A passenger train in Dhaka, Bangladesh, September 2008.

The demographic imperative

Managing population growth

Andrew M. Fischer | October 08, 2010

With global population predicted to rise to over nine billion this century, can we find a solution to the problem of ever-increasing strains on resources without resorting to alarmism and xenophobia?

World population rose to 6.9 billion in 2010. Nearly 80 million people are being added to the total each year, and the seven billion mark is likely to be reached before the end of 2011. With one-fifth of this number still beset by abject poverty, the prospects of an additional two billion people by mid-century needs to be pre-empted by implementing employment and equity-focused development strategies now, before it is too late.

Despite the increasing population, fertility 1 and birth rates have been declining worldwide in recent decades and, hence, this increase is slowing as well. According to a United Nations (UN) projection carried out in 2004, the number of inhabitants in our global village is expected to peak at 9.22 billion in 2075 – with almost all of this increase destined to take place in developing countries.

While these projections are made on the basis of fairly cautious mid-range guesstimates of how fertility and mortality will change over the next 40 years, the bulk of the global population increase is more or less guaranteed by population momentum, even if fertility falls much faster than expected. In other words, today’s baby boomers in countries such as Yemen, Uganda, Mali and India will keep population growing in these countries for the next generation, even if they reduce their average fertility to below replacement levels of fewer than two children per women on average.

What does this mean for developing countries? Or, more precisely, what are the implications for the world’s poor? Will the world be able to feed an ever-growing population, or to employ it at reasonably decent standards of living? With the World Bank estimating that around 1.4 billion people live on less a euro a day, what will two billion more people do to this situation – bearing in mind that most of them will be born in the world’s poorest countries?

Malthusian nightmare scenario?

There are many perspectives on these questions, some alarmist, others more reassuring. The alarmist perspective tends to dominate public perception with what are often called Malthusian views, after Thomas Malthus, who predicted in the late 18th century that population growth would outstrip food production resulting in famine, disease, war and other calamities that would ultimately keep population growth in check. Such extreme predictions have their modern iterations in iconic books such as Silent Spring, written in 1962 by Rachel Carson, The Population Bomb, written in 1968 by Paul Ehrlich, and The Limits to Growth, written in 1972 by a team of authors at the Club of Rome think tank. All of these predict various versions of calamity and disaster caused by rapid population increase and finite resources compounded by modern economic growth.

These dire predictions for the 1970s and 1980s failed to transpire. Ehrlich nevertheless repeated his alarm in 1990, together with Anne Ehrlich, in The Population Explosion. Kenneth Smail, an American anthropologist, has also re-invoked Malthus for the 21st century, arguing that Earth’s long-term sustainable carrying capacity may not accommodate much more than two to three billion people – roughly the population of the world in 1950. 2 These views definitely have their appeal, as they continue to underwrite typical journalistic discourses on population and food production, such as the idea that rising population causes higher food prices, which in turn gives rise to food riots, potential resource wars and famine.

Many of these messages have also been contentiously tied up with xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments in both Europe and the United States. One example is Population Politics, written in 1993 by Virginia Abernethy, an American anthropologist who has described herself as an ‘ethnic separatist’. She argues that aid to developing countries results in women having more children, thereby exacerbating overpopulation. More recently, she has been involved in the controversial ‘Protect Arizona Now’ anti-immigration movement. Similar undertones permeate anti-immigrant feelings in Europe, as reflected by the idea that Europe is ‘full’ or ‘overcrowded’ – conveniently after several hundred years of colonialism.

The association of such reactionary attitudes with population control is partly to blame for the negative connotation that family planning has come to evoke among more progressive folk, adding to the human and gender rights concerns regarding the intrusive abuses on women’s lives that family planning has often entailed. This said, family planning has also been under attack by the religious Right due to its association with contraception and even abortion.

Reflecting on this politicized imbroglio, Eric Ross contends, in his 1998 book The Malthus Factor, that Malthusian arguments obscure the real roots of poverty, inequality and environmental degradation in capitalist development, with the result that alarm over the environmental impact of overpopulation ends up representing the poor as perpetrators of environmental destruction rather than as the victims of such capitalist development.

