Population growth, density and food self-sufficiency

CONGRATULATIONS to Ghost Month. I’m kinda amused because growing up I couldn’t remember people acting out during ghost month. I must be really oblivious to phantom month practices as I started my first job after trade school on phantom month (I had bills to pay and I had to have a paid job) and started my last job in investment banking, which was also my most successful since in terms of seniority, compensation, position and achievements on August 1, 2009.

My vision of the ghost month is akin to what Shakespeare wrote in “Julius Caesar” – “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Most economics textbooks discuss but reject Malthus. Even as a student, I thought it made sense even if the day of judgment could be postponed. At the same time, I had the opposite view of Moore’s Law, but I’m still amazed at how long it held up. As I’m not Cut and Paste who, when he’s not cut and paste, expands his columns with pedantic definitions and assumes his readers don’t know the simplistic terms he uses or don’t have access to the Internet if they don’t. If you are unfamiliar with Malthus, please read what was written about Malthus’ seminal 1798 book, Essay on the Principle of Population. Most commentaries criticize him for having a flat view and failing to consider progress and productivity more than just dealing with and correlating population growth with the finite amount of land and resources. His view was that relentless population growth would make things unsustainable. Even when I was first introduced to this in college in the 1970s, I thought, okay, maybe we can delay even a few centuries, but at what cost? And the time for reckoning will come nonetheless. I think it’s here.

Moore’s Law was formulated by Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel in 1965. To quote Wikipedia: “Moore’s Law is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit (IC) approximately doubles every two years. Moore’s Law is an observation and projection of a historical trend. Rather than a law of physics, it is an empirical relationship related to experience gains in production. I also felt that it couldn’t go on forever and it wasn’t physics, just an observation that still stands. Yet, I don’t think it will continue to improve forever. Eventually the law of diminishing returns will kick in. game. Same for me with food supply and security. Productivity gains outpacing population growth with fixed resources (land) cannot last forever. In our case, with our population growth out of proportion, we let’s even reduce me the amount of arable land as it is converted to commercial and residential purposes needed by our ever-growing population.

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You think I’m an alarmist? Let’s look at two simple facts. Population growth and population density. I got the following statistic from populationpyramid.com.

Then I can already hear the religious types saying but we can handle this population and more. In addition to the most misleading argument of all, we have the demographic dividend virtue of having a young population. This means there are more workers to support retirees unlike countries like Japan, which have the opposite. Their shrinking population means fewer workers will support more retirees. I will come back to that later. Guess what, we’re not doing much either based on an analysis of population density. According to World Population Review, here is the population density of some countries. They list the number of people per square kilometer. The first 10 are city-states or small islands. Bangladesh is the first relatively large country by area with the highest population density out of 234 countries covered.

By any standard, we are already a country heavily populated with people across the land. I think even that seriously underestimates how overpopulated we are because we’re not a single or dominant land mass like most of the countries on the list, but an archipelago with our 7,100 islands (at low tide I Assumed). This means that there is less arable land compared to, for example, Vietnam or Thailand (the main rice exporters in the region), and with the high population density and catastrophic population growth, there is more conversion of arable land to residential and commercial use to serve our 600% increase in population growth since 1950. I wouldn’t be surprised if adjusted for arable land to gross land mass we were to add to the less than a third to the ratio of people to usable land compared to other countries. I think we would probably be at least on par with India, if not more. How much must agricultural productivity improve if we reduce the available arable land but increase the population by more than 600% in 70 years? Sisyphus would cry.

Economists who are from the beginning and multiply ideologies claim that we are in the supposedly beneficial category of having a demographic dividend. This is where we have more people entering the workforce than leaving and retiring and needing help like in Japan. This is true for advanced and wealthy countries, but not in my opinion applicable to struggling countries like the Philippines. Which country is considered the greatest success story of the past 50 years in terms of poverty reduction and economic growth? Whether you agree with their system or their style, the easy answer is China, especially compared to India, which had inconsistent population control policies. To reiterate, from 1950 to 2022, China’s population grew by 252%; India, 367%; and the Philippines, 602 percent. I added Thailand and the sparsely populated United States for comparison, as well as to illustrate economic growth.

Here’s how GDP (gross domestic product) per capita grew from 1960 to 2021 based on the macrotrends.net website.

The demographic dividend only works when you have prosperity and relatively full employment. Before that, when your economy is struggling to grow and there’s a lot of unemployment, it’s not because you can’t even employ the existing workforce in a paid way. At this point, moderating population growth is a critical necessity. This is not ideology but empirical evidence. You can argue theory and theology, I show economic reality, results and history.