Thomas Robert Malthus: 13 February 1766 – 29 December 1834
John Linnell/CC BY 4.0
Happy 250th Birthday, Thomas Robert Malthus! Many Happy Returns.
And you do keep on returning, don’t you? Despite the fact that some people say you were wrong. Or that you’re just passé.
Your An Essay on the Principle of Population made the case that, if left unchecked, human population growth would sooner or later encounter limits. “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man,” you wrote, arguing that the former grew geometrically, the latter only arithmetically.You predicted that the encounter of a growing human population with the limits of the Earth to support it would result in famine and disease, and much human suffering, especially among the poorest.
But in addition to these “negative checks,” as you called them, you also recognized that population could be limited by “preventive checks,” such as limiting births and later marriage.
Why do so few give you credit for that?
As a cleric, you advocated “the chaste postponement of marriage” to avoid these catastrophes. (Sure, that’s a bit conservative for some, but later marriage really does result in lower birthrates.)
Some 218 years after the first edition of your controversial treatise was published, we are still having the discussion you launched.
In 1798, the world population was not quite one billion. Now it’s 7.4 billion and counting. For the last 40 years, it has been increasing by one billion (1,000,000,000) — more than the entire world population in 1798 — every 12 to 13 years.
But some people say that’s no problem: The world is better off today with 7.4 billion people than it was at one billion. We’ve had amazing progress in technology, they say, not least the Green Revolution, which staved off starvation in India and elsewhere and put the lie to Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb.
With advances in agriculture, medicine, and all kinds of technology, we’re richer, healthier, and better educated than we were in 1798 when you made your gloomy predictions. (I’m sorry to tell you that the term “Malthusian” is often used in a derogatory way to put down those who insist there are limits.)
Some, such as the late Julian Simon, even say that ever more people is a good thing, since humans are “the ultimate resource” and with every new mouth to feed comes a pair of hands to do some work and a brain to find clever solutions.
What could possibly go wrong?
But things are going seriously wrong on Planet Earth. Many people are becoming aware of this and scientists have been warning us for a long time, but our political leaders prefer to listen to economists, most of whom are wedded to a Growth Forever ideology. (Incredible as its sounds, economists like you who believe in limits are a small minority these days.)
It turns out, however, that ignoring the limits hasn’t made them disappear.
In order to provision our huge and growing population we are, to use Paul Ehrlich’s term, turning the planet into a “feedlot for humanity.” We have taken over about one-third of the Earth’s land surface for our own use. We are scouring the oceans for fish and other seafood and have wiped out several major fisheries; the rest are being fished at or beyond their capacity to replenish themselves. Our “solution” is to establish fish farms, whose production is now greater than that from wild-caught fish, but fish farms have resulted in other problems.
Our high-yield Green Revolution crops are very demanding of pesticides, fertilizer and water, the first two of which are becoming more expensive, the last scarcer in many areas.
We’ve created genetically modified crops, (“GM”— another thing you could not possibly have predicted) but they too have problems, not least the rapid development of resistance by the insects some of them are supposed to keep at bay. This would likely not have come as a surprise to someone who was heavily influenced by your essay, Charles Darwin.
It makes one wonder how likely such people are to come up with those solutions that Julian Simon was so confident of, doesn’t it?
As for diseases, we thought technology would save us too, especially after we developed antibiotics. But now we’re seeing the emergence of ever more “superbugs” that our antibiotics are powerless against.
And it’s not only food shortage and disease that present a problem. It turns out that Homo sapiens‘ appetite for renewable and non-renewable natural resources is gargantuan: as we strive to get at dwindling resources for an ever increasing number of people, we dig deeper into the earth, blow the tops of mountains, divert rivers, cut down forests, and pave over swaths of land.
We’re also filling the earth with our pollution on land, in the water, and in the air, making it dangerous to breathe in some of our cities. We are driving record numbers of species to extinction and decimating populations of others by taking over wildlife habitat or killing it directly with our activities, from chemical poisoning to hunting for bushmeat. We’re even changing the Earth’s climate by pumping “greenhouse gases,” including carbon dioxide, into the air from our industrial developments.
Scientists predict climate change will have dangerous consequences: acidifying the oceans; raising sea levels and flooding coastal communities; changing rainfall patterns in many areas, including in vital “breadbaskets”; altering forest cover; affecting wildlife numbers and distribution, and more. Our effect has been so dramatic that scientists call our era the “Anthropocene,” and they say we’re causing the sixth major extinction of life on Earth. The previous major extinction was when the dinosaurs died off 65 million years ago.
The word “sustainable” has become very popular in the last few decades, but it’s becoming clear that growing human numbers and activities are anything but sustainable. True, people are becoming aware that there are problems and are looking for ways to solve them, and this has led to developments in renewable energy sources, recycling, earth-friendly farming, and much more.
There have also been spectacular advances in contraception (which we also call birth control or family planning). I don’t know if you would have approved of that instead of chastity (which, evidence suggests, doesn’t work very well) but the fact of the matter is, we do have the technical capacity to make contraception available to every person on earth of reproductive age.
This is important because a distressingly large proportion of people are of reproductive age, especially in the poorest countries. However, there are powerful forces opposed to the use of birth control; the religious opposition is particularly aggressive. Consequently, the benefits of small families have not been promoted nearly as extensively by governments and international bodies as they should have been. And hundreds of millions of women who would like to use birth control do not have access to modern methods.
And imagine this: There are still a lot of people who deny that overpopulation is a problem. The poor don’t consume much, the deniers say, it’s all the fault of the greedy rich.
Paul Ehrlich has said that ignoring population while focusing only on consumption is like trying to figure out the area of a rectangle by considering only its length, but not its width. Deniers overlook the fact that the poor want nothing more than to increase their consumption if given the chance, as India and China are showing. Who can blame them? Population deniers also don’t recognize that a burgeoning population of desperately poor people does, in fact, have a major impact on the environment: they cut down forests to clear land for agriculture, drain rivers, deplete aquifers, and over-fish and over-hunt in their local area.
But if you make these points, you’re likely to be accused of blaming the poor and blaming poor women’s fertility for the problems of the rich. So the issue has become even more politicized than it was in your day!
Sadly, the world has fallen down on the job of addressing the problem that you identified. Demographic projections are for a population of 9.6 billion in 2050 and over 11 billion by 2100, with growth even beyond that! How an already over-stressed planet will support that growth is not at all clear.
I’m sure you would have wished that a “Malthusian” world wouldn’t come to pass, but things aren’t looking that good right now. Humankind seems to insist on learning the hard way that there is a limit to the number of people the Earth can support.
So, congratulations, because, although we wish it weren’t so, it really is starting to look as if “Malthus was right.”
PIC is the voice of Canadians concerned with overpopulation and its negative human and environmental impact. Founded in 1992, it campaigns to increase support for reproductive health and education and for universal, voluntary access to family planning, which the UN notes “…could bring more benefits to more people at less cost than any other single technology available to the human race.”
Fact: Continued global population growth, together with overconsumption, is incompatible with a healthy, sustainable future for humanity and our planet. Patrons: Sir David Attenborough; Robert Bateman; Margaret Catley-Carlson; Drs. Paul & Anne Ehrlich; Robert Fowler; Dr. William Rees; Dr. David Schindler; Ronald Wright. See patron bios.