Essay on Malthus from the Economist (Somewhat off-topic)

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Jan 3, 2000, 3:00:00 AM1/3/00
This week, The Economist has a special Millenium issue, touching on a
whole host of topics. I highly recommend just about all of the
articles, and urge anyone who has any contact with college or upper
level high school-age students to pass along the magazine to them, as
it is an excellent survey of the last 1000 years. This article on
Malthus was particularly interesting, as was the one on economic growth
in the last 250 years.



In 1,000 years, the human race has multiplied 20-fold. Today’s 6
billion people may be 9 billion by 2050. Yet the increase has slowed;
rich nations breed less.
The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to
produce subsistence for man that premature death must in some shape or
other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able
ministers of depopulation...but should they fail in this war of
extermination, sickly seasons, epidemic, pestilence and plague advance
in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands.
Should success be still incomplete, gigantic, inevitable famine stalks
in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the
food of the world.
WHEN Thomas Malthus, an English economist, in 1798 published his “Essay
on the Principle of Population” , quoted above, he caused a sensation.
At the time the world’s population was close to 1 billion, having risen
slowly and erratically from maybe 300m at the start of the millennium;
which in turn was probably not much, if at all, more than it had been
in 1AD. And today? Give or take the odd 100m of us, 6 billion.
When Malthus wrote, there was no widespread sense that numbers were
running out of control. The general mood was upbeat. Indeed, most
thinkers considered a growing population a good thing: more people,
more hands at work, more output.
A century earlier, a pioneer statistician, Gregory King, had predicted
that the human race would double from its then total of around 650m in
about 600 years’ time, and ventured boldly:
If the world should continue to [16052AD], it might then have
In fact it will do so in about 2006.
By Malthus’s time, a few prophets of doom had begun to give forth.
Giammaria Ortes, an Italian economist, wrote in 1790 that no one wanted
to see humanity grow
not only beyond the number of persons that could breathe on the
earth, but to such a number as could not be contained on all its
surface, from lowest valley to highest mountain, crammed together like
dried herrings in a barrel.
But Malthus’s message was much more urgent than that. Some-probably
unrepresentative-American figures gathered by Benjamin Franklin had
persuaded him that, unless checked, most populations were likely to
double every 25 years, increasing at a geometric rate (1,2,4,8,16 and
so on), while food supplies would grow at only an arithmetic rate
(1,2,3,4,5 and so on). Sooner or later the food was bound to run out.
Mankind had a choice: either let matters take their course, thus
inviting “positive” checks-wars, plagues and famines-to reduce numbers
to sustainable levels; or adopt “preventative” checks to ensure fewer
children, for example by bridling passion and delaying marriage.
Malthus was not optimistic that enough people would choose restraint.
He himself tried to set an example by not marrying until he was 38 (and
then had three children in quick succession).

Malthus was wrong in expecting populations to double every 25 years.
But not far wrong: in the 200 years since he wrote, the time it takes
mankind to double has shrunk from several centuries to 40 years. And he
was clearly right to note that the earth’s resources are finite, though
he vastly underestimated man’s ingenuity in utilising them more
efficiently, and at making new inventions. Technology and innovation,
speeded up by the industrial revolution, allowed food supplies to
increase at a faster-than-arithmetical rate. Even during Malthus’s
lifetime, crop land was being expanded rapidly as forests were felled,
and innovations such as crop rotation and selective breeding brought
large increases in yields. These continue, through the “green
revolution” of the 1950s to today’s high-yielding, if unloved,
genetically engineered crops.

What Malthus could not have predicted, since nothing like it had ever
happened before and it was barely under way by his day, was something
known now as the “demographic transition”: the way societies alter as
they get richer. First comes a decline in mortality, leading to a short
population explosion; then, after an interval of variable length, a
steep decline in the birth rate, which slows, halts or may even reverse
the rise in numbers.

For most of human history, people had lots of children, of whom many
died in infancy. If things were going well, and there were no serious
wars, epidemics or famines, more would be born, more would survive
longer, and populations would rise. From about 1000 to 1300, Europe
enjoyed a spurt of economic growth. A lot of new land was taken into
cultivation, and the number of cities multiplied. The population
doubled or trebled.

