Population and the Environment

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) was a political economist who is known for his Malthusian Growth Model. As one of the first scholars to attempt to describe and analyze a population, he realized that human populations grew exponentially. He also identified a relationship between the standard of living of an average person and the food supply available to the population as a whole. The expansion of the food supply, as he saw it, was limited to how much land could be spared to grow food, which cannot grow exponentially. If population growth is exponential, and expansion of the food supply is not, humans have a problem. Malthus believed that there would come a time when the Earth’s population would exceed its food capacity. The results, as anyone who has seen a post-apocalypse film  knows, would not be good. Malthus’s conclusions to his theory are alarming. Essentially, he thought anything that could reduce the human population was a good thing. This included things like birth control and celibacy, but he also did not think war and famine were bad. Regardless of his morally suspect views, Malthus was one of the first to bring up the problem of over-population and how it could be a problem.

What Malthus did not count on when he predicted the apocalypse was the rate of technological advancement. While this contributed to population growth through improved medical practices, sanitation, and other means, it also greatly improved the ability of humans to produce more food in less area. The direction of this causality may be unclear—whether population caused technology or technology allowed population—but their relationship is important to human’s effect on the environment.

Technological innovation brought massive changes in every way. One of these changes was the growth of productivity. Global economic prosperity took off in the 20th century even relative to the growth in population. With this came massive increases in the demand for energy. As prof. Roche explained on Monday, humans not only needed more energy, but we had the means of supplying it with cheap, burnable fuel. The consequences of our use of these sources of energy are probably the most significant threat to human life on this planet at the moment. Increased productivity brought about new factories and the demand for labor. During the lecture on Wednesday, we discussed how rural populations moved to the cities to meet this demand and what this process looked like. Despite the rural population declining and more efficient farming techniques, farmers still needed more farm land. The increasing number of people around the world had to be fed, so people began farming more land. This meant they had to clear out areas to use, which included chopping down trees and killing the animals. Deforestation and the near extinction of certain species have been the result (Bayly, p. 294).

Thomas Malthus may have missed on many points, but he was correct in thinking that we need to find a balance between the need to feed our growing population and the need to protect the environment. Bayly (p. 297) agrees with this dilemma. Obviously, we can’t not feed people and just let them starve. Nor can we destroy the only home we have. Population is may still be the problem, but hindsight is 20/20 (if you’re alive). Who can say if our best chance for salvation lies in the stagnation of population growth, technological advancement, or something entirely different.

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