Linkage of ‘Population-Environment -Poverty’


Twentieth century has been known as the centaury of change due to significant population growth, economic development and changes in the ecosystems all over the world. This has raised the discussion on the population growth and its impact on poverty and environment, vice versa. Therefore, this paper tries to identify how population growth has impact on poverty and environmental change. Moreover, the impact of poverty on population growth and Environmental degradation and impact of environmental change on population growth and poverty is been briefly discussed. Malthus theory, Boserup theory and livelihood approach have been used to further discuss on the given discussion.



hen we discuss about world, the twentieth century could be recognized as the center of the change. It has been a century of unprecedented world population growth, unprecedented world economic development and unprecedented change in the earth’s physical environment (United Nations, 2001). These changes have impact on population dynamics, poverty and environmental degradation which has further challenged the existence of human beings and the ecosystems. Many theorist and researchers have tried to identify the linkage between population, poverty and environment in order to mitigate its impact on world progress and achieve sustainable development.

World development initiatives have focus on poverty alleviation and environmental conservation as important factors for sustainable development Process. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 was a milestone in the evolution of an international consensus on the relationships among population, development and environment, based on the concept of sustainable development articulated a few years earlier by the World Commission on Environment and Development (United Nations, 2001). The Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development adopted by the Conference (United Nations, 1995, resolution 1, annex) also noted “the growing awareness that population, poverty, patterns of production and consumption and the environment are so closely interconnected that none of them can be considered in isolation”.

The world population has been increased last few decades which has impact on poverty and environmental changes. It is projected to grow from 6.1 billion in 2000 to 8.9 billion in 2050, increasing therefore by 47 per cent and the average annual population growth rate over this half-century will be 0.77 per cent, substantially lower than the 1.76 per cent average growth rate from 1950 to 2000 (UN,2004). With this increasing growth, especially the high fertility and related demographic variables has been identified as contributing factors to the poverty in many different underdeveloped countries. As pointed out by Eastwood and Lipton (2001), in many developing and transitional economies, fertility (crude birth rate net of infant deaths) increases absolute poverty (defined with respect to a 1985 dollar-a-day private consumption standard) both by retarding economic growth and by skewing distribution against the poor. Malthus maintained his view that higher fertility would raise the supply of unskilled labor and the demand for food, pushing real wage rates down, and thus increasing poverty through distribution. He further explains that the effect is of similar size to that through the growth channel, and comprises  the acquisition effect of higher fertility, in reducing the relative ability or willingness of poorer households to acquire a given level of total household consumption and  the dependency effect of higher fertility, in diluting given household consumption more in poorer households, because their higher overall fertility raises their dependency burden proportionately more than for other households (Malthus, 1986). Apart from Fertility, the examination of different types of capital allows for a more complete understanding of population, poverty, and environment relationships (Bremner et al, 2010). As pointed out by McNicoll (1999), Population growth holds down returns to labor relative to capital and other factors of production, depressing wages and worsening the income distribution .  This has resulted poverty in many countries.

On the other hand, poverty influence on population dynamics, including population growth, age structure and rural-urban unequal distributions (UNFPA, 2014). As per a study done by Eastwood and Lipton (1999), there are evidence on the relationship between fertility and poverty and the direction of causation (Eswaran, 2002).  If poverty were more strongly correlated with lagged values of fertility than with current values, one may infer that the causation goes from fertility to poverty; if the reverse is true, then the inference would be that the causation goes from poverty to fertility. Infant mortality in poor households tends to be higher than national averages, meaning that poor families may perceive the need to have more births in order to achieve desired family size (Palloni and Rafalimanana, 1999 cited in Ingram. et. al (2011)).  Moreover, due to the lack of knowledge and awareness, women in poor families does not practice preventive methods for unwanted pregnancies (Dreze and Murthi, 2001). According to Davis (1963), this has been a result of young women from poor households more likely to marry early and have less education, both of which are associated with higher fertility in most contexts. Despite the high fertility migration due to lack of economic strength has increase the population in certain countries.

When discuss about the linkage between population growth and impact on Environment, the connections that bind human and natural systems are innumerable, but arguably one of the most discussed through human history has been the ever increasing size of the human population and its relation with the natural resources upon which it depends (Bremner et al, 2010). A report of the UN Secretary-General entitled Problems of the human environment cited the explosive growth of human populations as first among the portents of a crisis of worldwide scope concerning the relation between man and his environment (United Nations, 1969). Bremner et al (2010) also point out that population growth is identified as one of the key indirect drivers of the degradation of these ecosystem services in many countries.  For Sherbinin (2008), High fertility contributes to population growth which increases demands for food and resources from an essentially static resource base; the declining per capita resource base reinforces poverty through soil fertility loss, declining yields, and poor environmental sanitation.  For instance,  The population pressures on ecosystem in  Nepal and the Philippines in recent decades offer pictures of population pressures leading to ecologically unsound spread of upland cultivation, producing severe environmental degradation and out-migration-to the Terai and to Mindanao (Eckholm 1976 cited in McNicoll,1999).  Moreover, McNicoll (1999) points out that  Brazil is most familiar, with rapid population growth in Amazonia (the migrants coming from elsewhere in the rural sector) producing these outcomes; Bangladesh has witnessed a long process of impoverishment through plot subdivision and extension of cultivation on to hazardous delta islands, as rural population densities have risen to extreme levels; Sub-Saharan Africa presents notable instances of the breakdown of rural agricultural systems and subsequent impoverishment, but for the most part these do not belong in this category: the environmental outcomes have been byproducts of destruction of social infrastructure, leading to endemic insecurity, population displacement, and heightened mortality. Dispite firtaility, Migration is widely considered to be one of the most important demographic factors affecting the environment (Sherbinin,, 2008).

