I first heard of Malthus when I was doing a short course on economics nearly sixty years ago. The tutor told us of Malthus’ assertion that any population would grow to absorb all the resources available to support it. The truth of this seemed to me so obvious that I was astonished that the tutor went on to say that no one regarded that nowadays: it was a completely outmoded idea. I took him to task: his response was to say that technology would always keep ahead, and besides, a growing population was good for the economy. I have never altered my view about Malthus, but I have looked askance at economists ever since. World population was about 3 billion at the time: it is now (Jan 2016) about 7.4 billion.

The Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834)was an English cleric and scholar, best known for his work ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’, which observed that sooner or later population would be checked by famine and disease. ‘The power of population is infinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man’. 

The principles that he stated are, ‘That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence, That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and, That the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.’

This dark view has earned him a lot of criticism: as, for example, those who accuse him of declaring the fault was that of the poor: and yet the anthropologist James Wood writes ‘His work as a whole is consistently motivated by a desire, perhaps paternalistic but nonetheless real, to ameliorate the plight of the poor.’ At his period, the best he could suggest as a remedy was chastity.

His ideas were influential in that it gave Darwin an essential insight that was an important clue to his development of the idea of Natural Selection. In ‘The Origin of Species’ Darwin states in a section headed ‘Geometrical Ratio of Increase’, ‘Hence,as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must be in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with individuals of a distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms: for in this case there can not be any artificial increase of food and no prudential restraint from marriage.’ 

The second link below is to the Wikipedia page on Malthusian Catastrophe: but in looking at this, bear in mind that UN projections have increased, and that therefore the graph ‘World population from 1800 to 2100’ should indicate a 2100 population of 11.2 billions (or 11,200 millions) of people, rather than just over 10 billion (or 10,000 millions) shown (2015 projection). This will doubtless be increased again

Links: Malthus:

Malthusian Catastrophe:

Before Malthus

In 1758, Rev. Otto Diederich Lutken, Rector of a parish on the Danish island of Fyn, summed up the whole issue in this single beautifully understated sentence-

‘Since the circumference of the globe is given and does not expand with the increased number of its inhabitants, and as travel to other planets thought to be inhabitable has not yet been invented; since the earth’s fertility cannot be extended beyond a given point, and since human nature will presumably remain unchanged, so that a given number will hereafter require the same quantity of the fruits of the earth for their support as now, and as their rations cannot be arbitrarily reduced, it follows that the proposition “that the world’s inhabitants will be happier, the greater their number” cannot be maintained, for as soon as the number exceeds that which our planet with all its wealth of land and water can support, they must needs starve one another out, not to mention other necessarily attendant inconveniences’ 

Roger Plenty, Nailsworth