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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?

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