Is Population Still a ‘Time Bomb’?
By Rachael Cage
In the face of uncontrolled population growth, international relations theorists have long regarded overpopulation as a serious challenge, which if mishandled could lead to a dire catastrophe. This paper will focus on Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich who have been very influential in the population debate. Malthus established positive and preventative checks which naturally try to counteract the population increase and warned of an incapacity of subsistence to counteract population growth. Ehrlich, unlike Malthus who discussed the inadequacy of food supply, extended this idea to include the environmental degradation as a critical impact of overpopulation. He advocated the implementation of population control policies as a means of countering the effects of overpopulation and help it reach a growth rate at equilibrium, stopping population growth. This is relevant to the demographic transition theory which provides that population goes through predictable stages and as society become industrialized, fertility rates drop and population growth will settle at equilibrium, bringing Zero Population Growth (ZPG). Although this theory is more applicable to Western societies, international intervention to cause developing countries to progress through the demographic transition is leading the population towards a ZPG. However, the population continues to grow and thus natural checks will occur, however this population growth will be beneficial for mankind over the long term. In 1798, Thomas Malthus, a Scottish clergy man educated in England, created Malthusian theory in his essay on the ‘Principle of Population’. Malthus proposed that population grows faster than the subsistence needed to sustain it and despite checks and balances that create fluctuations in this growth, the population increase is such that the world is headed for disaster. He accredited this exploding population to a geometric rate of population growth which cannot be sustained by the food supply which increases by arithmetic increments. Malthus believed that this inadequate food supply would lead to disasters in the form of naturally occurring positive checks on population growth. These positive checks on population growth, including famine, disease and war, prevent the population from doubling every generation. 200 years later modern-day Malthusian theorists, such as Bermuda-based philanthropist James Martin, continue to affirm these predictions. In 2010, Martin forecasted that "by mid-century we're going to be using the term 'giga-famine', meaning a famine where more than a billion people will die, a catastrophe on a scale that's never been known before on Earth." In conjunction with the positive checks, Malthusian theory also asserts that preventative checks, such as sexual abstinence, should be utilized to control population. However, Malthus himself acknowledged that such mechanisms do little to minimise population growth in the long run. Although Malthusian theory successfully predicted population fluctuations, at such an early time Malthus could not have foreseen the effects that modern day developments, such as technical advances in agriculture, medicine and contraceptives, would have had on population growth and have subsequently derailed his predicted cycle of population growth. Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University and member of the National Academy of Sciences, echoed Malthus decades later, in 1968, when he compiled his theory and predictions into his nationally acclaimed book, The Population Bomb which was followed by other predictive writings. Ehrlich argued that a population explosion would increase past the sustainable point given the production rate of critical resources. He was one of the first theorists to transcend food production and consider environmental harm, such as pollution of air and water, a critical result of overpopulation. Without the use...
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