Minnesotans For Sustainability©

 

Home ] Up ] Feedback Please ] Table of Contents ] Search MFS ] MFS News ]

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

 

 

 

 

 


 

Of Population and False Hopes:

Malthus and His Legacy


David Price
*
March 1998



My father told me about Malthus when I was quite young. He said that Malthus had believed wars and plagues were nature's way of dealing with overpopulation. Where he had learned about Malthus, I don't know. He held a good job in a corporate office, but had not completed high school and seldom read anything but the evening paper. His viewpoint was certainly not privileged, and I think it was probably typical of the way Malthus was understood at mid-twentieth century. But what Malthus really said was more complex; and his reputation and influence have varied greatly in the two hundred years since he penned An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).

The intellectual context in which Malthus wrote his essay was colored by the imminence of a new century and by the revolution that had swept away the ancient regime in France. The turn of the century was a time for taking stock and speculating about the future. The scientific discoveries and technological achievements of the century that was ending made it seem that there could be no secrets that nature would not yield up to scientific inquiry. And Adam Smith's economic speculations suggested that the workings of human society, too, might be amenable to rational analysis.

The possibility that nations could design for themselves more equitable forms of government was being tested in the United States and France. What might not be possible in the new century that was about to unfold? Giddy with hope, some people entertained the possibility of the most extravagant utopias. But the French experiment, which had begun with such glorious prospects in 1789, subsequently collapsed into the Reign of Terror. In England, there was fear that the French anarchy might spill across the Channel. While liberals found ways to go on believing in a better future despite the failure in France, conservatives pointed to the French turmoil as an example of where the dangerous new ideas might lead.

Among the popular visions of a better society were those of William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet. The utopia imagined by Godwin in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and The Enquirer (1797) was predicated on the idea that reason must eventually prevail, and that as people came to have a better understanding of the common good, they could not help but create a better society.

Condorcet believed in social evolution and the power of science; he expected that as nature became better understood, all human problems would be solved. Godwin was pompous and long-winded, but his work was widely read and much discussed. Condorcet was unreasonably optimistic, considering the fact that his Esquise d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain was written while he was in hiding from the Jacobins and published after he died in prison (1795). Both Godwin and Condorcet followed Rousseau in attributing social ills to defective political institutions.

They differed somewhat in their visions of how a better world would come about, but both believed that a society free from the abuses of class and privilege was possible. An essential assumption was that human beings were capable of developing and sustaining such a society. To believe that a better society was possible, one had to believe that human beings could be better. The issue of the day was "the perfectibility of man."

What led Malthus to write his essay was a debate with his father over the merits of the ideas put forth by Godwin and Condorcet. The positions of the father and son were the opposite of what one might expect, for the father was a romantic and a visionary, who tended to support the utopian thinkers, while the son was more practical and realistic (Bonar, 1885; James, 1979).

Daniel Malthus, the father, was a gentleman of independent means and wide-ranging interests who had studied at Queen's College, Oxford, but had never taken a degree. He was intelligent but restless, moving from place to place with his wife and seven children and sometimes leaving them in order to travel on the Continent by himself. He took pride in having "advanced" ideas and was an ardent admirer of Rousseau, whom he met on several occasions. Influenced by the precepts in Émile, he made sure that all his children got a good education, including his five daughters, who were schooled at home. Learning was greatly respected in the Malthus household and serious conversation was cultivated.

Thomas Robert (who was always known as Robert or Bob) was the sixth child, following a brother and four sisters. He was born with a harelip and cleft palate, but people were able to understand him quite well and the disability seems to have played less of a part in his life than one might expect. As a child, he attended a boarding school run by a family friend in an old manor house near Bath. When he was sixteen, he was sent to study with Gilbert Wakefield, a controversial leader of the Unitarian movement. The Malthuses were Anglicans, but Daniel presumably felt that exposure to a man who had the courage to think for himself would be good for his son's development. And Robert was already showing a conservative tendency in opposition to his father's liberalism; in an exchange of letters the older man expressed a preference for statesmen who were young and full of enthusiasm, while the younger man preferred those who were older and more dignified.

