Malthusian Delusions?

Malthusian Delusions?


Malthusian Delusions?

Franklin, N.Y.

Amartya Sen starts his otherwise sensible “Population and Gender Equity” [July 24/31] with the unproven assertion that Thomas Malthus was wrong when he wrote that population growth would soon outstrip growth in food production. What Malthus didn’t know is that the age of cheap and abundant fossil fuels was at hand and would, for a geologically brief 200 years, delay the fulfillment of his gloomy prediction. Now those fuels are running out while population has grown to numbers Malthus probably could not have conceived of.

Modern agriculture has been described as a means of turning petroleum into food, but sometime–very likely this decade–the world will reach peak oil production. Then all will change. Fertilizers made from petroleum and natural gas will be very expensive and then unavailable; transportation and the operation of farm machinery will be hugely expensive or impossible. The idea that alternative fuels and solar and wind power will make up the deficit is, so far, a fantasy, and the level of investment in such alternatives remains paltry. In a two-century orgy of consumption, we have burned up the solar energy that was for hundreds of millions of years stored under the earth’s surface. Our oil-based civilization is about to come crashing to an end, and we have very little time to prepare to deal with the consequences. Not surprisingly, the oil companies don’t acknowledge the problem. Even more disturbing, none of our politicians want to be the bearer of bad news.

One is loath to lump a man of Sen’s decency and humanity in with the economic cultists who believe that “the market” will take care of the problem. Nevertheless, it is the bizarre beliefs of economists, including the notion that the world runs on investment rather than energy, that will probably result in Malthus being proved an accurate observer.


Oakland, Calif.

Amartya Sen dismisses concerns about the global food supply as it relates to burgeoning population for two reasons: Food production has expanded and the price of food continues to fall. But we should not be lulled into thinking the world’s food supply is sustainable or secure. That’s because at least one key part of food production is not reflected in current prices: water. In coming decades, increasing scarcity of water will make itself felt in prices and supply. Visions for a sustainable future must balance population density and growth with current and future water prices and availability. Food–grain, produce and livestock alike–represent huge investments of water. Producing a ton of beef can require up to 70,000 tons of water and a ton of grain up to 3,000 tons. Agriculture is a thirsty enterprise. As water becomes scarcer (as is already happening in the Central Valley of California, which, like many regions, relies on artificial water supplies) and soils become more salinized, food production will not hold at current levels. The earth’s hydrological cycles have been mined to increase food production. This is a historical anomaly, not a sustainable trend.

Redefining Progress

College Park, Md.

In Amartya Sen’s article on gender equity, structures of patriarchy and capitalism are nowhere visible. Problems are reduced to a series of variables–economic, cultural and political “handicaps” that are to be overcome. Sen’s basic point that literacy and schooling bring a decline in fertility is simply a correlational, not causal, part of the tired argument that investment in human capital will yield wealth and progress. Historically, fertility rates did not decline because of education but because wealth made having large families unnecessary for survival. Unusual low-income, low-fertility-rate stories, like China and Kerala, are not due to education (Sen discounts the effects of China’s “one child” policy) but because both have departed from traditional capitalist and patriarchal structures.

The most important issue Sen raises is how employment opportunities for women (and men) are essential to achieving greater gender equity. But Sen, like any mainstream economist, lacks understanding of structures of inequality and oppression. He believes that fostering the education of girls and women, promoting access to microcredit for rural women and fighting discrimination in urban labor markets are the policies that will improve employment and equity. To the contrary, the creation of sustainable, decent livelihoods for the 2 billion women, men and children living on the global margin will not come from better policies within structures rooted in poverty and inequality. “Reversing the…handicaps that make women voiceless and powerless” and “bringing gender equity and women’s empowerment to the center of the stage,” as Sen wishes to do, do not depend on a “unified framework of understanding” based on the results of “empirical and statistical research” but on a political struggle for economic rights and societal transformation.




