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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.







The International Society of Malthus

Rationale and Core Principles*

Ronald Bleier


In 1830, when the English political economist, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was still alive, the world's human population reached an estimated one billion. It took about a hundred years for the population to double to two billion. By the end of the 20th century, less than 70 years later, four billion more humans brought the total to more than 6 billion. In the early years of the 21st century, we are adding an estimated 73 million people every year. At this rate, a billion more people will be added in less than 14 years. Tragically, the larger our numbers, the harder it is to gain control over population increases while the devastating human impacts on our environment continue inexorably.

Since prehistoric times the institution of war has persisted in spite of its terrible danger and unbounded tragedy. Why have humans never solved the problems of poverty, inequality, and oppression? We are fortunate to have had Malthus to explain in simple terms the connection between population pressure and misery, which he defined as famine, poverty, disease and war. To promote his findings, to explore the lessons that may be derived from his core principles, and to provide a forum for discussion, the International Society of Malthus was launched in 1997, in time for the bicentennial celebration of the publication of his 1798 classic, An Essay on the Principle of Population.

The Core Principles of Malthus:

  • Food is necessary for human existence.
  • Human population, if not checked, tends to grow faster than the power in the earth to produce subsistence.
  • The effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal.
  • Misery is the mechanism that balances human requirements and available resources.
  • Nature's requirement that the imbalance between demand and supply be resolved forms the "strongest obstacle in the way of any very great improvement of society," and thus makes "the perfectibility of man and society" a theoretical and practical impossibility.
  • The Principle of Population, i.e., the inevitability of misery due to the power of population to overwhelm resources, provides the mainspring behind the advance of human civilization by creating incentives for progress.

Malthus’s great contribution was to emphasize the findings of those of his predecessors such as the author of Ecclesiastes, Tertullian, Richard Cantillon, Robert Wallace,[i] David Hume, Adam Smith and others who recognized the power of population to overwhelm the means of subsistence. Malthus drew from their understanding that there must necessarily be checks to the great power of population, or else, as Cantillon put it, the “earth would be overstocked and become unable to support its numerous inhabitants.” Or as Malthus put it, “The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds, in the course of a few thousand years.”

In his “Preface,” Malthus observed that while other writers had noticed that population cannot grow beyond the supply of food, no author before him had inquired particularly into the mechanism which kept population down to the means of subsistence. Malthus also taught that the balancing phenomenon achieved by misery is a “constantly operating” and cyclical occurrence. During good times human numbers increase to the point where available resources are overwhelmed, at which point misery acts to reduce the numbers. Malthus understood that “this necessary oscillation, this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery, has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind, does exist at present and will for ever continue to exist…”

Malthus and the structural basis of poverty

Malthus explained how it happens that misery does not fall evenly on all sectors of the population, but falls mainly on the poor. In Chapter II he writes that there is a

constant effort towards an increase in population [which tends to] subject the lower classes of society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition…The way in which these effects are produced seems to be this. We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population …increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food, therefore which before supplied seven millions must now be divided among seven millions and half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. (Chapter II)

Malthusian theory: a window on history

Malthus’s notion of a constantly operating check on population provides a lens through which to view all of history and politics, which can be defined as the struggle to control resources. For example, in Chapter III, Malthus employed the principle of population to explain the growth of those forces that were responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire.

Want [scarcity] was the goad that drove the Scythian shepherds[ii] from their native haunts, like so many famished wolves in search of prey. Set in motion by this all powerful cause, clouds of Barbarians seemed to collect from all points of the northern hemisphere. Gathering fresh darkness and terror as they rolled on, the congregated bodies at length obscured the sun of Italy and sunk the whole world in universal night. These tremendous effects, so long and so deeply felt throughout the fairest portions of the earth, may be traced to the simple cause of the superior power of population to the means of subsistence.

Malthus asserts that the famous leaders of the Central Asian steppes may have been fighting for glory but the “true cause” that drove them was the more fundamental power of population.

An Alaric, an Attila, or a Zingis Khan, and the chiefs around them, might fight for glory, for the fame of extensive conquests, but the true cause that set in motion the great tide of northern emigration, and that continued to propel it till it rolled at different periods against China, Persia, Italy, and even Egypt, was a scarcity of food, a population extended beyond the means of supporting it.


  • [i]
    • Ecclesiastes:“When goods increase, they are increased who eat them.”
    • Tertullian (3rd cent AD church leader), “The scourges of pestilence, famine, wars, and earthquakes have come to be regarded a blessing to overcrowded nations, since they serve to prune away the luxuriant growth of the human race.” -De Anima, quoted in Hardin, 1998, “Feast of Malthus.”
    • Richard Cantillon (d. 1734) Men multiply like mice in a barn if they have unlimited means of subsistence.
    • Robert Wallace (1761) Under a perfect government, the inconveniences of having a family would be so entirely removed that…mankind would increase so prodigiously, that the earth would at last be so overstocked, and become unable to support its numerous inhabitants, 1761.)
  • [ii]
    • A reference to the nomads of the Central Asian steppe. Malthus uses the terminology first applied by Herodotus (5th cent BCE).

    [MFS note: there are several Malthus papers on the Website; please see "table of contents" or "search".]
    * Courtesy of Ronald Bleier, Editor and (Acting) Secretary
    The International Society of Malthus
    See original at < http://desip.igc.org/malthus/principles.html >.

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