Essays & Reviews

The Malthusian Revival

The ideas of Thomas Malthus, which had a considerable impact on the thinking of many American Founders, including Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams (the son of a Founder), have undergone something of an intellectual and political renaissance over the past few months.  See, for instance, this essay in the New York Times.

Malthus’s famous theory, set out in his 1798 “Essay on the Principles of Population” (which went through six editions, through 1826), was that the human population, which grows geometrically, will inevitably outpace food production, which grows arithmetically. The theory was revised and expanded during the 1970s by the Club of Rome and writers such as Paul Ehrlich to postulate the inevitable scarcity of natural resources across the board.  The theory has never stood up to practice – Ehrlich famously lost a bet to Julian L. Simon about the change in price of a select group of commodities from 1980 to 1990.  This experience, at the other extreme, led some optimists to foresee the end of poverty and conflict through globalization, as modern science and improvements in public administration guided liberal economics. 

The neo-Malthusians now argue that the economic successes and population growth of the past two centuries have so increased the demand on food, energy, water and other resources that, at the very least, shortages and higher prices will dangerously exacerbate social inequalities both among and within countries across the globe.   The rise of China and India, for instance, could stall out, leading either to aggressive behavior or collapse into social chaos.  Extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda would flourish in failed states in the poorest parts of the world.  Global climate change and pollution will only exacerbate these tendencies.  The neo-Malthusians generally argue for new and improved forms of global governance and social engineering to address these trends.