Dec 2011


Malthus and 7 billion: Three Letters

By Ronald Bleier

The UN world population estimate of the arrival of the 7th billion human on October 31, 2011 1 provoked a flurry of media attention. Some reports took note of previous critical data points beginning with the arrival of modern humans around 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. It wasn't until about 1830 (by some estimates 2) that the population of behaviorally modern humans reached their first billion.

It was only a hundred years later, about 1930, that another billion joined the human community. Then the rate of population growth tripled, adding a billion more in only 30 years, by 1960. At that point relative worldwide political stability combined with medical advances and the application of industrial age machinery and other technical innovations associated with food production produced another population doubling, leading to the addition of a billion more people in less than every 15 years-in 1974, 1987, and 1999, according to UN figures. Since the mid-90s we have been adding between 75 and 80 million net births over deaths yearly (U.S. Census Bureau). If current trends continue, we will reach 8 billion in about 15 years, by 2025 or 2026.

Generally the arrival of the 7th billon person was welcomed as if it were good news that the earth's resources were now stretched so far. Yet at the same time, I was struck by the number of references to the late 18th century British political economist, Thomas Robert (Bob) Malthus who emphasized the connection between growing population and resource scarcity. As the editor of the International Society of Malthus, a website, I was more dismayed than surprised to find that Malthus's views seemed to be most often distorted, misrepresented or taken out of context. Perhaps the most extreme example I saw was the New York Daily News editorial on October 31, 2011, which welcomed the 7 billionth birth ("7 Billion Served") and at the same time made a point of charging Malthus with predicting the "extermination of humanity... foreseeing certain famine and disease."

If they disliked him so much, why would so many writers to continue to resurrect his name? Could it be that they feared that this 7 billion milestone too clearly points to the contradiction between the political requirements for constant economic and the intractable reality of the limits to such growth. Perhaps by identifying the illusory "error" in Malthus's thinking they persuade themselves and their readers that very sustainability of our society isn't really under threat.

In any case, it seems that the name of Malthus will always be associated with the connection between population and the availability of resources. Malthus freely admitted that he was not the first to notice that population grows with the increase of food-such as the author of Ecclesiastes who had written: "When goods increase, they are increased who eat them." Malthus's brilliant addendum-his proposition that misery is the necessary consequence of population's tendency to outstrip resources-is arguably as profound and potentially as significant as any single scientific discovery.

Profound or not, Malthus's views have been so widely misrepresented to the point where even those sympathetic to the broad outlines of his analysis seem determined to distance themselves from his theories even while tacitly acknowledging his contribution. Such was the case with references to Malthus that I saw in October in three New York based publications: The New York Review of Books, The New York Times and The New Yorker. Ironically, the authors of those articles may be among the minority of mainstream media voices who display a Malthusian awareness of limits to resources and the effects of such limits now that the world has reached the enormity of 7 billion. Partly because I felt that the articles were so valuable, I responded in an attempt to correct the record.

Letter to NYRB

The first email I sent was to the New York Review of Books whose very good article by John Terborgh was entitled: "Can Our Species Escape Destruction?" (October 13, 2011)

The New York Review of Books
October 14, 2011

Dear NYRB:
Thanks for John Terborgh's valuable review and not least for his welcome reference to Malthus in his last paragraph. I offer a quibble only because Terborgh suggests a popular misconception about Malthus's views, a misreading that has worked to obscure the author's important message regarding the restraints that nature imposes on life on earth.

[Here is Terborgh's final paragraph.

Malthus foresaw more than two hundred years ago that exponential growth could not be sustained in a world of finite resources. Malthus's thesis is not a conjecture: it is a truism. Dismissing Malthus has become a popular talking point because global society has not collapsed--yet--but we must remember that Malthus put no time limit on his prediction.]

Malthus never predicted that population growth would one day lead to the collapse of civilization. Rather in An Essay on Population (1798), he did hazard a more fundamental and useful prediction. Writing to counter some of the optimism inspired by the French Revolution, Malthus postulated that humans would always be "condemned to "a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery" due to the "principle of population," the tendency of population to increase faster than food supplies. Malthus emphasized that this oscillation was a "constantly operating process," not an event that would take place at some distant point.

