8 billion world overpopulation. What is the controversial theory of Malthusianism about?

With the birth of the 8 billionth person, the debate has been resumed as to whether overpopulation is an opportunity to strengthen the human race or if, on the contrary, it could mean a latent threat to its extinction—the theory of Malthusianism.

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LatinAmerican Post | Christopher Ramírez

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Leer en español: 8 mil millones de sobrepoblación mundial. ¿De qué trata la polémica teoría del maltusianismo?

On November 15, a baby was born in the Dominican Republic whose parents decided to name it Damián. The little boy came into this world at the Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia clinic, in the city of Santo Domingo, amid great expectations: the world finally met the 8 billion human beings who currently habit the Earth.

Upon learning of the news, the national representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in the Dominican Republic, Sonia Vásquez, assured that it was a moment of great joy for all humanity, which also represents "much hope that all children that they are born on this planet (...) we receive them with conditions. That is what we seek, zero maternal deaths, zero morbidities, zero illnesses, and health”.

A Celebration Event?

Now, amid the hubbub that was unleashed by the birth of Damien and his importance in the historical records of humanity, the truth is that there are some sectors of society that have not shown any happiness with this new life, and not because have something against the little one, but because of the reality that it denotes: there are more and more humans on the planet.

But why is this situation a concern? The answer, although it is not an absolute truth, is simple: because of what Malthusianism explains.

According to the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, Malthusianism refers to the "set of the theories of Thomas Malthus, a British economist from the late eighteenth century, based on his idea that the population tends to grow in geometric progression, while food only increases in arithmetic progression.”

To fully understand this term, it is necessary to break down two others that make it up: geometric progression and arithmetic progression.

The geometric progression comprises a series in which each new value is obtained by multiplying the previous one by a fixed number called the “ratio of progression”. Thus, for example, the best-known progression is the series 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32..., in which the ratio is two since every new value is the result of multiplying the previous number by 2.

For its part, the arithmetic progression is the same process, only that instead of multiplying, the fixed number is added, which in this case is called the "difference of the progression." Thus, this scenario, again with the number two as the protagonist, would be 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, and so on.

In short, what Malthus tried to explain in his "Essay on the Principle of Population" (1798), is that while the number of humans grows by a multiplication factor, the available resources increase by a sum. This, of course, implies, according to this theory, that there will always be more people on Earth than the resources available to the race.

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Is The Poor, Poor By Nature?

Now, this is more than just a social theory, it became one of the most important economic and demographic theories in the world, with various academics, as well as political and cultural groups, adopting it for their societies.

What Malthus, of Anglican origin, deduced from his hypothesis, is that poverty is not something against which one can fight, because the more one tries to counteract poverty, the more people will be born or fall into a condition of need.

In fact, for this Scottish thinker, the consequences of poverty are necessary for population control not only because they increase mortality in society, but also because they discourage procreation in affected households.

Consequently, he was always against aid to the most vulnerable, assuring that, although it would improve their quality of life, it threatened the birth of more people, which, in turn, at a time in history and before the scarcity of resources compared to the number of the population, would even lead to human extinction.

For this reason, for the defenders of Malthusianism, the way to counteract human poverty is not the aid that the State can offer to a population in need, but the voluntary abstention from procreation. That is to say, purposefully contain the growth of the world population in favor of the available resources being more for everyone.

Criticism Of Malthusianism

Even with hundreds of academics over the last 200 years defending this position and the urgent need to control the birth rate in the world, as usually happens with this type of social and economic theories, criticism has not been long in coming, even almost since Malthus made it public.

One of these discrepancies came from Karl Marx, who even named Malthus and his theory in his famous work: "The Capital". In this text, the German thinker vehemently criticized his British counterpart, assuring that his vision of poverty "is based on partial observations, applicable only to the capitalist mode of production."

"Capitalism produces its overpopulation, which occurs because the demand for labor increases less rapidly than the number of workers, due to the unequal distribution that mediates between wage labor and capital," Marx asserted.

Thus, what the communist philosopher wanted to say is that population growth also leads to an increase in production, which in turn decreases poverty, so that the latter, in the case of capitalism, is not born of a "natural circumstance" but comes as a consequence of social exploitation.

In short, as detailed by the Spanish philosopher and writer, Javier López Alós, a critic of Malthus, what the Scotsman did was nothing more than establish a "naturalization of inequality and misery", which tried to discourage the fight against poverty under the argument of "no more can be done or something else should not be done because things are like that because of and for something".

Today, different theories refute Malthus and ensure that there is currently no problem of overpopulation, but of consumer lifestyles that will eventually end up with natural resources, regardless of population.