The evil that is population growth

The issue of population growth is one that vexes many people. There are those who believe that the small cake that is the gross national product cannot go round to everybody because there are too many of us. These, on the one hand, will advocate a slow down on population growth to remedy the situation.

Then we have those who will say there is no point in instituting any controls on population growth because we have not filled up the earth yet. People can, they reason, have as many children as they please. After all, it is God who looks after children and He will surely provide the necessary means for doing so. Didn’t God say: “Fill the world and subdue it”?

Times Radio recently featured a phone-in programme where this topic was discussed. All manner of opinions were expressed in that programme. I remember one man saying: “Those who advocate population control should pause to consider where they might have been if they are fourth or fifth-born in their family and if their parents had decided to have only two children,” or words to that effect.

At face value, this is a clever argument. But when you think deeply about it, you realise that whether an individual is born or not is inconsequential. Life would still have gone on even if a particular individual had not been born. When Abraham left the Ur of the Chaldeans 4 000 or so years ago, I was not there and neither was anyone living today, and yet whatever ought to have happened did happen. I did not need to be there.

That I am here now is not my own making. I might not have been around if my parents had decided to have only two children as I am the third-born in the family, but Malawi would still have been Malawi. I might have been born to different parents or at a much later date or in a different place or I might not have been born at all. These are variables that are both unknown and unknowable and discussing them is purely an exercise in futility.

Another caller said it did not make sense to embark on population control because some of the biggest economies in the world have billions of people. He mentioned China to back his argument. Again at face value, the argument makes sense. But then the country he mentioned, China, is a vast land compared to the tiny sliver of land that we call Malawi. China is a sub-continent with a size of 9.6 million square kilometres compared to Malawi’s land size of 94 280 square kilometres.

Despite being a huge country the authorities in China have been aware that a large population is a challenge to their economy and have until recently pursued the policy of one child per family and, therefore, China’s rate of population growth is far lower than that of Malawi. It is a fallacy to point to China as an example of a country where a large population is not a bother.

The truth of the matter is that a huge population is a big problem to countries and to the world. Left uncontrolled, population will grow at a geometric rate. With this kind of growth, if a population doubles in a certain period of time, for example, it will grow by a factor of 4 in the next equal period of time then by a factor 8 in yet the next equal period of time and so on. Put in simple terms, the growth happens at a runaway rate. The problem is that resources grow only linearly, meaning that over any period of time you can only expect a constant amount of growth—and indeed in some cases less amounts than in the previous periods.

The number of roads in Malawi, for example, has only grown by a slight proportion since 1964 and yet the population has more than quadrupled in the same period. The gross national product, the total productivity of the economy, will have grown but the per capita allocation will have significantly dwindled because the population growth will have greatly outstripped the growth of resources. When commentators say that Malawians are poorer now than they were 20 years ago they speak in terms of per capita wealth. True, you will see infrastructural development—new roads, school, shopping malls, among others—but the total wealth divide by the number of people is less today than it has been in the past. The culprit is population growth.

We need to search within Malawi for viable solutions to our population problem.

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