From Malthus to the Club of Rome and Back
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From Malthus to the Club of Rome and Back

Problems of Limits to Growth, Population Control and Migrations

Paul Neurath

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From Malthus to the Club of Rome and Back

Problems of Limits to Growth, Population Control and Migrations

Paul Neurath

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This collection of articles on population growth spans 20 years of the author's thinking and research on a wide range of issues. The book opens with a presentation of the early history of demography before Thomas Malthus wrote his essay on the principles of population (1798) that marked the beginnings of modern demography as a science. The author follows up with a chapter on the estimates made at various times in the past hundred years about the maximum number of people who could live on earth. Four papers deal with the debates about global models of population growth and the limits to growth. Sharp swings in population policy in China from the Communist Revolution under Mao in 1949 to the one child-per-family rule in 1979 are also considered. Another chapter compares population policy in Japan, China and India. A chapter is devoted to the role of oil and the soaring price of this basic input into agriculture as a constraint on food production and, as a result, on population growth. A closing chapter considers the great migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries, including the transatlantic and transpacific movements, the mass migrations after World Wars I and II, and those of recent decades. This book will interest scholars and students in economics and other social sciences dealing with the issues of demography, population growth, and economic development.

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1 The Early History of Demography before Malthus


The would-be author of an “Early History of Demography” soon finds himself pondering which author of what period to take as the decisive turning point at which “population” changed from a subject of occasional (albeit at times quite extensive) general discussion among philosophers, economists, politicians, statesmen, and others into a distinct, separate modern science. Not even the specialists in the field can quite agree among themselves on this point. Some see the beginnings with early “Political Arithmetics” in England, with men like John Graunt (1620-1674), William Petty (1623-1687), and Edmund Halley (1656-1742). Others see it with the beginnings of “German University Statistics” in the late eighteenth century, with Gottfried Achenwall (1719— 1772) and August Schloezer (1735-1809), or perhaps with their earliest forerunner, Hermann Conring (1608-1681). Yet others see it with Suessmilch’s (1707-1767) Die Goettliche Ordnung in den Veraenderungen des Menschlichen Geschlechts (The Divine Order in the Changes of Mankind), first published in 1741, or perhaps with Pehr Wargentin (1717-1783), who as chairman of the Swedish Academy of Science arranged the first modern census of population in 1776 (although this census was still in an indirect manner, based on church and other official registers).
But, looking through the literature up and down, the most popular contender of all for the honorary title of founder of demography as a modern science is apparently still Robert Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), whose claim to the title is most lapidarily presented by the American demographer Ralph Thomlinson, who states:
The history of population theory can be summarized in three words: pre-Malthusian, Malthusian and post-Malthusian. [1932, p. 30]
