The inevitable decline in the globe's human population carrying capacity ....


Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834)

Thomas Robert Malthus was born in 1766 near what is now Guildford and he died in Bath in 1834. He studied at Jesus College Cambridge taking classics but concentrating on maths. He was the first professor of political economy in England.

He is well known for his analysis of the relative balance bewtween natural resources and population growth. In particular he pointed out the difference in an arithmetic growth of for food production and a potental for human population numbers to increase exponentially. In mathematical terms this indicates that population can outstrip food supplies. Malthus only explained this difference but did not make any particular predictions. His most important observations related to the relationship between scarcity of resources such as food and the impacts and social consequences on the poor in England at the time of his analysis and writing

His theories on population and food supplies have been criticised for many years as the world appears to support an increasing population. However, although "economic development" continues, in real terms the numbers of people who approach the margin where famine can occur within a short time frame, seem to be increasing. In the end population size, along with environmental degradation, needs to move from the realms of political party identities, international resolutions and talk to relevant practical actions.



Robert Malthus' book on population, "An Essay on the Principle of Population" was first completed in 1798 and underwent 6 editions in total with the last published in 1826.

This work is more relevant today than is commonly supposed. Malthus was concerned with explaining why the lower income segments in the United Kingdom where those who paid the price of increasing population size in terms of facing the threat of destitution as a result of falls in their real incomes and inability to purchase basic food items. Although, indeed, Malthus concentrated on a population dynamics model, he was fully aware of the impact of economic policy on inflation and he traced how this impacted the lowest income segments. Therefore Malthus was not only concerned with explaining the interaction between population growth and nature's human population carrying capacity. He also pointed out the specific impact of rises in prices in exacerbating the situation of the poor.

Malthus was at pains to increment each edition of his book with content that took into account criticisms and the controversy surrounding its contents. It is regrettable that the controveries over the population aspects of his work dominated the contentious arguments which influenced decision-makers and set in train political outlooks that are with us today. At least his ability to raise this issue as something of importance resulted in the UK establishing a population census in 1801 which has been carried out very ten years ever since. Unfortunately Malthus became more associated with his population work than his economic analysis which should have received more attention. However, although the first edition was published over 220 years ago, his general explanations remain of relevance to the situations in low income countries striving for economic development as well as, paradoxically, conditions in high income countries where the question of macroeconomic policies can be seen to have the same impact on lower income segments.

An important point in modern day discussions on Malthus is that he did no set out to predict that humans faced an inevitable catastrophe. His work was more directed at an evolutionary social theory of population dynamics to explain some of the contemporary political events and the relevant economic policy questions in England.

It is important to acknowledge that many of the modern day criticisms arise from a failure to appreciate that Manthus was addressing the drastic conditions facing the poor in England at that time. These led to food riots and eventually in a ruthless military intervention in peaceful protests. In recent years, as a result of inappropriate macroeconomic policies and in particular monetary policy, the poor in the United Kingdom are again facing the same problem of a drastic decline in real incomes and the need to resort to food banks (voluntary agencies that collect and distribute free food).