On the other hand, poverty also has impact on the environmental degradation. Population growth has direct and indirect impact on poverty and this further leads to ecosystem depletion. Many international reports such as World Commission on Environment and Development’s report, Our Common Future, UNEP’s Geo 2000 claim that environmental degradation is a major cause of poverty (Robin, 1999). This is because the poor population more likely to be dependent on their natural resource and environment as they are lacking the means to fulfill their needs. A study done by Duraiappah (1996) also presents an interesting conceptual model for analyzing the many complex inter-relationships between poverty  and environmental degradation . There he clearly point out the linkage between poverty and environmental degradation  and points out that most environmental protection programs fail because they address only the symptoms while they ignore the causes, for instance. They address only indigenous poverty and ignore its causes such as environmental degradation (cited in Serageldin, 1999).

All these discussion on the linkage between population growth, poverty and environmental change has been supported by number of theories and approaches. The intermediate variable theory (Jolly, 1994) or the holistic approach theory (Chi, 2005), which are often subscribed to by demographers, state that population is one of a number of variables that affect the environment, and that rapid population growth simply exacerbates other conditions such as bad governance, civil conflict, wars, polluting technologies, or distortionary policies (Zaman1  et al, 2011). The IPAT approach well explains the impact of Population growth on the environment. IPAT refers to the human impact on the environment through the three factors of population, affluence and technology (Ehrlich and Holdren 1971). The impact refers to a permanent rather than a transitional effect, although the factors of the equation are bound to change continually. Population is increasing worldwide (few exceptions), Affluence is increasing worldwide (big variations) and Technology is making progress (big variations). The three factors that promote the impact can be analyzed individually and in relations to each other. With increase in population, there is a larger increase in affluence. Affluence is increasing worldwide as the global economy never stops growing. Technology is continually making progress, but the impact depends on what kind of technology is in question. And affluence further increases the environmental degradation.

Apart from above mentioned theories and approaches, it is important to discuss on the Malthus theory. The relationships between population, economic development and environment long precede the writings of Thomas Malthus in the late eighteenth century (United Nations, 2001).  He points out that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man (Malthus, 1986) He argued that arable land is finite and agricultural production grows geometrically while human growth is exponential and hypothesized that as human numbers grew food supplies would be insufficient to feed humankind and human population would be pushed back below the carrying capacity of agricultural systems by “positive and preventative checks (Malthus, 1798). In 1798, Malthus stated that “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. However, this argument has been counter argued by neo classical Economics such as Ester Boserup and Julian Simon.  They  argues that people would respond to the needs and demands by increasing the production and usage of new technology and Population growth stimulates investment in increased efficiency, resource substitution, conservation, and innovation

Moreover, recent research on demographics, livelihoods, and the environment has suggested the use of a livelihoods approach as an organizing framework to examine population-environment relationships (Bremner et al, 2010, p.114). This theory explains the existence of sustained high fertility in the face of declining environmental resources is the vicious circle model (VCM). In this model it is hypothesized that several positive feedback loops contribute to a “downward spiral” of resource depletion, growing poverty, and high fertility (Sherbinin, 2009). The VCM concept of multiple feedbacks is useful and encourages examination of not just how population growth impacts on the environment, but also how population growth affects poverty, poverty affects population growth, poverty affects environmental degradation, environmental degradation affects population growth, and environmental degradation affects poverty (Bremner et al, 2010).


Figure 1: vicious circle model (VCM)

Source: Bremner et al (2010)

Scholars point out that the changes in livelihood patterns of many household members have direct and indirect impact on population growth and environmental change. As per Shreffler and Nii-Amoo Dodoo, (2009) , Ninety percent of rural Kenyans derive their livelihood directly from the land and Rapid population growth due to high fertility rates in the past and declining mortality has resulted in land scarcity in many areas due in part to the traditional land tenure system in which parents divide their land equally among their sons. Shreffler and Nii-Amoo Dodoo, (2009) further explain that there are some indications that land scarcity may result in couples making decisions to reduce fertility, but empirical evidence is still lacking and further research is needed. However, The effect of environmental change on fertility and population growth has received limited scholarly attention (Bremner et al, 2010).  One way in which environmental degradation, including that which contributes to or results from climate change, can have a strong and rapid impact on positive population growth is in the form of contributing to people migrating due to worsening environmental conditions ( Bremner et al, 2010). As per the studies in Pakistan by Filmer and Pritchett ( 2002)  and Nepal by Biddlecom et al ( 2005), rising labour requirements associated with rising scarcity of open access resources (such as firewood) are associated with higher fertility and in some cases additional births during the period of study (cited in Bremner et al, 2010).

These all above discussed linkages between population growth, poverty and environment has been criticized by some scholars such as Rodgers (1984) and Ahlburg (1996). They find no association of population growth with changes in poverty.  Michael Lipton (1997) has study on the positive effect of population growth which has leaded to the discussion identifying these elements as individuals, hence no linkage for each other.



The world development process has resulted changes on population growth, increasing poverty rate and Environmental degradation. Many scholars find these identified issues are interrelated and affect on the acceleration of each other. Theories and approaches such as intermediate variable theory, holistic approach theory, IPAT approach, livelihoods approach and Malthus theory have given positive insight on the linkage in between these elements. The paper could identify; how population growth affect on poverty and environmental change, how poverty affect on population growth and environmental degradation, and how environmental degradation has affect on population growth and poverty. Yet, there has been criticism on the discourse of the linkage between these three elements. Those who are opposing to the linkage counter argue that there is no relationship between these elements, yet they are independent variables on their own growth.


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