With this, Thomlinson means to say that, even though many of Malthus’s ideas had been expressed by others—some of them decades, others even centuries before—it was Malthus who, with his Essay on the Principle of Population (first published as an anonymous pamphlet in 1798), was the first one to bring all the ideas together in some kind of coherent theoretical system. True enough, Malthus’s main idea— that man’s innate biological urge to procreate is stronger than his ability to provide the necessary food for the ever increasing numbers of his offspring, so that Mother Nature must from time to time interfere with her “positive checks” (as he called them) of famine, war, or pestilence in order to restore the balance between man and food supply—had been voiced as far back as the second century by Tertullian (A.D. 160-220), one of the early “Fathers of the Church.” And Malthus’s detailed claim that, if unchecked in this manner, mankind has a tendency to double its numbers at intervals of about twenty-five years, in the manner of a geometric progression of the type 1,2,4, 8, 16, 32,... (and he pointed out that such had indeed been the case in the British colonies in North America during the preceding 150 years) had already been made some 130 years earlier by Mathew Hale (1609-1676), and as recently as some twenty years before Malthus by Gianmaria Ortes (1713—1790) and by Adam Smith (1725-1790). In The Wealth of Nations (1776) Adam Smith had pointed at the same North American figures Malthus cited twenty years later.
Still, Malthus was the first to make a coherent theoretical system out of it. And perhaps it may be claimed with some justification that it was out of the immediately following discussion pro and contra Malthus, in which each side found it necessary to present more and more data and arguments in support of its own and in refutation of the opposite point of view, that at long last “demography” as a modern science developed. (Its name, however, it received only much later. It seems that the term first occurred in Achille Guillard’s (1799-1876) Elements de statistique humaine, ou dĂ©mographie comparĂ©e (1855), by which, however, Guillard originally meant to designate more or less the natural and social history of human society (Lorimer, 1959, p. 159).
Malthus’s Essay itself, of course did not spring from his head suddenly and in perfect shape like Pallas Athena from the head of Zeus. It was actually his contribution to a discussion that had then already been raging for many years about the true causes of poverty and human misery he and his contemporaries saw developing before their very eyes in quite shocking forms during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Some of them, especially the forerunners of the later socialists, blamed everything primarily on the rapaciousness of the new factory owners, and in general on the existing social order that they wanted to replace with a more just and better one. It was in the context of this discussion that Malthus’s first Essay (in 1798) was specifically directed against men such as William Godwin (1756-1836) in England and M.J. Condorcet (1743-1794) in France, who spoke of man’s infinite perfectibility—a conviction that Malthus’s father shared—while the younger Malthus was convinced that man’s innate urge to procreate faster than he could feed his offspring condemned him to permanent poverty and misery. The first Essay was in fact written as the younger Malthus’s counterargument to his father’s optimistic belief concerning man and his future. The argument of the younger Malthus, that the poor were the cause of their own poverty because they produced more children than they could properly feed, created a storm of criticism. Even years after his death (in 1834), Malthus was still denounced by Marx and Engels as a “lackey of bourgeoisie.”
The topic here, however, is not the social and political ramifications within which this debate took place, but rather a brief historical over-view of earlier and later forerunners who from various points of view and out of various historical situations either more cursorily touched upon, or dealt more extensively with problems of population, that eventually led to the more systematic treatment of the subject at the time of Malthus.