Eugene Marner is right to express worry about the growth of world population, even though the source of this worry cannot really be the alleged accuracy of Malthus (I shall return to Malthus after discussing the general problem). The exhaustion of fossil fuel is certainly one source of concern (to which Marner rightly draws attention), as is the growing difficulty in guaranteeing adequate water supply (to which Michele Gale-Sinex devotes her letter). Even though each of them has chosen a singular focus of attention (petroleum and water, respectively), problems generated by excessive population growth can arise in many other ways as well, varying from the depletion of the ozone layer to overcrowding in a limited habitat (as I discussed in my essay).

The point of departure in my essay was the particular relation between (1) high fertility rates and (2) the low decisional power–indeed subjugation–of women. The critical linkage is that “the most immediate adversity caused by a high rate of population growth lies in the loss of freedom that women suffer when they are shackled by persistent bearing and rearing of children.” This connection is important in itself because of its relevance to the well-being and freedom of women (and derivatively of men as well). Furthermore, since the interests of young women are so closely involved, it would also be natural to expect that anything that increases the voice and power of young women in family decisions will tend to have the effect of sharply decreasing fertility rates (and through that, reducing the environmental adversities associated with population explosion). This expected connection has received very substantial statistical confirmation in intercountry comparisons around the world as well as in interstate and interdistrict correspondences within India (as I indicated in my essay).

That was the reason for my conclusion that women’s empowerment and agency (through such factors as their education and economic independence) are central to an effective resolution of the so-called population problem, including its environmental consequences. These connections, which draw on a firm interpretive framework, cannot be dismissed as “simply correlational,” as Steven Klees does in his letter. Empirical work is inescapably dependent on statistical investigation. Causal connections, which demand interpretation, have to be assessed on the basis of statistical findings, not independently of them. This combination of interpretive scrutiny and statistical assessment gives causal plausibility to the empirical association between fertility decline and women’s empowerment (reflected by such enabling factors as female literacy, women’s gainful employment and access to microcredit, land and other resources, and public debates and political discussions on gender equity).

Klees argues that as a “mainstream economist,” I cannot have any “understanding of structures of inequality and oppression.” If correct, this would be very sad for me, since–mainstream or not–I have devoted a very big part of my life precisely to investigating inequality and oppression, including studying, at close quarters, their manifestations in such phenomena as famines and starvation, class- and gender-related atrocities, and military and police brutalities. I accept the possibility that Klees has been able to acquire (from his vantage point in College Park, Maryland) a direct understanding of these issues which I have failed to achieve. However, since Klees does not refer to any empirical work whatsoever, it would have been very nice to have been told a little about how he has accomplished this understanding. Indeed, despite his fleeting invocation of “patriarchy” (along with “capitalism”), Klees dismisses the relevance of the indicators of women’s empowerment that well-researched empirical studies in feminist economics as well as demography have established as important (on which my essay drew).

I come, finally, to Eugene Marner on Malthus. Marner disputes what he describes as my “unproven assertion that Thomas Malthus was wrong when he wrote that population growth would soon outstrip growth in food production.” Since exactly the opposite of what Malthus predicted has occurred and continues, why is the recording of the nonfulfillment of Malthus’s prediction “unproven”? Is a period of 200 years not time enough to check a prediction? But we must not dismiss Marner’s reasoned worries about the future, since the exhaustion of petroleum is an important issue. However, Marner surely oversimplifies with his “turning petroleum into food.” There are a great many different factors (such as new seeds, better cultivation techniques, etc.) that have contributed to the sharp rise in food production per capita in the world, which has occurred since Malthus’s gloomy predictions were made and which has continued to occur through the most recent decades. Nevertheless, given the difficulties that are visible now (including petroleum and water problems) and new adversities that might well arise, we do have good reason to consider ways and means of raising agricultural productivity as well as reducing fertility rates (as I discussed in my essay).

Where Malthus is particularly counterproductive is in his dismissal of informed reproductive choice and of the effectiveness of women’s conscious agency as ways of reducing fertility rates. Malthus took penury to be the only sure way of keeping fertility rates down (he did not revise his view on this particular subject, despite rethinking on some other issues) and even argued for suppressing the Poor Laws and the very modest arrangements for social safety nets and economic security that existed for the poor at his time. It would be unfortunate to rely on Malthus’s harsh and dogmatic pronouncements for our understanding of the population problem.


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