Not Everything is as Bad as it Seems Part 2

This is the second installment in a series we are writing on how not everything is as bad as it seems. You can check out part one here!

Malthusianism is a theory that states that population growth is potentially exponential while the growth of food supply or other resources is linear. This discrepancy may lead to a Malthusian catastrophe, where population growth surpasses agricultural production, resulting in famine or war and, consequently, poverty and population reduction.

This idea is closely associated with Thomas Robert Malthus, an early 19th century political economist. However, it is still a very popular sentiment held by many. After all, on the surface it seems to make since. We had a population of 1 billion during 1800, now we have over 7 billion. But is this idea actually true?

When viewing the global picture, reconciling Thomas Malthus’ theory with reality presents a challenge. In fact, famine-related deaths have dramatically decreased since the 1800s. This contrast is stark and somewhat counterintuitive given the historical increase in population.

One might initially attribute this trend to advancements in agricultural productivity. Indeed, food availability on a per capita basis has seen a significant rise in recent decades, as evidenced by the increase in food production which has not only kept pace with but exceeded the growth in global population—primarily through enhanced yields per hectare.

Yet, this perspective oversimplifies the issue. A mere lack of food per capita is only one of several factors that can lead to famine deaths. Modern studies on famine suggest that the availability of food is not as critical as one might assume. Instead, these studies point to the pivotal role of public policy and violence. The majority of famines in the 20th and 21st centuries were significantly influenced by conflict, political repression, corruption, or economic mismanagement by authoritarian or colonial rulers.

This observation holds for the most severely food-insecure regions today, including the 2011 famine in Somalia, where food aid was severely limited or misdirected by the militant Islamist group al Shabaab and other groups.

Famine expert Stephen Devereux from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex encapsulates the evolution of famines across the 20th century, noting that the development of a global capacity to ensure food security coincided with governments’ increased ability to enforce harmful policies.

Consequently, the recent history of famine does not align well with the Malthusian narrative. Against Malthus’ predictions for rapidly growing populations, the per capita food supply has increased across all regions as populations have expanded. Furthermore, famines have become less frequent, not more. In the contemporary world, the presence or absence of famine and the effectiveness of prevention efforts are more significantly influenced by political actions and policy decisions than by mere population dynamics.

This is a very positive development, as it removes one of the big factors in causing famines. While famines are still undoubtedly a problem to be addressed in areas of the world. This steady decline is likely to continue and fears that we will run out of food is, luckily, unfounded.

If you want an in-depth look at how this all works, check out this great article.

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