Early Thought on “Population”

In the sixth century B.c., Confucius (551-478 B.C.) cautioned, along with other Chinese writers at that time, that “excessive growth may reduce output per worker, repress levels of living for the masses and engender strife,” and that “mortality increases when food supply is insufficient; that premature marriage makes for high infantile mortality rates, that war checks population growth, etc.” (Determinants, 1973, p. 33).
Plato (427-347 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), in discussing the best population size for the Greek cities of their time, pointed out that cities should be small enough for efficient administration and direct participation of the citizens in public affairs, but at the same time large enough to be able, if need be, to ward off attacks by hostile neighbors, who were of course also small city-states. For Plato the best size was 5,040 families (which, together with the appropriate number of slaves, meant a city of perhaps some 40,000 population). That number, he pointed out, is divisible by all numbers up to 12 (except by 11), which presented certain advantages in arranging administrative divisions and subdivisions. (In modern times, E.P. Hutchinson [1967, pp. 11—12] cites this passage verbatim from Plato and adds somewhat skeptically that the same would be just as true for half and of course also for twice that number.)
More relevant than what they may have decided was the desired optimum number is what Plato and Aristotle advise for maintaining that number: encouraging procreation and, if need be, immigration, should the number become too small, or discouraging procreation or sending people off to colonies should the number become too big— essentially the same methods that recur in the utopias of the sixteenth century (Hardin, 1969, p. 18).
Aristotle in particular pointed out—as had Confucius some 150 years earlier—that too much increase of population would bring “certain poverty on the citizenry, and poverty is the cause of sedition and evil.” Should population increase too fast, then Aristotle recommends abortion and the exposing of newborns (Hutchinson, 1967, p. 13).
Around 300 B.C. in India, Kautilya also pondered the question of population in his Artashastra. According to Keyfitz (1972, p. 42), he considered population
as a source of political, economic, and military strength. The necessary complement of land and mines. Though a given territory can hold too many or too few people, the latter is the greater evil. Kautilya restricted asceticism to the aged, favored the remarriage of widows [which in India was traditionally forbidden—P.N.], opposed taxes so high as to provoke emigration. The optimum village consisted of 100 to 300 agricultural families on a square mile or two.
The Romans, especially during the time of Augustus (63 B.C.-A.D. 14), in need of manpower for amassing and administering their huge empire, instituted a series of laws to encourage people to marry early and to beget offspring often, with great advantages for those who complied and disadvantages for those who did not. The best known of these laws, the Lex Julia (18 B.C.) and the Lex Papia Poppaea (A.D. 9), provided relief from taxation and preferential treatment when applying for public office, among other benefits for those who complied, but imposed severe limitations on the rights of inheritance, for example, on those who did not. People unmarried or still childless past their early twenties could only accept half of what others bequeathed to them— the other half was confiscated by the state. Of childless couples, the surviving spouse could only inherit one-tenth of the fortune of the deceased, all else went to the state.
Among their more curious provisions, these laws decreed that women above the age of twenty-four, if unmarried or if married but without children, were not permitted to wear jewelry or to use a sedan chair (Stangeland, 1904, p. 12).
In the long run, resistance on the part of the population at large allowed first the strictest and later also other provisions of these laws to fall into disuse and eventually led to their abolition as obsolete and unenforceable.
The Roman experience, together with the most modern example of a similarly strict government population policy in the opposite direction— the “only one child per family” law in the People’s Republic of China, promulgated in 1979, where the government has also been forced, through the resistance especially of the rural population, to grant quite a number of exceptions, seem a clear indication that governmental policies in regard to population, be they pro- or antinatalist, need to be introduced but gradually in such a manner that at least the great majority of the population can willingly go along with them.
An early voice interpreting “pestilence, famine, and wars” as preventives against overpopulation, as was done much later by Malthus, was Tertullian (ca. A.D. 160-220), one of the early “Fathers of the Church”:
The strongest witness is the vast population of the earth to which we are a burden and she scarcely can provide for our needs; as our demands grow greater, our complaints against Nature’s inadequacy are heard by all. The scourges of pestilence, famine, wars, and earthquakes have come to be regarded as a blessing to overcrowded nations, since they serve to prune away the luxuriant growth of the human race. (Hardin, 1969, p. 18; Cromm, 1988, pp. 34-35)
Through the Middle Ages, “population” was hardly ever discussed as a separate subject. The attitude was generally pronatalist. This, however, was not out of any considerations concerning the possible advantages of a growing population, but rather in line with the biblical command, “Be ye fruitful and multiply,” and out of more general ideas of the meaning of procreation and morality. The celibacy of priests was occasionally criticized as a contradiction to that command of Holy Writ, but without any serious consequences.
Another early attempt at looking at “population” as part of a total process comes from Ibn Khaldoun (1332—1406), who looked on population increase and decrease as stages of development like that of a human being: from high fertility in youth to declining and finally totally disappearing fertility in old age. But these stages were connected with economic developments: high birth and low death rates occurred in times of economic upswing and the reverse in times of downswing. Khaldoun emphasized (as did William Petty some 300 years later in England [1623-1687], and others) that high population density rather than high population numbers were desirable for more efficient division of labor and for cheaper administration (De-terminants, 1973, p. 35).

