THE GOOD NEWS The End of the Malthusian Trap – Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding–And How We Can Improve the World Even More by Charles Kenny
The Irish potato famine occurred at a time when Ireland was actually exporting food—again, the problem was absolute poverty, not absolute lack of resources. Between 1979 and 1984, Ethiopia saw food production decline a modest 12 percent, while Zimbabwe saw food production decline by as much as 38 percent. Yet it was Ethiopia that saw massive famine while Zimbabwe, which had put in place extensive prevention programs under the recently elected Robert Mugabe, did not.
Note:POVERTA’ ASSOLUTA NON E’ MANCANZA DI RISORSE
Since the turn of the nineteenth century, the most popular vision of global dystopia has been fueled by the Reverend Robert Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population. A people incapable of stemming its urge to breed, Malthus argued, overwhelms a country’s resources to the point that the only check on population growth is near-starvation. In the twentieth century, the vision was globalized in works including Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, which warned, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.”
Note:PESSIMISTI: MALTHUS E EHRLICH
recolonization. Related to this, it is often suggested that the industrialized world’s escape from Malthusian stagnation to modern economic growth contains important lessons for the developing world of today.
Note:RIVOLUZIONE INDUSTRIALE PUNTO DI SVOLTA
MALTHUS’S INSIGHT: THE MASSES ARE SEX-OBSESSED BREEDING MACHINES
“the constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it,”
Note:LA PREOCCUPAZIONE DI MALTHUS
The simplest version of the Malthusian model suggested that the birthrate in a country was set by customs regulating fertility, the death rate by income, and income by the size of the population. Lower incomes led to a higher death rate, declining populations led to higher incomes.
Note:IL CICLO MALTHUSIANO
the only hope Malthus saw for raising general standards of living was to change fertility behavior.
Note:LA SPERANZA DI MALTHUS: CONTROLLO DELLE NASCITE
HISTORICAL EVIDENCE FOR MALTHUSIAN TRAPS
In the UK, population size and wages shared a close relationship until around the 1800s. Wages in Britain (and across Western Europe) rose dramatically after the Black Death killed a large part of the workforce in the fourteenth century and then declined as populations recovered. Indeed, from 1200 to 1650 there was seemingly complete stagnation of the production technology of the British economy; GDP changed hardly at all, and any rise in population was offset by a proportionate fall in income per capita. More people working the same land made each individual worker less productive, as suggested by Malthus.2 From 1650 until the nineteenth century, innovation in the UK did allow for a slow expansion in output, but not at a fast enough rate to outpace population growth, so GDP per capita remained stagnant. Only with the Industrial Revolution did the link between population and wages break down,
Note:EVIDENZA MALTHUSIANA. E ROTTURA CON LA RIVOLUZIONE INDUSTRIALE
THE WORLDWIDE ESCAPE FROM LIMITS TO OUTPUT
Only with the advent of the nineteenth century do we see the spread of sustained GDP growth above 1 percent as the Industrial Revolution took hold. The nineteenth century brought considerable diversity in GDP performance, with some regions including Asia and Africa seeing very sluggish growth while others (including Europe) took off with growth rates climbing above 3 percent. Conversely, the twentieth century has seen rapid GDP growth everywhere. And following World War II, developing countries saw particularly impressive GDP performance, with Asia leading the way.
Note:LA ROTTURA CON MALTHUS
More recently, between 1960 and 2000, among the 102 countries for which the World Bank has data, only the Democratic Republic of the Congo saw negative GDP growth rates.
The upshot of the story is that Malthus, at least for the period since the Industrial Revolution, was wrong. Not just wrong about Britain, but wrong about everywhere. Countries rich and poor alike are seeing output growth.
In the second half of the twentieth century, global GDP increased almost seven-fold, agricultural output approximately tripled, and population only a little more than doubled. Global cropland per capita has approximately halved since the 1950s, while daily food supplies per capita have increased by around a quarter. And worldwide, there are now as many people overweight as malnourished (around 1 billion).
Note:XX SECOLO, SECOLO DI PROSPERITA’
THE TRAP FALLS APART
Looking across African countries suggests that there is no significant positive link from GDP per capita growth to subsequent population growth. And countries where incomes rise fast don’t see life expectancy increase much more rapidly than countries where income has increased more slowly
Note:POPOLAZIONE-REDDITO: ALTRO LEGAME CONFUTATO
neo-Malthusian versions involve civilizations relying on unsustainable practices to promote growth. These practices lead, at some point, to environmental overload and social catastrophe.
