VALIDITY OF MALTHUSIAN THEORY IN THE LIGHT OF QUR'AN AND MODERN RESEARCH.
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By SAEED MAZHAR*
Prof. Dr. AMANAT ALI JALBANI**
Aug 23 - 29, 2004
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The idea that population growth is the key cause of ecological problems is extremely commonplace. The concept of population control is based most notably on the Malthusian Theory, which states that while subsistence (food, land, and other resources) is limited, the rate of growth of human population is not. Consequently it will continue to increase and will eventually reach an explosive proportion whereby the available land will not be able to support the vastly expanded population. Contrary to the Malthusian view, the Qur'an declares that God has created human beings and the universe and made all the necessary and complete arrangements for sustenance before their creation. Hence, the conflict between the Malthusian Theory and the Qur'anic statement is apparent. The report is aimed at gathering various data about resources and population growth from secondary sources such as the UN Population Division, Geological surveys, Online Publications, World Bank Development Reports, FAO, etc. It is an attempt to critique the status quo and to question the arguments and their underlying assumptions, which have been so readily accepted by so many. It has been shown that the Malthusian perspective is seriously flawed on many levels and that policy actions based on such assumptions will be equally compromised and potentially damaging. Policies should be devised such that the force of population is used as a harnessing power in developing the economy.

INTRODUCTION

It is commonly perceived that population is the key cause of ecological problems. The impact of population growth is a source of endless debate. Schools, national governments, international legislative bodies, interest groups and the media all lay great emphasis that the public sees the issue of population as a problem, and increasingly in reference to natural resources and environment. The concept of population control is based most notably on the Malthusian Theory which states that "The perpetual tendency in the race of man to increase beyond the means of subsistence, is one of the general laws of animated nature, which we can have no reason to expect will change," (Malthus, 1798). He suggested that population grows in a geometric progression (2, 4, 6,) while production of food grows in arithmetic progression (2, 3, 4,). Even if there is plenty of food for everyone at the beginning, after some time there will be more population than the means to feed them. Hence, the "population problem."

Contrary to the Malthusian view, the Qur'an declares that God has created human beings and the universe and made all the necessary and complete arrangements for sustenance before their creation (Quran, 9:6). It also suggests that God has undertaken to maintain a balance in the production of crops and the supply of all our essential needs in proportion to our requirements. Nothing has been created in an unbalanced and disproportionate manner (Quran, 15:21, 54:49). Hence, we see a conflict between the prevalent theory of scarcity of resources and the Qur'anic verse. Therefore, the research report aims at "Testing the validity of Malthusian Theory in light of modern scientific research"

This research strictly deals with the refutation of the Malthusian Theory, and does not focus on identifying the causes of famine, hunger, and poverty, which are related to the issue of population as well. Such research is beyond the scope of this search.

The research process will involve collection of secondary data in order to analyze if population growth is a problem in scarcity of resources. This will involve gathering lots of information from statistical sources like the UN Population Division, UNICEF, Geological surveys, Online Publications, World Bank Development Reports, FAO, etc.

POPULATION PROBLEMS AND ITS PRACTICAL FAILURE: AN OVERVIEW

In addition to numerous data and statistical sources studied for gathering the pertinent information, seminal works on the 'population problem' were reviewed for a clear explication of the issue. Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) by Thomas Malthus deals with the Malthusian Theory. Population Bomb (1968) by Paul Ehrlich is the modern version of the Malthusian Theory.

The main source of ideological aspiration for the alarmists is Thomas Malthus. In his theory, The Principle of Population, Malthus outlined a fascinating vision of the relationship between population growth and what he termed 'subsistence.' Malthus argued that population expanded 'geometrically,' while 'subsistence increases only at an arithmetic ratio.' He believed that man's ability to increase his food supply was constrained in three particular ways: through land scarcity, the limited production capacity, and the law of diminishing returns. Malthusian theory became popular again among those who were worried about the "population explosion" in the 1970s. Works like Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (1968) stressed a neo-Malthusian vision of population growth in developing countries outstripping their food supply.

Historically, this has not been the case. Malthus was wrong on two basic counts. First, contrary to his predictions, it is possible for population growth to slow and ultimately to stabilize as a result of improvements in living standards and other social changes which alter the need for many children.

Malthus' second mistake was to underestimate greatly the capacity of the earth to feed and clothe a growing human population.

Hence, fortunately for mankind, the dire prophecies of Malthus never arrived. Mitigating factors such as technological developments, agricultural developments, changes in societal organization, and changes in governmental policies, among other things, enabled humanity to avoid a situation where the number of people was greater than the capacity to sustain them.

Nonetheless, vociferous in their attacks on population growth, neo-Malthusians have captured the attention of popular media and governments alike. However, they are not without their flaws and their critics.

