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Malthus and the Seven Billion

When the world’s population reached seven billion it prompted a great deal of nonsense to be written about Thomas Malthus. Robert J. Mayhew sets the record straight.

Thomas Robert Malthus
Thomas Robert Malthus

October 31st, 2011 saw a fair deal of media ballyhoo about the arrival on earth of the seven-billionth human being as calculated by the United Nations, its (arbitrary) selection being one Danica May Camacho of the Philippines. As readers of History Today may well have noticed a number of highly reputable newspapers chose to provide a historical angle on the story by evoking – normally to condemn – the work of Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) about population dynamics and resource scarcity. A headline in the US business magazine Forbes neatly encapsulated this reaction: ‘7 billion reasons Malthus was wrong’. Older readers will discern a recurrent pattern here, similar historical stories about Malthusian muddleheadedness having emerged when the earth’s population topped six billion in 1999 and five billion back in 1987.

Looking at these stories in detail we are told that Malthus thought women had as many children as physically possible (Reuters UK); that he underestimated human inventiveness and thus was not aware of agricultural improvements and their impact on food production (Forbes and the Independent); that he argued ‘without providing any reasons’ (Reuters UK). But, for the historically minded, the questions that immediately arise out of all this are: who was Malthus, were his ideas really as absurd as is claimed and does he still have anything to tell us today?

Malthus rose to fame with his Essay on the Principle of Population of 1798, which argued that the capacity for population expansion could far outstrip increases in food production. Population could only be kept in line with food by ‘checks’, which included war, famine and disease. Malthus wrote this at a time when global population was probably around the one billion mark. Does the expansion of the world’s population to seven billion really prove his work is so much outmoded bunk? If we actually read Malthus rather than treating him as a bogeyman the answer is no.

First he never argued that people in his own society had as many children as possible. On the contrary he emphasised that in modern civilisations ‘preventive’ checks, including delayed marriage and abstinence, were used to keep fertility down. (Malthus never supported contraception, an approach that was only linked with his name in the later 19th century.) His point was that, despite such checks, we still strain against available resources. Second, Malthus was fully aware of human inventiveness and that increasing population spurred this inventiveness, arguing that ‘Necessity has been with great truth called the mother of invention ... Had population and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged from the savage state’. He showed a keen awareness of the agricultural and industrial improvements taking place in his own era, which we now label as the age of the Industrial Revolution, but did not feel this would exempt mankind from feeling resource pressures. Finally, far from arguing without reasons Malthus spent his entire adult life assiduously collecting data from his own travels (notably to Scandinavia), from accounts of journeys around the globe – thanks to such scientific explorers as James Cook and Alexander von Humboldt – and from the burgeoning statistical results of censuses in Europe and North America, perhaps most notably the British census whose instigation in 1801 was not unrelated to his pioneering work in the Essay. Malthus’ work was awash with facts and painstaking argument.

But does this make him relevant today? It is certainly true that he did not envision a world with seven billion souls, global commodity chains, genetically modified foods and such like. Can we honestly say we have a clear sense of how the world will look in 2224, any more than Malthus could know of the economic and political arrangements of 2011 as he penned his Essay in 1798? Yet Malthus remains a vital wellspring for all who want to think rigorously about the nexus of population, resources, economics and the environment. He shows us that, in contemplating these vexed questions, which will remain at the heart of public debates on a global scale for the foreseeable future, we need to be assiduous in our data collection and to reason precisely on the basis of that data. He also shows us two other things with which his bogeyman image is not normally associated but which his real, historical existence evinced consistently. First, as new information arises, we need to be willing to change our opinions as Malthus did, for example, in later editions of the Essay about the power of the preventive checks. Second, and contrary to his Scrooge-like caricature (Scrooge himself is a Malthusian in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, saying the poor should die to ‘decrease the surplus population’), Malthus always wanted the results of reason to be tempered by humane treatment of the poor and disadvantaged. He believed this on the grounds that, ultimately, ‘the happiness of a society is, after all, the legitimate end even of its wealth, power, and population’ and that ‘the labouring classes’ are ‘the foundation on which the whole [social] fabric rests’.

As global population topped seven billion last year, contrary to those who said that Malthus was not ‘a bad person, just rather unimaginative’ (Forbes), the problem of imaginative insight lies not with Malthus but with his commentators. If we dare actually to read Malthus rather than merely bandy his name around we shall find a complex, subtle and open-minded scholar who pioneered the study of problems that are increasingly important in an age of climate change and concerns about food security. By letting the real, historical Malthus speak in his own voice we may just open dialogues that help us to address our present and future planetary predicaments.

Robert J. Mayhew is Professor of Historical Geography and Intellectual History at the University of Bristol. He is currently writing a book about Malthus and the history of Malthusian ideas for Harvard University Press.

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