Thomas Malthus: Still Relevant Over 200 Years Later
With the earth’s population having almost tripled in the last 60 years, it is easy to assume that concerns about overpopulation are relatively new. In fact, concerns over the number of people that our planet can reasonably sustain began to be raised, documented and published more than 200 years ago.
Thomas Robert Malthus was born in Surrey, England in 1766, at a time when the earth’s population was around 800 million, a mere tenth of the population today.
Malthus was born into a relatively prosperous, although unconventional family. His father’s beliefs were much influenced by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose written works were said to have influenced leaders of The French Revolution.
As a boy, Thomas Malthus was educated privately at home, before being admitted to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1784. Graduating in 1788, he went on to earn a Master of Arts degree in 1791 and become elected a Fellow of Jesus College in 1793.
In 1798, Malthus published what became his most well-known work, An Essay on the Principal of Population. The Essay, considered a somewhat radical publication at the time, argued that increases in human population would eventually diminish the ability of the world to feed itself. His conclusion was based on the thesis that populations expand in such a way as to overtake the development of sufficient land to produce crops to sustain human life.
Malthus argued that:
“… infinite human hopes for social happiness must be vain”, and that “The increase of population will take place, if unchecked, in a geometric progression, while the means of subsistence will increase in only an arithmetic progression. Population will always expand to the limit of subsistence.”
Furthermore, Thomas Malthus controversially suggested that only “vice” (including war), “misery” (including famine, want of food and illness) and “moral restraint” (meaning abstinence) could check excessive population growth.
He believed that unless people exercised restraint in terms of the number of children they produced, the resultant spiralling population would face an inevitable shortfall of food, forcing mankind into a ceaseless struggle for existence.
With Malthus, the science of demography was born.
His argument became known as the Malthusian Theory, or Malthusian Growth Model, illustrated in simple terms by the following graph.
These ideas heavily influenced Charles Darwin’s thinking. Darwin had initially thought that animals reproduced at a rate that would keep the numbers within their species stable. But, after reading Malthus, he came to realise that most animal populations bred beyond their means, leaving the strong to survive and the weak to struggle for survival.
Thomas Malthus brought to the forefront of public debate, a topic that had never really been considered in great detail before: that reproduction and population growth were crucial factors in the ability to plan for, support and govern future societies.
And more than one author has been influenced by Malthus.
H.G. Wells wrote that:
“Malthus is one of those cardinal figures in intellectual history who state definitely for all time, things apparent enough after their formulation, but never effectively conceded before. Probably no more shattering book than the Essay on Population has ever been, or ever will be, written.”
In Aldous Huxley’s acclaimed and (at the time of writing) futuristic Brave New World, birth control is a strict necessity. Population size is rigidly controlled and people are bred, as required, in factories. In a nod to Thomas Malthus, Huxley described in the story how women carry around contraceptives in a belt, called a Malthusian Belt.
Malthus’ influence on science, politics, culture and literature, whilst sometimes indirect, is still felt. And his theories, although a little outdated, still resonate strongly today.
Submitted by Friends of Retha