Malthusian predictions have not, as yet, come to pass. Mass famines have largely been averted because the world has managed to increase food supplies in pace with population growth – if not more than compensating for increases in population. This point is eagerly pointed out by many so-called ‘anti-Malthusians’ including Julian Simon, who attacks the ideas of scarcity in his 1981 book, The Ultimate Resource, with a faith in the ability of free markets and human innovation to deal with population growth. The well-known writings of Danish economist Ester Boserup are also often considered to be part of this camp, although she qualified her own arguments by stressing that adaptations to population growth take place over long sweeps of human history and are not necessarily the result of short-term market mechanisms. 3

It is true that increases in food production over the past 60 years have been achieved through the intensified use of chemical fertilizers, particularly synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. But this dependence has questionable environmental consequences, including the fact that nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas and nitrogen fertilizers leach nutrients from soils and have problematic consequences on downstream eco-systems. In addition, their production is dependent on limited and regionally concentrated supplies of raw materials. More generally, many ‘Green Revolution’ technologies are energy intensive and dependent on petroleum-based resources (including, for instance, the use of plastics).

These points have been discussed at length by leading experts in the field of population and development. 4 For example, Tim Dyson in his 2005 article, ‘On Development, Demography and Climate Change’, suggests that while Malthusianism might not apply in the conventional sense, it might soon apply at a global level in terms of the long-term impacts of our modern industrial way of life on climate change.

Neo-Malthusian logic

Reuters / Akintunde Akinleye

Makoko Riverine slum in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, May 2007.

In contrast to Dyson’s industrial systemic lens, a form of neo-Malthusian thinking that focuses on poor people has tended to dominate depictions of population change in sustainable development and anti-poverty campaigns. These rely on the idea of a self-reinforcing poverty-population-environment spiral. The theory here is that poverty induces higher fertility and higher population growth among poor people because children provide old age security as well as extra labour and income, and having more children compensates for higher mortality rates. This places pressure on the environment and leads to environmental degradation, which in turn worsens poverty. The poor are thus doomed to worsening poverty until they can either lower their birth rates or else be lifted out of poverty by some other means, so as to break their need for more children. The argument is based on a simplistic statistical extrapolation that, because poor people have more children than rich people, worsening poverty must either cause higher fertility or prevent it from being reduced from very high levels.

While such neo-Malthusian logic holds considerable appeal, some of its basic premises have been largely refuted by contemporary demographic research, pointing us towards a much more nuanced understanding of poverty–population interactions. Broad agreement among demographers also represents, to some degree, certain advances that have been made in the field of population studies since the 1970s, when pessimism reigned in both academic and popular perception about the ability of the poor to lower their fertility. It is now accepted that fertility has been falling rapidly in poor countries – much more rapidly than was the case in Europe during its own fertility transitions in the 19th and early 20th centuries – and that this is occurring largely irrespective of income level.

At first, this took many demographers by surprise, such as the rapid fertility reductions in China in the 1970s or in Egypt and Iran in the 1980s and 1990s. Even now, fertility is already falling rapidly in many African countries – much faster than many had anticipated – to almost replacement levels in a number of urban centres. There are only a few places in Africa where fertility decline has not yet started, such as rural Uganda, rural Congo, rural Nigeria, Niger and Chad. According to Michel Garenne, a leading expert in African demography, nobody would have predicted these developments 20 years ago. 5 As a result, today’s predictions of what the global population will be in 2050 are much lower than they were in the 1960s and 1970s – precisely because fertility decline has occurred much faster than anticipated.

Interestingly, despite the recognized importance of girls’ education for fertility reduction, uneducated rural women have also been reducing their fertility. Around 60% of fertility reduction in India between 1991 and 2001 is attributable to women with little or no education. Fertility decline in Morocco has been basically the same among both illiterate rural and literate urban women. 6

The insight that poor countries and poor people can and do reduce their birth rates has driven much new thinking in demography since the 1970s. The field has more recently moved away from older ideas rooted in a ‘modernization theory’ perspective of population and development, and towards more subtle distinctions between the processes of human development on the one hand, and the processes of capitalism, hierarchy and power on the other.

