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Robert Malthus, the Grim Prophet of Population

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago a child was born in the village of Westcott, Surrey, England. Thomas Robert Malthus (he only used his Robert given name) grew up in a family of what was known at the time as “independent means;” that is of sufficient wealth that nobody needed to work for a living.

Robert Malthus received an excellent education and studied mathematics at Cambridge University. In 1789, he became an Anglican clergyman. It was his religious conviction that drove his thinking on population.

Thomas Robert Malthus.

Thomas Robert Malthus.

Divine Intervention

His main idea was that population growth would outstrip the ability of the food supply to sustain everybody. He saw this as God’s way of instructing his people to behave with virtue.

Malthus published his first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. It was followed by five further editions in which he refined his thinking, dealt with criticisms, and updated information.

At the core of his argument was the conflict between exponential growth and mathematical growth. He said population grew exponentially by doubling, so, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. But food production only increased arithmetically―2, 4, 6, 8, 10 . . .

Sooner or later, there would be a shortage of food causing famine and disease that would wipe out vast numbers of people. This became known as the Malthusian catastrophe. Here’s how the group Population Matters describes it: “A Malthusian crisis is when mass starvation occurs because the population in any given area has exceeded its food supply. The population then decreases, and the cycle repeats until there is balance between a population and its food supply.”

This calamity could be avoided if the birth rate was controlled. In the world of Malthus, where contraception was largely unavailable, this could only be achieved through abstinence from sex. He advocated no sex before marriage and for people to marry later. He practiced what he preached; he had three children although he came from a family of seven.

Malthus in the Real World

Malthus has been proven right and wrong. He did not anticipate the agricultural revolution that has seen food production stay ahead of population growth. Also, he did not foresee the widespread use of birth control so the population did not increase in the way he predicted.

However, he has been shown to be correct in that there have been plenty of massive famines of a localized nature. Since Malthus published his first edition there have been at least 35 famines with known death tolls of at least a million people. The two countries that have been hardest hit, China and India, are also the two most populous nations in the world.

Despite the loss of hundreds of millions of lives the line on the population increase graph hardly slowed in its upward path.

Disease has taken more millions of lives. A massive outbreak of an illness is called a pandemic. Cholera, smallpox, bubonic plague, and typhus were early mass killers, but nothing comes close to the influenza pandemic of 1918-20.

It is thought to have started in a military hospital in northern France where casualties from World War I were being treated. By the time the pandemic had run its course it had infected 500 million people and killed 75 million of them. This amounted to four percent of the world’s population at the time and did cause a dip in the graph. But, the population increase soon picked up speed again.

Covid-19 first appeared in China in late 2019. By late January 2021, it had taken 2.1 million lives and we don't know yet how the virus will mutate or if it be snuffed out by vaccination.

Wars have cut short the lives of millions more. The Taiping Rebellion in China between 1850 and 1864 caused as many as 100 million deaths, but that may be an underestimate. World War Two (1939-45) took between 40 and 60 million lives. Again, these catastrophes simply created a slight slowdown in the rate of population increase.

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Life Expectancy

Another factor that Robert Malthus didn’t see coming was increased life expectancy. About the time he published his first edition in 1798, the average person born in Britain could expect to live 39 years. This was just about the point at which people started to live longer. A combination of factors was involved.

The Industrial Revolution was beginning to generate greater wealth and that meant better diets, public health measures such as sewers, and improving medicine. By 1900, the average British person had a life expectancy of 45.6 years. That’s when the big improvements started. In 1930, life expectancy had risen to 60.8 years and by 1960 it was 71 years. Today, that’s been pushed to a little over 81 years.

Many other industrialized nations saw similar increases in life expectancy. The same trend has been seen elsewhere although the start of the improvement in longer lives was later. For example, the life expectancy in India was only 31 in 1935, today it’s 65. Similarly, Japan went from 42 years in 1920 to 83 years today.

Our World in Data notes that “Since 1900 the global average life expectancy has more than doubled and is now approaching 70 years. No country in the world has a lower life expectancy than the countries with the highest life expectancy in 1800.”

Global Warming

Pessimists look at Robert Malthus’s predictions about population collapse and say just wait. His grim forecast just hasn’t come true―yet.

What will global warming do to population numbers? Whatever it does it probably won’t be good.

Scientific American sums up the situation: “No doubt human population growth is a major contributor to global warming, given that humans use fossil fuels to power their increasingly mechanized lifestyles. More people means more demand for oil, gas, coal, and other fuels mined or drilled from below the Earth’s surface that, when burned, spew enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to trap warm air inside like a greenhouse.” This has caused the massive amounts of water locked in polar icecaps to melt thereby raising sea levels.

Some island nations and low-lying river deltas will disappear under water as sea levels rise. The people living in those areas are not going to stand on kitchen chairs and hope the water level drops. They are going to move to higher ground that is already occupied by other people. The result will likely be conflict. The World Ocean Reviewgives us an idea of the scale of the problem, “More than a billion people―most of them in Asia―live in low-lying coastal regions.”

Earth Science notes that global warming will affect the food supply negatively. Plants will find it harder to exist and that will impact the animals that feed on them. “If there aren’t any plants or animals then we will have a shortage of food and many people will die from starvation.”

As oceans warm up, tropical storms will become more frequent and more ferocious causing greater loss of life. Seawater crashing inland will contaminate fresh water making it undrinkable.

So, global warming might be the catastrophe that brings about the Malthusian solution to overpopulation

Bonus Factoids

  • Robert Malthus became a professor of history and political economy in 1805. His students gave him the affectionate nickname of “Pop” for “population” Malthus.
  • Robert’s father, Daniel, was a scholar as well as friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, recognized as one of the leading thinkers behind the Enlightenment.


  • “Malthus Today.”, undated.
  • “Life Expectancy.” Max Roser, Our World in Data, undated.
  • “How Will Global Warming Affect the Human Population?” Robert Steblein, Earth Science, undated.
  • “Does Population Growth Impact Climate Change?” Scientific American, July 2009.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


Readmikenow on November 14, 2016:

Excellent article. Enjoyed reading it. Very interesting.

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