Was Malthus right?

Hello PuddleGlum.

By that logic it doesn’t matter HOW high the population goes. I have a feeling that there is an ultimate carrying capacity of the planet which is obviously extended by technology but still exists.



Thanks for this. I agree that food production has increased faster than population although there are still major problems with distribution. A more critical item is fresh water which is non-reneweably in the time scales required to sustain intensive agriculture. Desalinization is a limited option as it is extremely expensive to produce water that way. As an aside, it also tastes TERRIBLE as all of the salt is not removed.



I’m crushed! Major dejection is setting in here. S I neglected to check first and should have. Is this still worth addressing?

Thanks again.


Well, I think it’s a nice thought and it’s true, someone COULD come up with a fix for most anything. Of course, I’d hate to bet the farm on it. S



Sorry if I appeared to be a redneck but I really wasn’t considering shooting the excess population. S As far as gender equality goes, it’s a good idea but from where I sit (Middle East) it doesn’t seem to be happening. Women are still very much second-class citizens.

All the best.


*Originally posted by puddleglum *
**Here are some facts about food production:


The population is NOT ‘leveling off,’ the rate-of-increase is slowing. Also, while production has and continues to increase, there are some side effects to that as well. Increased use of fertilizer and pesticides as well as an increase in methane from rice paddies.



Yes, the other resources are becoming increasingly short as well, particularly fresh water. Desalinization is easy on a lab-scale setup but is MUCH more difficult to do when a city has to be supplied.



Food is not the problem. Distribution is. That was Malthus’s flaw. He wrote his thesis before the development of rail, auto and air, which allowed quick distribution of food and supplies. If the railroad was developed and evolved into what was depicted in sci-fi novels, the food problem would be solved; everyone would have access to food relatively quickly, and not be worried about contamination or the food being spoiled.

He also didn’t take into account sheer greed on the part of governments in developed nations, that they would use fertile land to make cocaine for other countries for example. Also, there is the factor of sheer hatred among the peoples of each other. If there were only two people in the US, and they severely hate each other, to each of them the country has one person too many.

Yes it does. For instance, I could afford to pay 50% more in tax (not that I would want to!), but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter how much higher it goes. It reaches a certain limit. The difficulty is in finding out what that limit is…

I don’t get this. If the rate-of-increase is slowing, then it’s leveling off. That’s what leveling off means (the curve gets less steep) unless you’re thinking of the rate-of -rate-of-increase? I don’t believe that’s what they’re refering to though, is it?

God, you are annoying Testy. Could you not use up 20 fucking posts to make responses?

Beyond that, f(x)=population. f’(x) is decreasing, meaning f’’(x) is negative. The curve is concave downward. The population will eventually reach a point of f’(x)=0 (Zero-Population-Growth).

On issues of soil toxicity, what makes you believe that technology is not capable of removing the same problems it has created? Many of these salts are easily removed from the soil, it is simply relatively expensive to do. Not extrordinarily, it is sipmply cheaper to move on to new lands rather than repairing the old lands by a relatively small factor.

Additionally, contraceptives are not the only answer. As mentioned before, people must have the technology to be able to go with fewer than 10 kids without starving. When people realize that they can get away with this, people will use the contraceptives.

Exactly so…nuff said

I do agree that readily available contraceptives aren’t the only answer to the issue of increasing population. Their use is determined by cultural and occasionally religious beliefs. After all, no one living in a modern city NEEDS 10 children running around. They are more a liability than an asset.



I think this is an idea about which Julian Simon was enthusiestic: if I understand his concept (and it may be that I don’t) it was that whatever problems the world has, each additional person born is a plus, as that person might be the one to come up with a solution to one of the problems. Therefore, population growth is A Good Thing.

I see a flaw in this idea. Most of the population growth is occuring in the 3rd world, much of it among people living at the edge of starvation. Even those who are getting enough food to avoid hunger are often not getting adequate nutrition. Inadaquate nutrition in the womb and duing the first few years of life cause a number of problems, including reduced intelligence. Then there’s the matter of schooling. Many of the people at the bottom of the 3rd world socio-economic ladder are illiterate or barely literate.

So – imagine a person born in a 3rd world shantytown. (S)he has the genetic potential for high intelligence, but first inadaqute nutrition reduces this potential, then (s)he does not have an opportunity to attend school, and so grows up illiterate. How likely is it that this person will come up with any wonderful new invention, concept, or whatever to improve life for all humankind?

Malthus was wrong for many, many reasons. One of them is that he didn’t realize that animal populations tend to be self-limiting. For example, you can do the math and apply an exponential growth curve to a population of two flies, and you’ll see that within a couple of decades the Earth should be a giant mass of flies. But that doesn’t happen.

Malthus took a snapshot of population growth rates, and extended it out in a simple curve. Of course, other population doomsayers have been doing the same thing right up until today. And those models have ALWAYS been wrong, and not just by a little. Didn’t the Club of Rome claim in 1975 that the population of Earth would be 20 billion by 2000? Talk about missing your mark…

Anyway, population growth has crashed, and is no longer a concern. Even in the 3rd world birth rates have dropped to slightly more than replacement levels. For instance, in Bangladesh birthrates have dropped from 7.2 per couple to 3.6. Given the infant mortality rates there, 3.6 children per couple probably isn’t much higher than replacement.

