The Malthusian theory of population suggests that there is a systematic approach to human civilization. Thomas Malthus first suggested in 1798, and then expanded upon his thoughts in 1803, that human populations will grow exponentially when food production grows at an arithmetic rate.
According to Malthus, human populations could double if food output was able to keep up with the number of mouths to feed. If there is not enough food to feed everyone, then Malthus suggests that human population levels would naturally decline.
His calculations suggested that by the year 2000, human populations on the planet could reach 256 billion, but that the Earth only had enough resources to support up to 9 billion people. To solve this problem, he suggested the idea of “moral restraint” being placed on society.
For Malthus, moral restraint was a conscious effort not to have children early on in life. Malthus believed that if men and women got married later, then families would be smaller and there could even be fewer families. Even though he believed an increase in births to non-family couples would occur, Malthus believed the offset would help to reduce population numbers.
Any theory, by definition, that opposes the conclusions found by Malthus in his theory of population growth is an anti-Malthusian theory. The most popular anti-Malthusian theory tends to be the one developed by Ester Boserup.
What Is Boserup’s Theory of Population?
Boserup suggests that when human populations increase, there is a period of agricultural intensification and innovation. Instead of there being a limited food supply, which would eventually stop human populations from growing, her theory suggests that people have the power of ingenuity so that the supply of food will always be able to outweigh the demand for it.
According to data from Oxfam, the planet currently produces about 20% more in total kcal output than is required for every person to maintain a healthy diet right now.
Boserup notes in her theory of population growth that when communities experience low levels of population, then land use becomes intermittent and sparse. Unused parcels of land are left undeveloped, which means they are taken out of agricultural production. When population levels rise, the undeveloped land begins to be developed so that is can be used to grow food.
Humans also begin to look for new ways to work their fields as population levels grown. Boseruup found that in rural areas with low population densities, farmers had to work more hours to achieve the same yields as their counterparts in areas of high population densities. Workloads rise when efficiency levels drop, which means greater population levels encourage better levels of efficiency from the agricultural sectors.
According to Boserup, as long as human beings have an ability to be innovative, there will always be an ability to continue growing more food. That means the only thing that holds back population levels is our own ability to be creative and innovative.
How Science Supports the Anti-Malthusian Approach
What we have discovered in the past two centuries is that freshwater isn’t necessarily required to grow crops, which is a basic assumption that is often incorporated into the Malthusian viewpoint. Date palms, for example, are a fruit crop that is rated as having a high salt tolerance. Vegetable crops, such as asparagus, kale, and spinach, also have a high salt tolerance.
Even forage and field crops, such as Bermuda grass, sugar beets, barley and certain types of wild rye have the same high tolerance levels.
Because of this knowledge, the agricultural sector can use more lands and more water resources to grow crops. This makes it possible to create yields in areas that would have been considered unmanageable in the past.
We can also see the levels of food production increase as population levels increase. By 2050, human population levels are expected to exceed the number that Malthusian suspected would be dangerous. Our upward trends in food production continue to show that the growing levels of demand can be met.
Our problem isn’t science. Our problem is politics.
In the United States, 1 in 5 children live in food insecure households. Globally, 1 in 7 people does not have enough food to eat on any given day. At the same time, there is more than enough food to feed everyone. The problem is threefold: infrastructure, socioeconomics, and political greed.
Millions of pounds of food go to waste during transport. People can’t access food because they don’t have enough money in some regions. And in some parts of the world, the government takes the food for themselves instead of giving it to the people.
Anti-Malthusian theories have their supporters, just as Malthusian theories do. The difference in what one believes is how that person looks at the current evidence of growth.