Esther Boserup

Boserup, a Danish agricultural economist, is distinguished by two intellectual achievements: a seminal theory of population to rival Malthus in importance, and pioneering work on the role of women in human development.

Turning to her population theory, she offers a hopeful alternative to Malthus.

OK, so the population is reaching the point when the food supply is reaching exhaustion. Malthus says, the extra people have to die. Boserup says that you just have to upgrade the productivity of the food supply. Under pressure of numbers, with more mouths to feed, people put more labour and more intense effort into feeding themselves, and find ways to get more food production out of the land. They cultivate the land more intensively, they add extra manure, extra fertiliser, extra water and improve their crops. They invent their way out of the Malthusian crisis. Indeed, the Malthusian trap may even drive the development of technology. As Chairman Mau maintained, each mouth comes with a pair of hands.

Boserup developed her ideas in connection with traditional farming systems in South East Asia, but her ideas have been applied to global agricultural patterns.

Perhaps a Malthusian crisis drove our ancestors to cease hunting and gathering and take up farming. You could argue that the Malthusian trap drove 18th Century Europeans to industrialise.

There are some snags however.

If Boserup is right, then the most advanced agricultural technology should be found in places which are closest to a Mathusian crisis. High-tech agriculture should therefore only be found in places with large populations of near-starving people.

Unfortunately, the places with the food shortages tend to have low-tech agriculture, and the high-tech parts of the world tend to have high living standards and plenty of food.

There are some who argue that Boserup can't work indefinitely. At some point, the population may get so huge that they can't be fed no matter how inventive they are. Indeed to feed more mouths people have to dig deeper into the environment, to divert more biological productivity for themselves, to demand more from the soil, to use more water, more fertiliser etc., etc., Can the environment really sustain this kind of pressure in the long run?

You probably don't have to choose between Boserup and Malthus. They can both be right. Malthus is talking about the potential for a population to face environmental limits. Boserup is talking about overcoming those limits through culture and technology.