The neo-Malthusians and the Kuznets Curve

They say it is better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable, but how about a compromise like moderately rich and just moody?
~Lady Diana Spencer

The neo-Malthusians had their origins in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when books like The Population Bomb (Paul Ehrlich) and The Limits to Growth (the Club of Rome) were published. Their main premise was different than Malthus’s doomsday omen, it was more focused on environment degradation: The richer people get, the worse things become for the earth. When Goklany sees progress everywhere he looks, the neo-Malthusians see impending disaster: air pollution, the disappearance of habitats, the emptying of aquifers, the demolition of forest cover, and the proliferation of new diseases. Goklany sees us advancing toward progress, the neo-Malthusians see us advancing directly to the rift.

The neo-Malthusianism have consistently underestimated the beneficial effects of technological change. Three decades ago, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren invented the angular stone of the movement:

neomalthusian formula

Environmental impact (I) = population size (P) times level of affluence (A) times technological efficiency (T)

This means that technological change has a multiplier effect on population size and the wealthiness of the population, so we need to place strict limits on human behaviour. There is some logic on this theory: “As societies get richer and more populous, they do consume more resources, and, especially in the early phases of economic growth, they do so with a measure of indifference to the overall impact on the environment”(J. Surowiecki).

But the flaw in the equation is that technology can also reduce environmental impact. In the past 40 years, productivity gains have dramatically reduced the environmental burden of farming and shrunk the amount of land needed to feed the world. Technological improvements in the scrubbing of power-plant smokestacks have brought a sharp reduction in the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air. Improvements in the efficiency of wind and solar power have reduced (a least at some extent) the demand for fossil fuels.

Technological change is actually the result of increased affluence, which makes it likely that an economy will get cleaner even as it gets richer, Goklany explains that “developed countries do generally have cleaner air, cleaner water, more forest cover, and less cropland devoted to food production than developing countries do, even though the latter are much poorer”, with the exception of CO2.

United States is not less polluted than it was in 1787, but arguably less polluted today than at any time in the last 100 years or so. The same is true in the rest of the developed world. Why? Because technology first evolves to increase production output, and then evolves to efficient that output. This is called the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC)


When graphed, the relationship between prosperity and environmental degradation looks like an upside-down U. Initially, as countries grow, they trade off environmental well-being for economic growth; the richer they get, the more polluted. Then a wealth’s critical mass is reached, basic needs are met, and, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, the concern goes to non-basic needs, like a better environment. People have the time to form NGOs and to push for cleaner industry, and technology is serving efficiency instead of brute production. The economy becomes prosperous enough to shift their priorities and begin to seek out ways to grow more cleanly

Goklany even suggest that richer countries open the path to poorer ones, since the invention and spread of new technologies make it easier and more likely for countries to get on the right side of the U-curve quickly, even before they have become rich; the “green revolution,” for instance, allowed poor countries to reduce the environmental burden of farming.

So we can modify the neo-Malthusians formula distinguishing between technology for mass production (P1) and technology that efficients the production process, having less waste and yield (P2):


The turning point of the EKC will be when PAT1<T2. Different pollutants may have different EKC since some pollutant’s effect are more obvious, and that could explain why greenhouse gases emissions are not yet in decline: their long-term effect is less obvious that a chimney spewing coal.


2 Responses to The neo-Malthusians and the Kuznets Curve

  1. MATTHIAS says:

    Send me the malthusian population curve

  2. L’utilisation d’agents chimiques, en infiltrant lees sols,
    peut atteindre les nappes phréatiques et polluer l’eau.

    Mais les pollutions dess terrains peuvvent également être dues
    à d’autres causes : rejets industriels,
    utilisation de produits phytosanitaires par lles ménages, pollution accidentelle.

    Des opérations de dépollution de sites sont aujourd’hui menées surr tout le tterritoire français et la réglementation
    est de plus en plus exigeante pour éviter de nouvelles
    contaminations. Faire appel à un diagnostiquer pour une étude des sols
    permet d’établir un diagnostic de pollution des sols pour ensuite envisager
    la dépollution des sols.

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