For anyone studying the history of economic thought, the name “Thomas R. Malthus” often brings about mixed emotions. He is most well known for studying the relationship between the supply of food and human population, and was instrumental in progressing a deeper understanding of demand curves, and the economics of populations . In his most famous essay, “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, Malthus asserts that “population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” Thus, he believed “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man” and population growth would quickly overpower food production, resulting in the demise of humans. Clearly, history has proven him wrong.
Despite the general consensus that Malthusian predictions of a global food shortage leading to humanity’s demise are false, his age-old theories have recently resurfaced in conversations of a sustainable future for humans. In a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, researchers found that if population reaches 8.1 billion people by the year 2050, food production will have to increase by 70% globally, and production in the developing world must double. When we consider the effects of increasing energy prices, increased urbanization of farmland, and how climate change is affecting crop yield, the fears of human downfall as described by Malthus are resurfacing. That said, this mentality contains the same flaw as Malthus’ thesis centuries ago- long-term forecasts based on current data do not account for technology innovations and changes in consumer habits we have yet to see.
Malthus constructed his theory only taking into account two variables: food and population. What Malthus failed to consider in 1798 was the coming industrial revolution, which allowed economies to grow at a more rapid pace than population. Additionally, increased consumer debt in the latter half of the 20th century allowed for consumers to purchase new, high-tech products, increasing the speed at which businesses could roll out additional technologies.
Shortly after Malthus published his ideas, the availability of coal and other fossil fuels led to increased consumption of energy, and allowed for new technologies such as tractors, trains, and cars to improve the productivity of farmers and other food producers. The Green Revolution of the mid 20th century furthered increased productivity as new high-yield crop varieties and chemicals were developed and more processes were mechanized. Without the Green Revolution, we very likely would have seen widespread famine, and developing nations in particular would have been unable to feed their quickly growing populations.
Additionally, Malthus failed to predict how the industrial revolution would affect lifestyle choices of individuals. A recent study by the Population Resource Bureau reports that today, 97% of growth comes from developing nations, while developed nations have a much lower birth rate. As the industrial revolution allowed nations to develop strong economies and decrease the poverty level, birth rates declined significantly. As modern trends continue to empower more and more women to join the workforce and become financially independent, I expect to see the birthrate drop even further.
In conclusion, the Malthusian theory brings up two problems: overpopulation and underproduction of food. As more and more developing nations are growing their economies in the global market, we will see a reduction in birthrates and a slowing of population growth. Furthermore, humans historically have responded to crises or changes in needs through innovation and developing new solutions. Malthus believed there was an absolute limit to food production, but failed to realize the limitless characteristic of human innovation. Yes, there are fixed amounts of land and natural resources in the world, but humans continually find ways around these barriers. Whether the solution may come in the form of more acceptable GMO’s, hydroponic farming on skyscrapers, or a new way for humans to consume their nutritional requirements, history has proven that a solution will come, and the human species will find a way to survive. For this reason, Malthus’ idea of peak production curbing the survival of humans has been, and continues to be proven wrong.