Malthusian Miscalculations

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In the late 18th century, British economist Thomas Malthus posited that humankind’s population would outstrip the planet’s capacity to feed everyone. So far, he has been wrong.

Many people may not have noticed that the total population of their planet passed the 8 billion mark recently. But the same people might have experienced a Malthusian sense that their communities were becoming more crowded. As CBS News reported, the number of humans on Earth has spiked in recent decades, growing by a billion in the last 11 years alone.

The pace appears to be slowing, however. In recent years, population growth has been relatively low, falling to less than one percent in 2020, for example, according to the United Nations. Researchers expect the global population to hit 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 10.4 billion in the 2080s. They forecast it should then remain level until at least 2100.

Today, China still has more people than India but both have around 1.4 billion people, added CNBC. The world’s largest democracy, India, is now expected to surpass China as early as next year as the world’s most populous nation. This shift used more accurate counting, Scientific American explained, and reflects how most population growth is occurring in the world’s poorest nations. More than half of the new births between 2020 and 2050 will happen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Tanzania.

Some might say that fewer people would translate into more resources for those who are around. Environmentally-minded UN officials told the New York Times that population growth has driven fuel consumption that emits carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change.

But more people should represent an opportunity, not become a source of fear and trepidation, argued the Washington Post editorial board. Imagine the benefits that would result from struggling African and Asian nations harnessing their human capital to develop sustainable, thriving economies.

Alternatively, as CNN warned, as those countries grow in population and economically, they might turn to fossil fuel-based industrialization that worsens climate change.

To be sure, however, other challenges will arise. The population will age as it grows, meaning more older people who do not work but need healthcare and other services, as the World Economic Forum wrote. By 2030, for instance, more than 15 percent of the people in the world will be 60 or older. Many will lack robust social welfare safety nets.

Malthus was wrong because he failed to take into account industrialization and other technological progress. Ultimately, the fate of humanity depends on the ingenuity of those who continue to be born.

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