In other words, poor people are perfectly capable of ‘modernizing’ demographically while still remaining poor economically. We can see that fertility transitions are taking place throughout the world, usually at a more rapid pace in the places where transition has begun later. However, this tells us little about the respective economic development paths that each society will take as it undergoes transition. Economic development paths are generally much more a matter of capitalism than of demography.

They who pay, eat

World population is nonetheless continuing to rise rapidly despite falling fertility rates, mostly in poor countries with limited resources. The impact of this rise on poverty and hunger must be understood in terms of distribution. Regardless of our ability to produce enough food to feed the growing global population, hunger persists in the world because food is not equitably distributed.

Some parts of the world have a surplus (even an extreme surplus), and others a deficit (an extreme deficit resulting in hunger and famine). To understand this, we need to understand how food is produced and distributed at regional and local levels. This is as much a political economy question as a logistical one, as it is rooted in the power relations that govern both local and global economies.

Distribution is hugely influenced by income, particularly in today’s liberalized global economy where the ability to purchase food increasingly determines who gets supplied. People’s ability to buy food can be expressed both in terms of having the money (or other means) to obtain it and also in terms of being able to use this money (or those means) freely for that purpose.

This was the central theme in the early work of Amartya Sen, who set out to explain famine through his somewhat convoluted ‘entitlement’ approach, which later evolved into his capability approach. This has led to debates over whether famines are caused by declines in the availability of food or, as he proposed, by a breakdown in people’s ability to purchase food, despite sufficient supplies. 7

The main point – one that was made long before Sen – is that poverty, hunger and famine are as much issues of demand (or the inability to enact demand) as they are of supply. Indeed, this was the essential insight of John Maynard Keynes’ theory of effective demand, which he developed in the 1930s as a means to explain unemployment. Keynes himself acknowledged Malthus’ work on famines as an important source for his ideas. 8

So, following the trail of Sen takes us back to the classical economists, who were fundamentally interested in the question of distribution, unlike modern mainstream economists, who have tended to assume away the problem of who gets what by treating it as an issue of market exchange.

Demographic drivers of urbanization

In terms of population growth, distributional questions can be considered at both micro and macro levels. At the micro level, population growth is generally experienced as an increase in the size of families, as a consequence of more children surviving to adulthood. In an agrarian setting, this puts more pressure on land resources, as existing plots of land are stretched to support more people. Such a population increase can drive poor families further into poverty in situations where land distribution is very unequal or where households with smaller holdings struggle to subsist on their land (if they have land).

This strain on poor rural households is not resolved by commercializing agriculture (including, for instance, land leasing by transnational corporations in Africa), nor is it resolved by increasing the capital intensity of agriculture – for example, by using tractors instead of people. These types of change generally increase labour productivity, but at the cost of employing less people, and they do not necessarily make the land more productive. Rather, they tend to concentrate the use of land into the hands of fewer people. Less employment combined with more land concentration therefore exacerbates the strain on smallholders and simultaneously reduces the possibility of finding work on larger farms – usually the lifeline of the landless and of poor farmers whose own land cannot meet their subsistence needs.

Some family members (or whole households) move into off-farm activities as a consequence of these strains, thus driving processes of urbanization, regardless of whether there are decent jobs and a viable living to be made in the towns and cities these people are moving to. Where there are not, urbanization can actually turn rural poverty into urban poverty, as has been witnessed in many developing countries and which World Bank poverty statistics are particularly inept at measuring.

The employment dilemma

Alamy / Brian Atkinson

New Delhi, India.

The crucial role of off-farm jobs within such transitions becomes particularly evident at the macro level as whole societies go through these transitions together. Paul Demeny, in his 2003 article, ‘Population Policy Dilemmas in Europe at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century’, strikingly contrasts Russia, currently one of the most extreme cases of population shrinkage, and Yemen, one of the fastest-growing populations in the world. In 1950, Russia had a population of 102.7 million, while Yemen had a population of 4.3 million. By 2000, Russia’s population was 145.5 million, while Yemen’s population had increased fourfold to 18.3 million. Based on UN projections, Russia’s population will fall back to 104 million by 2050, whereas Yemen’s will increase again by more than fivefold, to 102 million. Even if Yemeni women were to suddenly substantially reduce their fertility soon , the bulk of this increase is more or less already guaranteed by population momentum.