“Population” as a Topic in the Sixteenth Century

As one of the first, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) took up the topic of population again:
When every province of the world so teems with inhabitants that they can neither subsist where they are nor remove themselves elsewhere, every region being equally crowded and over-peopled,... it must needs come about that the world will purge itself in one or another of these three ways [floods, plagues, or famines]. [Hutchinson, 1967, p. 17]
Machiavelli’s somewhat younger contemporary Martin Luther (1483-1546) was much more sanguine about the problem:
God makes children. He is also going to feed them. [Stangeland, 1904, p. 93; Hardin, 1969, p. 19]
Jean Bodin (1530-1596), in “Six livres de la republique” (1576), anticipated by a hundred years the notion of the mercantilists, that a bigger population would mean more production and, with that, more export which would increase the influx of silver and gold and thus make the country richer. Bodin remarked (contrary to the earlier warnings of Confucius or Aristotle) that “there is nothing that does keep a city more free from mutinies and factions than the multitude of citizens” (Hutchinson, 1967, p. 18)—certainly a strange thought, considering the many rebellions and revolutions that started in cities, unless he had in mind the peasant wars and revolutions of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries which, of course, usually started in the country.
Bodin’s contemporary, Giovanni Botero (1540-1617), was much more ambivalent about the growth of population. On the one hand, in Delle Cause della Grandezza Cita (1588), he emphasized that “the Greatness of a city rests on the multitude of its inhabitants and their power,” while on the other hand he pondered, as did Malthus two hundred years later, that a population cannot increase beyond its food supply. As these limits were being approached, late marriage and emigration would serve to restore the balance. And so would war (Hutchinson, 1967, p. 19).
Still somewhat ambivalent, but already more outspoken concerning the possible negative consequences of population growth, was a younger, English contemporary of Bodin and Botero, Richard Hakluyt (1527-1616). On the one hand, Hakluyt quoted, as did others in those days, King Solomon—
The power and strength of a prince consists in the multitude of the people. [Proverbs 14:28]
He even added that the realm could be much more populous and still provide enough food for its people if they were industrious enough. On the other hand, he advocated at the same time in A Discourse on Western Planting (1584) the emigration of surplus population; his argument is almost like that of Malthus a good two hundred years later:
Throughe our longe peace and seldome sickness . . . wee are growen more populous than ever heretofore; ... so many, that they can hardly lyve one by another; yea, many thousandes of idle persons are within this realme, which, havinge no way to be sett on worke, be either mutinous and seeke alteration in the state, or at leaste very burdensome to the commonwealthe. [Hutchinson, 1967, pp. 24-25]
Which, Hakluyt continues, leads to crime and fills the jails. This agrees, almost verbatim, with what Aristotle said on this point.
As the cities grew more rapidly than before, during the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, discussions of advantages and disadvantages of a growing population became more frequent. For example, Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), in his History of the World, wrote that:
if by wars or pestilence they were not sometimes taken off by many thousands, the earth with all the industry of men could not give them food. [Hutchinson, 1967, p. 34]
Similarly, an anonymous propaganda tract for the colonies, The Planter’s Plea (1630), averred that
Warres, Pestilences and Famines, which unless they had wasted the people of these parts of the world, we would ere this have devoured one another. [Hutchinson, 1967, p. 39]
This, however, was written at the beginning of the Thirty Years War, and in the face of that war’s huge devastation and mass dying— more of hunger and disease than in battle—the concern began returning toward worries about depopulation.
But, of course, there were also, then as now, those who argued that the very fact that the cities grew, stimulated agricultural production and thus was a good thing.
Typical for the proponents of this point of view was James Harrington (1611—1677), who wrote the utopic The Commonwealth of Oceania (1656), where he claimed that
The more mouths there be in a City, the more must of necessity be vented by the Country, ...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover Page
  2. Title Page
  3. Dedication
  4. Contents
  5. Preface
  6. From Malthus to the Club of Rome and Back
  7. 1 The Early History of Demography before Malthus
  8. 2 How Many People Could Live on This Earth? Changes of an Argument
  9. 3 The “Limits to Growth” Debate: From Malthus to the “Club of Rome” and Back
  10. 4 Models of the World’s Problems and Problems with the World Models
  11. 5 Comments at the 6th Global Modeling Conference, Vienna-Laxenburg, 1978
  12. 6 On a Contradiction within the Bariloche Model (It computes for the people of Asia more years of average life expectancy than food on which to live that long)
  13. 7 The Price and Availability of Oil and the Food Situation in the Third World
  14. 8 Chinese Population Policy from 1949 to 1984
  15. 9 Population Policies in Japan, China, and India
  16. 10 The Great Migrations of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century
  17. About the Author
  18. Index