October 18, 2011

Boserup vs. Malthus: Hope or despair?

In contrast to the eternal pessimism of Thomas Malthus, Ester Boserup was a 20th century social scientist who offered a more hopeful view of the future, even in the midst of a neo-Malthusian resurgence. Whereas Malthus predicted catastrophe from overpopulation outstripping food production, Boserup came up with her theory of induced intensification. This states that under pressure for more production, humans will develop new technologies that allow them to grow more crops on the same amount of land. See my previous post on Malthus and agricultural technology for more background.

One of my ASU professors, Billie Turner, tested the Boserup vs. Malthus hypotheses in a historical study of agricultural change in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has long been viewed as a Malthusian crisis in waiting, given its extreme land pressures and impoverished agrarian sector. Yet, the country’s small-holders in fact increased agricultural production significantly from 1950 to 1986 through the intensification process, and the percentage of the population below the poverty line decreased, according to some sources. (Turner and Ali, 1996)
What they found is that neither model worked exactly well- on one hand, technology has kept up with population, and on the other, just barely. But innovations such as tube well irrigation, high yielding varieties, and other technologies have meant that Bangladesh is largely self-sufficient in food production.

Boserup's theory is still very much relevant to agriculture today. One of my research questions (broadly) is whether technological change can keep up with climate change and its impacts on agriculture? It's a different "demand" than population, but an important one. Also, Boserup helped pioneer gender studies of agriculture (see Billie Turner's homage to Boserup here), pointing out that traditional Western models of agricultural development ignored women's role in farming. This has been a persistant problem with agricultural development. So yay for Ester Boserup, an inspiration to me and many others!

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