Modern Malthus; Are his ideas applicable to today?

In his essay titled Essay on Population by Thomas Malthus he talks a lot about the relationship between population and supply. He talks about the human relationship with the resources on the earth and states that there is not enough food to sustain mankind. He goes on to propose solutions in order to counter this problem that was anticipated in the 19th century when Enlightenment was at its peak. During this time, people started moving away from the church and began to put their faith in science and reason to guide their thought and outlook on the world. Malthus states that disease and misery were the only solutions to help the people overcome the inevitable suffering that would occur due to a lack of resources because of an increasing population.


While reading this piece, I couldn’t help but think of today with the rising problems credited to climate change and the growing anxiety regarding the future of our planet. It’s interesting that over a century ago Malthus predicted the increasing population as a problem facing humanity. The idea that the earth could run out of resources as essential as food didn’t seem to be a problem people were concerned about back then as much as we are now. Today there seems to be a growing pressure on our generation to come up with ways to live sustainability since so much of the earth has already been destroyed. I wonder had the technology been available during Malthus’s time would he have proposed a more logical solution than wiping out a large portion of the population with disease. I also wonder if people would have been more accepting of his idea that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce substance for man” if they were in as desperate a time as we are today. Overall, I though this reading was very interesting because of its relevance to today. One thing I love about history is how it repeats itself so often and society doesn’t seem to learn from its mistakes. I am wondering what you think Malthus would say about society today and people’s ignorance towards the climate change, increasing lack of resources, environmental hazards that are all results of the growing population and ironically negatively impacting society.

Progress Through Necessity

At the turn of the nineteenth century, most of Europe had become embroiled in the enlightened idea that society could progress nearly infinitely through the use of reason.  Writing in England in 1798, the Reverend Thomas R. Malthus proposed a view of economics centered on population patterns. His Essay on Population suggested a view on human progress tainted by inevitability. He established two constants: food is necessary for mans’ survival and reproduction from the union of the sexes is necessary for mans’ survival. These serve as the foundation for a theory claiming the impossibility of humans ever escaping misery and vice. According to Malthus, the only way to keep the population in proportion to the means of subsistence is through disease and hardship killing off significant amounts of the population, or through a refusal of monogamous unions to produce children. Without “early attachment to one woman,” vice becomes unavoidable. ((Malthus, Essay on Population))

Malthus distinguishes between man and animal on the basis of reproductive instinct, something which animals carry out without thought. Man however, considers his ability to support children and whether or not he desires to work harder to provide for his children. He focuses specifically on the lower classes and how the discrepancy between their instincts and their economic means places them in perpetual poverty. The proposed economic model includes a “season of distress” ((Malthus, Essay on Population)) during which the poor must work harder to earn the same amount. Due to this stress, marriage is less likely and the population stagnates, until those at the top of society increase the means of subsistence through innovation, thus improving the lives of laborers just enough for reproduction to continue.


Rev. Thomas R. Malthus 

Despite the enlightened context of Malthus’ writing, his ideas contradict some of the foundational elements of enlightened thought. His theory does not seem to allow for the perfection of society since misery and vice are necessary just for mankind to continue surviving. It also arguably states that progress, or the increase of the means of subsistence, is only possible through necessity rather than reason. The plight of those at the bottom of society depicts them as mere cogs in a societal machine which fluctuates in a fixed pattern; not as enlightened peoples able to affect and improve their society through reasoned intellectual thought. Given when and where he was writing, I would like to ask why Malthus described society in this way, and what if any of his ideas are reconcilable with the enlightenment?

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