Similarly, as pointed out by John Cleland at a talk in The Hague in 2009, 9 the population of Niger, which recently suffered from famine and food shortage, would increase at its current fertility rates from about 16 million in 2010 to 80 million by 2050 – a population larger than that of Germany. Even if the fertility rate is reduced from the current eight births per woman to 3.6 – as the UN expects – the population will still reach 50 million by 2050. While Yemen and Niger are severe cases, they are not totally exceptional, as many rapidly growing countries in Africa and parts of Asia are set to experience a doubling, if not a trebling or more of their populations by 2050.

In the face of such inevitable population expansions, the obvious developmental question is: how will such a large number of people be meaningfully employed? The potential for agriculture to productively absorb such increases is probably close to nil, given the already over-stretched land resources in most of these countries. Moreover, food deficit countries (such as Yemen and Niger) will need to export more in order to pay for more food imports from abroad.

This should not be done through the intensification of land-based primary commodity exports (such as coffee and cocoa) given that the production of these export crops takes land away from local food production, thereby offsetting the food deficit problem rather than resolving it. In other words, the foreign exchange earned through producing food for European supermarkets (minus the profits that the European corporations organizing such production remit back to Europe) is largely used to pay for the increased food imports that these poor countries require as a result of shifting their land and labour towards such export production.

Rather, the increase in employment will most certainly need to occur in the secondary sector (manufacturing and construction) or in the tertiary sector (services, broadly speaking). Given the low degree of employment creation relative to output that is offered by modern manufacturing nowadays, the bulk of this employment will probably need to be generated in services, largely in urban areas.

In other words, Yemen’s hugely increased labour force will need to be employed mostly outside agriculture. And with little employment generated in enclave sectors such as petroleum, Yemen would need to become the new South Korea, or even the new China, alongside dozens of other countries competing to become the same. Since modern manufacturing generates relatively little employment, these countries would also need to institute strong redistributive mechanisms in order to guarantee that any wealth generated by the manufacturing or enclave sectors would be circulated throughout the rest of the economy. This wealth, in turn, would have to create decently paid employment in the largely-urban service sector, with public-sector employment playing a lead role, particularly given the employment expectations of the increasingly well-educated populations of these countries.

And even then, in the best of scenarios, Yemen and other countries would need an outlet of international emigration. After all, during Europe’s phase of rapid population growth, as much as 20% of its population increase emigrated to the ‘New World’ colonies, which had been murderously cleansed for the purpose. Emigration from developing countries today accounts for a far smaller share of population increase than in these earlier European cases. Yet such countries face a greater need for emigration, with significantly fewer resources to face the challenges of population increase at home.

Developmental solutions

A developmental solution to this unfolding situation needs to be earnestly sought by all, Left and Right, South and North. There are, in fact, some important lessons to be learnt for this purpose from the recent post-war past. The countries, particularly in East Asia, that have been most successful at both rapidly reducing fertility and generating employment have been generally characterized by a combination of strong developmentalism and universalistic social policies.

Developmentalism in this sense means state-led industrial policy rooted in nationally owned firms, regulated capital accounts to ensure that wealth remains national, and a bias towards generating employment rather than efficiency. This is the opposite of the neoliberal dictates that demand employment austerity in the name of (transnational) firm profitability.

Universalistic social policies, especially in health, provide crucial redistributive mechanisms in the economy. They also provide the administrative and social infrastructure that allows for rapid progress in both birth and death control – the latter being as important as family planning in bringing about sustained reductions of fertility.

South Korea and Taiwan are obvious examples of where this approach has worked well. But Thailand (at least, up until the East Asia crisis in 1997), and China are other examples. In fact, China's success in reducing fertility in the 1970s from a rate of 5.8 in 1970 to 2.8 by 1979 – before the introduction of the one-child policy – cannot be appreciated without understanding the entirely state-collectivized economy that existed at the time. Collectivization assured full employment and the near universal provision of primary health care and basic education in both rural and urban areas. The contribution of these earlier social achievements to subsequent economic growth from the 1980s onwards is also often underappreciated.

