Ester Boserup Vs Thomas Malthus Essay

A 2009 estimate from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggested that the UK’s population could rise as high as 71 million people by 2033.  This caused an outcry and heated debate between politicians and people who either see nothing wrong with that and people who on the contrary want to see strict controls put into place on the UK’s population (and in most cases on the migration element).  But why was this the case?  The answer lies in how people view the delicate balance between population and resource provision in different ways.

Over and Underpopulation

Changing populations can be viewed in relation to how many resources are available to support that population.  Indeed, overpopulation is a condition where there are too many people living in a nation or area relative to the natural resources (food, water, fuel, building materials etc) that exist in that place (the UK could be considered overpopulated in terms of food supply as we only produce 60percent of the food we consume).  In contrast, under population is where there are too few people living in an area to efficiently exploit and use the natural resources within that area (e.g. Northern Canada has huge mineral wealth but too few people to exploit those minerals because of climatic constraints).  The ideal situation or any government is OPTIMUM POPULATION, where there is a balance between the population size and the amounts of resources available. 

The reality of achieving OPTIMUM population is difficult in practice because of 2 main reasons:

Population sizes are not static but DYNAMIC and grow or shrink over time.

Technology changes, allowing the exploitation of natural resources that might not have previously been available (e.g. technology has allowed us to farm increasing amounts of land in the UK that 200 years ago would have been inadequate for farming).

A good example of a country that has tried to manage OVER and UNDER population within its borders is Indonesia.  Here, the government launched a massive transmigration program.

There have been 2 major contributors to the idea of the balance between population and resources, pessimistic (doom and gloom) of Thomas Malthus and the optimism (the glass is half full!) attitudes of Esther Boserup.

Malthus lived in the 18th century and wrote an essay on the principles of population.  In this essay he stated that population growth would be checked or stopped by various factors.  His argument was essentially that population grew geometrically (1,2,4,8,16,32) whereas food production and resource provision grew at a slower arithmetic rate(1,2,3,4,5,6).  He concluded that because of this more and more peasants and subsistence farmers would live poorer and poorer lives until some checks came into place.   He proposed that there would be positive checks, which raise the death rate; and preventative ones, which lower the birth rate. The positive checks include hunger, disease and war; the preventative checks, abortion, birth control, prostitution, postponement of marriage and celibacy.


The alternative viewpoint came from Esther Boserup, who suggested that human innovation and technological advances would allow food production to keep up with population growth. Boserup was a Danish economist and published The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure.  She argued that when population density is low enough to allow it, land tends to be used intermittently (not frequently – with gaps in time to allow land to recover), with heavy reliance on fire to clear fields and fallowing to restore fertility. It is only when rising population density reduces the use of fallowing (and therefore the use of fire) that fields are moved towards annual cultivation. This reduces fertility, and to deal with this people expanded efforts at fertilizing, field preparation, weed control, and irrigation. This process of raising production at the cost of more work at lower efficiency is what Boserup describes as "agricultural intensification".

So who is right?

Malthus’ theory on population growth has proved to be correct and has grown to a staggering 6.8Billion in 2010.  There have also been many local famines within regions, natural disasters, water shortages to check local population growth.  However, the number of famine deaths has decreased over time, and population growth in some parts of the world such as Europe has stabilised or stopped.  So who is right? It seems that many of the problems of having a finite land area and possible food shortages have been overcome by technology.  The industrialisation of farming, the green revolution, GM crops, improved farming methods, land reform have all massively increased food production.  Indeed, some of the poorest countries in the world can still export food to raise foreign earnings and gain investment from TNCs.  However, some people still hold the Malthusian view that catastrophe is imminent.  This is because population continues to rise rapidly and many of our farming practices are heavily dependent on unsustainable substances such as crude oil. In addition, there may be less famine deaths but hundreds of millions of people survive on very basic diets leading them to be malnourished rather than undernourished.  So population size and density does have a negative impact upon their lives.

More current views come from the deceased Julian Simon, and the Club of Rome. Julian Simon supported Boserup’s view that humanity would innovate its way out of disaster.  "We now have in our hands—really, in our libraries—the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven billion years." (Simon along The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving 1995).

The Club of Romeare a group of industrialists, scientists, economists and statesmen from 10 countries. They published ‘The Limits to Growth’ in 1972 which reached the basic conclusion that if present growth trends in world population continue and if associated industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime in the next 100 years. Five variables were examined in the original model, on the assumptions that exponential growth accurately described their patterns of increase, and that the ability of technology to increase the availability of resources grows only linearly. These variables are: world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. The authors intended to explore the possibility of a sustainable feedback pattern that would be achieved by altering growth trends among the five variables. The most probably result will be sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.  The Club of Rome really bring the idea of SUSTAINABILITY to the population and resources argument. The question now becomes who do you believe?

