In October 2011, according to the United Nations, the world’s population reached seven billion. It was the Malthusian nightmare seven fold, except it was no nightmare. It was the occasion for digging up the corpse of poor old Thomas Malthus, who’s 1798 Essay on the Principles of Population warned that the capacity for population expansion could far exceed the increase in food production. It was the occasion for giving the gloomy old prophet a good media kicking.
A headline in Forbes, an American business magazine, trumpeted Seven billion reasons Malthus was wrong. Others followed the general condemnation, including Reuters, which said that he thought that women had as many children as physically possible, deepening the indictment by saying that he argued “without providing any reasons.” The Independent said that he underestimated human inventiveness and was thus unaware of improvements in agricultural production.
On and on it went, a perfect media storm, proving one thing: that none of these reputable sources had ever read Malthus. Ah, but we all know Malthus, do we not? Even his name has been turned into an adjective, a sure indication of his legacy. We know him even if only from the pages of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Ebenezer Scrooge appears as the world’s first heartless Malthusian, saying that the poor better die and “thus decrease the surplus population.”
The truth is we do not know him at all, few doing him the courtesy of actually taking the trouble to read his book. Forbes, in a wholly pompous and condescending manner, declared that “he was not a bad person just rather unimaginative.” I was so grateful for the corrective provided by Professor Robert Mayhew writing in History Today (Malthus and the Seven Billion), who quite rightly said that the problem with imaginative insight lies not with Malthus but with his commentators;
It we dare actually to read Malthus rather than to merely bandy his name around we shall find a complex, subtle and open-minded scholar who pioneered the study of problems that are increasingly important in the age of climate change and concerns about food security. By letting the real, historical Malthus speak in his own voice we may just open dialogues that help us to address our present and future planetary predicaments.
There are two nineteenth century paths here that one might care to take, the path of Marx and the path of Malthus. For Marx the earth was a cornucopia, its resources unlimited. Only Scrooge and the other heatless capitalists got in the way of Nirvana. Malthus, in contrast, argued that the world’s resources were not limitless, that “The power of population is so superior to the power of earth to produce subsistence to humanity that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”
According to the World Health Organisation some eighteen million people die each year from malnutrition and outright starvation. With the earth’s population heading towards ten billion by mid-century, more people will mean more death, more pressure on land, more pressure on resources, more pressure on food production, no matter how innovative we happen to be.
Contrary to the ignorant comments in the media, Malthus was not ignorant. He argued from reason based on a painstaking assembly of facts. He was fully aware of human inventiveness, arguing that “Necessity has been with truth called the mother of invention…Had population and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged from the savage state.” His point was that no matter the great agricultural and industrial improvements of the day, humanity could never be fully free from resource pressure. Cornucopia’s Horn is not endless after all.
There is Forbes, in complacent self-congratulation, looking over the past and blind to the present, at least the present for some. But can it say, can anyone say, what the world will look like in twenty or thirty years from now? For those a little more cautious than the media pundits Malthus has an abiding relevance. As Mayhew writes he “…remains a vital well-spring for all who want to think rigorously about the nexus of population, resources, economics and the environment.”
Those who think less rigorously might actually take the trouble to read The Essay on the Principles of Population. If they have not the intellectual stamina they might consider the fate of the people of
Easter Island, a Malthusian nightmare in miniature. There is a message in those monoliths, even for the heavy-witted journalists of Forbes.