Enter, in 1347, via the Mediterranean, the Black Death. Within a few
years this plague had traversed the continent. By 1400 Europe’s
population had shrunk by maybe 25m, about one-third. Plague reappeared
periodically over the next three centuries, the last big wave rolling
over north-western Europe in the later 17th century, soon after the
Thirty Years War, which had already slashed Germany’s population. In
the New World, smallpox brought by Spanish conquistadors and European
settlers in the 16th century killed maybe 10m-20m of the native
populations. Not even the 20th century has escaped such scourges: the
worldwide flu of 1918-19 is thought to have caused 25m-40m deaths, far
more than the first world war; and since 1980 AIDS has killed some 12m
people, so far.

In pre-industrial Europe, frequent food crises also served as periodic
population checks. When bad harvests pushed up the cost of grain, more
people died and, while the trouble lasted, couples had fewer child-
ren. Figures from Tuscany (not alone) in the 16th-18th centuries show
grain prices and mortality closely correlated. But by the 19th century
the days of famine in Europe were largely over, except in Ireland,
where the potato blight of 1846-47 and its side-effects may have killed
a sixth of the 8m-odd people.

The transition begins

By the mid-19th century most of Europe was in the first stage of the
demographic transition. Mortality had lessened, as wars, famines and
epidemics had; local food shortages were rarer, thanks to better
economic organisation and transport; public health, medical care
(notably, midwifery) and the control of infectious diseases such as
cholera and smallpox had improved. The population spurted, as Malthus
had predicted. Between 1800 and 1900 Europe’s population doubled, to
over 400m, whereas that of Asia, further behind in the demographic
transition, increased by less than 50%, to about 950m.
Europe by now was crowded, and most worthwhile land already under the
plough. But there was space elsewhere. Thanks to a steady trickle of
migration over the previous three centuries, North and South America by
1800 each held about 4m people of European extraction. From around 1850
that trickle became a flood. Over the next 100 years or so, some 50m
Europeans quit their continent, most going to North America, others to
South America and the Antipodes. At the peak of this wave of
emigration, Europe was exporting about a third of the natural increase
in its population.

But something else was happening there that would have taken Malthus by
surprise: as people came to expect to live longer, and better, they
started to have fewer children. They realised they no longer needed
several babies just to ensure that two or three would survive. And as
they moved from country to town, they also found that children were no
longer an economic asset that could be set to work at an early age, but
a liability to be fed, housed and (some of them) educated, for years.
Worse, with too many children, a mother would find it hard to take and
keep a job, to add to the family income. Nor were offspring any longer
a guarantee against a destitute old age: in the new industrial society,
they were likelier to go their own way.

Thanks to Europe’s new-found restraint, in the past 100 years or so its
population has risen only 80%, to 730m, and most countries’ birth rate
is now so low that numbers are static or falling. But their composition
is very different from the past: better living standards, health and
health care are multiplying old heads, even as the number of young ones

In contrast, Asia’s population over the same time has nearly
quadrupled, to more than 3.6 billion. North America’s too has grown
almost as fast, but largely thanks to immigration. Africa’s has
multiplied 51/2 times, and Latin America’s nearly sevenfold.

Why these differences? From around 1950, mortality in developing
countries also began to fall, and much faster than it ever had in
Europe. The know-how needed to avoid premature death, especially of
small children, travelled so readily that life expectancy in many poor
countries is now not far behind the rich world’s. But the attitudes and
values that persuade people to have fewer children are taking longer to

Yet adjust they do. In China, the world’s most populous country, with
over 1.2 billion people, and still relatively poor, the demographic
transition is already almost complete; not only has mortality come down
faster than in other countries with similar income levels, but in
recent decades a sometimes brutal population policy (now being relaxed
a little) has restricted couples to one or two children. India’s
population rushed ahead for longer, and has just reached 1 billion,
despite attempts to slow it, including a period in the 1970s when the
government promoted large-scale sterilisation. The UN’s “medium-
variant” forecast is that by 2050 India’s headcount may be over 1.5
billion, slightly ahead of China’s. Yet in India too fertility has
fallen fast. Only in Africa is population growth still rampant, though
slowed by AIDS, which in some countries is killing a large proportion
of the young adults.

Does more mean worse?

