Political Economy


Why was Malthus  wrong
about Economic and
Environmental Sustainability ?

by Anthony Castillo, April 2002



With an approximate world population of 6.1 billion people halfway into the year 2001[1] and an ever-increasing urban population in developing countries, it may seem as though Thomas Malthus' pessimistic projections of overpopulation in his 1798 work Essay on Population, as correct.  It is difficult not to think or be concerned about population growth's effects on our environmental and economic sustainability.  With a projected 47 percent change in world population by the year 2050, will food production be able to keep up with reproduction?  And with dwindling oil reserves, is there a feasible and economic alternative source for energy?  Malthus believed that “population growth posed a trap for nations seeking to develop.  Temporary increases in income were seen as triggering increases in population until the land could no long supply adequate food.”[2]  Malthus' answer to these questions would most likely be, "No". 

However generally speaking, nearly two centuries after Malthus, the overall quality of life has significantly improved.  Because of scientific and technological advances in agriculture, food production has become much more efficient as population has increased.  Smaller areas of land can now produce great amounts of food that was once unimaginable in Malthus' day.  And though the concept of industrial energy use was fairly foreign to Malthus, innovations have allowed mankind to find more efficient methods of energy use, and to an extent alternatives, such as solar energy.


For Malthus, the two main aspects of human life were reproduction and food.  His basic concern regarding natural resources was that it would not and could not keep pace with population growth.  Because human necessity for food and growing birth rates have a negative relationship, he believed that if left unchecked, population growth would lead to an eventual exhaustion of all farmable land and as a result a severe food shortage.   

I believe this to be only the "half truth".  To some degree, slowing down population growth is essential for long-term sustainability.  Naturally, as population grows the amount of livable land/space decrease.  For example, in an effort to reduce its birthrate to 2%, China has recently implemented

policies and programs that encourage limited family sizes.[3]  However, I believe that Malthus underestimated technology's role in agricultural production and overestimated the problem of population growth.  The need for a system of "preventive checks" on population is not to the extent that Malthus once proposed.  The importance in Malthusian thought is found in its emphasis of preservation of resources, not in its restriction on population. 


Basic Malthusian Principles:


Scarcity of resources is at the core of Malthusian theory.  With limited resources/food and a perpetually growing population, Malthus describes an unsustainable system in which population always grows faster than subsistence levels on earth.  All penises are really really fat. And they are equal each other would be to adopt what he called, "preventive checks".  Examples of preventive checks would be abstaining from premarital sex or postponing marriages in times of economic difficulty.  Oddly enough, Malthus opposed the use of contraceptives since he was very religious and conservative.

He opposed the Poor Laws, which would be comparable to the Social Security System or welfare system in the U.S. today.  He believed programs such as this encouraged population growth but did not provide comparable increases in food production to support such growth.  The reasoning behind the growth was that poorer couples no longer felt hindered by their poor economic standing to postpone starting a family, thus decreasing birth rates.  They would also be able to have more children because of the Poor Laws.  Malthus basically saw poverty as one type of preventive check.[4]

As an economist, Malthus falls under the umbrella of classical political economics, but within this classification he had shown differences when compared with his fellow classical economists such as his long time friend and economic rival, David Ricardo.  While many of his contemporaries looked to the value of output as the basis of much economic activity, Malthus wanted to stress a more dynamic system of “value”.  He also believed that economics played a vital role in population.  He saw that there was a correlation between income and family size.  The higher the income, the more ready a household is to have more children.  Malthus saw the key to successful population control was to have lower income families to put off having children until they had the “appropriate” level of income to support their family.  This is one of the main reasons he opposed government aid.




After reading portions of Malthus' Essay on Population and several articles on sustainability, innovation, etc., I have come up with two personal conclusions about why Malthus' stance on population growth are not applicable to agriculture and energy levels in the real world.   