After two years with Wakefield, Robert went to Jesus College, Cambridge. His studies centered on mathematics and "natural philosophy" (which we would now call science), but also included history and literature. Daniel apparently thought his son might become a surveyor or navigator, but Robert decided to go into the church. He was advised that his speech defect would prevent him from rising in the church hierarchy, but he said he just wanted a "retired living in the country." From an early age he had taken pleasure in the play of ideas and he seems to have wanted the leisure to read and write. He also liked to swim and hunt, and disliked life in the city.

The year before he graduated, his parents finally settled down in a cottage at Albury, in Surrey, together with two unmarried daughters. Robert, who was made curate of nearby Okewood chapel, moved in with them. For ten years he led the quiet life of a country pastor, reading as the spirit moved him and discussing what he read with his father. In 1797, one such discussion led to his first Essay. Robert was 31; Daniel 67. I like to think of them expostulating during an after-dinner ramble through country lanes, although there is no record of where the epochal discussion took place, and indeed, it was but one of a continuing series. Father and son had a warm relationship and an ability to take sides without acrimony. And at some point, Daniel recognized that his son had developed a particularly cogent point of view and urged him to write it down and publish it.

In his essay, Malthus is concerned to show that a utopia in which all the members of society live in comfort, with equal access to the necessities of life, simply cannot exist because it would violate the laws of nature. He begins with the propositions that means of subsistence cannot increase as fast as population, and population always expands to the limit imposed by means of subsistence. These ideas were not original with Malthus; they had been clearly enunciated by others, including Adam Smith (1776), whose work he knew well. But Malthus pursued their social and economic implications. Since population always expands when it can, means of subsistence can never be abundant for long. Thus, the necessities of life are chronically in short supply, and their scarcity adversely affects human society. In society as we know it, the poor are most directly affected; and in a society without inequality, everyone would be affected equally.

To show the different rates at which population and means of subsistence increase, Malthus pointed out that population can increase geometrically, while means of subsistence can increase, at best, arithmetically. He did not intend this as a precise, mathematical description of natural processes, but used it to make clear the rapidity with which population can increase, if unimpeded, and how impossible it would be for subsistence to increase as fast. To show that population does, in fact, grow faster when means of subsistence are more plentiful, Malthus presented empirical evidence: In the American colonies, where means of subsistence were abundant, population had grown with startling rapidity; and in long-settled parts of Europe, population growth had surged in the wake of devastating epidemics.

The factors that hold population down at the limit established by the means of subsistence, Malthus called "checks." He classified them as "positive checks" (those over which humans have no control) and "preventive checks" (those involving voluntary activities that affect birth rates). The principal positive checks are war, pestilence, and famine; while infanticide, abortion, and sexual practices that defeat conception exemplify preventive checks. Since Malthus viewed these voluntary expedients as vicious, he refers to the human outcome of the "principle of population" as "misery and vice."

Malthus did not believe that anything humans might do could seriously affect the tendency of population to grow faster than means of subsistence. Godwin had supposed that as mankind progressed toward a better society, mere animal pleasures would tend to be replaced by more refined pursuits, so that birth rates would fall. To this Malthus responded that the attraction between the sexes was a powerful force that had thus far shown no signs of abating, and he could see no reason why it should do so in the future.

Condorcet seems to hint at the possibility of contraception, which Malthus views as a vice. But Malthus also argues that in the face of adversity, prudent people will refrain from having children, while in times of plenty, they will want to have more of them. Thus, changes in the growth rate of population reflect the way people react to changes in the means of subsistence, regardless of the technology available for contraception.

What would happen, Malthus asks, if the ideal societies envisioned by Godwin and Condorcet should be established? With no shortage of life's necessities, people would have many children, and in a healthy environment with abundant resources, many of them would survive to maturity. Within a short time the population would double and triple its initial size, and with no equivalent growth in means of subsistence, everyone would be poorer. Soon, social inequality would be reestablished, with a relatively impervious elite and an underclass perennially afflicted by misery and vice.

Thus, Malthus disputed the perfectibility of man. No society could be expected to make it possible for all its members to "live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure [without] anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and [their] families" (1798, p. 17). The evils from which the utopians sought to liberate humanity, on the presumption that they resulted from defective social institutions, which might be improved, were seen as a consequence of man's unalterable animal nature. The principle of population applied to humans no less than it applied to any other species.

