Malthus and the Pacific Rim

By William Dickinson
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 8, Number 3 (Spring 1998)
Issue theme: "Malthus revisited"

The misery that checks population falls chiefly, as it always must do, upon those whose condition is lowest in the scale of society.

- Thomas Robert Malthus

An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

From the grandiosity of the world's tallest building in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, to the see-through skyscrapers in Shanghai, 1997 will be remembered as the year of crisis on the Pacific Rim. Countries there tried to grow their way out of the problems posed by burgeoning populations. Ever the optimist, Wall Street saw a new global paradigm in which fragile economies would be supported by foreign investment - and boundless faith.

Elitist boosterism of that sort gives new meaning to Malthus' ironic observation "The histories of mankind that we possess are histories only of the higher classes." As East Asia enters its day of reckoning, it is the forgotten poor who will be called on to bear the burden of falling wages, unemployment and hardship. The higher classes will sell their Mercedes.

This was the year that a pall of smoke from Indonesia's burning forests spread over the region, a fitting metaphor for the man-made excesses that were undermining the emerging economies. Western investors saw Asia's multitudes simply as potential consumers and cheap labor. They closed their eyes to the pillage of natural resources and a threatened biosphere - not to mention the demographics of population growth that decreed Asian countries would have to run twice as fast just to stay even.

Numbers are boring, but can be ignored only at our peril world population today stands at 5.8 billion persons. An average of 81 million more are added each year. Much has been made of the fact that fertility rates around the globe are dropping, in some cases dramatically. But population momentum cannot be stopped on a dime. A United Nations study, "World Population Prospects," estimates that by 2025 world population will total 8 billion; by 2050, 9.3 billion. This will take place within the lifetimes of today's American teen-agers.

For Asia, the current population of 3.5 billion is projected to grow to 4.8 billion in 2025 and to 5.4 billion in 2050. Bill Gates' legerdemain notwithstanding, odds are that relatively few of these people will find employment in the information industry. Nor is it likely that the limited land area and resources of most Asian nations can support this geometric increase in people.

The Malaysian prime minister, Datuk Seri Mahathir, tacitly acknowledged the problem last spring in an address at the inaugural Southern African International Dialogue in Botswana. If Western-directed globalization fails to allow developing nations to prosper, he said, then "masses of Asians and Africans should inundate Europe and America" with legal and illegal immigrants. He described "people mobility" as the ultimate weapon of the developing world. Mahathir is regarded as Asia's loose cannon, but attention must be paid if Asia's miracle turns out to be a mirage.

Shaky economies in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea and Japan pale in significance to the threat that would be posed by a collapse of China's economy. For some insight into how this crisis might unfold read Mark Hertsgaard's "Our Real China Problem" in The Atlantic Monthly (November 1997). After six weeks investigating the growing environmental disaster inside China, Hertsgaard concluded that the price of China's surging economy is a vast degradation of the environment, with planetary implications. Although the Chinese government knows the environment needs protecting, he says, it fears that doing the right thing could be political suicide.

His stomach-turning description of air and water pollution on a vast scale should ring alarm bells in Washington. As he says, "What happens in China is central to one of the great questions of our time will human civilization survive the many environmental pressures crowding in on it at the end of the 20th century?" China claims its population is 1.22 billion (as of the end of 1996), but that may be an understatement. As controls loosen, enforcement of its one-child-per-family policy has weakened. Suburban sprawl and soil erosion gobbled up more that 86 million acres of farmland from 1950 to 1990. Hertsgaard says this raises questions about China's ability to feed itself in years to come.

How long will any political progress in China last if its economy sinks and the masses face starvation? Chinese President Jiang Zemin spoke to this issue in October during his visit to Washington when he told U.S. lawmakers "As a developing country of 1.2 billion people, China's very reality determines that the right of subsistence and development is the most fundamental and most important human right in China. Before adequate food and clothing is ensured for the people, the enjoyment of other rights would be out of the question."

To be sure, this is the excuse that authoritarian rulers throughout history have used to justify oppression. But his realpolitik is hard to brush aside. Malthus captured the root causes behind great migrations and upheavals of history he wrote "An Alaric, an Attila, or a Zingis Khan, and the chiefs around them might fight for glory, for the fame of extensive conquests; but the true cause that set in motion the great tide of northern emigration, and that continued to propel it ‘til it rolled at different periods, against China, Persia, Italy, and even Egypt, was a scarcity of food, a population extended beyond the means of supporting it."

With surplus grain from this year's bounteous harvest dumped on Midwestern ground because of lack of storage space, it's difficult to focus on looming food shortages. But feeding 81 million more people a year means expanding the global grain harvest by 1.41 percent. The Worldwatch Institute estimates the annual harvest increase from 1990 to 1996 was half that. And a World Bank survey published in October found the problems from rising consumer demands to falling water tables could create huge food gaps in the poorest countries despite their economic growth. No new green revolution is on the horizon to bump us agricultural yields.

Pessimism remains out of style right now. The stock market is preoccupied with quarterly results, not prospects for 2050. Perhaps the bicentennial of Malthus' famous essay will bring us back to fundamental questions of human survival. TSC

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