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ZAPP: Economics: The dismal science

While some may dispute that economics is a science at all, it has long been thought to be a dismal approach to our human story. The origin of the dismal nature of my field stems from the early classical understanding of the interplay of economic results and population trends.

Early economists explained that when we had years of good harvests, families would produce more children. When too many families did so simultaneously, the population grew faster than agricultural output.

The resulting starvation reduced the population growth until our output once again outpaced growth of humans. Then the cycle dismally repeated itself.

Thomas Malthus, one of the better known classical economists, saw even worse trends in population growth. He explained that since population grows exponentially, our ability to produce life sustaining goods and services could not be expected to keep pace and widespread starvation would be inevitable unless somehow we slow the growth of humans.

We know that Malthus was criticized for assuming implicitly that technology would not increase our ability to produce food and other necessities fast enough to match population growth. Since we are dramatically more productive today than when Malthus lived, most modern economists therefore assume he was wrong and focus on other problems.

But wait.

Malthus predicted his country, England, would not be able to feed itself. He was correct: England has not fed herself for more than 100 years. While this seems not a problem, what happens when more countries depend on imported food?

Today, 45,000 people die of starvation and malnutrition every day. But even with these losses, global population is growing by 220,000 every day. As an economist, I am concerned about global population growth for several reasons. Global warming is an empirical fact. Last year the Earth experienced the highest average temperature in recorded history. It is also clear that human activity is a major cause of these temperature increases.

With more humans on our planet, there is more stress on the environment and our temperatures.

As developed countries struggle to provide enhanced standards of living for their citizens, each person there is having a larger impact on our planet. New inhabitants of our country, however, have even a greater impact.

For example, while we Americans constitute only 5 percent of the planet’s population, we represent about 24 percent of global energy usage. In other words, restraining our human impact on the environment becomes almost impossible as long as population growth rates are unrestrained.

What are the most recent population projections? The median UN projection for our country in year 2100 is 450 million. This is more than a 40 percent increase over the number of people now living in the U.S. This means 40 more people for every 100 people currently living in our country.

The projections for the developing world are even more troubling. Unless birth rates decrease, global population in 2100 is projected to be 11.23 billion. This would be a 50 percent increase over our current numbers. Africa would experience a 360 percent increase over current numbers.

Even more surprising is the projection that India will surpass China in population by the year 2022, only seven years from now.

The population expansion will also exacerbate tensions over access to land and water. The population growth projected for Africa will clearly increase tribal and national conflicts over these scarce resources.

The projected population growth comes from several sources. First, the unintended result of our medical advances is that families that had ten children so that three or four would survive now have seven or eight children become adults.

Second, in developing countries, children are still the primary source of social security for poor people in villages. Thirdly, poor people often do not have access to or cannot afford birth control services.

These population trends are troubling. Sadly, one of our political parties seems blind to the coming threats of population expansion. They have tried to block funding for access to birth control at home and abroad. This is not responsible.

For more information about population trends please go to


Kenneth Zapp, is a professor emeritus with Metropolitan State University and a mentor with SCORE Savannah. Contact him at


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