An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers was published anonymously, perhaps because Malthus felt that some people might find its subject matter unsuitable for the meditations of a clergyman. But the little book soon attracted attention, and Malthus admitted his authorship. The reason for its success is, in part, the quality of its writing.

Through years of debating with his father, Malthus had developed great skill in framing an argument. Father and son liked each other too much to be insulting, so they learned to prevail by force of logic. Moreover, Malthus had been trained as a mathematician, and his arguments have a mathematical precision, even though he seldom phrases them in overtly mathematical terms. But another reason for the instant success of Malthus's essay was its relevance to the issues of the day. Burke (1790) had already written an essay critical of the abstract thinkers whom he accused of perpetrating the French catastrophe, but Malthus was less polemical and defensive; and his calm, dispassionate logic was much more persuasive.

Indeed, the publication of the Essay made Malthus's reputation and gave him a new career. He gathered additional information on two trips to the Continent and set about revising the work with the aid of more extensive bibliographic resources than he had been able to consult in Albury. In 1803 he published a second edition that was five times as long as the first. In 1804 he got married and the next year became professor of political economy at the East India Company's new college in Hertfordshire. This was the first such appointment in England, and it enabled Malthus to spend the rest of his life in teaching and research, much in the manner of modern professors. As he digested new information and responded to criticism, he revised the Essay again and again; six editions came out during his lifetime, and a seventh was published posthumously. He also published another major work, The Principles of Political Economy Considered with a View to their Practical Application (1820) and several articles and pamphlets. He died in 1834.

Malthus was, by all accounts, a friendly and mild-mannered man. He maintained a long and warm correspondence with David Ricardo, even while disagreeing with him publicly. He could be interrupted by visitors, or even children, when he was working and he would stop and give them his full attention (James, 1979). But he would not give up ideas that he had arrived at through what he saw as good scientific reasoning, just because their implications might seem unpleasant or inhumane. He was opposed to giving money to the poor, for example, believing that it would not make food any more plentiful, but would just drive up the price and to the extent that the poor thought themselves better off, they might be inclined to have yet more children. He believed it would be much more effective to give the poor an opportunity to work, especially in agriculture. He argued, as a general proposition, that initiatives based on an inadequate understanding of the situation they were intended to address are not only likely to prove ineffective, but might even be counterproductive.

He did soften his position a little as time went on. In the second edition, he developed the idea that the growth of population might be slowed by "moral restraint" as well as by positive and preventive checks. By moral restraint he meant, basically, late marriage; he argued that no one should have children until they were well established in life and had a reasonable certainty of being able to provide for them. (He, himself, had married at 38.) He argued that schooling would help the poor more than handouts, and favored the institutionalization of universal education. And in other respects, he mellowed as he aged. He never renounced his central argument, but as he continually reshaped his work, it became longer and milder, full of limitations and exceptions. He made his case in the starkest, clearest terms in the first Essay, perhaps because it was then a more purely intellectual matter and expressed in terms sharpened by the passion of debate. But he was a decent sort of man, and as the terms of his argument took on human reality, his compassion imposed itself, to some extent, on his logic.

Malthus was enormously influential during his lifetime. Conservatives, not all of whom appreciated his intellectual courage or shared his lack of personal motives, embraced his ideas as a justification for their policies. And he was thoroughly hated by those who hoped for social reform. Romantics such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley (who married Godwin's daughter) all reviled him. Indeed, during the first half of the nineteenth century no one with any pretense to political insight could ignore Malthus, and to catalogue all those who sided with or against him would be tedious. Malthus had developed his ideas in the context of a political debate that had begun before the publication of his first Essay and continued long after that date; indeed, Malthus is best understood, not as a lone innovator, but as a contributor to an ongoing controversy.

If Malthus had never lived, the debate would have had much the same character, for the relation of population to subsistence was part of the Zeitgeist. In 1800, one Edwin Gardner, who does not seem to have been familiar with the work that Malthus had published two years earlier, brought out a pamphlet entitled Reflections upon the Evil Effects of an Increasing Population upon the Present High Price of Provisions (cited in James 1979, p. 91). Its jumbled ideas are no match for Malthus's polished Essay, but its very existence suggests that Malthus got credit for raising the issue not because of his originality but because of his lucid exposition and dogged defense.

