Malthusians vs Cornucopians: A Contemporary Perspective on Population Growth

Human population growth can be seen either positively or negatively. If you view population growth positively, then you adopt the Cornucopian viewpoint. If you view population growth negatively and associate this growth with problems, you virtually adopt the Malthusian perspective. Read further to find out who’s the winner in the population growth debate.

There are two major schools of thought about the increase in the global human population. One perspective on population increase adopts a pessimistic viewpoint, whereas the other views population increase in an optimistic manner. These are the Malthusians and the Cornucopians, respectively.

What the Malthusians Believe

The Malthusians are adherents of Thomas Malthus, an influential British scholar who popularized the pessimistic view of population increase. This viewpoint assumes that more population means more mouths to feed, thus more resources to support that need. The food required to fill this need will not be enough as food production could not keep pace with the population increase. This belief is now popularly known as the Malthusian Theory.

Uncontrolled population growth inexorably results in environmental destruction. The ultimate scenario of the Malthusian theory would be wars, famine, and resource depletion, among others, due to competition for dwindling natural resources.

The Malthusian theory was popular and persisted through time but the doomsday scenario predicted by the theory did not materialize since the worldwide population grew by leaps and bounds. This position seems laden with flaws as data on the population-resources relation have shown outcomes contrary to expectations. As a result, new schools of thought arose to explain the trend of development despite continued and exponential human population growth (see how the population grew from 1CE to the present 7 billion people in less than six minutes). [update: It’s 8 billion in 2020]

One among the group of scholars who advanced their argument contrary to Malthus’ expectations believed that population growth need not be detrimental to human life quality. A greater number of people can even lead to positive results. This latter group of scholars is called the Cornucopians.

What the Cornucopians Believe

The Cornucopians are those who believe that advances in technology can take care of society’s needs. An increase in population is viewed positively because with more population comes more brains to generate ideas. These ideas develop technology in the form of modern gadgets, procedures, systems, among others, that help address the problems associated with human sustenance and improve people’s quality of life.

People became more specialized in their work, thus becoming more efficient and more able to respond to problems in human affairs. Food production increased considerably as a result of modern, more efficient food production systems. Despite increased per capita consumption, virtually enough could be produced from the bounties of the earth.

There is so much reliance on technology as the human population grows. It seems that this reliance on the technological solution is effective in counteracting the predicted negative externalities (to understand what is an externality, read my post titled The Mango Grower and the Beekeeper) of geometric population growth predicted by advocates of the Malthusian theory.

The Current Situation: Negative Consequences of Population Growth Persists

While the Cornucopians may be right as technology appears to keep pace with human problems, there are also instances where the Malthusian perspective may be much more acceptable. Unabated extraction of natural resources to meet the world’s growing economies’ demand appears to approach the dangers predicted by Malthus.

Inability to Establish Food Security Continues to be an Issue

The unrest in many parts of the world, especially among developing nations, manifest the negative consequences of increased population growth. The scarcity of food resources hounds many countries in Asia and Africa.

[Update 12/2/2020:

Gaia Vince’s essay published in BBC in 2013 argues that humans push the planet towards the Anthropocene or the Age of Man. Her viewpoint is interesting because it matches humans’ intrusion into wildlands due to a growing population’s increased food demand. 

This situation is illustrated in the case of Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak started. Animals became part of people’s diet because the food supply could not keep up with the growing population. I quote Vince’s statement as it aptly captures the essence of what is happening now:

In the Anthropocene we are encroaching on wild lands, bringing us closer to monkeys and apes, for example, which are traded internationally for bushmeat and pets. We are also living in close proximity to domestic creatures like pigs, chickens and ducks. It means that diseases that infect animals have an unprecedented chance to jump across species to us.

Gaia Vince, July 11, 2013

So very true. The coronavirus COVID-19 did jump from animals to humans and continues to infect people for months, and perhaps, for years to come. And pandemics do occur, albeit randomly, every 3 to 56 years.

Vince predicted in 2013 that we are overdue a pandemic, but roughly seven years after she wrote that article, a pandemic did appear and plagued nations in the early part of 2020. The technology we have could not keep up as signs of technological remedy with the development of a vaccine with more than 90% efficacy came forth in December 2020. As of December 2, 2020, WorldOdometers placed deaths due to the coronavirus at 1,484,337]. 

population growth
Deaths due to the coronavirus pandemic as of December 2, 2020.

Pollution as Product of Technology

Aside from the food problem, despite the technological advances in developed nations, pollution’s negative impacts persist and threaten human health.

On a global scale, human economic activities apparently cause climate change due to a continually increasing population that requires the extraction of more resources to supply human needs and wants. Raw materials that get processed and used reaches a level of obsolescence or loses its functionality due to wear and tear. These products eventually get disposed into the environment in the form of pollution.

Pollution, once again, poses a threat to humans that, in time, can cause significant changes in the global population in the form of environmental catastrophes. But other issues arise due to population increase. 

In conclusion, human population growth beyond what the earth can take, and technological solutions are not the only contending issues that define human survival. Overall, it is apparent that technology has its limitations. Technological innovations are only part of the solution. According to Australian Professors Bower and Butler, unless we change the way we consume things to make us happy and educate everyone as well as craft appropriate population policies, increased population growth will remain an unresolved issue that may lead to catastrophic results the default outcome.

The Malthusian Theory may be right after all.

© 2012 December 3 P. A. Regoniel
Updated: 2 December 2020

Cite this article as: Regoniel, Patrick (December 3, 2012). Malthusians vs Cornucopians: A Contemporary Perspective on Population Growth [Blog Post]. In Research-based Articles. Retrieved from https://simplyeducate.me/2012/12/03/population-growth/

15 Comments

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