and sanitation have allowed us to feed ourselves and stave off many health ills, some so-called Neo-Malthusians believe we may still be heading for some kind of population crash, perhaps triggered or exacerbated by environmental factors related to climate change.

But others are less concerned given projections that world population will likely start to decline once the world’s less developed nations urbanize and start lowering their birth rates, as has already happened in Europe, the U.S., Australia and parts of Asia.

For example, Europe’s “fertility rate” between 2005 and 2010 was just 1.53 live births per woman (the standard replacement rate to maintain a stable population is 2.1). Without immigration, Europe’s population would already be shrinking.

Of course, the immigration that continues to fuel population numbers in developed countries is coming from somewhere. Indeed, population numbers are still growing in many of the world’s developing countries, including the world’s most populous nation, China, and its close rival, India.

Fertility rates in Africa continue to be among the highest in the world, as many countries there are growing fast, too. Poverty and health problems due to poor sanitation, lack of access to food and water, the low social status of women and other ills continue to cripple these regions. Overpopulation could plague us indefinitely if fertility rates don’t drop in these areas, especially as they ramp up their Western-style development.

Globally, the United Nations estimates that the number of humans populating the planet in 2100 will range from as few as 6.2 billion—almost a billion less than today—to as many as 15.8 billion on the high end.

Meanwhile, other researchers confirm the likelihood of world population levels flattening out and starting to decline by 2100 according to the lower UN estimate. To wit, the Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) recently unveiled research showing that if the world stabilizes at a fertility rate comparable to that of many European nations today (roughly 1.5), the global human population will be only half of what it is today by the year 2200, and only one-seventh by 2300.

It is difficult to say which way the global population pendulum will swing in centuries to come, given ever-changing cultural, economic and political attitudes and the development demographics they affect. As such the jury is still out as to whether human overpopulation will become a footnote in history or the dominant ill that stands in the way of all other efforts to achieve sustainability and a kinder, gentler world.

CONTACTS: Thomas Malthus,; United Nations, ; IIASA,

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7 Comments on "Neo-Malthusians believe we may still be heading for some kind of population crash"

  1. GregT on Sun, 1st Sep 2013 2:09 am 

    It is very clear that the Author does not understand the arithmetic of exponential growth.

    He also does not understand climate change, or positive feedback loops. If we don’t get our act together within the next couple of decades, we will very likely be extinct before the end of this century, and even if we do, it may very well already be too late.

  2. BillT on Sun, 1st Sep 2013 3:02 am 

    Greg, I am beginning to think that few understand math these days. It seems to be lacking in economics, energy, and population, to name a few.

    The likelihood that there will be a population crash is as sure as the sun coming up tomorrow. Too many reasons to name here. And it will happen in the next decade or so. Actually, it is already happening in the 3rd world and if there were no ‘food stamps’ or other social safety nets, it would be happening in the Western countries also.

  3. SilentRunning on Sun, 1st Sep 2013 5:31 am 

    The problem with Malthus’ argument is that it is a mathematical certainty. For example, even at a modest growth rate of 1%, in 10,000 years the human population would be so large that every atom in the observable universe would have to be part of a human body. Every star, every planet, every asteroid in the whole universe has to be converted into nothing but human bodies. And then what? How does the population keep growing after there is nothing but human bodies to eat?

    No Malthus’ argument is irrefutable – which means it can only be attacked with dishonest rhetorical theatrics.

  4. KingM on Sun, 1st Sep 2013 10:39 am 

    Have you seen the population projections of various African countries by the end of the century? 270 million in Uganda? Nearly a billion in Nigeria?

    I wouldn’t write of Malthus just yet.

  5. J-Gav on Sun, 1st Sep 2013 12:37 pm 

    In 2005 Bill Totten provided a useful reminder by re-publishing William Catton’s 1998 article on this subject.

  6. kervennic on Sun, 1st Sep 2013 1:17 pm 

    As far as i know, the main claim of Malthus is that population growth is always adjusting

    to maintain a constant rate of poverty. There are never been so many malnourished people today (one bilion). This contradicts the author: Malthus has always been correct.

    Besides Malthus talks about global dynamic of the world population.

    Globally, as western countries are pumping wealth at an unprecendeted rate, the adjustment is done by immigration: local falling rates due to the constraint of modern life in dense societies (schooling, transportation, high density, small housing, long studies, necessity of two salaries and women work etc…)are compensated by an influx of immigrants, beacause the weath is there to sustain higher numbers.

    Globally the amount of resource per person is decreasing (for example oil, the climax was in the 70s), so we are on a dynamic trend described by Malthus: the high material wealth concentration in the west was not a steady state: it fuelled explosve population growth all over the world and the adjustement will be reached when the mass of poverty will be sufficient to curb birth rate everywhere.

    This is were the developement theory of UN is wrong: there is no energy for africa to follow our track, to build cities, universities and so on and have a dropping birth rate. They will continue to maintain a high rate and will escape an impossible densification by emigration. This will lead to a global impoverishment, even in western world.

    The birth rate is globally only checked by extreme poverty, when a falling production due to resource degradation will collide with a growing population. The present dynamic shows that globally, Malthus is stil correctand the odds are that he will prove even more correct soon.

  7. CARLYY on Mon, 17th Sep 2018 11:14 pm 

    ok I LOVE DIS !

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