The Malthusian Illusion

Thomas Malthus still exerts great influence.

Malthus was a demographer before he was ever considered an economist. He first came to prominence for his 1798 publication, An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he raised the question of how population growth related to the economy. He affirmed that there were many events, good and bad, that affected the economy in ways no one had ever deliberated upon before. The main point of his essay was that population multiplies geometrically (1,2,4,8) and food arithmetically (1,2,3,4); therefore, whenever the food supply increases, population will rapidly grow to eliminate the abundance. Thus eventually, in the future, there wouldn’t be enough food for the whole of humanity to consume and people would starve.

An even simpler presentation of Malthus’ idea is: There’s only so much stuff (land, food, water, coal, oil, etc.), and once you start consuming it, you’re sooner or later going to run out of it.

This kind of thinking is what underpins the Green movement, and the quest for “sustainable” lifestyles. It’s why Greens want to limit populations, and even reduce them to “sustainable” levels, that can be maintained indefinitely into the future. It’s why they think we must stop burning coal and oil and gas, because if we don’t it will eventually run out. And it’s why we must limit human populations by birth control and abortion. And it’s why we must close down our consumer societies, because they’re “greedily” consuming too much stuff.

I was thinking this morning that there were probably Malthusians back in the Stone Age, and when the first flint tools started to appear they were warning that if this carried on we’d eventually run out of flintstones.

But they never ran out of rocks in the Stone Age. What actually happened was that they figured out how to make much better tools using copper and bronze, and later iron and steel. There was continual technological innovation.

But the Malthusian mindset always assumes the fixity of the natural world, and the fixity of technology. In their way of seeing, nothing ever changes. There’s an exact constant amount of flint, land, water, air, coal, oil, gas, iron, copper, etc. and we should minimise our consumption of all of them. In fact, we should go back to before the Stone Age, when we started depleting precious resources.

But there’s plenty of land in the world. For a start, 70% of the Earth is covered in water. And most (57%) of the land is covered in uninhabitable deserts and mountains:

The total land surface area of Earth is about 57,308,738 square miles, of which about 33% is desert and about 24% is mountainous.

In fact it’s probably a lot more than 57% uninhabitable, if you add in bogs and marshes,, and river flood plains, and remote islands, all of which are difficult to inhabit. And if we ever do actually run out of land, we can always start building colonies in space. In fact we almost certainly will one day. Seen that way, there’s actually an infinite amount of “land”. It’s just that it gets harder and harder to make new land.

And do populations always grow geometrically? Not really. These days we’ve got very effective means of birth control. And we’ve always had abortion and infanticide. And in addition there are human social institutions like marriage which regulate human reproduction. Furthermore, the more prosperous people become, the lower their birthrates fall, which is why places like Europe have dwindling populations, and the authorities feel it necessary to ship in labour from elsewhere. It seems entirely plausible that, if the whole world became as prosperous as Europe and America now is, the world population would actually start to fall.

Perhaps the worst thing about our new Malthusians is that they invariably want to make plans for how to deal with whatever Malthusian crisis they see ahead, and make laws to enforce these plans. So we are now all being forced by lever-tightening legal constraints to reduce coal and oil and gas consumption (because otherwise we’ll run out), and stop burning anything at all (to prevent us all boiling), and there are armies of self-styled “experts” telling us what we should eat and drink and smoke. And it’s all driven by the dread that we are going to run out of coal and oil and gas, or suffer a surfeit of carbon dioxide. We’re being driven by fear.

The entire mentality needs to be called into question. We don’t really know what the future will bring, and so it’s impossible to plan for it. What we need to do is to respond flexibly to events as they unfold. And rather than having central planning by an army of experts (most of whom haven’t a clue what they’re talking about), we should allow ordinary people to make whatever choices they need to make, whether it’s for more children or less, more consumption or less, in response to the circumstances in which they find themselves. We need to replace top-down control with bottom-up control.

And maybe with the rise of “national populism” these days we’re beginning to see the demise of planned and regulated societies in favour of allowing people to do what they choose to do, rather than let other people make their choices for them.

About Frank Davis

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9 Responses to The Malthusian Illusion

  1. Dr Evil says:

    Now we have our solar system. We just need cheaper ways to get at the raw materials on the Moon and the asteroids

  2. Mark says:

    Once you get free of earth, and in terms of the gravitational well, low earth orbit is about 95% of the way there, you are into a realm which in terms of space, energy and raw materials, for all practical purposes is infinite. That where we’re going because we’ll have no other real choice.

    Practical and properly reusable single stage to orbit spaceflight may be closer than is often assumed. And I don’t mean Branson or Musk. Check out

    As Arthur Clark once pointed out, in two hundred years committees of earnest citizens will be fighting tooth and nail to defend the last vestiges of the unspoilt moon.

    What all these “sustainabilty” fanatics don’t seem to understand is that the only truly “sustsinable” way of life is probably hunter gatherer or maybe basic agriculture being at the mercy of actual malthusian mechanisms. Aborigines have been living like this for 50000 years or so, and they’re welcome to it!

    I did once ask one to describe his “ideal” and it was as expected. A lot of powerpointesque guff about “renewable” this and “sustainable” that (with him and his kind living rich and full lives overseeing of course). I then asked, if I were to come back in a thousand years, what would be different? Funnily enough, he had no answer.

  3. Clicky says:

  4. Roobeedoo2 says:

    “To the fag end of your tenure in your chair, you are defending the indefensible, and your very close relationship with the honourable member in question, the House can come to their own conclusion.”

  5. smokingscot says:

    For years I’ve gently chastised people who complain there are too many cars on the road, thus frustrating them. So I just say that whenever that happens to me, I know I’m part of the problem and I either park up and walk, or zip it.

    The same logic applies to those who claim there are too many people. I sort of imply that if s/he thinks that’s a significant issue, then why not start by setting an example: go top yourself, or get Dignitas to sort out the messy bits.

    Going back to basics isn’t in the least difficult, lots of idealists try this with crofts in Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland actually owns an island where they’re always on he lookout for people to settle there. Problems arise when it comes to children, they need medicals and schooling and a future, which is why there is always a choice of crofts available for sale or rent.

    Those who do make a success of it bring with them older relatives and know to depend on family.

    Before I started writing this I took a look at the lost tribes in the Amazon. The Brazilian government want them protected because the have no resistance to our diseases. They don’t get the flu, or measles and so on, so when exposed to one of us they whole tribe can be wiped out. On the other hand they put up with high rates of infant mortality and the fact very few live past 45. They must hunt, they must do their bit – and when they no longer can, well the entire tribe is rarely more tan a couple of hundred and they cannot tolerate the burden old people are on society. Same with less than perfect children. They vanish and no one asks.

    No it’s not a whole bunch of laughs. But our advocacy groups know that, so all they do is cause nuisance and feel good about it.

  6. waltc says:

    They’re not afraid we’ll run out of coal and fossils, they want us to stop using them because they’re destroying the planet™. An while the more prosperous Europeans and Americans are having fewer children, the rest of the world –the Muslims, including the migrants–are among the groups that are having more.

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