Ester Boserup
BornEster Børgesen
(1910-05-18)18 May 1910
Copenhagen, Denmark
Died24 September 1999(1999-09-24) (aged 89)

Ester Boserup (18 May 1910[1] – 24 September 1999) was a Danish economist. She studied economic and agricultural development, worked at the United Nations as well as other international organizations, and wrote seminal books on agrarian change and the role of women in development.

Boserup is known for her theory of agricultural intensification, also known as Qays's theory, which posits that population change drives the intensity of agricultural production. Her position countered the Malthusian theory that agricultural methods determine population via limits on food supply. Her best-known book on this subject[2]The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, presents a "dynamic analysis embracing all types of primitive agriculture." (Boserup, E. 1965. p 13) A major point of her book is that "necessity is the mother of invention".

Her other major work, Women's Role in Economic Development,' this was the most major role and really helped her career shape up' advanced the view that women's role in economic development was insufficiently valued.

It was her great belief that humanity would always find a way and was quoted in saying "The power of ingenuity would always outmatch that of demand". She also influenced the debate on the women in workforce and human development, and the possibility of better opportunities of work and education for women.


Born Ester Børgesen in Copenhagen, she was the only daughter of a Danish engineer, who died when she was two years old. The family was almost destitute for several years. Then, "encouraged by her mother and aware of her limited prospects without a good degree,"[3] she studied economic and agricultural development at the University of Copenhagen from 1929, and obtained her degree in theoretical economics in 1935.

After graduation Boserup worked for the Danish government from 1935–1947, right through the Nazi occupation in WWII. As head of its planning office, she worked on studies involving the effects of subsidies on trade. She made almost no reference to conflicts between family and work during her lifetime. The family moved to Geneva in 1947 to work with the UN Economic Commission of Europe (ECE). In 1957, she and Mogens worked in India in a research project run by Gunnar Myrdal. For the rest of her life, she worked as a consultant and writer. She was based in Copenhagen until her husband died in 1980, after which she settled near Geneva.

Ester had married Mogens Boserup when both were twenty-one; the young couple lived on his allowance from his well-off family during their remaining university years."[3] Their daughter, Birte, was born in 1937; their sons Anders, in 1940, and Ivan, in 1944.


Scholarly contributions[edit]

According to Malthusian theory, the size and growth of the population depends on the food supply and agricultural methods. In Boserup’s theory, agricultural methods depend on the size of the population. In the Malthusian view, when food is not sufficient for everyone, the excess population will die. However, Boserup argued that in those times of pressure, people will find ways to increase the production of food by increasing workforce, machinery, fertilizers, etc.

Although Boserup is widely regarded as an anti-Malthusian, both her insights and those of Malthus can be comfortably combined within the same general theoretical framework.[4]

Boserup argued that when population density is low enough to allow it, land tends to be used intermittently, with heavy reliance on fire to clear fields, and fallowing to restore fertility (often called slash and burn farming). Numerous studies have shown such methods to be favorable in total workload and also efficiency (output versus input). In Boserup’s theory, it is only when rising population density curtails the use of fallowing (and therefore the use of fire) that fields are moved towards annual cultivation. Contending with insufficiently fallowed and less fertile plots, covered with grass or bushes rather than forest, mandates expanded efforts at fertilizing, field preparation, weed control, and irrigation. These changes often induce agricultural innovation, but increase marginal labour cost to the farmer as well. The higher the rural population density, the more hours the farmer must work for the same amount of produce. Therefore, workloads tend to rise while efficiency drops. This process of raising production at the cost of more work at lower efficiency is what Boserup describes as "agricultural intensification".

Boserupian Theory[edit]

Although Boserup's original theory was highly simplified and generalized, it proved instrumental in understanding agricultural patterns in developing countries.[5] By 1978, her theory of agricultural change began to be reframed as a more generalized theory.[6] The field continued to mature in to relation to population and environmental studies in developing countries.[7] Neo-Boserupian theory continues to generate controversy with regards to population density and sustainable agriculture.[8]

Gender studies[edit]

Ester Boserup also contributed to the discourse surrounding gender and development practises with her 1970 work Woman's Role in Economic Development.[9] The work is "the first investigation ever undertaken into what happens to women in the process of economic and social growth throughout the Third World". According to the foreword in the 1989 edition by Swasti Mitter, "It is [Boserup's] committed and scholarly work that inspired the UN Decade for Women between 1975 and 1985, and that has encouraged aid agencies to question the assumption of gender neutrality in the costs as well as in the benefits of development". Boserup's text evaluated how work was divided between men and women, the types of jobs that constituted productive work, and the type of education women needed to enhance development. This text marked a shift in the Women in Development (WID) debates, because it argued that women's contributions, both domestic and in the paid workforce, contributed to national economies. Many liberal feminists took Boserup's analysis further to argue that the costs of modern economic development were shouldered by women.[10]

Selected bibliography[edit]


