Georg Borgström and the population-food dilemma

The earth’s carrying capacity, and when and whether it may be reached, have been major topics in post war discourses on development, economic growth and environmentalism. The debate was not a new one; Thomas Malthus’ 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population had argued that population growth would outstrip food production. Post war processes of economic reconstruction and decolonization, however, renewed the timeliness of the population-food dilemma.

Through his numerous publications from the late 1940s onwards, Swedish-American scientist Georg Borgström argued that the world’s population explosion created food shortages, which, in combination with unjust international distribution and the exhaustion of natural resources would lead to a global crisis. The world had, at most, ten years to save humanity from a dismal future. Borgström urged a radical rethinking of international political solutions, and Neo-Malthusian population control. In Norwegian public debate, Borgström’s person and ideas attracted a flurry of attention during the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in his participation in the launch of environmental movements in the 1970s.

Inspired by recent work on the circulation of knowledge,[1] my contribution to Histories of Knowledge in Postwar Scandinavia explores the Norwegian reception of Borgström’s ideas, asking when, how, and with what consequences his ideas circulated. Borgström raised the spectre of an overpopulation-resource crisis well ahead of widely read works such as Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb[2] and Garett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”[3], both published in 1968. Whereas the historiography of environmentalism sees the late 1960s and early 1970s as the birth of modern environmentalist movements,[4] and Ehrlich and Hardin as key contributors, Borgström’s work clearly predated this. Thus the Borgström case illustrates how regional circulations of knowledge also relate to international contexts and transnational influences, their points of divergence having the potential to challenge established historical narratives.


[1] Johan Östling, “Vad är kunskapshistoria?”, Historisk tidskrift 135, no. 1 (2015): 109–119. See also Johan Östling, Erling Sandmo, David Larsson Heidenblad, Anna Nilson Hammar, and Kari Nordberg, eds., Circulation of Knowledge: Explorations in the History of Knowledge (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2018).

[2] Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Buccaneer Books, 1968).

[3] Garret Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, Science 162, no. 3859 (1968): 1243–1248.

[4] David Larsson Heidenblad, “Ett ekologiskt genombrott? Rolf Edbergs bok och det globala krismedvetandet i Skandinavien 1966”, Historisk tidsskrift 95, no. 2 (2016): 245–266.


Sunniva Engh


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