7 Billion People and our Future

Originally published November 23, 2011

Waquar Ahmed, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Dr. Ahmed studies the socio-economic and environmental contradictions of capitalism.  His current research focuses on global governance institutions, corporate power, foreign direct investments, exploitation of nature in general and conventional energy resources in particular, energy infrastructure, and state-society relations.  He also examines the genealogy of global and national economic change, and social and environmental movements in opposition to such change.

October 31, 2011 was an important date in human history – it marked the birth of the 7 billionth person. With the focus on population, it is time again to raise the specter of Robert Malthus who wrote his first ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’ in 1789. In his essay, Malthus argued that the power of population is indefinitely greater that the power of the earth to produce subsistence, and that population will inevitably press against the means of subsistence. He then went on to suggest positive checks (which raised death rate, and included hunger, disease and war) and preventive checks (which lowered birth rates, and included birth control, prostitution, postponement of marriage and celibacy) through which population could be kept in balance with the means of subsistence. It is to be noted that Malthus wrote his doomsday scenario essay as an antidote to the hopes for social progress aroused by the French Revolution. He argued that the positive checks would impact the poor, as this was “natural law.” He, thus, cautioned against providing welfare to the poor, as this would increase human misery. Freeing the lowest classes in the society from positive checks, he argued, would only result in the expansion of their numbers, a gradual reduction in the standards of living of all members of the society, and a decline in the incentive to work. He also argued that increasing subsistence levels to “a part of society that cannot in general be considered as the most valuable part diminishes the shares that would otherwise belong to more industrious and worthy members, and thus forces more to become dependent.” Malthus was an apologist of the business class and his solution to population growth was anti-poor. Yet, he and his ideas remain popular amongst scientists, as well as in the popular media.

Fast-forward to October 31, 2011 when NPR carried a story by Corey Flintoff titled “When humans hit 7 billion, will it happen in India?” While this story was not as crude as the essay by Malthus, the ideological underpinnings were similar. It had a picture of 6 babies huddled together in a hospital in India and pointed out that fifty-one babies were born in India every minute. It also had a picture of an overcrowded street and a crowded maternity ward in India. The NPR story quoted a doctor who pointed out that “there will be a lot of intolerance and more physical violence, probably. And water and food are going to be a major crisis situation.” In other words, this story insinuated that poor countries such as India were the reason for the global population explosion, which in turn, endangered our planet. This story had no mention of the fact that the population density of a Western country like the Netherlands is higher than that of India. There is also no mention of the fact that India’s decadal population growth rate has declined from 24.8 percent between 1961 and 1971 to 17.6 percent between 2001 to 2011.

A similar view is found amongst certain scientists as well. I recently came across a survey conducted by a scientist that focused on climate change and population growth. The surveyor made a direct connection between population and climate change and enquired if additional taxes on families with more than two children, elimination of tax subsidies for agriculture, or removal of tax credit for children, amongst others, could help reduce population growth. It also asked if these were political feasible. While it is necessary to answer the kinds of questions that this particular scientist was raising, I wonder why there were no questions on higher taxes for those owning more than one car or more than one generator or more than one air conditioner.

If Malthus’s argument were to be turned on its head, then one would ask: is the constraint on resource or food based solely on population size or is it about allocation, where certain groups have it in abundance and control its distribution to control prices and profits? Similarly, in view of the dangers of climate change, we need to remind ourselves that those living in North America and Europe consume much of the global energy, despite the large size of the Chinese and Indian population. We also need to ask if our current energy dependent and economic growth-based (read – increased energy requirement in the future) system is sustainable? And more importantly, can we fathom a zero-growth economy, and better still, a more egalitarian economy where we equalize wealth/resource distribution across space so that we can have the moral authority to request countries like India and China not to embark on a path that would produce climate change and destroy the earth? In other words, I am arguing that in view of our current lifestyle in the ‘West,’ we have no moral authority to ask China or India to ‘save our planet.’