  • Boserup, Ester (1965). The conditions of agricultural growth: the economics of agrarian change under population pressure. London: Allen & Unwin. OCLC 231372. Pdf version.
Reprinted as: Boserup, Ester (2005). The conditions of agricultural growth: the economics of agrarian change under population pressure. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Aldine Transaction. ISBN 9780202307930. 
  • Boserup, Ester (1970). Woman's role in economic development. London: George Allen & Unwin. 
Reprinted as: Boserup, Ester (2007). Woman's role in economic development. London Sterling, Virginia: Earthscan. ISBN 9781844073924. 
  • Boserup, Ester; Sachs, Ignacy (1971). Foreign aid to newly independent countries problems and orientations = Aide extérieure aux pays récemment indépendants: problèmes et orientations. The Hague: Mouton. ISBN 9783111557120. 
  • Boserup, Ester (1981). Population and technological change: a study of long-term trends. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226066745. 
  • Boserup, Ester (1981). Population and technology. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 9780631133711. 
  • Boserup, Ester (1998). My professional life and publications, 1929-1998. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. ISBN 9788772895208. 

Chapters in books[edit]

  • Boserup, Ester (1975), "Women in the labour market", in Jain, Devaki, Indian women, New Delhi, India: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, OCLC 1646453. 
  • Boserup, Ester (1985), "The impact of scarcity and plenty on development", in Rotberg, Robert I.; Rabb, Theodore K., Hunger and history: the impact of changing food production and consumption patterns on society, Cambridge Cambridgeshire New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 185–210, ISBN 9780521315050. 
  • Boserup, Ester (1997), "The economics of polygamy", in Grinker, Roy Richard; Steiner, Christopher B., Perspectives on Africa: a reader in culture, history, and representation, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell, pp. 506–517, ISBN 9781557866868. 

Journal articles[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Festschrift volume. Marina Fischer-Kowalski, Anette Reenberg, Anke Schaffartzik, Andreas Mayer (eds.) 2014. Ester Boserup’s Legacy on Sustainability: Orientations for Contemporary Research. Springer
  • Tinker, Irene (2004), "Utilizing interdisciplinarity to analyze global socio-economic change: a tribute to Ester Boserup", in Benería, Lourdes; Bisnath, Savitri, Global tensions: challenges and opportunities in the world economy, New York: Routledge, pp. 173–184, ISBN 9780415934411 
  • Turner II, B. L.; Fischer-Kowalskic, Marina (2010). "Ester Boserup: An interdisciplinary visionary relevant for sustainability". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. PNAS Online. 107 (51): 21963–21965. doi:10.1073/pnas.1013972108. PMC 3009765. PMID 21135227. 
  • Map of Mauritius.
  • Powerpoint presentation: Population case study - Mauritius.
  • Oxford Dictionary of Geography: Böserup model.
  • Giovanni Federico's review of The conditions of agricultural growth: the economics of agrarian change under population pressure by Ester Boserup.
  • Agricultural change theory by G.D. Stone, including a section on Boserup.
  • Boserup's optimistic view of population growth.
  • Detailed account of Boserup's life by Irene Tinker.


  1. ^"Boserup, Ester". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 August 2014.  
  2. ^Andrew C. Revkin, "An Ecologist Explains His Contested View of Planetary Limits", New York Times, Sept. 16, 2013.
  3. ^ abTinker, Irene (9–10 March 2001). "Ester Boserup: a tribute (presented at Global Tensions Conference held at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York)". via WordPress. 
  4. ^Turchin and Nefedov: Secular Cycles
  5. ^Stone, Glen Davis (August–December 2001). "Theory of the square chicken: advances in agricultural intensification theory". Asia Pacific Viewpoint. Wiley Online. 42 (2–3): 163–180. doi:10.1111/1467-8373.00142. 
  6. ^Datoo, B.A. (April 1978). "Toward a reformulation of Boserup's theory of agricultural change". Economic Geography. Clark University via JSTOR. 54 (2): 135–144. doi:10.2307/142848.  
  7. ^Marquette, Catherine M. (October 1997). "Turning but not Toppling Malthus: Boserupian Theory on Population and the Environment Relationships"(PDF). CMI Working Papers. Development Studies and Human Rights. Bergen: Chr. Michelsen Institute (WP 1997: 16): 14 p. ISSN 0804-3639. Archived from the original(PDF) on October 30, 2014. Retrieved May 28, 2013.  
  8. ^Romero, Marino R.; deGroot, Wouter T. (2008), "Farmers investing in sustainable land use at a tropical forest fringe, the Philippines", in Dellink, Rob B.; Ruijs, Arjan, Economics of poverty, environment and natural-resource use, Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Springer, pp. 157–184, ISBN 9781402083037 Pdf version.
  9. ^Boserup, Ester (1970). Woman's role in economic development. London: George Allen & Unwin.  Reprinted as: Boserup, Ester (2007). Woman's role in economic development. London Sterling, Virginia: Earthscan. ISBN 9781844073924. 
  10. ^Jain, Devaki (2005). Women, development, and the UN: a sixty-year quest for equality and justice. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253218193. 
This graph shows how the rate of food supply may vary but never reaches its carrying capacity, because every time it gets near, there is an invention or development that causes the food supply to increase.

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