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The first factor in the IPAT equation is population. The neoclassical economists see population as an asset and believe its growth can actually be a positive factor for development. Their argument is that, with the right environment and proper training, people can be equipped with the skills to produce more than they consume. In addition, having more children lowers the median age and helps to remedy the shortage of manpower which would otherwise be a major problem in sustaining economic and environmental health.

Contrary to the neoclassical view, the ecologists consider population as the greatest drain on resources and the main cause of ecological degradation. This is no more evident when we consider that countries with the most population, China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil are among some of the poorest; indeed the same countries have some of the highest birth rates. Contrasting these with sparsely-populated countries such as Switzerland, Luxemborg, and Finland with the highest per capita in the world, shows that more population - means less, not more - wealth (1). More people mean that the already scarce natural resources and social services must spread over a larger population.

This view was originally expressed by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) who, in “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” warned that the exponential increase in population along with the linear increase in availability (consumption) of resources would inevitably lead to a massive number of poor dying from famine, disease, or war (a). Based on theory, famine and war were two necessary ingredients of any development process, a view attacked vigorously by Marx (2).

In the last few years, social scientists, ecologists, and others have proposed new approaches to slowing the rate of population growth. Some, like ecologist Raymond Cowles, suggest economic motivations such as taxing large families and giving cash incentives to those who choose to have fewer children (3). Others, like Ken Boulding, take a more radical approach by proposing to introduce a “child credit,” similar to the concept of a “pollution credit” introduced in Economics of the Environment (4). According to this plan, every woman is allowed to have a set number of children. Those who opt for fewer children can sell their credit to those who wish to have more. Family planners can adjust the number of permits to assure that sustainability is maintained.

Depending on how they see the population threat, different countries have opted for different coping strategies. The Vatican and a few Latin American countries do not consider over-population to be a problem and are openly opposed to abortion and any type of birth control. In contrast, Europeans, through education and by making birth control (including abortion) readily available, have succeeded in achieving a near zero population growth. Americans are divided on the question of abortion and women’s right to choose. China encourages late marriages and late child bearing by providing financial subsidies, longer maternity leaves, and better housing to couples with fewer children (5). Several developing countries have followed China’s lead by providing public subsidies for housing, health care, and insurance to families with fewer children. During the last decade, Russia actually had a negative growth rate, mainly because of a large number of emigrants leaving for other countries.

Figure 1 Past, present, and projected population in developed and developing countries.
Figure 1 Past, present, and projected population in developed and developing countries.

As it stands, many developed countries have succeeded in stopping, or at least slowing, the growth rate of their populations. Unfortunately, population continues to increase in many poor and developing countries, and is likely to continue until it reaches equilibrium by mid-century (See Figure 1). As data indicates, the world population has steadily increased throughout history in a manner that exceeds simple exponential growth, as noted by shorter and shorter doubling times (b). It is expected that the world population will continue to increase to 7.2 billion by 2015 – with 95% of its increase in developing countries – before it stabilizes to 10 billion at around 2050 (6). Table 1 shows the expected number of people living in different parts of the world by 2050.

We cannot talk about population control without looking at immigration. It has been practiced throughout the centuries, sometimes by those in search of better economic opportunities, sometimes to escape political persecution, and at times to satisfy curiosity. In any instance, immigration has promoted diversity, has caused better mutual understanding among people, and has made the world seem ever smaller. In the twentieth century, faster and more convenient means of transportation, mainly airplanes and ships, have accelerated this pattern. Oftentimes, when cheaper labor is sought, immigration has been promoted, whereas at other times economic problems at home have made foreign workers and expatriates unwelcome. What is clear is that, unless there is a more equitable distribution of wealth, a greater effort in educating the public, and better ecological policies in place, immigration from developing to developed countries will continue to be a problem.

Table 1. Population growth rate
and doubling time in 2001
Region Population in 2001 Growth % Doubling time
in years
Projected Population
in 2050
Africa 818 million 2.4 29 1.8 billion
Asia 3.72 billion 1.4 50 5.2 billion
North America 316 million 0.5 140 452 million
Latin America 525 million 1.7 41 814 million
Europe 727 million -0.1 - 662 million
Oceania 31 million 1.1 64 46 million
World 6.14 billion 1.3 54 9.0 billion
Source: World Resource Institute (http://www.wri.org).



(1) Diamond, J., Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Group, USA, 2004.

(2) Meek, R. L., . Marx and Engels on Malthus. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1953.

(3) Garrett Hardin, Living without Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos, Oxford University Press, 1993.

(4) Boulding, K., Collected Papers, Vol II., Foreword by T. R. Malthus, Population First Essay, Colorado Associated University Press, 1971.

(5) Carnell, B., “China’s One-Child Policy,” 1977 (http://www.overpopulation.com/one_child.html).

(6) Global Trends 2015: A Dialogue About the Future With Non-government Experts”, Centeral Intelligence Agency, Report GT-2015, 2000 (http://www.cia.gov/cia/reports/globaltrends2015).

(7) Toossi Reza, "Energy and the Environment:Sources, technologies, and impacts", Verve Publishers, 2005

Additional Comments

(a) Malthus was unable to take into consideration technological advancements such as the improvement in the quality of seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers or the effects of mechanized production and more effective irrigation methods. In addition, the recent development of biotechnology promises the possibility of genetically modified crops that will increase production and decrease infestations. He also overlooked advancements in education and the impact of women entering the workforce, two factors that reduce population growth. Furthermore, population growth in several industrialized countries has ceased and still others have achieved negative growth. From the 1950’s to 1980’s, the Green Revolution era, food production increased more rapidly than population, however it has become apparent that the use of land was excessive and the rate of crop yield has dropped significantly in the last twenty years, falling below the rate of population growth. A copy of the original paper published in 1798 can be found at http://www.esp.org/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf.

(b) Although the population has not always increased, when viewed over a period of many generations, it has shown steady growth. For example, the bubonic plague (“black death”) pandemic of 1347-1351 killed 25 to 50 million, almost one in every three people in Europe. Nevertheless, the population recovered shortly thereafter and has been increasing ever since. The same can be said of the temporary decreases in population resulting from major wars, famine, or even a nuclear holocaust.

Further Reading

Hawkens, P., Lovins, A, and Lovins, L. H., Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Rocky Mountain Institute, 1999.

Meadows, D., Randers, J., and Meadows, D., Limit to Growth: 30-year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004.

Diamond, J., Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Group, USA, 2004.

Journal of Political Ecology: Case Studies in History and Society, JPE is produced at the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, the University of Arizona Library, Tucson, Arizona. The journal covers research articles into the linkages between political economy and human environmental impact.

World Watch Magazine (http://www.worldwatch.org).

External Links

World Bank (http://web.worldbank.org).

United Nations Environment Program (http://www.unep.org).

Rocky Mountain Institute (http://www.rmi.org).

Greenpeace (http://www.greenpeace.org).

Green Seal (http://www.greenseal.org).

Nature Conservancy (http://www.nature.org).

The Sierra Club (http://www.sierraclub.org).

Friends of the Earth (http://www.foe.co.uk).

Women’s Environment and Development Organization (http://www.wedo.org).

World Wide Fund (http://www.panda.org).