Was Thomas Malthus right about population growth and the ability to sustain this population? The answer is found in games. What? Yes, computer games hold the answer. I want to first look at Mathus’ own words, not recycled words about him. This is important to understand exactly what he was trying to convey and why economics is often called the dismal science.
What Malthus actually wrote about population
Malthus wrote about the increase in the number of people in the world and food supply:
- First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.
- Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.
These two laws, ever since we have had any knowledge of mankind, appear to have been fixed laws of our nature, and, as we have not hitherto seen any alteration in them, we have no right to conclude that they will ever cease to be what they now are, without an immediate act of power in that Being who first arranged the system of the universe, and for the advantage of his creatures, still executes, according to fixed laws, all its various operations.
He believed these two above mentioned ideas would result in the following:
- Assuming then my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.
- Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.
- By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal.
- This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind.
This is the most important point in Malthus’ theory on population and the ability for the world to support itself:
- Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of—1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, etc. and subsistence as—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc.
Why Malthus was wrong
His above assumption that population will expand exponentially is not true. When a civilization develops the population eventually levels out or falls. Mathus’ assumed technology would increase in a linear fashion. This is untrue. Technology increases like an S curve or exponentially. This is why Malthus was not right.
The question is how long can this technology increase in an accelerating fashion and will population slow in time. Where are we on the technological S curve?
If history is a gauge of the futures, I think everything will be alright, even is statistics and the latest census lets the pessimist have their day. Pessimism is more fun to report on as people love to worry. However, who is measuring technological leaps? Innovation is only starting to increase. Every time people think this is it, we have achieved all that can be achieved and the only advances will be incremental, some revolutionary breakthrough changes the world. These things can not be predicted, they just happen out of the blue. Looking at history they keep happening with no end in sight.
The environment of the earth (global warming) and civilization will not be ripped apart by humans as people will hopefully adjust and build things like fusion to replace fossil fuels. People are collectively evolving. People adapt and change is the rule. All the world is in flux. But this does not be complacent. Rather the fact that we are not all doom and have time should be a call to action to continue to protect the planet.
Malthus and civilization
I used to be addicted to the game civilization. After playing it, the history of man from 5,000 B.C. to the future, I realized basically technology always saves the day. The Civilization has been tested for over ten years will millions of players and is a better model of the earth than any academic ivory tower theory written by some professor with an agenda or ancient economist writing on very limited information. Malthus’ theory is to be respected and he is a good writer like others of this time like Thomas Paine etc. However, I do not see the world ending up where we are all eating some rice soup and waiting for the end.