The book that Malthus had written (and rewritten six times) played a crucial role in what may be the crowning intellectual achievement of the nineteenth century: the development of the theory of natural selection. Both Darwin and Wallace acknowledged a debt to Malthus. We know from Darwin's autobiography that by 1838 he had devoted himself to understanding speciation and had decided that it must occur through a process analogous to the selection practiced by breeders of domesticated animals. But he did not know what that process might entail until he happened to read Malthus "for amusement."

Only then did he understand how the struggle for existence could weed out the less fit members of a population, leaving those who were more fit to pass on their character to future generations (Darwin 1969, p. 120). Essential to Darwin's insight was his realization that the members of a population are in competition with one another.

Malthus had not concerned himself with competition among individuals; when he thought about the poor, he thought of them en masse. But Darwin realized that when means of subsistence are in short supply, individuals compete for them and success or failure in this competition provides a natural means of selection (Bowler, 1976).

For Wallace, too, Malthus was crucial. Like Darwin, he was fascinated by speciation and had, for many years, sought a mechanism that would explain it. Then, one day in 1858, while lying abed in the Dutch East Indies, shivering with malaria, he fell to thinking about Malthus, whom he had read fourteen years earlier. He realized that the principle of population would apply to animals as well as men, and asked himself, "Why do some die and some live?" With a sudden burst of insight, he realized that "the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain" (Wallace, 1905, 1, pp. 361-62). When the fever broke, he hastily wrote down his ideas and sent them to Darwin, who had been patiently developing his own exposition of natural selection for twenty years. Darwin graciously acknowledged Wallace's independent discovery and hurried his book to press.

It is ironic that the work of Malthus, who considered himself a political economist, had such a profound impact on the biological sciences. But the proposition that natural increase is limited by available resources which Malthus did not claim to have originated, and which constituted only the beginning of his argument was more striking than all his economic conclusions. And this part of the argument is not about politics or economics; it is about what we would now call ecology. Indeed, Wallace characterized the subject matter of Malthus's Essay as "the problems of philosophical biology" (Wallace, 1905, 1, p. 232). So Malthus had a profound effect on naturalists, and while the life sciences flourished under the stimulus of a new and powerful theory, the economic and political consequences of the tension between natural fecundity and limited resources continued to be debated.

Herbert Spencer, who had come within a hair's breadth of independently discovering natural selection in 1852, immediately recognized Darwin's achievement and helped promote the new paradigm (indeed, "survival of the fittest" is his phrase). But this creator of grand evolutionary schemes was not content to let natural selection play a part in the origin of biological species; he saw the same process at work in human society. If some people were poor, it was because they were less fit than their more prosperous fellows; and if they died in disproportionate numbers and thereby produced fewer progeny, the human race benefited.

Similarly, Spenser supposed that there was a competition among social institutions, in which superior institutions prevailed over inferior ones, leading to the evolution of society (Spencer 1967). This outlook, inappropriately named social Darwinism, failed to appreciate that the reasons for poverty include nonbiological variables and that social institutions do not evolve like biological organisms. But it gained a number of influential adherents, including the English economist Walter Bagehot and the American sociologist William Graham Sumner. Malthus, who was seen as a progenitor of social Darwinism, probably would have repudiated the philosophy; for social Darwinists took the position that aid to the poor was interference with nature's just course, while Malthus had only believed that ill-conceived measures might do more harm than good.

On the other side of the fence from the social Darwinists were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They maintained that the poor were no less fit than the rich, but owed their poverty to a lack of control over means of production. They envisioned a society in which workers would no longer sell their labor to the fortunate few who happened to control these means, but would share in the ownership of resources and infrastructure. Such a society would be classless, with each person contributing according to their ability and receiving a just share of the wealth. This vision of a better world, which is clearly descended from the ideas of Godwin, Condorcet, and other utopians, assumes once again that man is perfectible--for no such society is possible unless humans are capable of creating and sustaining it. But the possibility of its realization seems more empirically grounded because of the wide-ranging research that Marx carried out while Engels, who became a successful industrialist, paid his bills.

Marx detested Malthus because the principle of population, if true, would undermine the possibility of the classless society to which he was devoted. Marx referred to him disparagingly as "Parson Malthus"; accused him of having plagiarized all his ideas; and dismissed him as a bought apologist for the ruling class (Meek, 1953). It is instructive to compare Malthus's criticism of Godwin with Marx's criticism of Malthus; on the one hand, a calm appeal to reason with occasional, subtle barbs; and on the other, a torrent of vitriolic invective. Marx must have deeply resented Malthus's upper-class demeanor.

