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The Numbers Don’t Lie: Why Malthus Was Right, Article Review Example

Pages: 3

Words: 688

Article Review

The articles The Numbers Don’t Lie: Why Malthus Was Right (Free Inquiry, Spring 1999) by Lester R. Brown and Malthus and His Ghost: When He Formulated His Theory He Ignored the Ingenuity of Man (National Review, Vol. 41, August 18, 1989) by Ray Percival are both modern scholarly opinions on the seminal work of Thomas Malthus: An Essay on the Principle of Population. In this essay Malthus outlines his belief that as human population grows at an exponential rate and food production increases arithmetically that a crisis point would occur in the future. These two scholars take opposite viewpoints on how Malthus’ prediction has or has not been realized over the last two centuries. Lester Brown believes Malthus was correct in many respects and that we will indeed reach a crisis point within the next 100 years. He first points out the large number of starving peoples in multiple countries around the world such as China, India and Ethiopia. He attributes this to a number of factors including changes in food production as the world moves away from high single-grain yields, water scarcity, loss of topsoil and the specialization of farming. Though food production has increased significantly since 1950, as the population increases, he says, the focus has become less on high production farming and more on human desires. These include using water for drinking rather than irrigation as aquifers are drained and using crops for animal feed and energy sources rather than as a direct source of food. Brown argues that as populations grow larger that valuable farmland is being used to create more urban areas- many of which can never be returned to arable land.

Percival takes an opposite stance. He says that population does not inherently grow exponentially. It is affected not only by the external constraints Malthus outlined such as war, famine and disease but also internal constraints which Malthus overlooked. These include the financial burden of children and the fact that as areas become more developed children are not needed as labor. Percival views the doom scenario of an ever increasing population faced with dwindling farmland for use as a gross exaggeration. Man, he says, is the ultimate resource and will rise to any environmental challenge. As less land is available technologies will be developed to combat this. Percival also believes that Malthus underestimated human foresight and that families will naturally self-regulate. Ultimately, however, Percival believes that large population growth leads to greater economic growth as there is greater demand and more jobs to fulfill those demands. Additionally, the greater the population the greater likelihood of producing great minds who will improve conditions for the future.

I found both of these articles extremely interesting and thought-provoking. Both had very good arguments taken from opposite sides of the same debate. As the population has now reached seven billion, the question of feeding the world’s humans is a daunting one. I prefer to take the less fatalistic view shared by Percival that humans are not entirely self-destructive and that our restraint and creativity will help us to avoid major catastrophe. Our current stance against greenhouse gases is evidence of how many nations can recognize and come together to combat a common enemy. One element, however, I found missing from the discussion in both these articles was that of culture. Neither seems to take differing cultural values into account. In the West for example with the rise of organic and local farming, productivity is taking a backseat to quality and the process behind food production. It has become a part of middle and upper-middle class life to boast about how close your food was grown and under what conditions. With this trend, there may be a decrease in the future of animal confineries or large scale farming which would decrease production. I do agree with Brown that too much population growth could destroy the environment (soil, aquifers, etc) before it has a chance to stabilize as Percival claims it will naturally do. I only hope that humans will be able to use their greatest resource, their own ingenuity to overcome these obstacles before we hit a crisis point.

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