Malthus’ dire warning rings hollow

By Harrison Searles

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 [email protected]