Although he was certainly not the first person to discern a link between increasing population and misery, Thomas Malthus gained a place in history as the father of population theory.
The British economist played the role of a pessimist. His 1798 treatise, An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, launched a debate that continues largely unchanged today. Malthus' 50,000-word work revolutionized the way people viewed the Earth's ability to sustain human life.
The essay was actually a rebuttal of the then-popular notion that mankind was destined to overcome its social and political troubles and live in a state of utopian anarchy. This optimistic theory was unveiled in Political Justice, a 1792 book by a clergyman named William Godwin. “There will be no war, no crime, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government,” he wrote. “Besides this, there will be no disease, anguish, melancholy, or resentment.”#
Malthus saw no evidence of Godwin's rosy scenario, especially considering Britain's surging populace. On the contrary, he observed in his essay, “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man.” At a time when population was doubling every 25 years, he predicted the time would come, if the trend continued, when arable land would run out, leading relentlessly to famine and chaos. “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio,” he wrote. “Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.”
Of course, neither prediction came to pass. Godwin's intellectual heirs found similar comfort in the promise of Marxism a century later, only to see the dream of communism crumble at the end of the 1980s under the weight of corrupt politics and economic failure.
Malthus failed to consider factors besides population growth and current agricultural technology. One was emigration, which enabled some 20 million of his fellow Britons to leave their country from 1815 to 1914. Another factor was a vast improvement in agricultural methods, which led to increases in food production. Finally, the Industrial Revolution brought unforeseeable technological innovations that improved living standards far beyond Britain's borders.##
Despite the flaws in Malthus' argument, contemporary scientists continue to invoke his theory to explain the dangers of population growth. It was cited repeatedly, for example, during the regional famines of the late 20th century, including the catastrophic 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia.
In fact, environmentalists who embrace Malthus say the global environment itself is showing signs of bowing under the weight of decades of industrial wastes, land degradation and pollution. Population growth must slow, they say, because improvements in food production are approaching their limits, as cultivable land is becoming ever scarcer.
# See Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers (1980), p. 75.
## See Paul Kennedy, Preparing for the Twenty-First Century (1993), pp. 6-7.