The return of Malthusian logic

The return of Malthusian logic

Is it any surprise that population growth concerns have re-emerged when a bruising round of climate change negotiations is about to begin? The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has flagged the matter. It has said that limiting population growth would go some way in checking increases in the stock of greenhouse gases.

The report, The State of World Population 2009. Facing a Changing World: Women, Population and Climate, brings back all the concerns that had disappeared from the dog-eat-dog world of climate-change negotiations. These include the historical legacy of developed countries in creating the problem and the almost unbearable burden of climatic changes (present and yet to come) on citizens of poor countries (especially women). As the date for the Copenhagen summit approaches, these issues have been relegated to the background.

How should the report be interpreted? At one level, it raises all the right questions. But on another plane, it brings back the spectre of Malthusian arguments, something that can be used to drive a wedge between various developing countries. For example, between very poor, climate-affected African countries and India. Advanced countries such as those in the European Union (EU) could conceivably say that India and other countries (Brazil and China being two other examples) are not doing enough. This, in turn, could be used as a device to isolate India and others at Copenhagen. It is a fact that in per capita terms, population growth in the US and EU contributes more towards addition of greenhouse gases than in countries in Africa and South Asia. Yet, with every passing day, the pressure on India to agree to binding cuts only increases. In that sense, the report (released in mid-November) comes at an awkward moment.

There is another, bigger, threat too. Malthusian arguments tend to focus on doing something about the swelling of population across the globe. In the present context, this will drive away the focus from providing climate change mitigation technologies to poor countries. These innovative, and expensive, technologies could be moneymakers of the future. Malthusianism will result in rich countries telling the poor ones a simple one-liner: fix your populations. That would deny the one key tool to poor countries that can help them cope with climate change.

Climate change and Malthusianism: Is there a link? Tell us at