Arguably not a day has since passed that humans have not experienced a measure of the misery that Malthus predicted. Malthus believed that his major theoretical contribution was his discovery that misery was the mechanism by which population is kept level with resources.

Malthus ends his first chapter with an eloquent and pertinent description of nature's "imperious" demand for limits. Incidentally, Darwin famously acknowledged that it was a restatement of this insight that helped underpin his theory of evolution.

The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds, in the course of a few thousand years. Necessity, that imperious all pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law. And the race of man cannot, by any efforts of reason, escape from it.

Ronald Bleier

As for me, I finally read Malthus in the 1990s, when I was exploring the question of why war continued to plague late 20th century society and why there seemed no prospect of an end to martial preparations and military activity. I was prompted to turn to Malthus because I remembered a high school English teacher's brief lecture explaining his ideas. (Later I found that my teacher got it mostly right but, in the end he made the same mistake about Malthus's predictions as did many of the authors who recently mentioned him.)

I discovered reading Malthus to be a pleasant surprise. I hadn't expected such a brilliant and remarkably readable and persuasive book. Malthus left me with clarity about some of the macro forces that begat the misery in the world that heretofore had been obscured in mist and confusion.

Although his theories were thoroughly secular, Malthus turned to his vocation as a parson and his religious beliefs to credit God for providing humanity with the principle of population which effectively required struggle in order to progress. Malthus believed that if manna simply fell from heaven to supply everyone with sufficient "means of subsistence," there would be no requirement for the struggle that allowed humanity to develop. Misery and triumph--all came from the same place, argued Malthus: the struggle over perennially scarce resources.

I also understood that so-called Social Darwinists and other right-wing and totalitarian ideologues misused the findings of Malthus and Darwin to further their agenda of enabling the rich and the privileged to continue to rob the poor and the downtrodden. By misapplying the principles of Darwinism, especially the concept of survival of the fittest, eugenicists, racists, fascists and others promoted conflict between national or racial groups,3 thus facilitating lasting smears against both Darwin and Malthus.

As it happens, not only was Malthus among the kindest and warm-hearted of men, but he saw himself as a reformer interested in diminishing poverty and alleviating suffering. He hoped that his findings would be put to good use in their service. If Malthus's fundamental idea is correct or has lasting value--his insistence, that population, human numbers, is at the heart of the reality of misery--then it would seem to be the task of later generations to rescue what is valuable in his teaching, and build on it in light of contemporary conditions.

The collapse of civilization?!

As suggested by the title of Terborgh's review essay, "Can Our Species Escape Destruction?" the arrival of the earth's 7th billion person has come at a time when the world community's political, economic and environmental situation is such that even a visitor from the late 18th century would appreciate the urgency of addressing the question of the sustainability of our 21st century civilization. One such discussion took place on New York alternative radio, WBAI-FM, in September 2011, on Dr Mitchio Kaku's program, "Explorations." Professor Kaku asked his guest, noted author and veteran environmentalist, Lester Brown,4 what he thought the weak link might be that might lead to collapse. Brown replied that he had lately come around to the view that the world's food supply would be the weak link.

Brown cited the summer 2011 heat wave in Russia, which raised average temperatures in July by 12 degrees Fahrenheit. That phenomenon reduced the expected 100 million ton Russian grain crop by 40 percent to 60 million tons. Brown said that the world was fortunate that the same degree of heat had not focused on Chicago. If the U.S. grain crop of 700 million tons had been reduced by the same 40 percent, the world community would surely have encountered great economic and political strains. In that case, Brown said, food prices would climb to such a degree that oil-exporting countries would seek to barter oil for grain. This would leave oil-importing countries scrambling for the remaining stocks since world grain supplies would have dropped to dangerously low levels. A total loss of confidence in the grain market would ensue, and it would be apparent that every country would have to manage on its own. The resultant high prices and shortages would lead to food riots and falling governments, said Brown.

Dr Cohen and Malthus

I was once again prompted to proffer my views to the New York media when I read a New York Times op-ed entitled "7 Billion," by Dr Joel E. Cohen, noted author of How Many People can the Earth Support (1996). Cohen's essay for the New York Times was long and detailed and predictably Malthusian, taking due recognition of the earth's increasingly diminished ability to provide the necessary means for so many people.

