Malthusian population theory (1798)

Named after English economist the Reverend THOMAS ROBERT MALTHUS (1766-1834), who believed that population would increase at a geometric rate and the food supply at an arithmetic rate.

This disharmony would lead to widespread poverty and starvation which would only be checked by natural occurrences such as disease, high infant mortality, famine, war or moral restraint.

Malthusian population theory was eventually dismissed for its pessimism and failure to take into account technological advances in agriculture and food production.

In biology, the theory asserts that the reproductive potential of virtually any organism or SPECIES greatly exceeds the earth’s capacity to support all its possible offspring. Consequently, species diversity is preserved through mechanisms that keep population sizes in check, such as predation.

Also see: demographic transition, secular stagnation theory

T R Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (London, 1798); A Chase, The Legacy of Malthus (New York, 1977)

Malthusianism is the idea that population growth is potentially exponential while the growth of the food supply or other resources is linear, which eventually reduces living standards to the point of triggering a population die off. It derives from the political and economic thought of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, as laid out in his 1798 writings, An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus believed there were two types of ever-present “checks” that are continuously at work, limiting population growth based on food supply at any given time:

  • preventive checks, such as moral restraints or legislative action — for example the choice by a private citizen to engage in abstinence and delay marriage until their finances become balanced, or restriction of legal marriage or parenting rights for persons deemed “deficient” or “unfit” by the government.
  • positive checks, such as disease, starvation, and war, which lead to high rates of premature death — resulting in what is termed a Malthusian catastrophe. The adjacent diagram depicts the abstract point at which such an event would occur, in terms of existing population and food supply: when the population reaches or exceeds the capacity of the shared supply, positive checks are forced to occur, restoring balance. (In reality the situation would be significantly more nuanced due to complex regional and individual disparities around access to food, water, and other resources.)

Such a catastrophe inevitably has the effect of forcing the population (quite rapidly, due to the potential severity and unpredictable results of the mitigating factors involved, as compared to the relatively slow time scales and well-understood processes governing unchecked growth or growth affected by preventive checks) to “correct” back to a lower, more easily sustainable level.[1][2] Malthusianism has been linked to a variety of political and social movements, but almost always refers to advocates of population control.[3]

Neo-Malthusianism is the advocacy of human population planning to ensure resources and environmental integrities for current and future human populations as well as for other species.[2] In Britain the term ‘Malthusian’ can also refer more specifically to arguments made in favour of preventive birth control, hence organizations such as the Malthusian League.[4] Neo-Malthusians differ from Malthus’s theories mainly in their support for the use of contraception. Malthus, a devout Christian, believed that “self-control” (i.e., abstinence) was preferable to artificial birth control. He also worried that the effect of contraceptive use would be too powerful in curbing growth, conflicting with the common 18th century perspective (to which Malthus himself adhered) that a steadily growing population remained a necessary factor in the continuing “progress of society,” generally. Modern neo-Malthusians are generally more concerned than Malthus with environmental degradation and catastrophic famine than with poverty.

Malthusianism has attracted criticism from diverse schools of thought, including Marxists[5] and socialists,[6] libertarians and free market enthusiasts,[7] feminists[8] and human rights advocates, characterising it as excessively pessimistic, misanthropic or inhuman.[9][10][3][11] Many critics believe Malthusianism has been discredited since the publication of Principle of Population, often citing advances in agricultural techniques and modern reductions in human fertility.[12] Many modern proponents believe that the basic concept of population growth eventually outstripping resources is still fundamentally valid, and that positive checks are still likely to occur in humanity’s future if no action is taken to intentionally curb population growth.[13][14] In spite of the variety of criticisms against it, the Malthusian argument remains a major discourse based on which national and international environmental regulations are promoted.

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