Population Density and Resource Abundance: Turning the Malthusian Logic on its Head


A few months ago prominent naturalist David Attenborough told attendees at the World Economic Forum about humanity’s unsustainable population growth and his certainty that it has to “come to an end” quickly. In the meantime, he told participants, we should also eat a lot less meat. In delivering this message, Attenborough was once again echoing his long standing belief that “[a]ll of our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.”

Britain’s “national treasure” is hardly alone in terms of holding this view. Indeed, from Thomas Robert Malthus to Paul Ehrlich most proponents of population control measures have argued that a significant population reduction - short of being achieved by an infrastructure-destroying army - would benefit the remaining inhabitants by giving them access to more and better resources. In an online debate with economist Bryan Caplan, economic historian Gregory Clark even argued that plagues ultimately “raised material living standards.” As he put it, in England “1.5 million people died prematurely in 1349. In return 6 generations got to live very well with little further excess deaths. And then 1.5 million people got to live longer as the plague weakened its grip in the 16th century, and the population returned to its earlier level. The unlucky generation of 1349 was counterbalanced by the lucky generations of 1540--1620. God smiled on the English when he delivered the plague!”

And yet, as critics of this perspective have long argued, the population growth pessimists have always had things exactly backward. After all, as urban theorist Jane Jacobs wondered two generations ago, many parts of the world, such as portions of Ireland and Sicily, had by then been almost entirely depopulated by emigration, yet far from thriving their remaining inhabitants remained poor. As she put it: “One wonders how much a population is supposed to be reduced before prosperity ensues.”

Indeed, virtually all the historical evidence suggests to the contrary that a more numerous population that engages in trade and innovative behavior is always better off. This can be traced back to two essential factors. The first is that a larger population that engages in trade and the division of labor will deliver greater material abundance per capita. The second is that the greater the number of human brains, the greater the likelihood of new beneficial inventions. As the British political economist William Petty observed over a century before Malthus, it was “more likely that one ingenious curious man may rather be found out amongst 4,000,000 than 400 persons.”

Furthermore, present and future advances build on past ones. The economist Fritz Machlup thus summed up past debates over half a century ago by distinguishing between the “retardation school” of technological change, whose proponents believed that “the more that has been invented the less there is left to be invented,” and the “acceleration school,” according to which “the more that is invented the easier it becomes to invent still more” because “every new invention furnishes a new idea for potential combination with vast numbers of existing ideas” and the “number of possible combination increases geometrically with the number of elements at hand,” a perspective that has long been vindicated.

To give but a few illustrations. In 1821 the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say argued in a letter to Malthus that the belief that a reduced population would “enable those which are left to enjoy a greater quantity of those commodities of which they are in want” was nonsensical because it ignored the fact that a reduction in manpower simultaneously destroyed the means of production. After all, one did not see in thinly populated countries that “the wants of the inhabitants are more easily satisfied.” On the contrary, it was “abundance of productions, and not the scarcity of consumers, which procures a plentiful supply of whatever our necessities require.” This is why the most populous countries were generally better supplied.

In 1879, American economist Henry George observed that while one could see “many communities still increasing in population,” they were also “increasing their wealth still faster.” Indeed, “among communities of similar people in a similar stage of civilization,” the “most densely populated community is also the richest” and the evidence was overwhelming that “wealth is greatest where population is densest; that the production of wealth to a given amount of labor increases as population increases. These things are apparent wherever we turn our eyes.”

In the end, the “richest countries are not those where nature is most prolific; but those where labor is most efficient -- not Mexico, but Massachusetts; not Brazil, but England.” Where nature is niggardly, George commented, “[t]wenty men working together will…produce more than twenty times the wealth that one man can produce where nature is most bountiful.” This was because the “denser the population the more minute becomes the subdivision of labor, the greater the economies of production and distribution, and, hence, the very reverse of the Malthusian doctrine is true; and, within the limits in which we have reason to suppose increase would still go on, in any given state of civilization a greater number of people can produce a larger proportionate amount of wealth, and more fully supply their wants, than can a smaller number.”

One of the best short overviews of the anti-Malthusian stance can be found in an anonymous essay published in 1889 in the Westminster Review:

The Malthusian theory does not accord with facts. As population grows, instead of production being less per head, statistics clearly prove it to be greater. The intelligence which is fostered in large communities; the advantages of the division of labour; the improved transit, which increases in efficiency with an enterprising people in proportion as numbers become large, and is impracticable until population has developed -- are more than a match in the competition of production for any advantage a thinly scattered community may in some respects gain on a virgin soil. Malthus and his followers, while bringing prominently forward the needs of an increasing population, keep out of view the increasing means of supply which the additional labour of greater numbers will produce…. and so long as there are a pair of hands to provide for every mouth, with intelligence and energy ample production is assured, unless society erects artificial barriers by means of its laws regarding the distribution of wealth.

A century later the development economist Peter T. Bauer similarly argued that population growth had beneficial effect by facilitating “the more effective division of labour and thereby increase real incomes.” “In fact,” Bauer wrote, the real problem in much of the developed world was that “sparseness of population inhibits economic advance” by retarding “the development of transport facilities and communications,” thus inhibiting the movement “of people and goods and the spread of new ideas and methods.”

Quoting Peter Bauer, uber optimist Julian Simon firmly believed that ‘it is only the past that gives us any insight into the laws of motion of human society and hence enables us to predict the future.” If the future was going to differ, he added, “the bias is likely to be in the direction of understating the rate at which technology will develop, and therefore underestimating the rate at which [natural resource] costs will fall.” Despite the prevalence of the current apocalyptic environmentalist rhetoric, we do not doubt that Simon will once again be proven right and David Attenborough wrong.

Pierre Desrochers is associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Joanna Szurmak is a doctoral candidate in the program in science and technology studies at York University and a librarian at the University of Toronto Mississauga. This essay is adapted from their recent book Population Bombed! Exploding the Link between Overpopulation and Climate Change. (Global Warming Policy Foundation, 2018)

Photo Credit: Bryan Ledgard [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons