11/07/07 - population growth and poverty

In today's excerpt - comments on population growth and poverty from William Easterly Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development and Professor of Economics at New York University. The unprecedented population growth of the twentieth century—from under two billion people to over six billion, mainly due to the invention of a synthetic process for manufacturing fertilizer—has invited endless studies and comment. (It should also be noted that population growth, while continuing, has decelerated noticeably due to declining global birthrates):

"If there is a single thing that has scared observers of the Third World it is population growth. To many, population growth catastrophically imperils the prosperity of poor nations, if not the very lives of their inhabitants.

"Population is an old concern in economics. Thomas Malthus in the early nineteenth century famously saw exponential population growth outracing food production, which he said would lead to a major population correction in the form of widespread famines. The latter-day incarnation of Thomas Malthus is Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich in his famous cri de coeur of 1968, The Population Bomb, foresaw that within a decade after his writing, famines would sweep 'repeatedly across Asia Africa and South America', killing perhaps as many as one-fifth of the world's population. ...

"The great population scare is mainly notable for what didn't happen: widespread deaths from famine. In the 1960s, when Erhlich penned his eloquent alert, about one out of every ten nations was having a famine at least once a decade. By the 1990s, just one country out of the two-hundred in the world had a famine. Global population did about double from 1960 to 1998, but food production tripled over the same period in both rich and poor nations. Far from us seeing increasing food shortages, food prices have fallen by nearly half over the past two decades. ...

"If population growth causes famine, water shortages, massive unemployment and other disasters, we would expect to see it show up in overall economic performance. Countries that have rapid population growth should have low or negative GDP growth per capita. ... This prediction can be—and has been—easily tested. The relationship between per capita economic growth and population growth is one of the most intensively studied in all of the statistical literature. ... The most well-known statistical relationship between growth and its most fundamental determinants finds no significant effect of population growth on per capita [income] growth. ... Moreover, there is no association across countries between success at slowing population growth and success at raising per capita [income] growth."


William Easterly


The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics


The MIT Press


Copyright 2001 by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology


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