mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Defusing the Population Bomb
The Gray Lady Falls For the Malthus Trap

In 1798, Thomas Malthus famously predicted that inexorable population growth would eventually surpass our planet’s ability to sustain humanity, leading to widespread famine, disease, and privation. He was wrong then, and he’s still wrong now, though there is no shortage of latter-day Malthus acolytes. Yesterday the New York Times wondered, “Might Thomas Malthus be vindicated in the end?” as it covered a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

[W]hat most stood out in the report from the panel, which gathers every few years to produce a synthesis of mainstream science’s take on climate change, was that it rolled straight into Malthus’s territory, providing its starkest warning yet about the challenge imposed by global warming on the world’s food supply. […]

[T]he new report is much more pessimistic about the prospect of extra grain production in the globe’s temperate zones, where more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would increase the rate of photosynthesis, raising yields, and warmer weather would lengthen the growing season.

The IPCC’s latest report does raise some very real worries about humanity’s ability to cope with a changing climate. But the Gray Lady gives the Reverend Malthus entirely too much credit—and humanity too little—when she says that “Malthus’s prediction was based on an eminently sensible premise: that the earth’s carrying capacity has a limit.” But this limit is not fixed; it’s elastic. And recent data suggest that this carrying capacity is not strictly a function of natural confines, but rather is dependent on humanity’s ability to innovate.

Malthusianism is one of the most persistent delusions out there. It fails to grasp that people don’t just add cost—they add creativity and ingenuity. Population Bomb adherents think of people as bacteria on a petri dish that only eat their food supply, reproduce, and die. But people don’t just consume; they create. That creativity can never be predicted or measured in advance, which is why many projections into the future look like Malthusian doom scenarios. But thanks to adaptability and creativity, the human race always finds another way to thrive.

We aren’t prepared to say that human creativity is infinite, but there aren’t many signs that we’ve yet glimpsed its limit. Indeed, the rise of biotechnologies and gene modifications suggest that we are on the verge of one of the greatest revolutions yet as IT and biology meet.

Malthusianism is what you get when intellectuals lose touch with humanism, and forget just how creative and remarkable human beings are.

Features Icon
show comments
  • qet

    Malthus, Marx, Keynes, Friedman–plus ca change.

  • Ronald Whitehead

    Malthus could still be right. When rich statists turn food production to green energy production (corn ethanol) people starve.

  • Eliza Qwghlm

    Would you expect managers & editors who inherited their position and wealth to truly understand the human ability to innovate?

  • Breif2

    “Malthusianism is what you get when intellectuals lose touch with
    humanism, and forget just how creative and remarkable human beings are.”

    Intellectuals such as me and you are obviously highly creative and remarkable, but we hardly balance out those teeming hordes [shudder].

  • Nick Bidler

    Always note: it’s never ‘us’ who are discouraged from breeding (though this is just and right, of course), but always dark people from far-off places who should tamp down life or hope for a better tomorrow. They’re doing nothing to make sure these finite resources last for as long as we can make them, for those who can make the most of that time (educated right-thinking sorts, like, I don’t know…).

    In short, false virtue is the thing I hate most.

  • Jagneel

    Yeh. But creative ones are not the ones that are doing much of the breeding.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    It’s important to remember that you can still have a Malthusian trap with a positive rate of technological innovation. If innovation makes the food supply increase, population tends to increase at some fixed rate, irrespective of whether the food supply increase was small or large. If the food supply increase was small, then population outstrips it and crashes (although it usually stabilizes at a slightly higher number, reflecting the slightly better food yield). But if technological increase can manage to keep the food supply growing faster than the population, then there’s no crash. It’s all just a system of differential equations.

    The good news is that the rate of increase in innovation appears to be dependent on both the existing base of technology and the size of the population, so we can hope that it will continue to increase. But Malthus can return at any point; the rate of population increase is also dependent on the population. If population increase outstrips innovation at any point, you get a Malthusian crash. After that, you get to find out whether you’re back in the trap or not.

  • Louis1453

    Why is everyone talking and writing about Malthus without ever having read his work? Here’s the relevant quote:
    “The power of the earth to produce subsistence is certainly not unlimited, but it is strictly speaking indefinite; that is, its limits are not defined, and the
    time will probably never arrive when we shall be able to say, that no further labour or ingenuity of man could make further additions to it.”

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service