Yet once again I was unpleasantly surprised when I found Professor Cohen writing that the "prophecies of Thomas Malthus and his followers" are "discredited" by their belief "that soaring populations must lead to mass starvation." For the most part my letter repeated much of what I had written to the NYRB.5 I explained that while I wouldn't try to account for Malthus's followers, I wished to acquaint Times readers with my view that Professor Cohen was exaggerating if not misrepresenting Malthus's views. I ended my email underlining some of the symptoms of misery that Professor Cohen cited. "Arguably, the statistics Cohen musters regarding poverty and hunger, such as, 'nearly half the world lives on $2 a day... more than 800 million live in slums,' etc., suggests a state of affairs very much in line with Malthusian views."

Malthus Excoriated

Among the more powerful institutions arrayed against Malthusian views would seem to be the pro-natalist Catholic Church. To this day the Church opposes most forms of birth control and advocates unrestricted births and tacitly promotes the repression of women. One can surmise that their authoritarian and patriarchal policies derive from the perception that maintaining the immiseration and illiteracy of so many helps to promote the continuance of their wealth, power and influence.

Ironically or otherwise, the Catholic Church is joined in its refusal to address the consequences of nature's limits by many on the left including socialists, Marxists and many anarchists who believe that considerations of ever clearer signs of nature's backlash is not the proper way to look at the problem. Rather they are disposed to believe in "systemic" approaches, with each sectarian element favoring one "system" or another. They tend to start from the fundamental notion that by some means or another-nature, God, whatever--there will always be sufficient supply of food and the means of subsistence. The answer they believe is the implementation of fair and just systems of distribution.

Yet, from a Malthusian perspective, too often such "systems" seem to ignore the day-to-day costs of production and distribution and the requirement to somehow pay for those costs. Many seem to ignore the imperatives of scarcity that drive powerful individuals and institutions to secure the interest of elites at the expense of the rest. In Malthusian theory, such traits evident in the rich and powerful as unrestrained selfishness, ruthlessness and unmotivated malignancy are symptoms rather than the fundamental causes of evil and misery.

Karl Marx saw Malthus's teachings as a threat to his own desiderata of a more or less equal per capita division of resources and he favored a system outlawing private property in favor of communal ownership. Marx devoted about a page of vituperation to Malthus, excoriating him as a plagiarist and as a stooge of the privileged, especially the landed gentry. Marx's collaborator, Fredrich Engels, at least had the self-assurance to address the central issue Malthus raised of limits to growth. According to Engels, Malthus was proved wrong by the very existence of the lands west of the Mississippi River, which, he believed, demonstrated that humanity would never be bound by an insufficiency of resources. 6

Kolbert- The New Yorker

As a fan of Elizabeth Kolbert, well known for her pertinent and expert coverage of all things environmental for the New Yorker, I was disappointed to find that, in the case of Malthus, she didn't find a way to get beyond some of the acceptable boundaries on current discourse. Once again I was moved to send an email.

The New Yorker
October 24, 2011

Dear New Yorker:

The inimitable Elizabeth Kolbert gets it right when she concludes her "Billions and Billions," comment (10.24.2011), with the Malthusian suggestion that there are limits to population growth and that we're in danger of all-too-quickly approaching those limits. I offer a quibble only because Malthus's contribution to population and security issues is so widely misunderstood or misrepresented.

It's hardly an "un-Malthusian," phenomenon, as Kolbert writes, that the world's population has grown to its current 7 billon. Malthus's first postulate was that we need food to live; thus, in Malthusian terms, there is evidently sufficient food to feed all of us-though of course, for too many, only barely enough.

Nor is it the case, as Kolbert writes, that "many of his predictions… proved to be wrong." Indeed, in his remarkably readable and ever timely An Essay on Population (1798), Malthus made few if any predictions, other than that misery would be an enduring and ineradicable visitor, since population growth tended to outpace the "means of subsistence." Many, including Ms Kolbert, I'm sure, would agree that this prediction has been borne out.

Ronald Bleier


Why War? Why did Rome fall?

