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September 21, 2017

Malthus’ dire warning rings hollow

In 1798, a tract by the name of “An Essay on the Principles of Population,” written by the Anglican cleric Thomas Malthus, was first published in London. The ideas that flowed from Malthus’ pen have captured the imaginations of many in the modern era.

The themes of this Malthusian world view were once again brought into the heart of public discourse in 1968, when Paul Ehrlich, an ecologist at Stanford University, published “The Population Bomb.”  Both pieces assert that the human population is increasing too quickly to be sustainable, becoming too large for the world’s supply of natural resources to support. For this reason, both works depict a dreary picture of the future punctuated by mass starvation and human misery.

However, the dire predictions of Malthusian overpopulation have never come to fruition in over 200 years of history. To the contrary, history has taken a course that is completely contradictory to what both Malthus and Ehrlich predicted.

Instead of mass starvation, we witness billions rise from poverty. Instead of the iron law of population, we see capitalistic development widen the scope of the human experience.  Thanks to the works of economists like Amartya Sen and Julian Simon, we can now see that we live in a world of potential cornucopia, where the engines of capitalism and liberal democracy allow each human being to be ever more confident that the world will improve in his or her lifetime.

What the Malthusian picture of the world fails to consider is that economic progress is not limited to the resources that are capable of being used at any particular time in history. Resources are not discrete, known amounts that a capitalist economy must adapt to. We do not have a given amount of exhaustible iron, nickel, petroleum and lumber that will ultimately constrain economic progress. To the contrary, the very resources we see are a result of human minds perceiving within the world opportunities that can be utilized, thanks to the entrepreneurial and imaginative capabilities of humanity, all towards the satisfaction of human wants.

For one thing, resources are substitutable for one another – if producers are incapable of using steel in making a given product, then they will shift to another metal that has similar properties. The price system provides an incentive to increase production through the discovery of new sources or by developing more efficient methods of production.

The petroleum history of the last 100 years is clear evidence for this. Whenever there has been a prediction for “Peak Oil,” which has happened repeatedly in the past century, it has been proven wrong by new discoveries of oil, many of which became profitable to drill for only after the supply-driven price increase.

There was a massive concern regarding Peak Oil in the 1920s. A German synthetics company, IG Farben, invested in a project to produce synthetic oil, called “Leuna,” and then commanded high prices when all natural sources vanished. Alas, like all other Peak Oil predictions, the one in the 1920s proved wrong. Unfortunately for IG Farben, Leuna quickly became an unprofitable venture.

The theoretical problems in a Malthusian understanding of the world are only the beginning, for there has not been a single prediction that the theory has made which has not been falsified in the past 200 years. When Malthus first put pen to paper in his Essay at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, his depiction of the future of humanity was one of constant starvation driven by his “iron law” of population.

Contrary to his theory, the history of the 19th century in both Europe and the United States shows that industrial capitalism, powered by creative destruction and an emerging bourgeoisie, created an explosion in both population and living standards – directly contradicting Malthus’ iron law of population. The very few examples that seem to corroborate the Malthusian narrative, such as the famines that have occurred in the Indian sub-continent, are easily explained as the result of human error.

Sen, a Nobel Memorial Prize laureate, has done great work in showing how famines, specifically the Bengal Famine of 1943, were not caused by a lack of food. Instead, the causes were problems in food distribution due to colonial institutions and the lack of an open press to challenge the statistics of the British, who in the height of the famine still denied that there was a famine.

Another clear rebuttal of Malthus’ predictions came when Simon bet Ehrlich that a mutually agreed upon measure of resource scarcity would decline in price over the course of the 1980s. In what would become known was the Ehrlich-Julian Wager, Ehrlich took as his measurement five metal prices: copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten.  By 1990, all five metals decisively declined in price. Simon won the bet, and yet another Malthusian prediction bit the dust.

The human species is an extremely imaginative and adaptive specimen in the world, capable of adapting to circumstances at a speed utterly unprecedented in natural history. For those fearing that climate change and global warming will finally prove to be the harbinger of the Malthusian world, it is no small irony that one of the causes for the evolutionary development of reason may have been the rapidly changing climate of the African Rift Valley, where homo sapiens evolved 200,000 years ago.

Nevertheless, when the evidence is put in full light, when we realize how the market-driven system of prices provides incentives to adapt to changing circumstances of scarcity and we see just how successful innovation has been in bettering the lives of human beings, the dark world of the Malthusian prophecy becomes little more than a bogey-man in the night.

The lasting message of Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” is not anything about the fate of the human race, but rather that dark messages delivered in a bombastic and exaggerating style are quick to gain support. Despite that, just as we know the bogeyman does not wait in our closet nor are there monsters under our beds, we can know that there is no scientific reason to think that human population will be the cause of its own undoing.