POPULATION AND ECONOMIC RESOURCES

Is the world overpopulated? Are we heading toward calamity? Do more people mean less food, fewer resources, a lower standard of living, and less living space for everyone? First of all, one has to realize that 'overpopulation' is a relative term. Overpopulation must be overpopulation relative to something, usually food, resources, and living space. The data given below shows that these three variables food, resources, and living space are and have been increasing more rapidly than population. Let's look at the data.

POPULATION GROWTH:

It is currently estimated that there are around six billion humans inhabiting the planet earth (United Nations Fund for Population Activities, 2004). Although the total world population continues to increase, the rate that the world's population is growing began declining in the 1970s.

POPULATION GROWTH RATE: 1950-2000

PERIOD

GROWTH RATE

1950-1960

1.7

1960-1970

2.0

1970-1980

1.8

1980-1990

1.7

1990-2000

1.4

Source: US Census Bureau.

According to the low variant projection by the United Nations, world population will begin to decrease by the year 2045. Official forecasts of future world population size have been steadily falling. In 1992-1993 the World Bank predicted world population would exceed 10 billion by the year 2050. Current predictions are of 9 billion for the year 2050.

A remarkable phenomenon has been observed in the past two centuries: a sustained decline in fertility, yielding long-term reductions in family size in many countries. Total fertility rate or TFR, the average number of births per woman during childbearing years, has declined from 5.02 in 1950 to 2.83 in the year 2000 a 43.6% decline (UN Population Division). In fact, officials at the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs in the United Nations have expressed concern over the implications of the low fertility rates, as discussed by Austin Russe in the online article, United Nations Warns About Declining Population.

Clearly, human population has been increasing in recent years. How can this be if fertility has declined so dramatically? The obvious but often ignored answer is that current population growth is largely due to the increase in human longevity. Contributing to the longevity of humans has been the increasingly abundant food resources over the past century and over the last 40 years, food production increased much faster than population.

FOOD

Crop yields follow a rather regular pattern of declines and increases based on market fluctuations. Those who rely strictly on short-term projections, ignore the long-term trends. Although there were several short term declines along the way, crop yields continued to increase. The following table illustrates the growth rates for wheat, rice and maize from 1951 to 1990.

World wheat, rice and maize yield growth rates, 1951-1990
World wheat, rice and maize yield growth rates, 1951 to 1990 (% annum)

 

1951-60

1961-70

1970-80

1980-90

Wheat

1.84

3.06

1.99

2.89

Rice

1.27

2.40

1.63

2.34

Maize

2.74

2.48

2.84

1.012

Source: Mitchell, et al 1997, p.58

 

 

It is through human ingenuity that food production has stayed ahead of population growth; indeed productivity gains in cereals such as rice, maize and wheat have been dramatic [The World Development Report 1989-99].

Some Malthusians concede that currently, there is enough food produced to feed everyone, but they claim that the amount of food available is beginning to decline. Actually, this does not appear to be the case.

Consider the analysis of Food and Agricultural Organization figures and the huge absolute gain in food production.

Further, it is stated that, "globally food supplies have more than doubled in the last 40 years between 1962 and 1991 average daily per caput food supplies increased more than 15 percent at a global level, there is probably no obstacle to food production rising to meet demand." (FAO, 1996, p. 6, 17.)

Over the long term world cereals production has consistently grown faster than population (FAO, 2000). Looking at the bar graph, it shows that at these two 34-year periods, food production will continue to outstrip the population growth.

The Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 1999) pointed out that: "...despite rapid population growth, food production per capita increased by nearly 25% during 1990-1997. The per capita daily supply of calories rose from less than 2,500 to 2,750 and that of protein from 71 grams to 76." [UNDP, The Human Development Report, 1999, p. 9].

Moreover, four times as much food is produced in developing countries today versus fifty years ago, and fifty percent more food per person is produced versus 1948-52 (FAO, 1996).

LAND

Osterfeld contends if the entire population of the world were placed in the state of Alaska, every individual would receive nearly 3,500 square feet of space, or about one-half the size of the average American family homestead with front and back yards. Alaska is a big state, but it is a mere one percent of the earth's land-mass (Osterfeld, 1993). Only 1% of the land is used for cities, towns, and roads. Only 10% is used for agriculture (FAO, 1996).

In addition to arguing that there is not enough land to support humanity, some have argued that we are actually losing existing arable lands through poor farming practices. Julian Simon has pointed out that, according to empirical studies, we actually require less land to produce more and that "the reduced economic importance of land is shown by the long-run diminution in the proportion of total tangible assets that farmland has represented in various countries." (Simon, 1996) Thus, the total amount of arable land aside, technological and agricultural developments have made it possible to produce more on less ground. He has also pointed out that the official UNFAO data demonstrate that agricultural land as a percentage of the total land area has increased over the last thirty years, from 33.13% to 35.71%. Most of the large gains have occurred in developing areas such as Latin America. In the same period, arable land as a percentage of total land area has also increased, from 10.41% to 11.03%. (Simon, 1996). Hence, the perceived loss of land is just that perception, lacking statistical support.

