Was Malthus right?

IMHO, he was.

As I understand his argument, Malthus said that populations increase geometrically while food production increases arithmetically. If this is true, then in the long run populations MUST outrun resources leading to famine, war, and other Book-of-Revelations style visions.
On an associated note, other resources don’t increase at all. Yes, I understand that substitutes are found on a daily basis that either replace or extend critical resources.
Population control measures in every country except China, have been based on self control or personal restraint, something I personally have little faith in.
So, anyone care to disagree or are we all doomed?



Well, I don’t know much about Malthus, but if you’re suggesting humanity is “doomed” due to overpopulation, you’re just wrong. China notwithstanding.

The rate of population growth has been slowing for twenty years now. The U.S. population would actually be falling dramatically if not for all the immigrants, and it’s actually falling in most of Europe.

And over in the Third World, while population is still growing, it’s growing at a much slower rate. In Iran, for example, they’re now averaging three births per woman, where in the 70’s it was more like seven births per woman.

It used to be thought that families would only have fewer children if their standard of living improved, but it’s been discovered that all that’s really required is access to effective contraception. When people have that, they’ll have fewer kids, even if they’re poor.

There are six billion people on Earth right now. It’s currently expected to top out at 8.5 billion around 2050, then begin to fall.

All facts above are as I remember them from an Atlantic Monthly article from about a year ago.

Doomed? Probably not. In for more hardships? Probably.

I’m not sure about Malthus’ mathematics, but I definitely agree that every population eventually faces resource limitations. I see it as a kind of Monod-style kinetics that describes most biological populations (slow growth leading to exponential growth leading to a sustained plateau and then decline and finally extinction). It seems like humanity is currently in the rapid/exponential growth phase. IMHO, the trick will be seeing how long we can sustain the plateau population.

I can agree that improved technologies will do wonders to help, but there’s only so many efficiencies possible and many resources are, after all, finite. Land space is a great example of a finite resource. Not just for our homes, but also agriculture, etc. (And don’t tell me that we can deal with the growing population by colonizing other worlds unless you know of a way to launch something like 250,000 people every day…and keep them alive. Sure we can increase the overall human populations through off-world colonies, but the Earth-bound population will still have to deal with resource issues.)

So, I forsee some ugliness as resources get tighter, but I hope that technological innovation, societal behavior, and self restraint will keep things civilized and manageable. It will require some uncommon long-term thinking.

Land is hardly the problem…the problem is a lack of fresh water. With enough water, you can create arable land. Things like desalinization plants can be used for the creation of fresh water, and while they are immensely expensive, my guess is when the world grows desperate enough, more will be used, and the cost will come down.

However, I think Malthus basic point is correct. That there must be some limit to the amount of people that the Earth can support. IMHO, however, that amount is quite a bit…not that we shouldn’t conserve what we have now, however.

Hello Five.

Thanks for that, and I have also seen studies suggesting that the RATE of population growth is slowing. SLOWLY. My issue is that with 8.5 Billion people on the planet it’s going to be a fairly hellish place. Limited food, limited resources of ANY sort, intense (and probably violent) competition for what IS available, etc. In your opinion, is there anything that can be done to avoid this? After all, I plan on being alive then and assume you do as well. S



Well, I hate to post a “me too” reply but I agree with you. While I’m a supporter of almost any kind of space exploration I don’t think it’ll do much for our population problem. What I really DON’T think will happen is the necessary restraint to avoid major conflicts over the available resources. At the end of the day a politician has to take care of those that elected him and if they’re hungry then he’ll do whatever is necessary to fix that.



In the last 40 years the world population has doubled from 3 billion to 6 billion people. The world is not anymore hellish now than it was then. Why will population growing by 50% in fifty years change that? The green revolution has dramatically changed farming so that now there are fewer farmers feeding more americans than ever and yet the government spends hundreds of millions to pay farmers to not grow food to keep prices high. As long as the green party doesn’t start winning elections there is not reason to think that life with 8.5 billion will be anymore hellish than with 6 billion.

YES, but technology has caused a time delay.

against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.
where did i hear that? hmmmm

Dal Timgar

I think it was Alexander Pope.

Anyways, I think that since Malthus’ day, food production has increased faster than population, and population growth is now slowing. I don’t think that there is any reason to worry about not having enough food to feed the planet. Human society has been making the process of feeding ourselves more efficient since the Stone Age, and doesn’t seem to show any signs of reversing that trend.

If food were to become substantially more scarce, the price would increase. As the price increases, the motivation for increased efficiency increases as well. Solutions that were not economically feasable before become so. It’s not like every square inch of arable land is already used.

Just to be redundant: the 6 billion? thread hashed out a lot of the particulars on this subject over a year ago and currently the When will there be too many people in the U.S., and what would we do about it? is addressing the same question from the perspective of the U.S., alone.

Thanks for the links, Tom…I was gonna go look them up. :slight_smile:

And just to throw out an idea…the other school of thought on population growth is that with every new person born, there is the chance that they will create a technology to improve the world and make it possible to have even MORE people.

Not sure if I agree with it, but it’s a thought…

Fewer farmers in America may be feeding more people in America…but we are talking about total world population here. I think to truly see if the world has gotten more hellish would be to compare present poverty/hunger statistics with those of thirty or forty years ago.

Even then, one would have to question whether the world has gotten increasingly hellish due to more population/less resources, or because those of us in the First World are consuming more than our share of resources.