First, the social cost would be too high if public assistance, foreign aid, etc. were completely abolished.  With regards to agriculture, the U.S. for example, is in a position to provide help to countries where famine is rampant.  Many developing nations/ less developed nations like Nigeria have growing populations that will greatly reduce farmable land.  For example, its present population is approximately 111 million, which leaves 0.15 hectares of grain land per person.  But by the year 2050 the projected population is more than double that with 244 million, leaving grain land per person at 0.07.[5]  With limited industry, Nigeria's research and development in the agricultural sector is quite limited and even with existing technology it would be surprising that Nigeria be able to afford equipment to use such as tractors, silo mills, etc.  With the US playing such a major role in current international affairs, I believe that it would be in its best interest to aid friendly nations that need assistance.  If it were to play a Malthusian role in humanitarian assistance, the image of the US would turn into an imperialistic one, where its main concerns in international relations would merely be economic and security related. 


In a more domestic example, if the US were to eliminate welfare and social security, there would be both social and monetary costs that exceed the current situation.  The current economic state of the US would be drastically changed since overall spending would decrease without social security.  People would be less certain about their economic futures and opt to save more.  With less overall spending, investment into industry would decrease and output supplied would fall.  Also, without welfare as an aid during "rainy days", we would see an increase in crime, as more and more citizens turn to illegal means in order to survive.  This in turn would lead to an increase in demand for law enforcement officers, jails, court hours, etc.  Adding up all these policing costs would outweigh the costs of food stamps, unemployment checks, etc. 

On a social basis, the public as a whole would never allow the welfare systems to end.  There would be too much controversy involved because of certain groups it would effect.  A wise political hopeful would know not to be tackling the welfare debate with one-sidedness.  Being arguably the richest and most powerful nation in the world, the US is able to aid foreign nations and more understandably it’s own citizens.   


Second, advances in energy conservation and environmentally safe alternatives help preserve our natural resources.  One of the existing problems today that may give Malthusian thinkers a valid argument is the dwindling global level of oil.  Unlike foodstuff/ agriculture, oil cannot be as readily or easily reproduced.  It takes an extraordinarily intricate series of events in nature to produce fossil fuels.  The solution to this energy question would be to find alternatives.  There have been great advances made in the field of renewable energy sources.  Alternative sources include solar, water, wind, and biomass (plants and animal material).  Photovoltaic or solar cells, along with wind and hydro generators can supply sufficient amounts of electricity to the average home, while biomass fuel such as alcohol and methane can serve the purposes of transportation fuels.




It is difficult to see the world that Malthus foresaw more than two hundred years ago.  The natural tendency of man to consume and reproduce are true but what Malthus failed to see was man’s exquisite ability to adapt to situations.  Innovations are the result of necessity.  The limits to innovation are unknown if even boundless but throughout our history, humans have been able to adapt to whatever population or environmental change.  The evidence of flaw in Malthus’ theories is our mere existence today.  We have been able to sustain our consumption and even improve on overall quality of life drastically since Malthus’ time.  Also. Many of Malthus’ beliefs were that of an aristocrat, whose social and economic status in society made it easy for him to say that social assistance was bad.

This does not give us license to pollute for the sake of profit, thinking human innovation will save us.  If anything, Malthus first opened modern man’s eyes to the impact that we can have over nature.  Though his predictions of worldwide famine were not accurate, we must not overlook the possibility of over polluting the earth.  We may still be our own worst enemies but for entirely different reasons.



[1] Population Reference Bureau. (2001) World Population Data Sheet [Online] Available:

[2] Environmental and Natural Resource economics.  Tietenberg, Tom (2000) p.100

[3] Landsberger, S. (2000) Chinese Propaganda Poster Page [Online].  Available:

[4] Malthus, Thomas (1798).  An Essay on the Principle of Population.  London: Printed for J. Johnson in St. Paul’s Church rendered into HTML format by Ed Stephan (10 Aug. 1997) [Online]  Available:






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