But it was Engels who explained most clearly why the Malthusian juggernaut would not upset the socialist apple cart. He argued that the growth of population results in more arms as well as more mouths, so that additional people could provide the additional labor necessary to feed themselves. If this incremental labor should be insufficient to make supply grow as fast as demand, he had faith that the difference would be made up through the progress of science--whose growth, he said, was "just as limitless and at least as rapid as that of population." And he pointed to the vast, uncultivated lands of the Mississippi Valley, which could "accommodate the whole population of Europe" implying that, in any event, the possibility of a population crisis was infinitely remote (Engels, 1844; in Meek, 1953, p. 63).

The Marxist vision had great appeal, and not long after the beginning of the twentieth century it became the inspiration for new experiments in government. Eventually there were Marxist states in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the New World, and the face-off between the new paradigm and the old order turned into the century's defining political theme.

For a time it seemed unclear which system would prevail, but the uncontrolled growth of population, which was not supposed to be a problem, proved a serious threat to the economy of socialist states. Both the Soviet Union and China suffered from inadequate food supplies and had to buy grain from the West. The birth rate in the Soviet Union fell as individual family-planning decisions were adjusted in the light of dismal economic prospects. And China embarked on a vigorous program to reduce the birth rate, with a target of one child per couple. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 symbolized the collapse of the regime it had come to represent in much the way the storming of the Bastille, two hundred years earlier, had seemed to mark the collapse of the French monarchy. But a significant reason for the failure of the Marxist regime was its inability to maintain even a pretense of economic equity as the growth of population reduced further and further the per-capita share of available resources.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Malthus was in partial eclipse. True, he was praised by John Maynard Keynes (1933), who deplored the fact that economic thought had developed for more than a hundred years from Ricardo's abstract theorizing rather than from Malthus's more inductive investigations. And other scholars cited Malthus where relevant; he was never entirely out of the public consciousness. But there was no revolution in the debate over man's perfectibility; just continued sparring between the same old partners.

Then, beginning at mid-century, there was renewed interest in Malthus, as concern about the relation between means of subsistence and population shifted from an economic perspective to a more demographic outlook. Joseph Spengler's voluminous scholarship in both areas (see Spengler, 1972) was transitional, and a number of scholars, including Kenneth Boulding (1966), Lester Brown (1974), Paul and Anne Ehrlich (1970), and Garrett Hardin (1968), began expressing concern about the runaway growth of world population in the sixties and seventies. This rapid growth came to be seen as a result of the exploitation of nonrenewable resources, an idea that had its roots in Malthus's observations about limitations to growth in the means of subsistence. And the eventual consequences seemed likely to be the "positive checks" that Malthus's name evoked for my father--famine, war, and pestilence.

Malthus had lived in an agrarian society that was as yet little changed by the Industrial Revolution, and when he thought about means of subsistence, he thought about land which, if properly treated, would continue to produce a crop, year after year. When he suggested, for purposes of argument, that means of subsistence might increase arithmetically, he was presenting a best-case scenario. And eventually he came to realize that there was an impediment to the continual improvement of productivity: the law of diminishing returns. One might, for example, increase the productivity of a field with acid soil by putting a hundred pounds of lime on it, but another hundred pounds of lime would not increase productivity again by the same amount, and a third hundred pounds would increase productivity even less.

A new viewpoint that has arisen since Malthus's time sees any increase in productivity as temporary and contingent on special conditions, and sees productivity as more likely to diminish. Farmlands erode, mines are worked out, old-growth timber is used up, fisheries are exhausted. It is still true, as Malthus observed, that population rises to the extent that means of subsistence permit. But the stock of resources upon which subsistence depends does not just rise slower than population; it may actually fall as population rises. In fact, resources may diminish because population rises, so that their availability is inversely proportional to population size.