That particular revolutionary setting would be near impossible, and perhaps not desirable, to reproduce in other countries today. But we can still learn from the underlying principles, shared with other less extreme cases, in terms of the ways off-farm employment was generated and supported by domestically controlled mechanisms of accumulation, wealth redistribution, and universal social service provision – all pursued from a poor agrarian economic starting point. Even countries that have made good progress in their fertility transitions, such as most of Asia and Latin America, urgently require employment-focused development strategies in order to successfully tap the potential of their so-called ‘demographic dividend’, a one-off historical peak in the proportion of working-age adults to young and old dependents.

The lessons should be clear both for the progressive development community, that wishes to make poverty history, as well as for the rising xenophobic Right in Europe and the United States that wishes to stem immigration and other perceived ills inherited from their legacy of having once plundered the non-Western world. Developmentalism, progressive redistribution and universalistic social policies, especially in health, need to be urgently placed at the top of the development agenda, or else we must expect increasing flows of immigration to right the imbalance.


Alexandratos, N. (2005) Countries with rapid population growth and resource constraints: Issues of food, agriculture, and development. Population and Development Review, 31(2), pp. 237-258.

Boyd, C. and Slaymaker, T. (2000) Re-examining the 'more people, less erosion' hypothesis: Special case or wider trend? ODI Natural Resource Perspectives, no. 63: 1-6, Overseas Development Institute.

Demeny, P. (2003) Population policy in Europe at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Population and Development Review, 29(1): 1-28.

Dyson, T. (1996) Population and Food: Global Trends and Future Prospects. London: Routledge.

Dyson, T. (2001) World food trends: A neo-Malthusian prospect? Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 145(4): 438-55.

Dyson, T. (2005) On development, demography and climate change: The end of the world as we know it? Population and Environment, 27(2):117-49.

Dyson, T. (2010a), Population and Development: The Demographic Transition. London: Zed Books.

Fischer, A. M. (2010) The Population Question and Development: The need for a debate in the Netherlands. Society for International Development (Netherlands Chapter), The Hague.

Smail, J. K. (2002) Remembering Malthus: A preliminary argument for a significant reduction in global human numbers. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 118:292–297.

Smil, V. (1997). Global population and the nitrogen cycle. Scientific American, July: 58-63.

Smil, V. (2008) Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years. The MIT Press.

UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2004) World Population at 2300. United Nations, New York.

UN, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Population Estimates and Projections Section, World Population Prospects, the 2008 Revision. (Updated: 21 May 2010).

Wrigley, E. A. (1999) Corn and crisis: Malthus on the high price of provisions. Population and Development Review, 25(1): 121-128.

Photo credit main picture: Reuters / Andrew Biraj


  • 1.

    The total fertility rate is the average number of live births that women have in their child-bearing years (generally from 15-45 years) at a particular point in time. Faster fertility decline would lead to an earlier peak and smaller population, whereas slower fertility decline would lead to a later and bigger peak.

  • 2.

    See, for example, Smail (2002).

  • 3.

    I am indebted to Tim Dyson for this insight. For a good summary of the debate over these issues raised by the famous Machokos case in Kenya, see Boyd and Slaymaker (2000).

  • 4.

    For excellent penetrating discussions, see Smil (1997), Dyson (2001), Alexandratos (2005) and Smil (2008).

  • 5.

    See the lecture by Michel Garenne summarized in Fischer (2010).

  • 6.

    See lectures by Tim Dyson and Michel Garenne summarized in Fischer (2010). For more details on these points, see Dyson (2010).

  • 7.

    One of the most straightforward criticisms of Sen’s work on famine is made in Dyson (1996), p. 74. He points out that in all five of the famines that Sen considers, there is actually very strong empirical evidence of food availability declines, opposite to the claims that Sen made in order to build his theoretical case.

  • 8.

    For an excellent discussion of this point, see Wrigley (1999).

  • 9.

    See Fischer (2010), p. 23.