WATER

According to scientific experts, "whatever benchmark is taken, the precise amount of water has no absolute significance; scarcity is a relative concept and can occur at any level of supply, depending on demand and other circumstances. A society confronting water scarcity usually has options. Scarcity is not necessarily inevitable or immutable." (Winpenny)4.

In State of the World 2004: Trends and Facts Boosting Water Productivity, it is observed that: "Because of the influence of power, politics, and money, natural scarcity of water does not imply deprivation; nor does natural abundance imply access... Easing both overconsumption and under-consumption are flip sides of the global water challenge".

The large gap in coverage worldwide has almost nothing to do with water scarcity. Globally, providing universal access to 50 liters per person per day by 2015 would require less than 1 percent of current global water withdrawals. There is more than enough water, but so far the political will and financial commitments to provide the poor with access to it have not been sufficient (State of the World 2004).

 

 

MINERAL RESOURCES

The threat of depletion of our natural resources is one of the driving forces some use in raising cries of population control. Research by Kenneth of the Life Research Institute shows that mankind is finding more minerals than it is using. This is in spite of increasing population and increasing industrial activity.

Ore

Known reserves
in 1950

Cumulative
production
1950-1970
[Sum of these 21
years of
production]

Known reserves
in 1970

Percentage
increase in
known reserves
1950-1970

Iron

19,000,000

9,355,000

251,000,000

1,221

Manganese

500,000

194,000

635,000

27

Chromite

100,000

82,000

755,000

675

Tungsten

1,903

630

1,328

-30

Copper

100,000

80,000

279,000

179

Lead

40,000

48,000

86,000

115.

Zinc

70,000

70,000

113,000

61

Tin

6,000

3,800

6,600

10

Bauxite

1,400,000

505,000

5,300,000

279

Potash

5,000,000

216,000

118,000,000

2,360

Phosphates

26,000,000

1,011,000

1,178,000,000

4,430

Oil [Petroleum]

75,000,000

180,727,000

455,000,000

507

Source: Life Research Institute

 

 

With respect to all the resources, even those not discussed above, let us not forget the Simon Theory. Concerning possible depletion, according to the Simon Theory, if scarcity arises, scarcity will spur invention and development of new technologies. For example, if the world runs out of oil, cars could operate on natural gas, batteries, or fuel cells etc.

ENVIRONMENT

More and more, Malthusians are characterizing the environment as a resource, treating it as something that is quantifiable and limited in nature. Not only do Malthusians see the environment seen as a fixed entity, but also people are perceived to be the greatest threat to the earth and are reduced to the single role of 'polluters'. To posit that there is a direct, unmitigated relationship between population and the environment is a shaky proposition at best, due to the compromised nature of their argument and because so little is actually known about the environment itself.

GLOBAL WARMING

Over 17,000 scientists concur that, "there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth".

Moreover, Dr. Vincent Gray of The Heartland Institute says "there is no evidence of a global warming trend over the past 37 years if the radiosonde [weather balloon] measurements are considered, or over 18 years if the satellite measurements only are considered".

AIR/WATER POLLUTION

According to a report by the Department of Energy, CO2 emissions fell slightly, despite a rapidly expanding economy (Wall Street Journal, 2 August, 1999).

Country

1998 Carbon
Emissions
(million metric tons)

1998 Carbon
Intensity
(tons/mill $ GDP)

Change in
Emissions
since 1997
(percent)

Change in
Emissions
since 1990
(percent)

U.S.

1,460

181

+0.4

+10.3

China

803

194

-3.7

+28.0

E.U.

548

106

-0.9

+0.7*

Russia

400

652

-1.3

-23.9**

Japan

297

101

-2.5

+5.6

India

276

162

+1.8

+55.2

WORLD

6,318

153

-0.5

+6.3

*Change from 1991.

**Change from 1992.

Source: Worldwatch Institute, 1999

 

 

With regard to water pollution, the Human Development Report [UNDP 1999] stated that between 1990-1997, the share of the population with access to safe water nearly doubled, from 40% to 76%. Moreover, one can observe that some of the most beautiful parts of the world, with the highest environmental quality, are in densely populated countries such as western Germany and the Netherlands (1163 persons per square mile, compared with 331 in China).

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The data clearly show that population growth is slowing while the supplies of food, resources, and even living space are increasing. In short, although there are now more human beings on the earth than ever before by any meaningful measure the world is actually becoming relatively less populated. Hence, the 'Malthusian Theory' stands refuted, in light of Qur'an and Modern Research.

The population-resources-environment question has become much popularized over the years, and it can be seen that the Malthusian perspective has become the most popularized and widespread vision of the population-resources-environment debate, especially in media and policymaking circles. Thus, this research is an attempt to critique the status quo, as it were, and to question the arguments and their underlying assumptions, which have been so readily accepted by so many. It has been shown that the Malthusian perspective is seriously flawed on many levels and that policy actions based on such assumptions will be equally compromised and potentially damaging. Policies should be devised such that the force of population is used as a harnessing power in developing the economy.