In the end, we ought to let this make us confident in praising the moral good that is happening across the world, as more free agents are born each day to enjoy the world just as we are, and are able to change the world in ways that others would have never foreseen. Each new baby is not a gradual march towards total poverty, but rather a new world of possibilities.

Harrison Searles is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at


13 Responses to “Malthus’ dire warning rings hollow”
  1. Ian Cooper says:

    The world is finite. Essential aspects of our society are increasing exponentially. At some point, Malthus must be proven right. The fact that people have underestimated our ability to innovate does not negate the basic premise.

    As much as it is a mistake to try to predict peak anything, it is a bigger mistake to assume that limits to growth aren’t out there. They are, and if we assume they are not, those limits will bite us in the butt.

  2. Fred magyar says:

    “…we can know that there is no scientific reason to think that human population will be the cause of its own undoing.”

    It seems the author knows nothing about the laws of thermodynamics, basic physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, non linear dynamics, feedback loops, chaos theory, or anything else even remotely related to science. He also seems to have very little familiarity with the scientific method, logic, critical thinking skills or advanced mathematics! Oh, I forgot to mention human population dynamics… >:^(

  3. Josh V says:

    The Ehrlich-Julian wager’s outcome was reversed under 15 years later.

    The Hubbert prediction was about total petroleum production levels, not reserves, and total production has been stagnant for the last five years even in the face of new reserves and high prices.

  4. Scott Young says:

    Malthus has not been proven correct (yet) on a global scale, but has consistently been proven right on smaller scales. Do research on Easter Island and the Rwanda genocide. A good start is Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse”.

    Keep in mind that at global scales a Malthusian crash may not be readily apparent within the time reference of a human lifetime, especially to those living in the most privileged society on Earth. 😉

  5. Thomas Mahaney says:

    Granted Malthus’s predictions did not occur in the time frame he and others expected. This is clearly due to their inability to foresee the invention and application of new technologies that spurred the green revolution and other innovations that delayed the predicted population crash.

    However given the limited resources of our planet, there is clearly a limit to how much more the human population can continue to grow, or even sustain itself at the current level, before a tipping point is reached. Already unprecedented numbers of people around the world are chronically malnourished, impoverished, overcrowded, and vulnerable to disease and other natural disasters. At the same time, we are crowding out many other species on the planet, resulting in an extinction event that will likely be larger than any the planet has seen in 65 million years.

    By naively categorizing Malthus’s predictions as baseless “bogeymen”, we forfeit any opportunity we may have to avoid his disastrous predictions. Conversely, by continuing to use the Earth’s resources at an ever increasing unsustainable rate, we guarantee that when the human population does crash, it will be a much more devastating event than anything Malthus predicted.

  6. Thomas Stone says:

    Just 6 years ago, oil at $40 was considered anomalously high, now we talk of “under $100” as proof that there is no peak oil. Wow. The idea that population, economies, food supplies, energy supplies, waste disposal systems, can all grow indefinitely is a pipe dream held only by those who can not grasp the concept of the exponential function.

  7. Alice Finkel says:

    The Earth is a finite planet, bathed in the glow of a finite star. The planet orbits within a finite solar system, which is situated in a finite arm of a finite galaxy. This galaxy nestles in the middle of a finite galactic cluster, which moves within a finite galactic super-cluster. All of this within a finite universe which is expanding into a ?finite? void?

    Most humans are just intelligent enough to get themselves into trouble. Fortunately, a smart fraction is responsible for enough innovation to have met many of our more serious challenges.

    Malthus is correct for low IQ societies that are not capable of significant innovation on their own. The third world is certainly overpopulated in terms of its ability to support itself without outside help.

    For higher IQ societies, Malthus has been proven wrong time and time again.

  8. Chris says:

    The author neglects to mention that as economic development lifts billions out of poverty their standard of living will also rise and therefore they will consume more resources. If they were to consume resources at the same rate as the average American, and here I might talk of the Malthusian perspective of total arable land, how much time will it take before limits to natural resources, and especially food production are reached. The green revolution, as it is commonly called, with nothing but the combination of genetics and the application of non renewable petroleum based pesticides and fertilizers. While we might agree that oil and natural gas reserves may be on the rise globally, we must also remember that these are unconventional resources that are more costly to find, develop, and produce and thus require a higher market price to be economically sustainable. What we are forgetting is that in the meantime conventional sources of oil and gas are still experiencing declining production, and the amount of capital that will be needed to sustain further exploration and drilling might be uneconomical if the global oil glut depresses prices to the point where it is not profitable to develop unconventional resources. As for Julian Simon and his overly optimistic and anthropocentric view of global resources (namely raw materials), there is still no argument that I see that can support exponential population growth and resource consumption in a finite system indefinitely. Look throughout history and there are many examples of population overshoot and die off – and I am not speaking of only human populations.

