Thomas Malthus was wrong that population growth would lead to famine, so why are his ideas still popular?by Clive James / May 22, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
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In 1798 the cleric, scholar and political theorist Thomas Robert Malthus became famous for enunciating a single principle: since the population increases geometrically but its food supply increases only arithmetically, famine is inevitable. As a consequence, any period of apparent prosperity would lead to a breakdown because of limited resources: human progress was “condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery.” Later on, as Robert J Mayhew relates in the first part of his new book, Malthus elaborated his position with some subtlety, but people had already heard from him all that they thought they needed to hear. They had heard about imminent disaster.
In all shades of millenarianism since the year dot, imminent disaster had featured as a theme. But this time the prediction was scientific, or sounded that way. The mere sound was enough. With what we now call the mass media already growing, there was an appetite for stories about catastrophe; and the advantage of a catastrophe that lay in the future, instead of the present, was that there was no reason ever to stop reporting the news. If a volcano, such as Krakatoa, were to blow its top, there was only so much that the news media could say. But if civilisation was due to destroy itself in some apocalyptic event, you could start telling the story before it happened and burble on until it did. Underneath this perception lurked the assumption that it never would, but nobody wanted to hear about that. Normality is never news.
Malthus’s principle only ever held true locally. Globally, the population kept on going up, and in the course of not too much time it became apparent that he had been quite wrong about the food supply being limited. Successful experimentation with new crops ensured that there would be plenty of food if it could be fairly distributed. Famines and wars might arise out of the failure to do that—famine, indeed, has several times been deliberately employed as a political weapon—but in principle, as it were, there was no longer any Malthusian principle worth talking about. Nevertheless the talk has gone on, and is especially fervent today, when all the statistics agree that the main crops will be abundant for years to come. The statistics might say so but the mass media would rather say that the world will starve. It’s a more interesting story, even though it’s not really a story at all; it’s only a conjecture.