Malthusian Belts

In the past decade, a number of people have noted the simultaneous phenomena of population growth worldwide, and the mounting problems caused by environmental problems (such as global warming and peak oil). Seeing this correlation, some have erroneously assumed that the former is the cause of the latter (forgetting that correlation and causation are two very different things).

This has, in turn, led to the re-emergence of the dangerous and discredited theories of Thomas Malthus. At the core of this neo-Malthusian creed is the notion that overpopulation was to blame for diesase, poverty, war, famine, and other social and environmental ills.

What these neo-Malthusians often overlook is that there is a large disparity between rich and poor in terms of access to natural resources. For example, Australians emitted 25.6 tons of CO2 equivalent per capita in 2000, compared to 1.9 tons per capita from India.

By framing the question in terms of over-popualtion, rather than in terms of how efficiently we use natural resources, the neo-Malthusians obscure real solutions. Consider how either public transport or driving a large SUV both get a commuter from point A to point B, a family can live on the 22nd floor of an apartment building or on a quarter-acre block, or how both low energy lighting and halogen lamps can light a small space. In all three examples, the same end utility is gained, but with different amount of natural resources used. In many cases, the technology and know-how already exists to perform many tasks far more efficiently than at present, allowing far more people to be comfortably supported off fewer natural resources.

It is worth noting that Malthus himself acknowledged this inequality in access to natural resources, but this was of no concern to him. Malthus believed that the poor had no inherent rights to natural resources, and their lot in life was a Divine punishment for sexual promiscuity. Similarly, the neo-Malthusian advocates of population reduction probably wouldn’t feel same way if it were their own lives (or the lives of their loved ones) on the line. It is only when the victims are someone else – the underprivileged – that overpopulation argument comes up.

And this is the crux of the matter. It’s the downtrodden who suffer. Not looking at how people in developed world could do things more efficiently, and blaming overpopulation instead, only serves a small section of society, who have a large vested interest in earning their wealth by “owning” natural resources.

Of course, as Robert Owen so sagely pointed out, people are what their environment makes them. If you have an economic and social environment that encourages disproportionate, unsustainable and wasteful resource use, why would anyone be surprised that disproportionate, unsustainable and wasteful resource use is what you get? And if the economy allows people to make money off speculation in – and private ownership of – natural resources, why shouldn’t people take advantage of that opportunity? So long as the economic status quo continues, so to will the environment – in both senses of the word – it creates. The world’s downtrodden are not to blame for this.

The reality is that the problem is not in population sizes. instead, it lies in the economic system we use to allocate how finite natural resources are effectively used. What we need is an economic system that systematically encourages the efficient and sustainable use of natural resources, frees up labour and capital to this end, and compensates those who receive less than their fair share. As the economist Henry George pointed out, a century ahead of his time, this means shifting the tax base from labour and capital on to the ownership of scarce natural resources, and the wealth generated by such taxes redistributed equitably across the community.

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