In the industrialized nations, birthrates have been below replacement levels for some time, and the only reason the population isn’t decreasing in the U.S., Canada, and Europe is because of immigration. In Canada, the natural birthrate is only 1.6 children per couple. At that rate, our population would be cut in half within two generations if it weren’t for immigration.

So not only was Malthus wrong, he wasn’t even in the ballpark.

Well, of course Tom Malthus didn’t say that populations did increase geometrically; he said that they have the potential to increase geometrically (he also meant that they increase “exponentially” – at least, the early part of an exponential curve is not easily distinguishable from a sigmoid curve – in modern parlance, but I believe that mathematic jargon has changed since his day).

Falling back on Malthus V2.0, yes, it is trivial to demonstrate that human population has the potential to outgrow the current resource base. Leaving aside all other arguments about what the resource base is, and what we can and should do about it, the evidence suggests that population isn’t going there.

And, contrary to the OP, I have great faith in personal restraint. Human beings do not have a philoprogenitive instinct (it was suggested that it might be so in the 1960’s, but the weight of the evidence is against it). They do have a sexual instinct, but sex that inhibits (or even prohibits) conception is, on the average, about as much fun as unprotected sex, and the nasty consequences down the road (having to get up in the middle of the night to feed baby, giving the car keys to one’s teenager, etc.) are very unlikely to occur.

The amount of per capita wealth that it takes, although considerable by historical standards, is trivial by effete Western ones.

And, contrary to the OP, I have great faith in personal restraint.

Thanks for this. To tell the truth, I regret phrasing this post the way I did and should have focused the question better. I actually don’t believe that humans will breed until they’re shoulder-to-shoulder and then starve.
I am much more interested in how the increasing population will affect everyone’s quality of life. Speaking as a member of an “effete” Western civilization, I do not look forward to the prospect of endless shortages of one thing or another. I also have less faith than yourself in the self restraint of most people. It works in some cases, I have one child myself and that’s all I plan on. (This is mostly due to my own reluctance to suffer those nasty consequences.)

Anyway, thanks again.


Shortages. Yes. I know birthrates have come down, but world population is still growing. We’re supposed to reach a peack in fifty or 100 years, then start declining. I’m wondering how much we’ll lose on the way to that peak, in the way of wilderness areas, other open space, and other species.

Well, Testy, we may have a bit of a terminlogy problem here.

If I refrain from doing some thing that will gain me immediate pleasure (having unprotected sex with my teenaged girlfriend; regularly drinking myself into a stupor) because I forsee undesirable consequences from it down the road (having to pay megabucks for auto insurance because of the eventually tennaged product of that unprotected sex; dying slowly and nastily whilst I wait for a transplantable liver to replace the one that I’ve ruined), am I exercising “self-restraint”, or “enlightened self-interest”? The former certainly sounds more admirable than the latter, and I suppose that I’d like people to mistake my motives for being more altruistic than they actually are.

Now, as I said, the evidence shows that:[ul]
[li]crude birth rates are declining everywhere[/li][li]that they are declining faster than the U.N. has expected that would over the past decade[/li][li]Hi, Opal![/li][li]and that, in fact, the decline is a real one, and not, as (IIRC) Jacoby hypothesized, actually a “birth displacement” (in essence: women have the same number of children, just later in life).[/li][/ul]

Further, the decline in birth rates does correlate with increase in wealth. Correlation is not causation, of course; SFAIK, no serious studies have been done in this area; cornucopians are content to point it out, whilst watermelons run around with their hands over their ears, shouting, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU! LA LA LA LA LA!”. Curiously (or perhaps not), generic wealth does not seem to correlate with the reduced birth rate nearly as well as wealth applied in the area of communications. Perhaps not, because improved communications (I’m including such things as access to mass media in “communications”; you may not like my definitions, but you should at least know what I’m talking about) increases the “reference group” that women use to answer the questions, “How many children should I have?” and “What else is there to do besides being pregnant?” from the village to the Westernized upper and upper-middle classes (you’re probably aware that Baywatch is the most popular program around the world, possibly because T&A translates so easily. Now, think about the social and sexual messages that it carries).

As for shortages…well, this post is long enough, I think :slight_smile: Let’s let the opposing viewpoint be heard, and then we’ll go into shortages in Part II.

FWIW, Malthus did not believe that the human population would expand exponentially indefinitely, a la the fruit fly example. Instead, he described “positive checks” and “negative checks” to population growth. “Positive checks” essentially meant birth control (including abstinence), while “negative checks” meant our old pals, war, famine, and pestilence.

Malthus was pessimistic about positive checks, and so concluded that war, famine, and pestilence would win in the end.

As it turns out, he was wrong for several reasons: 1) technological growth allows you to support a larger population on a given amount of resources, 2) positive checks are often surprisingly effective–virtually no society in history has reproduced at the biological maximum, and 3) as was pointed out, for some not entirely clear reason increased wealth turns out to be a reliable way of reducing population growth. Or, as economists like to lovingly put it, “children are an inferior good.”

So was Malthus a dope? No, because he was writing at a time (c. 1800) when no one realized a major technological revolution was underway. No one had any reliable demographic data, either. Indeed, demography came into being largely as an effort to find out whether Malthus was right.

Malthus wasn’t a dope, but the people who blindly believe everything he had to say after having had decades of contrary evidence, are.