During the 17th century, thanks to the industrial revolution and the European expansion overseas, most European countries were witnessing an increase in agricultural production, technological innovation as well as a development in medical knowledge. All of these factors led to an acceleration in population growth. People were quite optimistic about the future, the conditions of life were improving and people’s standards went up.
This coincided with the enlightenment age, where European thinkers and scientists were developing ideas about social justice, poverty relief, and even sanitation. They made people believe in progress and improvement of their living conditions.
But someone, at that time, stood out with his not-so-optimistic views, he was rather observing all of those events with expanding concern.
Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was a classic British economist. In 1798 he anonymously published “Essay On The Principles Of Population” in which he outlined his philosophies about population growth in relation to the resources base, these philosophies come together under the name of “Malthusian Economics“.
Malthus tried to find natural rules that could explain the continuing existence of poverty and famine in the world and their relationship with population growth.
The main idea behind Malthus’s theory is that population increases exponentially while the food production growth is linear, over time the population outplaces the society’s ability to produce resources, and this triggers a large depopulation event caused by a”Malthusian crisis” that could be famine, disease, war,…
In short, the Malthusian theory predicts that when food production increases over time to meet the demand, the population will grow faster and exceed the resources producing capacity and the growth gets checked in the end by catastrophes like war or famine,…
Malthus admits that technological development could push the food production level up and delay the point of crisis but the crush is inevitable according to him. No matter how far we can push the supply of resources, the population will always grow faster and overtake the amount of available resources.
Therefore Malthus supported population control efforts as the only possible way to avoid unchecked growth rates.
Was Malthus right?
After more than 200years that Malthus exposed his theory, we cannot judge if he was 100% right or not.
If we look at the world today we see that a lot of countries have actually ensured their food security and they don’t look like they are ever going to achieve the “Malthusian limit” while some others are still struggling to afford the basic needs of their people even if they do dispose of important natural resources.
Most countries across Europe, Oceania and North America have a per capita supply greater than 3100 kcal/person/day (2013). But if we look at some other places in the world like Africa, for example, they can only afford an average of 2600Kcal/person/day.
If we take a country like Nigeria that is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources and has the highest GDP in Africa but looking at the living conditions there we find a poverty rate that is estimated to be about 45% in 2021, one of the most obvious reasons behind this might be the huge population that is around 210,3 millions, this sounds compatible with the Malthus’s ideas.
But let’s take a look at UAS as another example, the USA has a population of about 329,5 millions, on the other hand, their poverty rate is about 13,4% and the living conditions there are considered to be among the best in the world. The USA is a good example that refutes the Malthusian theory.
If there is something we can conclude from the examples above is that the accuracy of Malthus’s ideas depends on each country, there are countries that took advantage of technological ad scientific development in order to ensure their food security and social stability. While some other countries didn’t benefit from that technological and scientific development and are still struggling to afford the basic life necessities despite their richness in terms of natural resources.
One other point where Malthus wasn’t very accurate is that he states that before achieving the Malthusian limit, growing resources supply will only push the population to grow faster, but what we observe today in modern developed nations is the opposite: the population is actually decreasing! Malthus did not take into account that maybe once societies become rich enough and educated enough people would think about doing other things in their lives instead of just making as many kids as they can.