Neo-Malthusianism: A Narrow Theory Exceeds Its Carrying Capacity

Author(s): Henri Acselrad
Date Published: July 22, 2006
Source: Political Environments #5, Fall 1997
Topics:

The environmental agenda, as we know, has been largely taken up by the Malthusian problematic. The environmental issue is often formulated in quantitative terms: scarcity of natural resources, excessive population, shortage of space for dump sites. It is true that the concept that growth of food production would not keep pace with population increase, which characterized Malthus' own initial formulation, has not been empirically confirmed by history. Particularly, since the 1960s, world food production has systematically grown above demographic rates.1 Moreover, high levels of inequalities in food consumption both between different nations (wealthy and poor) and within countries themselves continue to prevail. Therefore, a distributive problem exists - unequal access to income and food resources.2

As a consequence, the approach to hunger as a problem resulting from a growing disparity between "excessive population" and insufficient food supply should inevitably lose momentum. It is not that an aggregate quantity of individuals (population) is too large in relation to food supply. There is an unequal distribution of abundant food among countries and social groups. This inequality, quite often reinforced by waste of food determined by the market, brings about scarcity that specifically affects deprived individuals - the poor.

However, the environmental debate has favored reformulation and resurgence of the Malthusian problematic. Again, certain social hazards, making up what is understood as an environmental crisis, are presented as resulting from differences between growth rates of population increase and the rhythm of regeneration of the material base for development. Therefore, the environmental crisis has also often been defined in terms of aggregated quantities. Its recurrent expression has been a tendency towards natural resource scarcity - biodiversity, water resources, capacity to absorb greenhouse gases, etc. Once again the large quantitative aggregates are blamed for the crisis: for some, the level of economic growth; and for the Neo-Malthusian environmentalists, the population increase that supports that growth, particularly of the poor layers of society.

Here again we should note that underlying the aggregate pressure on the resource base, one will find clear evidence of distributive inequality in access to the planet's natural resources. There is no lack of data to clarify this issue, from the Worldwatch Institute's statistics to the "counter-statistics" of the New Delhi Center for Science and Environment. For example, a Dutch baby consumes several dozens times more energy and material resources than an Indian baby. Therefore, if there is excessive quantitative pressure on planetary resources, it would be perfectly localized among social groups who concentrate economic power - the wealthy.3

How can it be explained that a theory so devoid of empirical evidence should remain in the public debate? This is our challenge - to understand what makes it possible to present the environmental problem as associated with, or even more, resulting from excessive growth (biological) of the poor population. Neo-Malthusianism has not pointed to the struggle against poverty through distributive social policies but instead to controlling the quantity of poor individuals. It seems to have the intention of preserving poverty, although in the amount that is believed to be socially desirable. This is expressed as the number of poor compatible with a territory's "ecological" possibilities, conceived and measured in terms of "carrying capacity". Thus, it seems important to research intellectual instruments, discourses, and concepts - such as "carrying capacity" - which uphold diagnoses that obfuscate essential dimensions of social life and indicate policies that only legitimate and perpetuate inequalities.

The current notion of territorial "carrying capacity" requires a great effort of abstraction regarding concrete conditions of social life. The goal of such effort is to suggest a determinant relationship between a territory's "ecological" conditions and its population. Thus, for each territory, with its given natural conditions, there would be a limited population; going beyond this limit would degrade the environment. However, this affirmation makes the following assumptions:

a) All economic activities developed in the territory are geared to the consumption of its inhabitants. Therefore, there is no production for export. In addition, it would be necessary to assume that all consumption of material goods by those inhabitants is from local production. Therefore, there are no imports from outside the territory. Thus, unless a closed economy without any exchange with external economic agents is assumed, there is no point in imagining a determinant relationship between a territory and the size of its population.

