The Causes of Poverty (24): Population Growth and Income Growth: Incompatible?

Some blame overpopulation for many of the world’s problems such as poverty, famine and war (which are obviously rights violations). There are supposed to be too many people for peaceful coexistence and sustainable food production. Those who worry about overpopulation are often called (neo-)Malthusians, and either predict a sharp fall in population levels because of the problems caused by overpopulation (a “Malthusian catastrophe”), or/and propose population control as a measure to solve these problems.

For pretty much all of human history, population growth constrained growth in real standards of living. That’s the “Malthusian Trap”: as standards of living improved, population increased, which put a strain on resources and drove down standards of living, which in turn drove down population growth, rinse & repeat. The industrial revolution broke this trap, although it’s worth pointing out the fairly obvious fact that this is not true for the entire world. Conor Clarke (source)

… over a roughly 3000 year period, during which there was obviously quite a lot of technological progress — iron plows, horse collars, mastering the cultivation of rice, the importation of potatoes into Europe, etc. — living standards basically went nowhere. Why? Because population growth always ate up the gains, pushing living standards back to roughly subsistence.

… technological change was slow — so slow that by 1600 or so, when England had finally reclaimed its population losses from the Black Death, it found real wages back to more or less 1300 levels again.

And here’s the sense in which Malthus was right: he had a fundamentally valid model of the pre-Industrial Revolution economy, which was one in which technological progress translated into more people, not higher living standards. This homeostasis only broke down when very rapid technological change finally outstripped population pressure for an extended period. Paul Krugman (source)

It’s clear that population growth can go hand in hand with income growth, and that it’s not correct to state that population growth necessarily leads to more poverty, which in turn leads to a reversal of population growth. But these compatible evolutions of population and income seem to require technological advances.

Note: my criticism of Malthusianism and other types of overpopulation hysteria (see here for some examples) is targeted only at deterministic theories which believe in overpopulation as the main if not only cause for the world’s problems, and which see overpopulation as a global problem. I accept that in certain specific areas of the world, population pressures can make things worse. But I don’t agree that these pressures are the sole or even the main cause of problems such as poverty, famine, war etc. And neither do I agree that population control is the main remedy for these problems. For example, we all know that water shortages – even very local ones – aren’t caused by overpopulation and won’t be solved by population control. More intelligent irrigation methods are the answer. And when we leave the local level and take the global point of view, the population problem is even less salient. On a world scale, income has grown systematically faster than the world’s population during the last centuries. Population pressures do not lead us to an inevitable “trap” as Malthus and his followers claim.


4 thoughts on “The Causes of Poverty (24): Population Growth and Income Growth: Incompatible?

  1. Filip,
    the first thing i want to make clear is i don’t know who the hell malthus is. i’ve never heard the name until today when i read your blog. so i don’t know if i would agree with anything he has to say either.
    unfortunately, i think your view of the subject is much to narrow. the industrial revolution and explosion in the population growth occurred because of oil. we got better at finding it, extracting it and refining it. we traded food for oil by developing machinery that plowed the fields and harvested crops. oil became the means by which we distributed food across the country and the globe.
    your right, at least right now. the problem is not population it’s energy. we are consuming energy indiscriminately and at rates inconceivable without oil, an ever diminishing resource and one for which we have no replacement once it’s gone. i won’t even discuss how its byproducts affect the environment because there are still people who, for some reason, think that doesn’t occur. now the optimist in me says we’ll find one just as cheap and effective and even non polluting in the future that no one has discovered yet, but the realist in me knows that is highly dubious. the day is coming when oil will run out. that is when population as the source of poverty, war and famine will come.
    the preindustrial revolution population was the earth’s sustainable population without a damn near free energy source like oil. oil has significantly skewed that relationship. look at any human population growth curve and tell me if it appears sustainable. if you do think it looks sustainable then you don’t have a very keen mathematical mind. if you said it appears more like a chemical reaction running out of control, i would say your a pretty smart cookie. and chemical reactions like that usually don’t reach an equilibrium, they exhaust themselves, their substrates consumed in the reaction. this usually occurs in a lab, in a controlled environment where men much smarter than you and i attempt to control as many variables as possible. here we are discussing a system with orders of magnitude more variables without nary a whiff of controls to limit its growth.
    the problem with mankind’s current reasoning is it’s shortsighted nature towards both the past and future. we ignore the past causing us to make the same mistakes over and over again. and we don’t look past the nose on our face much less past our own lifespan, which is insignificant by comparison to cosmic time, which is potentially how long mankind will be around, to make the right decisions now.
    i’m all for human rights, but i don’t know if indiscriminate procreation should be a basic right under the current circumstances. economics along with a socially and personally responsible mind would help buffer the problem a little, but we have huge populations of people living outside the economic model that would help limit their population. take my experience for example. i work in a white collar industry. my wife and i along with many of our friends are in our forties and have few children if any, not enough to replace ourselves right now but hopefully so when all is said and done. that is because we all made responsible choices to put ourselves in situations where we could support families and wives and create the nurturing homes that will give our children the best possible chance to succeed at life, as we know it exists today. this is often brought on by the pressures of our economic situation. take the other side of the coin, and i have had contact with hundreds of families on the other side. they have children out of wedlock, often several while still teenagers with no way to support themselves nor their children with a government rewarding their irresponsible behavior. and behavior is a funny thing. it’s contagious. do you think their children will grow up with any sense of personal or social responsibility? they will repeat the pattern they are familiar with. by the way, how many children do you think these people are having that are probably going to grow up as a financial and social burden to whichever country in which they are born?
    you can’t possibly believe personal and social responsibility would not be beneficial in any society anywhere in the world. take an area of the world where people are starving given the amount of food produced in that region. if you reduced the number of mouths to feed does the available food not go further per individual.
    your discussion of fresh water ever more naive. i have lived in agricultural communities most my life. which leads me to another story of shortsighted foolishness. i new an old farmer who told me he ran most of the irrigation in the area and when he farmed he was pumping 1000 gallons a minute out of a regional aquifer. now he states the wells are 200 feet deeper and pumping 200 gallons a minute if they’re lucky. nature may have take a million years to put that water there, and man will likely exhaust it in less than one human lifetime. even if agricultural irrigation was a thousand times more efficient, any unrestricted demand on any finite resource will lead to disaster. human nature is one of consumption and demand. those living will consume as much as they can possibly afford and then some. this is what caused the housing market crash just a few years ago. tens of millions of people wanting more. that’s why obesity is such a problem now, probably hundreds of millions over consuming. no organism on earth that we are aware of besides man has ever caused the direct extinction of another species, overconsumption. the overconsumption will never stop. therefore, how do you stop the overconsumption? you limit the consumer. i have about a thousand more examples of overconsumption. we could also discuss the fact that we are totally dependent on other earthly lifeforms that we must learn to share all of these resources with. we could also discuss how petroleum as a cheap energy source is responsible for almost all of the technological advancements we have made in the last hundred years, much of this technology running on energy produce by fossil fuels and reiterate that its availability is coming to an end. if you haven’t seen it yet, watch “the most important video you will ever see” on youtube. i’ll let you know already held the opinions above long before seeing this video but it’s probably presented better by the gentleman on youtube.
    it’s a tough nut to crack. there are some excruciatingly painful decisions to be made in the near future. but unless we find a free, renewable and vast energy source tomorrow, i’m unwilling to take population control off the table and i think it naive for anyone else to it either.


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