I still remember reading a selection from An Essay on the Principle of Population by the Rev. Thomas Malthus, an Anglican cleric, in the first economics course that I took, my first semester of college. Malthus argued that population multiplies geometrically while food production increases arithmetically. From his late eighteenth century, pre-birth control vantage point, human over population seemed inevitable. Malthus, for whom I as an Anglican cleric and student of economics feel a particular affinity, was the first person known to have identified and written about the potential threat of human over population.
Around the time that I read Malthus, books such as David Brower and Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb (published in 1968) and Donna H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens' Club of Rome report, The Limits of Growth (published in 1972), generated considerable furor on related issues. For example, one of three possible scenarios sketched in the latter volume forecast over population and global economic collapse by the mid-twenty first century. In spite of widespread access to birth control and efforts to limit population growth, over population remains a threat. The Limits of Growth merits a quick look because of its prescience in identifying the challenges of meeting demands generated by an exponentially increasing global population through geometrically increasing means of production and static resources. The book, for example, questions how much we can increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere without irreversibly harming the global climate.
Conversely, articles have recently appeared in a variety of periodicals suggesting that the next global financial crisis may begin in Japan. Not only has Japan suffered from over two decades of deflation and stagnation, but Japan's population is also aging and declining. The changes are apparent in population data as well as the growing disinterest of young Japanese men and women in sex, childbearing, and marriage. Something similar is happening in the US as the millennial generation chooses education over having children and marriage. (If these ideas are unfamiliar, you may want to read: Peter Boone and Simon Johnson, "The Next Panic," The Atlantic, September 19, 2012; Max Fisher, "Japan’s sexual apathy is endangering the global economy," Washington Post, October 22, 2013; and Siri Srinivas, "The new American dream: high school-educated millennials pursue individualism rather than marriage," The Guardian, January 5, 2015).
How large a human population can the earth sustain? Is population growth essential for sustained economic prosperity? Last month, an Ethical Musings' reader inquired whether the US has enough people to support healthcare and other benefit programs for its aging population. Since then, I've given those questions some thought. My reflections on those issues will appear in my next two Ethical Musings posts.