For a Malthusian, perhaps the saddest consequence of the lasting disparagement of the work of Malthus is that it represents a lost opportunity. For example, if Malthus's theory of the principal of population leading to perennial misery was taught as an option for every schoolchild to consider, then there might be formed, in good time, a more powerful counter to pro-natalist forces and a more focused attention on the environmental and political challenges that confront us. In 1993, historian John Keegan noted that in our post-nuclear world, 50 million people have been killed in wars since August 9, 1945, the second and last time an atomic bomb was used in wartime.7 Doubtless a proportional number of victims have fallen in the succeeding years. Under such circumstances, Malthus's teachings might be a useful key to examining the stubborn prevalence of conflict.

On my International Society of Malthus website, I proposed that Malthus's notion of a constantly operating check on population was such a fertile and fundamental insight that it provided a lens through which to view all of history and politics. (I defined politics as the struggle to control resources.) In An Essay on Population, Malthus employed the principle of population to explain the growth of those forces that were responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire.

Want [scarcity] was the goad that drove the Scythian shepherds [the nomads of the Central Asian steppe] from their native haunts, like so many famished wolves in search of prey. Set in motion by this all powerful cause, clouds of Barbarians seemed to collect from all points of the northern hemisphere. Gathering fresh darkness and terror as they rolled on, the congregated bodies at length obscured the sun of Italy and sunk the whole world in universal night. These tremendous effects, so long and so deeply felt throughout the fairest portions of the earth, may be traced to the simple cause of the superior power of population to the means of subsistence.

Malthus asserts that the notorious leaders of the Central Asian steppe may have been fighting for glory but the "true cause" that drove them was the effect of the power of population.

An Alaric, an Attila, or a Zingis Khan, and the chiefs around them, might fight for glory, for the fame of extensive conquests, but the true cause that set in motion the great tide of northern emigration, and that continued to propel it till it rolled at different periods against China, Persia, Italy, and even Egypt, was a scarcity of food, a population extended beyond the means of supporting it. 8

If Malthus's work were not so disparaged, then a school of neo-Malthusian historians and anthropologists and others might be inspired to set about filling in the details to his suggestive outline. We can dream that such investigations might redound to the benefit of the social sciences, to current politics and, who knows, perhaps also to the future of our civil society.

The End

1Some media reports also noted that the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the arrival of the 7th billion will not occur until March 2012. And some pointed out that such estimates could be off by as many as tens of millions of people. See the Elizabeth Kolbert article discussed below. arrow

2The U.N. and others estimate that the one billion milestone was reached a few decades earlier, in 1800. arrow

3 See the Wikipedia entry on Social Darwinism. arrow

4Lester Brown is the author or co-author of more than 50 books. His latest is World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (2011) arrow

5 See the appendix for the full text. arrow

6 See the Norton Critical Edition of An Essay on Population edited by Philip Appleman (1976). arrow

7 John Keegan, A History of Warfare (1993), p. 58. A plutonium weapon was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 arrow

8 Thomas Malthus, An Essay on Population (1798), chapter III. arrow


My response to the New York Times.

The New York Times
Letter to the Editor
October 25, 2011

To the Editor:
Re: "7 Billion," Joel E. Cohen, op ed, 10.24.11

In his otherwise welcome and timely op-ed on "7 Billion," Professor Joel E. Cohen writes that the "prophecies of Thomas Malthus and his followers" are "discredited" by their belief "that soaring populations must lead to mass starvation." But in order to discredit Malthus (I won't try to account for his followers) Cohen exaggerates Malthus's views if indeed he does not misrepresent them. Writing to counter some of the optimism inspired by the French Revolution, Malthus postulated that humans would always be "condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery" due to the "principle of population," the tendency of population to increase faster than the "means of subsistence." Malthus proposed that this fluctuation was a "constantly operating process," that worked to keep population-and consumption-level with food supplies. Arguably, the statistics Cohen musters regarding poverty and hunger, such as, "nearly half the world lives on $2 a day…more than 800 million live in slums," etc., suggests a state of affairs very much in line with Malthusian views. Sincerely,
Ronald Bleier


Demographic, Environmental,
Security Issues Project