The spirit of Malthus best left in grave

In: Uncategorized

6 Mar 2008

There follows a comment by me from this week’s Fund Strategy. It is related to the news analysis on rising food prices that I posted yesterday.

Thomas Malthus, who more than anyone else popularised the idea that population grows faster than food supply, died in 1834. It is a tragedy that so many people now seem intent on resurrecting his ideas.

When Malthus first published “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798 he famously argued that the food supply would rise arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4 and so on) while population would grow geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8 etc). He therefore foresaw a future of mass starvation and famine.

Fortunately, nearly 200 years of history have proved Malthus wrong. It is true that over the years there have been occasional famines, with many millions dying. But the general trend is of vast improvement. Overall, the average human has far more and better-quality food than when Malthus was writing, despite the huge rise in population. There is still some way to go before everyone is well fed but the situation is generally getting better. It should be remembered that back in Malthus’s time virtually everyone lived on the edge of starvation.

The fundamental mistake Malthus made was to underestimate human ingenuity. Although demand for food has increased, the supply has risen even more. People have harnessed new technology to allow agricultural yields to rise enormously. Far more food is produced for each hectare of land.

Sadly, many contemporary authorities propound what are essentially Malthusian views. The recent surge in global food prices has added impetus to such arguments. Many conclude that rising population and affluence, which they see as driving up prices, are therefore negative developments.

Like Malthus the contemporary cynics underestimate humanity. They do not see that the richer we are the more technology is likely to develop and the better able we will be to deal with problems. For example, richer countries are in a stronger position to deal with the challenge of climate change. The Netherlands can afford modern flood defences whereas Bangladesh currently cannot.

Ironically it is often the same doomsters who block technological progress. The widespread campaign in Europe against genetically modified crops is a good example. Such technology could provide huge advances in raising yields, yet many are acting against its implementation.

It would be far better to let Malthus rest in his grave than try to bring his spirit back to life.

Comment Form