August 13th, 2020
Various factors can mitigate Malthusian population dynamics (as Malthus recognized), including technological progress and the possibility of a ‘‘demographic transition’’ under which fertility declines at sufficiently high incomes. (The combination of technological progress and a demographic transition has, of course, allowed most of the modern world to avoid the Malthusian trap over the two centuries that have passed since the time of Malthus.) On the other hand, as Malthus also realized, there are factors that tend to exacerbate Malthusian dynamics, including reliance on open-access resources and lack of property rights more generally.
At a superficial level, Easter Island might look like a simple example of Malthusian population overshooting. The mitigating factors were not present, in that little technological progress occurred and the level of income was never high enough for a demographic transition to be relevant. In addition, the Easter Island economy did suffer from heavy reliance on a renewable resource that very likely was characterized by open-access problems or at least by incomplete property rights. However, Malthusian overshooting cannot be the whole story, for most Polynesian societies did not experience the boom-and-bust pattern exhibited by Easter Island, even though these societies were similar to the Easter Island culture in most important respects. Thus, for example, islands such as Tahiti and New Zealand’s North Island appeared to be in something approaching a long-run steady state at the time of first European contact. Therefore, there must be more to the story than simple Malthusian overshooting.