Malthus noted that constraints to the growth of population were eased in new colonies, where means of subsistence are abundant. So he would not have been surprised that world population grew as the Mississippi Valley and other fertile lands were put to the plow. But another factor that Malthus could not have understood caused population to grow even faster. The new technology that was beginning to develop in his day made it possible to use energy from fossil fuels for human purposes. This completely changed the relationship between the labor that individuals can contribute and the goods they consume. Abundant, cheap energy from fossil fuels can leverage the actual physical energy that humans put into economic activities, so that they get an enormous return for their effort. A man driving a tractor can cultivate acres more than a man with a hoe, or even a man with a team of oxen. The effect of cheap energy from fossil fuels is the same as the effect of abundant resources in new colonies, only far more intense. It makes means of subsistence vastly more plentiful and allows population to expand with great rapidity. But reserves of fossil fuels, as well as other resources exploited through their use, appear to be finite. They are not inexhaustible. So while population grows by using them, it also uses them up, steadily bringing closer a day when remaining reserves will be insufficient to supply the existing population (Catton, 1980).

Opposing this bleak view are many economists who believe that there are no limits to growth. They argue that resources cannot just run out, because their availability is a function of demand. It is unrealistic to see resources as simply present or absent; they exist in a range of different grades. Copper, for example, can sometimes be found in its pure, metallic form, and it can also be found in a variety of ores ranging from those that contain a high percentage of copper to those that contain very little. Resources that can be most easily exploited like pure, native copper are used first; but a continuing demand results in the development of techniques to exploit resources of lower grade. As long as demand is great enough, resources will always be available.

Central to this view is the belief that whenever new technologies are needed, they will develop. Those who take this position observe that most of the past century's economic growth resulted from technological progress and conclude that the only limiting factor to economic production is knowledge. The essential means of production is neither capital, natural resources, nor labor, but the ability to manage them; and as long as knowledge advances, the economy will continue to expand (Solow, 1970; Drucker, 1993; Sagoff, 1995). Since humans are unique in the way they can use knowledge to construct their own environment, they are immune from the constraints that would limit the population of other animals (Preston, 1986, p. 69). Growth and expansion have always been characteristic of the human species, and there is no reason why humans of the future cannot go on using yet more energy, growing in population, and establishing, if necessary, colonies on other planets.

At the end of the twentieth century, debate about the relationship between population and subsistence is still polarized by the same difference of underlying assumptions that animated the controversy two hundred years ago. On the one hand are those who believe in the perfectibility of man; who think there is something special about human beings that sets them apart from other animals; who believe that humans can decide what their future should be and make it happen. And on the other hand are those who see no evidence that any special ability has exempted human populations of the past from the principles that govern the populations of other species, and see no reason to believe that such an exemption will prevail in the future.

On the one hand are those who believe that science, knowledge, and invention make all things possible; and on the other hand are those many of them scientists who believe that there are some natural processes that humans can understand, but not affect. Daniel and Robert Malthus, father and son, are part of a procession that marches in double file down through the centuries. With Daniel, on the left, are Rousseau, Godwin, Condorcet, Marx and Engels, and today's economists of growth. With Robert, on the right, are Voltaire, Darwin, Wallace, Spencer, and those who now see a threat in continued growth. So little progress has been made in resolving the debate that one might suppose the difference between the two columns to be more a matter of predisposition than force of reason.

But, while the underlying assumptions of the parties to the debate have remained virtually the same, many other things have changed in the two hundred years since Malthus wrote his first Essay. Demographic information has accumulated, the population of the world has grown, and the focus of attention has shifted. The essential ideas associated with the name of Malthus are different at the end of the twentieth century than they were in the nineteenth century.

Malthus had very little hard demographic information at his disposal. He did not even know the population of England. In 1798 there were still people who opposed a national census on the grounds that it would disclose to England's enemies the number of troops that she could field in time of war. The population of the world as a whole was completely unknown; earlier in the eighteenth century, in the absence of empirical data, it had been a topic of philosophical debate. Montesquieu (1734) argued that world population had diminished since the days of the ancient Romans, and Hume (1752) argued that it had grown. Malthus, himself, thought that population fluctuated over the long run, growing until it was cut back by positive checks, and then growing again.

In the last two centuries, the taking of censuses has become a common practice and today a wealth of demographic information is available for study. We have a fairly accurate idea of the whole Earth's population, and we know how it is changing. We can make projections about the future, and techniques have even been developed to approximate world population in times past (McEvedy & Jones, 1978, give a popular summary). We know that when Malthus was writing his first Essay, world population was under one billion, and that it is now nearly six billion and growing.

