Population Matters

Malthus today

Malthus today

Thomas Malthus, 1766-1834, was an English cleric and scholar13 February 2016 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Malthus, the English economist who predicted that the size of the expanding human population would one day outstrip the earth’s ability to feed it.

His predictions did not come to pass because he failed to predict the agricultural and industrial revolutions that would substantially increase yields and enable larger amounts of people to be fed. However, today, issues such as continuing population growth, rising per capita consumption, depletion of natural resources and climate change suggest that Malthus might have been on the right track after all.

In light of the anniversary of his birth and one of the strongest El Niño events, which caused 2015 to be the warmest year in history, we have published a briefing to emphasize the relevance of Malthus’ theory to food security today. In the briefing, we set out the elements which fail to contribute to, or are threatening, food production in the future — such as biotechnology, the increase in natural disasters and water scarcity.

Our findings show that population growth, the depletion of natural resources and the increase in extreme weather events are increasing the risk of crop failure, and thus food insecurity.

More about Malthus and his ideas

See at a glance how the UK’s population has changed since Malthus’ time, in our quick-reference infographics:

UK population changes before 1950UK population changes in the era before 1950 UK population changes from 1950 to todayUK population changes from 1950 to today
Briefing: Why Malthus is still relevant todayDownload our briefing examining why Malthus is still relevant today.

Curious to know more? Try our Malthus FAQs:

Frequently-asked questions about Thomas Malthus

Who was Thomas Robert Malthus?

Malthus predicted that exponential population growth would lead to food shortages

Malthus was an 18th century English economist and demographer from Wescott, Surrey, who became famous for his theory on population. According to Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population, while population typically grows exponentially (2, 4, 8, 16…), food supply only increases arithmetically (2, 4, 6, 8, 10…), therefore creating the conditions for food shortages in the future. He advocated, to avoid this, behaviour leading to a reduction in the birth rate. He was also concerned that population growth would increase the supply of labour and thus drive down wage rates.
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How influential was “An Essay on the Principle of Population”?

An Essay on the Principle of Population, by Thomas Malthus

An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) was one of the most influential pieces of writing of its era. Not only did it help inspire Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Wallace’s theories of natural selection, it also started the debate on Britain’s population size and sped up the passing of the Census (or Population) Act 1800. This new act would provide the government with information on societal patterns, which would also help with military recruitment for the continuing war with France.
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Why did Malthus’ predictions not come to pass?

Malthus failed to anticipate the agricultural revolution

Malthus failed to anticipate the agricultural revolution, which caused food production to meet or exceed population growth and made prosperity possible for an ever-larger number of people. The occurrence of famine has fallen markedly, with famine in the modern era usually caused by war, destructive government policies or price controls on food. While Malthus recommended abstaining from sex before marriage, and late marriage, to reduce the birth rate, he didn’t predict advances in artificial contraception.
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What is neo-Malthusianism?

Neo-Malthusianism is a school of thought that shares the same basic concerns as Malthus, advocating population control programmes to ensure sufficient resources for present and future generations.
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What is a “Malthusian crisis”?

A Malthusian crisis is when mass starvation occurs because the population in any given area has exceeded its food supply. The population then decreases, and the cycle repeats until there is balance between a population and its food supply.
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What are preventive and positive checks?

“Preventive” and what was called “positive” checks are two different kinds of events that limit population growth. A preventive check reduces the birth rate, while a positive check increases the death rate.

Moral restraint, prostitution and birth control are the main preventive checks. Of these, Malthus advocated moral restraint, i.e. celibacy before marriage and later marriage.

Malthus warned that failure to prevent human overpopulation could result in famine, misery, plague and war

Positive checks, on the other hand, referred to famine, misery, plague and war. If preventive checks did not reduce the number of the poor, Malthus believed that positive checks would be the consequence.
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Is Malthus still relevant today?

The UK’s population could exceed 70 million by 2027
The UK’s population could
exceed 70 million by 2027

Yes. Although Malthus did not find the right answers, he raised awareness of the need to balance population growth with the ability to provide for it. In the 20th century, Malthus’ theory was used by environmentalists to emphasize the earth’s inability to sustain an ever-growing number of people, and that resources will run out unless population growth is slowed and reversed. Questions remain about whether growth in the production of food and other resources will match population growth during the 21st century.
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