b) There is equal consumption of material goods among the territory's inhabitants. In the famous equation I=PAT4, disseminated by Paul Ehrlich and other Neo-Malthusian authors, the aggregate pressure on resources is expressed by total population multiplied by the average consumption per inhabitant. In this approach, the important aspect is aggregate economic pressure. However, the variable population was introduced basically to justify population control. Thus, to reduce pressure on resources, the important thing would be to reduce resource consumption by the rich, not to diminish the total number of inhabitants, including those whose consumption is very low, or in the Neo-Malthusian proposal, especially those who consume very little.

c) The territory is homogenous, without internal biophysical variations and, therefore, with no potential for differentiated uses. Taking into account the biophysical diversity of each territory implies the acknowledgement of a possible diversity of sociocultural forms of territorial occupation and improvement with different population dynamics associated with them.

d) The forms of territorial appropriation and use are not constants in time. They change with different technological trajectories and distinct patterns of material efficiency. Therefore, one cannot think of a fixed population size associated with the given "natural" conditions of each territory, as these conditions are undergoing continuous change over time, along with the techniques through which societies appropriate their resources and environments.

e) It assumes that the territory has only a utilitarian purpose, being appropriated exclusively for material production. This means not considering the gamut of all possible significations attributed by societies to their territorial spaces, given the diverse values and cultural practices within different societies. Thus, for the same biophysical configuration of a territory, an infinite number of productive techniques, practices or significations can result in diverse spatial and temporal forms of appropriation and use of resources. Consequently, to this infinite number of cultural forms of appropriation correspond also distinct population dynamics. Thus, for a territory of multiple significations and uses, it is not valid to establish one single possible population size.

Therefore, ignoring the complexity of the real world is the essential condition for maintaining the "carrying-capacity" concept. It assumes the de facto existence of a homogenous territory, disconnected from the global economy; and the de facto existence of an "average man" in the consumption of natural resources. It also assumes that techniques and biophysical conditions in the territory do not evolve over time, and that the environment is used only for appropriation with utilitarian goals, devoid of quality and meaning determined by culture, and expressed only by a certain number of imaginary useful services provided to a population also imaginary in its homogeneity and size.

Only such an effort of disconnecting from social reality allows Brazilian big landholders to claim that indigenous rights legislation allocates "too much land to few Indians"; or representatives of an "ecological authoritarianism" to affirm that there are "too many social rights" when referring to the capacity of rich countries to support immigrant workers. That is because any formulation of the environmental issue made exclusively in quantitative terms ignores the diverse meanings and uses the multiple social actors attribute to the environment. It is reduced to the exclusive quality that the dominant economic agents attribute to the environment and to what they take from it.

[Translated by Jones de Freitas, edited by Phil Courneyeur]
1 cf. P. Dasgupta, "The Population Problem: Theory and Evidence," in Journal of Economic Literature, vol. XXXIII (12/95), pp. 1879-1902.
2 "Indeed, average income and food production per head can go on increasing even as the wretchedly deprived living conditions of particular section of the population get worse, as they have in many parts of the third world.(..) The sense that there are just "too many people" around often arises from seeing the desperate lives of people in the large and rapidly growing urban slums - bidonville - in poor countries, sobering reminders that we should not take too much comfort from aggregate statistics of economic progress," cf. A. Sen, "Population: Delusion and Reality," The New York Review of Books, vol. XVI, n.15, Sept. 22, 1994.,p. 67.
3 We know that a more sophisticated formulation of the environmental issue would abandon the simple quantitative approach and would introduce the problematic of models of production and consumption, technological patterns, and the mode of wealth accumulation. However, in order to understand the Neo-Malthusian approach to the environmental issue, we shall continue our dialogue with the current outlook of quantitative pressure on resources.
4 In the equation I=PAT, I is the impact of human pressure, P is population numbers, A is the level of resource consumption and T, the technology used.

Henri Acselrad is Professor at the Rio de Janeiro Federal University Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning (IPPUR). He worked for four years at IBASE -- the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis, one of the leading Brazilian environment and development NGOs -- where he continues to be a collaborator. He was one of the key organizers of the NGO Global Forum parallel to UNCED, and organized the book Environment and Democracy edited by IBASE in 1992.