Note:NEOMALTHUSIANI E SOSTENIBILITÀ
Consider the rise and decline of the Mayan civilization between 250 and 1000 A.D., discussed at great length by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed… In the case of Copan, to grow enough food, Mayan farmers cut down forests and cultivated land on the steep hills around the city, which rapidly eroded, blanketing the valley with less fertile soil runoff. Skeletal remains suggest the average health of an inhabitant of Copan began to fall as this occurred—there…
Note:JARED DIAMOND SUI MAYA
It is true that the modern global economy, 24 times its size a century ago and around 390 times as large as it was a millennium ago, is using natural resources at a phenomenal rate. Global copper output increased 23 times between 1900 and 2000. Output of aluminum increased 10,760-fold. Oil production increased about 380-fold… Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased from 295 parts per million in 1900 to 381 parts per million in 2005. Concentrations of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, are increasing at the rate of 1 percent per year….
Note:TURBOECONOMIA E RISORSE NATURALI
Technological change and market forces may reduce the demand for, or reduce the disruption caused by, resource depletion. The operation of such processes in the past is what has given the lie to earlier predictions of imminent global environmental and economic collapse. For example, in 1980 economist Julian Simon challenged Paul Ehrlich to a bet. Ehrlich—author of The Population Bomb and an environmental millenarian—argued that increasing populations in a world of finite resources would lead inevitably to scarcity and so to price increases. Simon offered Ehrlich a long list of raw materials, any time range longer than a year, and a bet that those commodities would be cheaper in the future than they were in 1980. Ehrlich chose chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten, and a time frame of ten years. In 1990, all five had declined in price, and Ehrlich paid up,
Note:SIMON (LA BESTIA NERA DEI MALTHUSIANI) E L’INNOVAZIONE
Production and consumption, rather than population, are the central concerns.
Note:PRODUZIONE E POPOLAZIONE
INNOVATION AND UNCERTAINTY
Rapid technological advance and diffusion are key to the global escape from the Malthusian trap. Technology has allowed massively increasing global agricultural production, and it has also allowed a growing percentage of economic output (even in the poorest countries) to come from manufacturing and services, providing other sources of wealth than farming.
Note:TECNOLOGIA E FUGA DA MALTHUS
Another set of technologies that have spread are a range of simple health practices that have played a considerable role in reducing mortality, as we will see, and this reduced mortality has been a spur to smaller family size worldwide.
Note:SANITÀ E TACNOLOGIA
Africa is mired in income poverty not by the laws of nature but (if there is any simple explanation) by its institutional history.
Note:LA VIA ISTITUZIONALE
We may not know the secret to rapid income growth for poor countries in Africa or elsewhere, but we do know that the beliefs of a long-dead English parson hold little relevance. While populations have grown worldwide, the threats of both starvation and ill health have receded. The next chapter discusses evidence regarding improvements in the global quality of life in greater detail.
Note:MALTHUS HA PERSO
The Great Convergence in Quality of Life
Henry VIII, sexual carnivore and king of England for most of the first half of the sixteenth century, died at the age of fifty-five—possibly of syphilis, probably of an untreated case of type 2 diabetes. At about the same time in China, the Jiajing Emperor died of mercury poisoning at age fifty-nine, after a reign of forty-five years. Fast-forward to the start of the twentieth century. Queen Victoria died as the result of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1901 at age eighty-one—after the longest reign of any woman in history. Meanwhile, in China, the Tongzhi Emperor was born and died within Victoria’s reign—he passed away aged eighteen, of smallpox. Vaccination against the disease had been made compulsory in the UK twenty-two years earlier. Moving to the start of the twenty-first century, we find Queen Elizabeth still hale and hearty at eighty-four. So is former Chinese premier Jiang Zemin, who is the same age.
Note:LA QUALITA’ DELLA VITA DI UN RE DEL PASSATO
The discovery and exploitation of a range of health technologies, combined with improved nutrition, eventually drove a wedge between European life expectancy and that in the European empires in the nineteenth century. But the worldwide spread of such technologies and of nutrition has seen the global gap in health outcomes shrinking again over the past fifty years. A similar story of growing global inequality followed by convergence in the recent past applies not just to health but also to education, rights, and infrastructure access.