The Debate

Can Asia Escape the Malthusian Trap?

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The Debate

Can Asia Escape the Malthusian Trap?

The region’s governments need to think seriously about developmental and demographic issues as part of their grand strategies.

By 2045, there could be 49 million more malnourished people living on this planet, and 40 percent of the world’s population could be suffering from water shortages. The vast majority of these people will be, as they are now, in the poorer countries of the world.

Asia, one of the world’s leading economic engines, is not immune from this problem. South Asia already has the world’s largest group of food insecure people, with some 281 million suffering from hunger and malnourishment, across all of Asia, 537 million are undernourished.

The trends are clear for all to see. As populations expand and people continue to degrade the environment, agricultural yields will shrink while demand increases. A lack of access to food, water, or basic services, together with an increasing concentration of population, will create major humanitarian and security concerns as we push to the half-way point of the 21st century. As Asia continues its rapid growth, it will find itself caught in vicious cycle, unless governments adjust their thinking to cope with these incipient challenges.

Unfortunately, governments refuse to think seriously about these problems. The UK’s Department for International Development is under fire for a lack of transparency and accountability in its spending, the U.S. Treasury Department announced it would be pulling its 653 million dollars of funding from the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, and the Australian foreign aid budget is at its lowest level in eight years.

Why are concerns about food security, and developmental and demographic issues not made part of the “grand strategies” of developed countries when we know that they have direct links to promoting prosperity abroad?

Partly, it is because they are not as dramatic as missile tests and military exercises. But it also because we lack a straightforward framework within which to place these concerns. In order to conduct a successful foreign policy, a state needs a clear strategic vision. Where can we find a framework for these issues of food security and demography? In the writings of Thomas Malthus.

Malthus was born in Surrey, in 1766, and became the first Englishman to occupy an academic office of political economy. His most famous work, and the one which can be of use to us today was his “Essay of the Principle of Population,” first published in 1798, and updated many times throughout his life. Its main conclusion is this: a population will grow faster than its means for subsistence, and eventually its numbers will be cut back by famine, crime, or war – “vice and misery” – before the cycle of growth begins again.

This grim prediction for the future is known as the Malthusian Trap.

But Malthus offers a way out of this trap. For his own time, he advocated population control through an inculcation of good, virtuous, Christian behavior, and coupled this by pushing for workhouses to make sure the poor and unemployed could contribute to production while receiving welfare. In this way, population growth may be slowed even as the means for its subsistence is increased.

A state with the capacity to ensure its populations are adequately nourished will be more secure than one without that capacity. Malthus called this a “preventative check” on unsustainable population growth. This check could include agricultural subsidies to promote production, actions to preserve arable land from the effects of climate change, or social safety nets to ensure those without work can always afford basic necessities. The trite advice about giving a man a fish or teaching him to fish is applicable still.

Two very important factors will exacerbate these problems that affect some of the world’s poorest nations. The first is urbanization. Already, more than half the population of the planet lives in a city, with that proportion expected to increase to 70 percent by 2045. In Southeast Asia alone, between 250-300 million rural dwellers are projected to make the move to urban centers, while India will add 300 million people to its cities by 2050, and China as many as 350 million in the next twenty years.

This influx will intensify existing problems present in these cities, as it does in places like Lagos. Without substantial and effective investment in infrastructure, these cities can neither employ those who come seeking work, nor take adequately house them. Already, one billion people worldwide live in slum conditions; two billion more could join them unless urban centers can adapt. If they cannot, quite aside from producing humanitarian crises, these cities could become fertile grounds for crime and violent extremism. We have seen the horrors and difficulties of urban warfare all too well in places from Mosul to Marawi: we must do all we can to avoid this type of conflict becoming increasingly common.

The second factor is climate change. Aside from the fact that the Asia-Pacific contains many of the countries, like Bangladesh, that risk being submerged by rising sea levels, the vast majority of its population live in low-lying coastal areas. The contributions of greenhouse gas emissions to rising sea levels could leave as many as 440 million people globally at risk of being flooded out of coastal towns and cities; three-quarters of whom are in Asia. Not only do their homes risk being made uninhabitable, but climate change’s effects on agriculture threaten their food supplies. Human activity has already degraded 25 percent of available land for farming globally, while pollution and overfishing are severely damaging marine ecosystems.

Malthus wrote that throughout history, when pushed by want, people have left “their native haunts like so many famished wolves in search of prey.” Today, the consequences of want are not limited by geography. The intensity of global interconnectedness means seemingly marginal concerns like urbanization rates, or the quality of a state’s health services, can have international consequences.

It has been said that foreign policy practitioners must view the international landscape of the 21st century as a web, rather than the chessboard vision of the world which has dominated thinking on foreign policy from the Treaty of Westphalia to past the end of the Cold War. Malthus’ ideas are precisely what are needed to provide a framework for this way of thinking. Though it is unreasonable to suggest 18th century political economy will explain all the challenges we will face in the years to come, Malthusianism is a ready-made way of seeing the world that can be molded to fit our own particular circumstances.

What is of the utmost importance is this: that governments realize the security challenges these Malthusian concerns do and will continue to pose.

David Vallance is an intern at the International Security Program of the Lowy Institute, an Australian-based think tank.