How We Bypassed The Malthusian Trap (& Why We’re Not Out Of The Doghouse Quite Yet)

Since the late 18th century, humanity has enjoyed the most prolonged period of economic growth in history. This is in no small part due to the Industrial Revolution, which put mechanization and technology at the forefront of economics. Since then, there have always been those who believe that this upward trajectory is unsustainable and will inevitably collapse upon itself.

In his 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, the English economist Thomas Malthus theorized that the population growth of his time, driven by the economic developments of the Industrial Revolution, was unsustainable and would soon collapse upon itself. Due to the “passion between the sexes,” Malthus reasoned that population growth would be exponential, something that history has proven to be correct. He also reasoned that agricultural output would not be able to meet the demand of a rapidly growing population. From this, he inferred that famine and wars over scarce resources must soon follow. This would, in turn, cause a reduction in the size of the population, which would allow agricultural output to meet the population’s demand and thus facilitate population growth once more. This would once again lead to famine and war, which would once again lead to a drop in population, which would once again lead to better economic conditions, which would once again lead to a rising population, which would once again lead to famine and war, and so on ad infinitum. This is what we call a Malthusian Trap.

Since Malthus’s time, the world’s population has increased from 800 million to over 7 billion. Despite this population increase, many parts of the world are facing a problem that Malthus wouldn’t have imagined in his dizziest daydreams; that of too much food. Obesity is currently the fastest growing cause of death worldwide with over 300 million people dying annually from obesity-related diseases. Roughly a third of all the food produced on planet earth — nearly 1.3 billion tons — gets thrown away every year. Statistically, people are more affluent, more well fed, and healthier than at any other point in human history. So how was Malthus so wrong?

Malthus’s theory accurately represents the trajectory that humanity took up until the Industrial Revolution. Until that fateful point in human history, mankind was limited in its means of cultivating the earth. As such, population growth would often outpace agricultural output. However, the technology created by the Industrial Revolution, such as mechanized plows, allowed us to increase the production of farms over four hundredfold. Moreover, as populations become more affluent, people tend to marry later in life and have fewer children. The world’s population growth rate peaked in the 1960s at 2.1 percent, with the current rate at 1.2 percent. Although no one can say with complete certainty, it’s currently estimated that the world’s population will plateau somewhere between 9.5 and 12 billion.

Despite these positive developments, many still maintain that Malthus was right, but that he was only off on the timing. In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich argued that the 1970s and 1980s would be decades in which millions would die from famine and malnutrition due to worldwide food shortages. He was only half right. Millions, in the world’s poorer nations, did die from starvation and malnutrition. However, this was not due to global food shortages. Instead, it was, and remains to this day, the result of economic inequality and improper distribution of resources. At present, there are 800 million people on this planet that suffer from food scarcity. This is in no part due to there not being enough food to go around, after all a third of all food produced ends up as waste. To think that starvation in the modern era is the result of not enough to go around is utterly absurd. What we have here is, in reality, a case of artificial or imaginary scarcity being misconstrued as actual or physical scarcity.

That being said, we cannot maintain that Malthus’s theory has been rendered obsolete. The reason for this? Climate change. According to the World Bank Group, “A 6% decline in global wheat yields and 10% decline in rice yields is expected for each additional 1°C rise in global temperature, with substantial impacts on undernutrition and stunting in food insecure or poor regions.” The impacts of climate change have already resulted in a noted decrease in agricultural productivity in many countries.

It remains to be sure whether we are out of the Malthusian doghouse quite yet. While we have two centuries worth of positive developments, the threat of climate change may put a limit on our agricultural output. Then again, technological developments, such as GMO crops more resistant to heat and drought, may offset the impacts of climate change and keep our agricultural output where it needs to be. Only time will tell if we’re actually out of the doghouse quite yet.