Malthusian theory and New Zealand’s environment

Malthusian theory relates to the idea that exponential population growth and consumption of resources whilst food production remains arithmetical at best eventually causes a Malthusian catastrophe – the decline of the worlds population to a somewhat more sustainable level.

In 1983 with concern over the exploitation of natural resources around the world, and fears of a neo-Malthusian outcome for an accelerating human population, the Brundtland Commission was formed. It had the task of examining the problem on a global scale and how the world might address an increasingly intricate mish mash of environmental issues, economics, societal pressures and politics. It struck a chord with the then Labour opposition in the New Zealand House of Representatives, angered as it was by the antipathy of the National Government to environmental issues here.

The 1991 Resource Management Act was written in partial response to the Brundtland Commission findings. It was also written in partial response to the fact that New Zealand had an obsolete environmental framework of laws that when put together were unwieldy. The Act replaced 69 other Acts and amended Acts, as well as 19 regulations and orders.

In terms of neo-Malthusian theory, the Resource Management Act on its own is not able to change the rate of resource consumption. The ecological footprint of the average New Zealander 10 years ago was large enough that if the whole world had our rate of resource consumption, all of planet Earth and 94% of an equivalent planet would be needed to sustain it. In other words, quite simply our rate of consumption is not sustainable by a large population.

In third world countries adults tend to have larger families for socio-economic reasons including that in their senior years older people have family members who are able to support them when they can no longer work. Every human being needs fresh water to drink, to cook, to clean themselves and their clothes. About 800 million have no access to clean drinking water worldwide. This is perhaps the most important part of understanding how a Malthusian collapse could occur.

No such problem exists in New Zealand with the growth of families. However clean water is becoming a bigger issue with each year due to the large amount used for dairy farming. It has degraded in many areas across the country and the rise of water bourne bugs has increased (see Hawkes Bay crisis in 2016). The advent of changes to hydrology and climatology caused by climate change (man made or otherwise)mean that these issues are going to become more acute with time as weather patterns change how we farm and how we use our fresh water resource. It will not be the cause of wars here, but in arid parts of the world, such as the Middle East water shortages might well cause confrontations involving individual nations military forces.

Malthusian theory has been discredited by some theorists. Some say it is a theory that is too pessimistic. Others acknowledge the socio-economic causes of the theory, but say that there will be positive checks and balances that stop it from advancing, which I assume to mean further work on international treatises including the development of new ones and further advancing existing ones relating to the environment. However a trend away in the countries with the most economic, military and political influence from global co-operation against these challenges means even if all of the small and medium sized nations collaborated to share knowledge and technology, larger powers could undermine it.

So how discredited is Malthusian theory after all? And should we be worried in New Zealand?

3 thoughts on “Malthusian theory and New Zealand’s environment

  1. Rob, this is the first time I hade heard the word ‘Mathusian’, so how did you pick up on it?
    As a person with biological training, I know from my lectures that given abundant food populations of bacteria will grow exponentially until the food runs out. Bacteria reproduce by binary fission. Homo sapiens reproduces by two people producing one offspting, and then another, and then another, and another etc. In days gone buy yes, many children were produced. Is this growth exponential? The answer in no. It is worse than exponential.
    But Humans are rational beings and the developed world recognised that there were ‘Limits to growth’ in a thesis presented by ‘the Club of Rome’.
    The discussion produced the notion that we needed to reduce our population growth, and many couples limited their offspring to 2 – replacement only. This of course had the result that the consumer society was bourne, when wages/ productivity no longer needed to be confined to food and shelter only.
    But, as you point out many populations of humans are gobbling up resources, and in NZ we are producing food in abundance to sell and support our consumer society, which is putting our environment at risk.
    Seems to me that we should have discussions about the sustainability of our consumerism.
    And, as an aside, we should be thinking about the benefits or otherwise on importing people into our country when we do not have enough for those people that we already have.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And Rob, I just want to say to you that I read your blog every day. I am impressed that you find something to say every day too. And at times you find me something that I didn’t know about so I relish the knowledge. I don’t always comment, but I want you to know that your conversation is appreciated.


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