Thomas Malthus: Wrong…for Now

The economic theories of Thomas Malthus would be absolutely depressing if they ever achieve fruition. I first came across Thomas Malthus as a result of Kevin Spacey’s character in Wiseguy being obsessed with him. Malthus’ basic economic assumption was that world population will forever grow faster than the means of supporting it. Population will increase exponentially while the food supply can never keep up with that explosive growth. The leap that Malthus made was that the standard of living across the world would begin to slowly decline as this prediction came true. Frightening, without a doubt. So then why has it not yet happened? Was Thomas Malthus wrong or just, like Marx, the victim of unseen circumstances in which the psychology of the majority of the world underwent a profound de-evolution?

It would appear that Malthus was just plain wrong, or more likely just wrong in his time frame. While it is true that the standard of living in certain areas of the world has fallen, or else has never managed to climb out of the 19th century hole in which Malthus discovered them, for the most part everyone in the civilized world is able to buy cell phones, computers and pornography. Oh, and we’re all able to eat overpriced food at homogenized restaurants. In addition, the predictions of Thomas Malthus that natural disaster devastation would continue to occur on an increasing level has certainly come true. Just ask folks in Myanmar or New Orleans who have been displaced and forgotten by their government.

The rest of Malthus’ vision has been less than accurate. Population, for instance, has not increased exponentially. Yes, it is true there are now roughly six times as many people on the planet now as when Malthus lived, most of that population explosion has taken place in the countries of the world that are capable of feeing the new additions. Malthus’ theories about famines and disease wreaking havoc on the populations of underdeveloped countries has certainly been realized, but even if AIDs never existed and even if the Bush administration cared about genocide in countries without oil there would still be enough food to feed everyone. There is now enough food by far to overfeed the population of the earth; the only problem is that most of the food is wasted in developed countries and not gotten to those who need it.

The main reason why Malthus’ dire predictions have thus far not been, mercifully, realized is due to productivity. At the time that Malthus developed his theories, America was still mainly an idea. The opening of the west and the development of agriculture in not just America, but Canada, South America and Australia has given the world roughly six times as much food as existed during Malthus’ period. In other words, the food supply has increased almost exactly as much as the world’s population since Thomas Malthus came up with his ideas. In addition, there was really no way on earth that Malthus could possibly have predicted the explosive advances in technology that would make refrigeration, for instance, allow a fish caught off the coast of Japan to be eaten by someone in Paris.

So far, then, Thomas Malthus has yet to be proven correct. So that does mean we’re out of the water? Hardly. Once the oil supply runs out there will be a period of probably at least half a century in which productivity essentially grinds to a halt because our leaders are more interested in putting money into the bank accounts of oil executives than finding alternative sources of energy. If a viable alternative cannot be put into action within that half century then it seems highly likely that a Malthusian dystopia will cover the planet for at least a century or two.