The unjustified return of Malthus

23 Aug 2013


Somewhere between late 2011 and mid 2012 the population of human beings on the planet Earth reached 7 billion. This milestone arrived just over a decade after the 6 billion mark was reached. With the passing of a new milestone in quick succession to the last and not long after the one before that (1987), worries and scaremongering have arisen in popular culture about just how many people can live on humanity’s home. Now growing groups of people are stating that humanity is overpopulating the Earth and if we are continued to be left unchecked will destroy ourselves and Gaia with us.


The argument for overpopulation is simple to understand:


  • The resources that humanity needs to sustain itself are finite (i.e. fossil fuels) or have a maximum rate at which they can be produced at (i.e. food).

  • If humanity’s population continues to grow it will pass a point where it can no longer sustain itself (through a great lack of power and viscous famines).

  • When this happens- boom- civilisation falls into a dystopia and collapses, with billions dying in the process.


However, like other doomsday predictions, such as machines rising up and enslaving their human masters, overpopulation has flaws deeply embedded in its fundamental science. To behold these in their full absurdity it is appropriate to explore where modern ideas on overpopulation originate from.

The grandfather of the theory was Thomas Malthus and his Essays on the Principles of Population (early 19th century). In it Malthus argued that population was rising exponentially whilst food production was only rising arithmetically, and so half way through the 19th century the world would experience massive famines, with the inability to feed itself- it didn’t. Malthus, being a clergyman, argued that poverty and famine were thus God punishing humanity for outgrowing itself and for a lack of abstinence. He denied the argument that it was social relations and economics which caused famine and poverty, but that these were innate to how humanity functioned. It was because of this apologetic nature that his ideas were taken up by the emerging ruling classes of the day. It also caused much critique from Marx, who described him as ‘a professional sycophant of the landed aristocracy […] building the capitalist case for the inevitability of poverty’. The world continued because humanity, as it has done all the way through its history, has the ability to innovate and advance technologically and socially. However, the failure of Malthus to notice this has not stopped a revival in his ideas, taking the form of ‘Neo-Malthusianism’.

The revival is often traced back to Paul R. Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb, released in 1968, where he stated that the human race would starve to death mid-way through the 1970s (again, it didn’t). Yet, overpopulation was now on people’s minds and began to sink deeply into popular culture. Now the idea seems to have become omnipresent in the modern world. From the moderate Green Party to the Optimum Population Trust, Neo-Malthusianism is becoming a common sight in mainstream politics. Each with different reasons and goals to why they think the Earth is overpopulated.

Very few groups today argue for the extreme policies of Thomas Malthus (killing off the poor). Instead groups try to tackle different aspects of the problem based on what they think is going to be the killing blow in the human race’s growth.

The Basics

A classic argument is taken with the example of food. The amount of food we produce is not growing at the same rate which the population is growing at, so we will inevitably hit a point where there is just not enough food to go around. Some will try and argue this point has been hit today, saying that already a billion people are starving, that surely this is an empirical sign that the end is on the world’s door step. However, to argue that these people are starving because of a lack of food on humanity’s part would simply be untrue. At present the world produces enough for 10 billion people to live well balanced lives, which is more than the predicted peak of world population by 2050. The reason people still starve is not from scarcity, but because of poverty and unequal distribution. In most countries where there is hunger they still have grain reserves which are shipped off and sold for more profit to the West. It is a similar story for water.

Power and Oil

Another take on the argument stated above examines the scarcity of energy resources and wealth in general. How can we continue to support a growing population if the resources we rely upon are finite (oil for example)? The answer to this is similar to that above. The idea of what is and is not a resource changes as technology in a society advances. Fur used to be an essential resource to human society, but is now considered an aesthetic luxury; conversely, Uranium was but something used to make glass yellow, but now holds the potential to power entire cities.

To assume that the resources which are currently used today are always going to be essential would be a foolish mistake. Already we are starting to see our petroleum based vehicles replaced by Hydrogen and countless other fuel sources.

Human Destruction

The argument in which ‘Neo-Malthusianism most often takes its form in the present world though is through the cloak of environmentalism. Environmentalists state that humanity’s unchecked technological and physical growth has led to viscous strains on the planet’s ecosystem. The current attitude from environmental Malthusians is that every human being born is simply a greater a strain on the resources of the earth and should be prevented as much as possible. As with all of the arguments it does not take in the idea of climate change being caused by a lack of technological innovation, but by too many humans.

These ideas lead to strange and frightening political policies such as single child families, closed borders, high birth control, low investment in technologies and welfare that protect the planet more than citizens. These policies combine to make a political force which acts as a detriment to our future progress. We need to rethink our perspectives on population; Malthus’ theories were not accurate in the 19th century, just as Neo-Malthusians are not right today.

By Thomas Soud


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