Malthus, Famine, Disease and World Population

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was an English Scholar influential in political economy and demography. He wrote six editions of An Essay on the Principle of Population from 1798-1826. In 18th century Europe society popularly believed society as improving and perfectible. Malthus, however, believed the dangers of population growth would preclude endless progress toward a utopian society. “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” [Wikipedia, Thomas Robert Malthus]

Simply put, he believed the earth’s population could become so great as to overcome the earth’s ability to provide enough food and water to live. Too many people, not enough food and water to go around.

As of July 1, 2011 the United States Census Bureau estimates the world’s population to be 6.94 billion people. [Wikipedia, World Population] The world population has experienced continuous growth since the end of the Bubonic Plague, Great Famine and Hundred Years Wars in 1350, when it was about 300 million. The highest rates of growth occurred during the 1950s, peaking in 1963. Current projections predict population growth will continue reaching a world population of between 7.5 and 10.5 billion by the year 2050. Asia has 60% of the world’s population with more than 4 billion people. Africa is next with a population of 1 billion people. Europe has 733 million. Latin America and the Caribbean has 589 million. North America has 352 million. Oceania is last with at 35 million. World population could reach 256 billion if fertility remains at 1995 levels.

We may live, or already have lived, long enough to see whether or not Malthus’ theory is true or not. 256 billion people require almost unimaginable amounts of food and water to survive.

“…the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence, that population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and, that the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice,” according to Malthus.

More simply put he contends the increase in the world’s population is limited by the subsistence available. Population increases when access to subsistence increases. Population slows and equalizes to the availability of subsistence. Malthus says, by” misery and vice.” I would include disease in his category of “misery.”

A casual look at the history of mankind indicates some validity to Malthus. Man seems interminably inclined to wars, which reduces population; fraught with famine, drought, and natural disasters all over the world. Man seems determined to rid the earth of too much population. A look at the famine in Somalia today and the loss of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, are dying of starvation. May be a sign of coming times for us all.

Jack Wood

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  • Don S
    August 22, 2011, 10:14 am

    Mr. Wood, I’m not sure how you made the jump from the world population today to your assertion that it could reach 256 billion “if fertility remains at 1995 levels.”

    I think the facts show that 7 billion people are quite adequate to wipe out the planet’s resources. Our farming methods are destroying fertile topsoil, our fishing methods are threatening entire species, and we’re draining fresh water sources at a rapid pace.

    • Jack Wood@Don S
      August 26, 2011, 7:46 pm

      The “jump” was contained in the Wikipedia article I did the research on. As I remember it was characterized as an extreme possibility.


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