Simple Neo-Malthusian Theories

Simple neo-Malthusian theories apply the logical structure of classical Malthusianism to other important issues of resource management. Like classical Malthusianism, they have a certain commonsensical appeal due to their plausible assumptions and axiomatic elegance. Simple neo-Malthusian theories therefore often play a powerful role in the popular imagination, although more often than not without any direct reference to classical Malthusianism as the source of the tradition.

Environmental Neo-Malthusianism

Environmental neo-Malthusianism is a typical case in point. According to this school, environmental impact (ƒ1) such as land degradation and biodiversity loss outpaces and strains nature's ability to provide ecosystem services (ƒ2) such as biomass production and carbon sequestration. The reason is that environmental impact constantly increases, while ecosystem services are either stagnant or declining. After a period of overshoot, the decline of ecosystem services inexorably leads to

Fig. 4.3 Environmental neo-Malthusianism

environmental degradation, undermining the Earth's regenerative capacity. This must lead to catastrophic consequences, constraining humanity's ability to make further demands on ecosystems and ultimately rebalancing environmental impact with nature's ability to provide ecosystem services (Fig. 4.3).

Environmental neo-Malthusianism is neatly illustrated by ecological footprint analysis, as in the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report (WWF 2012). [1] The report closely follows the neo-Malthusian template, with ecological footprint outpacing and straining biocapacity but ultimately constrained by it.

Ecological footprint (ƒ1) is a measure of environmental impact. It is understood as the land base that would be required to compensate for a given level of environmental impact, most notably greenhouse gas emissions. It is based on the so-called IPAT equation, which specifies environmental impact in terms of population, affluence, and technology (Ehrlich and Holdren 1971). The equation has seen many specifications over the years (Chertow 2000).[2] To cite just one prominent example, Ehrlich et al. (1999, 270) define environmental impact (I) as:

a product of population size (P), per capita affluence (A) measured as per capita consumption, and the environmental impact of the technologies, cultural practices, and institutions through which that consumption is serviced (T), measured as damage per unit of consumption.

Fig. 4.4 Climate-based neo-Malthusianism

Biocapacity (ƒ2) is a measure of ecosystem services. It is defined as “[t]he capacity of ecosystems to produce useful biological materials and to absorb waste materials generated by humans” (WWF 2012, 146). [3] Ecological footprint constrains biocapacity insofar as, after a period of overshoot, the overburdening of biocapacity by ecological footprint must lead to dismal consequences such as land degradation and climate change, which in turn must lead to significant social calamities: environmental migration, resource wars, pandemics, and so on. Short of a sustainability transformation, such calamities may be the only way for ecological footprint and biocapacity to return to a long-term global equilibrium.

  • [1] Ecological footprint analysis goes back to Wackernagel and Rees (1996) and is also applied by the Global Footprint Network (Ewing et al. 2010)
  • [2] Most authors interpret IPAT as an equation [I=P×A×T] or even as an identity [ I = P ´´],P GDP

    although it is better understood as a complex function allowing for interaction effects between its variables

    [I=F(P;A;T )]

  • [3] Biocapacity is understood here as a specific ecosystem service, namely the bioproductivity of the earth. It is operationalized as the average bioproductivity of a “global hectare”, multiplied by the surface of the earth in hectares
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