  9. Harrison Searles says:

    “The Ehrlich-Julian wager’s outcome was reversed under 15 years later.”
    Not true: You are probably just taking raw prices as your criterion of who is right and not considering the point was to have the prices of the metals serve as a measure of scarcity.

    Furthermore, the Ehrlich-Simon wager was not about 1990-2000, or 2000-2010, or even 1980-2010. Instead, it was a bet created in institutionally contingent circumstances in which two visions of modern economic growth were put head to head in predicting what would happen during the 1980s. To extrapolate beyond the 80s and to call it a falsification of Simon’s views is to rip the bet out of the circumstances it was made in.

    “The Hubbert prediction was about total petroleum production levels, not reserves, and total production has been stagnant for the last five years even in the face of new reserves and high prices.”
    The Hubbert-Prediction has no part of my critique.

    Instead, the peak oil prediction that I mention here were the predictions during the 1920s that motivated IG Farben to invest heavily in synthetic oil with the expectation of profiting profusely once the natural variant ran out.

    “A good start is Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’.”
    Within both collapse and his magnum opus, “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, Diamond is far too concerned with blood and iron being the determinants of a society’s prosperity, and not nearly concerned enough with innovation as the determinant. The man managed to write an entire book about “Why the West Won” without considering the massive amount of innovation that expanded the Western world’s production-possibility frontier a hundred-fold – see Deidre McCloskey’s “Bourgeois Dignity.”

    Ancient societies collapsed, not because of the fact that they ran out of resources, but because they were incapable of turning the resources they had at their disposal into goods able to satisfy their consumption. It was not a failure of available resources – it was a failure of seeing the resources that were available. How Greenlanders adapted to a decline in the efficiency of their agriculture is a classic success story that Diamond himself mentions. The smaller scale corroborating instances you speak of are nothing but societies that have failed to innovate.

  10. Chip Charles says:

    What would the world’s population (currently 7 *billion*) be had 60 million not perished in World War II? What would it be had it not been for AIDS and for famines in Africa? Very close to the Malthusian predictions, I suspect. (What a way to control population – wars, disease and famine.) Only the Chinese have it right – restrict the number of offspring. We in the US, what with politicians wanting to restrict access to contraception, to outlaw abortion and to prohibit adoptions by same sex couples, contribute heavily to overpopulation.

  11. Eric says:

    In the past, we have seen human innovation overcoming many different resource challenges. But it is insane to assert that human innovation can overcome ANY possible resource challenge that might arise at ANY point in the future. Just because we are good at the survival game doesn’t mean we are unbeatable. Good performance at something is not proof that you are perfect.

    Natural resources are clearly finite, everyone knows that. They will run out sooner or later – the only question is when. Harrison, your entire argument rests on the claim that when ANY natural resource happens to run low, people WILL find an acceptable substitute. Sure, this could happen for many resources… but ALL of them? Really? What makes you think ALL resources have substitutes that we could find? Blind faith that someone will figure something out?

  12. Donal says:

    In, An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the Future Improvement of Society with remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers, Malthus did not predict a catastrophe. He argued that, rather than growing in some utopian fashion, the human population would continue to be resource-limited in bad times, but self-limited in good times and that misery would result if these limits weren’t effective. Since the global population has found ways to keep growing, technology optimists claim the Malthusian Catastrophe theory has been proven wrong. But where is the catastrophe in his summation?:

    “On the whole, therefore, though our future prospects respecting the mitigation of the evils arising from the principle of population may not be so bright as we could wish, yet they are far from being entirely disheartening, and by no means preclude that gradual and progressive improvement in human satiety, which, before the late wild speculations on this subject, was the object of rational expectation. … A strict inquiry into the principle of population obliges us to conclude that we shall never be able to throw down the ladder, by which we have risen to this eminence; but it by no means proves, that we may not rise higher by the same means. … And although we cannot expect that the virtue and happiness of mankind will keep pace with the brilliant career of physical discovery; yet, if we are not wanting to ourselves, we may confidently indulge the hope that, to no unimportant extent, they will be influenced by its progress and will partake in its success.”

  13. mason says:

    ~Overpopulation obviously causes problems in terms of limiting the amount of resources availabile to others and of course the inherent risk of an ever expanding population; however in order to reconstruct a society based on minimal population growth with the ultimate goal of decreased global population(although the population would be growing, a sharp decrease should lead to overall smaller global pop.)
    we would need to rexamine the way of the underlying economic, political and government systems are structured.
    ~I think it’s the way to decrease population growth could be solved by reverse tax credits; each couple receives 3,000 dollars for each year they don’t have children. In the short term the government would spend more money but in the long-term government would save expenses(social security, entitlement, infastructure, etc.) and the standard of living espically given the trend towards higher automation would increase for everyone.

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