Malthus’ return
Are there too many people on the planet?
Sunday 2 November, 12.45pm until 1.45pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery Lunchtime Debates

Alarm over humanity’s growing ‘ecological footprint’ has breathed new life into an old concern: overpopulation. Ever since the Reverend Malthus’ prediction that exponential population growth would not be matched by a sufficient increase in the means of subsistence, demographic fears have periodically recurred, though in different guises. Despite the fact the ‘population bomb’ and global mass starvation have repeatedly failed to materialise, and despite population policy’s sinister past association with coercive sterilisation measures and eugenics, fears about overpopulation have been given new force today through the prioritisation of ‘sustainability’. ‘Too many people’ is either seen as a problem because of poverty, or because of affluence (via overconsumption and environmental degradation). So, does the historic pattern of Malthus and others crying wolf only to be proved wrong mean today’s concerns must be misplaced? Or is today’s ‘unsustainable’ population growth ‘the real wolf’, which we ignore at our peril?

Indeed, the massive growth in world population since the 1960s presents a distinct challenge, and many observers see today’s rising food prices as an ominous sign of things to come. While some demographers focus on the supposed correlation between overpopulation and underdevelopment, others fret about demographic decline in industrialised countries, a ‘pensions time-bomb’. Some critics have attempted to dispel the ‘population myth’ by drawing attention to thinly-veiled prejudices about African and Asian hordes overrunning Europe and America. Do such critics not downplay real problems, such as the need for sexual and reproductive health facilities and education in the developing world?

Are all attempts to limit population fundamentally misanthropic, trying to make humans fit the world rather than shaping the world for humanity’s needs? Or does such idealism obscure the real limitations thrown up by growing global population?

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history
Alex Hochuli
communications consultant, researcher and blogger based in São Paulo

 Produced by
Alex Hochuli communications consultant, researcher and blogger based in São Paulo

 Recommended readings
The coming population bust

The most ominous reality of 21st-century life may be the fall in human birth rates almost everywhere in the world

Jeff Jacoby, International Herald Tribune, 23 June 2008

Malthus, the false prophet

The pessimistic parson and early political economist remains as wrong as ever

The Economist, 15 May 2008

Population lost in the global debate

Population and global futures are linked. In many ways, this was understood much more clearly in the past

Alison Bashford, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 April 2008

China's future and its one-child policy

The coercive program has been a disastrous mistake, and its consequences are already being felt

Nicholas Eberstadt, American Enterprise Institute, 7 September 2007

Population and Development: A Critical Introduction

Western preoccupation with population growth reveals more about the internal concerns of western societies than the socio–economic development of the south

Frank Furedi, Polity Press, 1997

Betting on the planet

Retells the story of the famous population/resources wager between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich

John Tierney, New York Times, 2 December 1990

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