And in the last two hundred years the focus of attention has shifted away from Malthus's conclusion and settled on his initial postulates. His explanation of why poverty cannot be eliminated from society has been largely forgotten, but the idea that population tends to grow faster than means of subsistence, which he made no pretense of having originated, has become firmly associated with his name.

Indeed, it is sometimes asserted that Malthus was "wrong" because population has grown more slowly than he predicted, while means of subsistence have grown much faster (Winch, 1987, p. 96). But Malthus never predicted that population and means of subsistence would grow at precisely geometric and arithmetical rates; his mathematical examples were only used to call attention to a qualitative difference in the two parameters. As John Stuart Mill (1864, 1, p. 439) pointed out, "every candid reader knows that Mr. Malthus laid no stress on this unlucky attempt to give numerical precision to things which do not admit of it, and every person capable of reasoning must see that it is wholly superfluous to his argument." What is central to his argument is the claim that population always expands to the limits imposed by means of subsistence. And the evidence continues to show that it does. The more food the world produces, the more its population grows.

Finally, this shift to a broader perspective has induced many of Malthus's intellectual heirs to believe, or at least hope along with their more idealistic adversaries that humans may be able to take control of their destiny. They shrink from the implications of their own arguments as Malthus had done and with better reason. For in Malthus's view, the primary consequence of the tendency for population to grow to the limits imposed by means of subsistence was poverty, and acknowledging human limitations meant accepting the inevitability of poverty in human society. But today, the apparent consequence of the tendency for population to grow at the expense of its means of subsistence is an impending disaster of such unimaginable proportions that few are willing to accept its inevitability. Almost everyone urges measures to avert the crisis--although strategies differ. And whether human beings can, in fact, take such control of their destiny remains to be seen.

References Cited

Bonar, James. (1885). Malthus and his work. London: Macmillan.
Boulding, Kenneth E. 1966. The economics of the coming spaceship Earth. In Environmental quality in a growing economy, ed. H. Jarrett, pp. 3-14. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
Bowler, Peter. J. (1976). Malthus, Darwin, and the concept of struggle. Journal of the History of Ideas 37:631-50.
Brown, Lester R. (1974). In the human interest. New York: Norton.
Burke, Edmund. (1790). Reflections on the revolution in France. London: J. Dodsley.
Catton, William R., Jr. (1980). Overshoot: The ecological basis of revolutionary change. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Condorcet, Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de. 1795. Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain. Paris: Chez Agasse.
Darwin, Charles. (1969). The autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882. New York: Norton.
Drucker, Peter F. (1993). Post-capitalist society. New York: HarperBusiness.
Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne H. Ehrlich. (1970). Population resources environment: Issues in human ecology. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
Godwin, William. (1793). An enquiry concerning political justice, and its influence on general virtue and happiness. Dublin: Luke White.
Godwin, William. (1797). The enquirer: Reflections on education, manners, and literature. London: G. G. and J. Robinson.
Hardin, Garrett. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science 162:1243-48.
Hume, David. (1752). Political discourses. Edinburgh: R. Fleming, for A. Kincaid and A. Donaldson.
James, Patricia. (1979). Population Malthus: His life and times. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Keynes, John Maynard. (1933). Robert Malthus: The first of the Cambridge economists. In Essays in biography, pp. 95-149. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Malthus, T. R. (1798). An essay on the principle of population, as it affects the future improvement of society, with remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers. London: J. Johnson.
Malthus, T. R. (1820). The principles of political economy considered with a view to their practical application. London: J. Murray.
McEvedy, Colin, & Jones, Richard. 1978. Atlas of world population history. New York: Penguin.
Meek, Ronald L., Ed. (1953). Marx and Engels on Malthus. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

[MFS note: works of several of the cited authors are available on the "Sustainability Authors" page here.]
______
* Cornell University
See at < http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/March98/Malthus_legacy.html >.
Published originally in, Population and Environment, Vol. 19, No. 3.
Dr. Price can be reached at:
254 Carpenter Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853

Home ] Up ]
 

Please send mail to webmaster@mnforsustain.org with questions or comments about this web site. Minnesotans For Sustainability (MFS) is not affiliated with any government body, private, or corporate entity. Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2004 Minnesotans For Sustainability