Even in the late 18th century, humankind was wary of population growth. Englishman Thomas R. Malthus, in his 1798 book ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’, argues that humanity would grow too fast for food production to catch up with it.
He was not wrong. Just half a century ago, there were no less than 22 million Ethiopians in the world. Today, that figure has grown well over fourfold. As Malthus had predicted, well-being, which he saw as a mere case of a rise in food production, has improved. Access to health services has spread, as the share of people exposed to severe hunger and malnutrition shrunk, notwithstanding the effects of the recent El Nino-induced drought.
But this has meant an increase in the number of people, compounded by the lack of what Malthus called, perhaps sarcastically, positive checks. These are hunger, disease and war, the latter two of which have substantially contracted over the decades across the globe.
Developments in biotechnology and medicine have made most viral and bacterial diseases curable, or at least manageable. Modern law enforcement has created deterrence against attacks. Knowledge and democratic ideals, or perhaps just the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD), have created peace and understanding amongst nations. The world has gotten better.
Ethiopia has not been impervious to this. Take the infant and under-5 mortality rates, for instance, both of which have been halved from their levels in 2000 to 48 deaths and 67 deaths for every 1,000 live births, respectively. This, admittedly, is a good thing, but the emerging challenges it brings, as the years turn into decades, are profound.
Population projections vary, but it is rare to find one where there will be less than 150 million Ethiopians by 2050. One person is born every 10 seconds in Ethiopia, while another one dies every 45 seconds, according to the population data aggregator, World Population Review. Also, while a person leaves the nation every 44 minutes, another one enters it every 12 seconds.
These indices could be upset by many things, such as the current unrest in the country. Although they may hopefully be short-term occurrences that will not have significant effects on population growth, unrests could mean more Ethiopians being less optimistic to have large families. It could also mean a less favoured destination for migrants from nations such as Eritrea and South Sudan.
On the flip side, more stability and economic development would be a detriment to Malthus’ positive checks. Thus, the Briton came up with many wild as well as reasonable solutions he termed preventive checks that show how nations could control their population sizes.
He emphasized abortion and birth control. How the government could enforce these, apart from mere pleading in the form of campaigns, is a little complicated. Malthus, a cleric, was not nuts about them either. He instead believed that the best means to get out of this muck were moral restraints such as celibacy – a solution that many woold risk a future population explosion for.
There is the argument, on the other hand, that population growth does not only mean more mouths to feed but also more hands that can feed them. There is some sense in this thinking, and China could serve as a good example.
The country has well over a billion people, but it is only recently that a substantial portion of them gained middle-class status. It is estimated that 73pc of the population will have attained this status by 2030. Such a massive middle-class creates a highly lucrative market for producers, and, with careful policymaking, could very well enhance competition and innovation along the way.
China is an excellent example of some of the benefits of population growth, and it is right to assume that such human capital would be recognized for the asset that it is in Ethiopia. It is a matter of creating strong institutions that can enforce contracts and reduce rent-seeking practices that put resources in the hands of the few.
It is also a matter of having long-term solutions to fix state-centric economic development by infusing it with better private sector participation by way of better credit and a flexible way of doing business environment.
The effects of the current rate of population growth cannot, however, be fixed by development. The globe is warming up too fast, sea levels are rising, the coral reefs are dying and humankind is exhaustively using up mineral resources. As the planet is becoming less habitable, there are more and more people that need to live in that habitat.
There is, as yet, no realistic technological solution to this problem, and it is not likely that there will be one in this century. By the time that, say, the moon or Mars has been made habitable for humans, political instability, as a result of the lack of resources, would have taken its toll.
Malthus was right in that prevention is the best alternative. That can only occur through continued investment in human capital, especially the all-too-often neglected half of it. Women in highly productive countries, many of which have better gender equality, often tend to have fewer babies despite the fact that they would be able to support more. This is in contrast to countries such as Ethiopia, where couples with limited resources choose to have large families.
This points to the fact that better economic and political opportunities for both sexes will reduce the fertility rate of a country. When women are more likely to take control of their lives, own property and become investors, lawyers, doctors or engineers, the less likely they will be to choose to have many children or to do as such at a young age. Equality between the sexes is not just morally right, it is economically and politically responsible. It could literally save the world.
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