The truth is that the amount of food produced per person worldwide has increased dramatically over the century. People today worldwide have much more food than they did in the past. And that’s including the gigantic population growth.

Population growth rates are dropping worldwide. In North America, Russia, Europe, and Japan, the growth rate is negative. (Although the North American population is growing it is only because of immigration.) In third world countries the growth rate is dramatically smaller than it was a few years ago. Yes, the population is still growing there, but if the current growth rate of the growth rate continues, they will stabilize or go negative in 50 to a hundred years.

If you’re STILL worried about overpopulation, stop thinking about draconian totalitarian solutions. First of all, they won’t work. Second, there is a much more effective solution, and it just so happens to be a good thing to do in and of itself. Yes, I’m talking about gender equality in the third world. Start working for women’s rights. Women’s rights means that women will be able to control their own fertillity. And the experience of the developed world is that when women can control their fertillity they typically choose to have far fewer children.

The world is better off in so many ways today than we were twenty years ago. Totalitarian communism is dead. We are increasing global goverance. Food production is up. Gross world product is up dramatically. I’m no utopian, but it seems to me that the problems we face today aren’t even half as tough as the ones we faced 100 years ago, 50 years ago, or even twenty years ago.

Here are some facts about food production:

In India the wheat production in 1965 was 12.3 million tons and in 1999 it was 73.5 million tons. During that same time frame the population of India has doubled.
The food production capabilities have been growing faster than the population over the last 40 years and are still growing while the population of the world has been leveling off.
Most famines nowadays are caused by government policies, some are intentional (Ethiopia) and some are not (North Korea) but as communism falls into retreat around the world such famines should be increasingly rare.

I agree with the basic assumption that Malthus’ basic math was wrong and that our food production has outpaced population growth. However, IMO there must be a point where food production levels off, just as there is a point where population levels off…the question is, which comes first? If the projections cited here are accurate then I am inclined to believe that there will be sufficient food. But what about other resources?

Overall, there is a lot of discussion here of how birth rates are leveling off. Isn’t that a possible indication of population rate changes caused by limited resources? (e.g., lack of money to support large families, lack of adequate medical attention to support an exponential birth rate, etc.) Sure it could be better access to contraception, but it still seems to apply to limited resources (self-imposed limitations in response to desired quality of life, etc.).

I’m not familiar with Malthus’ whole work, but I doubt he was saying that the world’s population is necessarily doomed…just that it cannot grow rapidly indefinitely…which seems like common sense to me.

I agree that water resources/supplies are of primary concern. But my statement about land was just one example of a finite resource that can become depleted (consider urban sprawl), whereas the whole water cycle keeps things going (management of those water resources is already a big problem in many areas of the world). I suppose it’s not impossible to use up fresh water resources regionally (it happens all the time in localized areas) but, as you said, it becomes increasingly expensive to tap into new sources (e.g., desalinization).

True, but I’ll just add that we are simultaneously destroying some of the unused arable land, thereby reducing an already finite resource. An example is the massive topsoil losses of Madagascar. Recreating topsoil over vast areas is certainly not cheap.

Again, I’m just saying that either rational, long-term planning is employed to sustain whatever population size we want to grow to or nature will choose a number for us (the hard way). My personal hope is that this can be done through individual behavior and not some kind of repressive state requirement.

The problem with using the green revolution to say everything is fine and dandy is that there is a theoretical limit to how much edible biomass can be grown on any given acre of land. We are approaching those limits.

Also, intensive agriculture is well suited to meeting current demands – but how about those of the future? It is not at all clear that even current rates of agricultural production are sustainable over the long run. In many areas, aquifers are being depleted, soil salt levels are increasing and soil is lost due to wind and water erosion.

Lastly, I think “hellish” depends on your perspective. Some of the slums outside Manila looked pretty hellish to me when I was there last year.

One of the reasons Hurricane Mitch was so hellish to Central America has to do with just the kind of intensive, corporate agriculture associated with the green revolution. Peasants in the region were forced to farm hilly, unsuitable land because the more profitable land is controlled by a relatively small number of wealthy people (much of it farmed for export). Needless to say, when you farm hilly, unsuitable land you make it more susceptible to erosion and mudslides – exactly what happened with Mitch.

Ahh, the wonders of globalization.

Actually, it tends to be just the opposite. All the recent evidence in population studies and economics has demonstrated that the birth rate is falling the most in the countries with the highest quality of life. The more affluent the population in a given area, the more likely that each couple will have fewer children. People in less affluent areas have more children, regardless of the level of resources, because they can’t be assured that any of them will live past infancy.

The main reason that birth rates are leveling off is industrialization. On a subsistence farm ten children means 10 farm workers whereas in an industrial country it just means ten mouths to feed. The population is decreasing in most places where food is plentiful such as Western Europe while increasing in places where food is relatively scarce such as India, China, and Latin America. As the third world industrializes birth rates there will drop as well.
Many people have tried to guess what the world’s saturation point is and have been wrong. Such as Paul Ehrlich who said that 65 million americans would starve to death between 1980 and 1989 and Saint Jerome who said in AD 400 that the world was full. There is a theoretical saturation point but it is impossible to determine what it is because we can not predict future technologies. I have read that the saturation point maybe closer to 35 or 40 billion.
Here is an excellent article that discusses this.

For those who are intetested…

How Many People Can the Earth Support? by Joel E. Cohen (1995).
Article in Atlantic Monthly (May 1998) - “A Special Moment in History” http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/98may/special1.htm