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A Trap At The Escape From The Trap? Версия в формате PDF 
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Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History

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A Trap At The Escape From The Trap? Demographic-Structural Factors of Political Instability in Modern Africa and West Asia

Journal Issue:

Cliodynamics, 2(2)


Korotayev, Andrey, Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow;
Zinkina, Julia, Russian Academy of Sciences Presidium’s Program “Complex System Analysis and Mathematical Modeling of the World Dynamics”;
Kobzeva, Svetlana, Russian Academy of Civil Service;
Bozhevolnov, Justislav, Moscow State University;
Khaltourina, Daria, Center for Civilizational and Regional Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow;
Malkov, Artemy, Russian Academy of Sciences Presidium’s Program “Complex System Analysis and Mathematical Modeling of the World Dynamics”;
et al.

Publication Date:


Publication Info:

Cliodynamics, The Institute for Research on World-Systems, UC Riverside



This research has been supported by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (Project # 10-06-00344)


Malthusian trap, Cliodynamics, Political instability, Modernization, Secular cycles, Demography

The escape from the ‘Malthusian trap’ can generate serious political upheavals. We analyze the demographic-structural mechanisms that generate such upheavals and develop a mathematical model of the respective processes. The model yields a forecast of political instability in African and West Asian countries for 2012–2050.



The ‘Malthusian trap’ is often used to describe the dynamics of pre-industrial societies in which economic growth does not lead to an improvement of living conditions, because populations tend to grow faster than economic output. This ensures that the majority of population would remain close to the bare survival level (Malthus 1978 [1798]; Artzrouni and Komlos 1985; Steinmann and Komlos 1988; Komlos and Artzrouni 1990; Steinmannet al. 1998; Wood 1998; Kögel and Prskawetz 2001; Grinin et al. 2008, 2009).

      In complex pre-industrial societies the Malthusian trap was one of the main causes of state breakdown. Malthus himself considered warfare (including internal warfare) as one of the most important consequences of overpopulation (in addition to epidemics and famines). The Malthusian dynamic is an important component in recent demographic-structural models describing how population growth leads to sociopolitical instability (for example, Usher 1989; Chu and Lee 1994; Komlos and Nefedov 2002; Turchin 2003, 2005a, 2005b; Nefedov 2004; Turchin and Nefedov 2009; Turchin and Korotayev 2006; Korotayev and Khaltourina 2006; Korotayev et al. 2006b). The question that we address in this article is whether Malthusian traps have any relevance to understanding waves of political instability today.

      The sociopolitical upheavals of the 2011 Arab Spring not only were totally unexpected by both the external observers and the populations of respective countries, they also appear not to have any Malthusian antecedents. Indeed, on the verge of these events the economic conditions in the respective countries were in no way catastrophic. For example, the levels of poverty and inequality were relatively low by the Third World standards (see, Korotayev and Zinkina 2011a, 2011b). Furthermore, the quality of life for the majority of the population, as measured by such demographic indices as life expectancy, has been steadily improving over the last several decades. Thus, life expectancy at birth in such Arab countries as Egypt, Libya, and Syria (which were all shaken by popular uprisings in 2011) increased from 45–50 years in 1960 to 65–70 years in 1995 and then to 70–75 years by 2010.

      This observation, that a wave of sociopolitical destabilization can occur against such relatively benign demographic background,  appears to contradict the Malthusian logic. In this article, nevertheless, we shall show that Malthus continues to be relevant today, although in a somewhat unexpected way. We will argue that the wave of sociopolitical destabilization during the Arab Spring was a result of the Arab countries’ escape from the Malthusian trap. Although this escape by definition implies the improvement of the standards of life for the majority of the population, it also tends to generate serious sociopolitical upheavals.

Two Examples of the Classical Malthusian Trap in Action: Qing China and Modern Ethiopia

In 1700–1850 China managed to achieve a highly impressive rate of economic growth, in large part due to the introduction of New World crops, such as maize and sweet potatoes and the development of new varieties of previously known cultivated plants, and to agricultural labor intensification and land reclamation (Ho 1955; 1959: 173–189; Lee 1982; Bray 1984: 452, 601; Perkins 1969: 39–40; Fairbank 1992: 169; Lavely and Wong 1998: 725–726; Lee and Wang 1999: 37–40; Mote 1999: 750, 942; Myers and Wang 2002: 599, 634–636; Rowe 2002: 479; Zelin 2002: 216–218). As a result of these innovations the carrying capacity of land during this ‘secular cycle’ (Turchin and Nefedov 2009) was raised to a radically new level, which made possible significant growth of the Chinese GDP. Thus, according to Maddison’s (2001, 2010) estimations, between 1700 and 1850 the GDP of China grew almost threefold. However, the Chinese population grew during the same period of time more than fourfold. As a result, by 1850 we observe a considerable decline of per capita GDP (Figure 1).

      The decline in the level of life of the majority of Chinese can be traced on the basis of a number of independent data series. For example, the average real daily wages dropped to the level of bare physiological survival by the end of the period in question.

      Data of chia-p'u (several hundred thousand Chinese genealogies of ‘middle-class’) show that the average age at death dropped from 55–60 years in early Qing cycle to 45 years by the end of the period.


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