Demographers like to dramatise this recent population growth by asking
a spooky question. Of all the people who have ever lived, how many are
alive today? The answer requires a lot of guesswork, except for the
very recent past; but a fair estimate for the number of people born
throughout human history is 80 billion-100 billion. With mankind now
numbering 6 billion, the astonishing answer must be: 6-7%. The figures
are even more spectacular if you count man-years lived rather than
people, because life for early man was usually short: at birth, he
could expect 20 years of it in 10000BC, only 27 as late as 1750AD, and
58 today. On that reckoning, those alive today account for one-sixth of
the time that humans collectively have spent on earth.
Is all this rise in numbers necessarily a bad thing? Economists have
disputed endlessly: does it promote economic growth, by expanding the
workforce, or, if it happens too quickly, choke growth off? Their
answers seem to boil down to an unhelpful “It all depends.” But then
governments’ population policies are not guided solely by economics.
Prussia’s Frederick the Great made a sharp political point when he
observed in the 18th century that “a country’s wealth is the number of
its men.” Two centuries later, Mao Zedong insisted that “China’s vast
population should be viewed as a positive asset.”

Of course, numbers are not the only measure. The United States, with
its 275m people, has less than 5% of the planet’s population, yet it
dominates the other 95%. Still, in many rich countries the birth rate
has now fallen so low that the population is actually shrinking; and in
some their governments see this as a problem. Their main fear may be
that soon there will be too few young workers around to pay for older
ones’ pensions. But at the back of their minds there may also be the
thought that, say, a Japan of 105m people in 2050 (the UN’s medium
forecast) might carry less clout than today’s Japan of 125m.

Many say the globe is already overcrowded, risking environmental
disasters such as global warming and pervasive pollution. Nonsense, say
others: with careful management it could carry plenty more, say 10
billion. A few optimists, if that’s the word, muse that, with a bit of
squeezing and the astute use of technology, the figure might be several
times that, maybe even 100 billion.

One thing is sure: even if from tomorrow every couple on earth
practised Malthusian restraint and stopped at two children, the
momentum built up by the huge population growth in developing countries
since 1950 will keep numbers rising fast for decades to come; the UN’s
medium forecast for 2050 is 8.9 billion people. But, fingers crossed,
soon thereafter even the poorest countries may have lost their
enthusiasm for large families, while couples in some richer countries
may-may-have rediscovered that two children are, and have, more fun
than one. A century or so from now, if mankind survives that long, its
number may have reached a new (and surely better) steady state.

(C) Copyright 1999, The Economist

The Constitution divides authority between federal and state governments
for the protection of individuals. State sovereignty is not just an end
in itself: "Rather, federalism secures to citizens the liberties that
derive from the diffusion of sovereign power." - NY v. US (1992)

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Before you buy.


Jan 9, 2000, 3:00:00 AM1/9/00
Langrrr wrote:

: In 1,000 years, the human race has multiplied 20-fold. Today's 6

: billion people may be 9 billion by 2050. Yet the increase has slowed;
: rich nations breed less.

: (C) Copyright 1999, The Economist

Population figures before 1950 are more or less pure speculation
and have almost no scientific basis at all! You may believe in a
20-fold multiplication in 1,000 years. To me however, the assumption
that the most intelligent species had a population of far less than
1 billion during hundreds of thousands of years seems rather absurd.


Wouldn't it make sense to compare at the BEGIN of this millennium the
predictions of standard demography with the only reasonable alternative
(I know of), the Demographic Saturation Theory?

Within this theory the latest demographic data makes it more and more
evident that mankind cannot grow beyond 7 billion.

There has never been a decade in human history which could have shown
limitations or even errors of the basic ideas of Malthusian demography
better than the current decade.


It's clear that modern demography isn't based only on Malthus' over-
simplistic claims about human population growth. But this is just the
result of the ordinary scientific progress and of the addition of lots of
demographic ad-hoc-hypotheses.

Essentially, modern demography is based on the same principles as Malthus'
over-simplistic claims. You should really study population pyramids of
different countries. Fertilily rates are even more revealing. In all yet
suturated populations you can see (more or less) the same pattern and
there is no reason at all to assume that in the not yet saturated
populations a different pattern will emerge.

Do you think that it is pure chance that in more and more countries the
absolute number of births becomes more or less the same as number of
deaths, independently of economic and social development and of the number
of women in reproductive age?

Do you think that there is no fundamental reason why the problems
"population aging" and "infertily" follow "overpopulation" everywhere
(where death rates are low)?

Look at the nations, populations or social groups which were considered
mainly responsible for the overpopulation problem 10 years ago, 20 years
ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago. Look at the fertility difference between
Eastern and Western Europe before World War II. Did overpopulation of
Eastern Europe become reality? Look at Malthusian predictions for Western

See also


Wolfgang Gottfried G. (0:008.88)


Jan 9, 2000, 3:00:00 AM1/9/00
Langrrr wrote:

: In 1,000 years, the human race has multiplied 20-fold. Today's 6

: billion people may be 9 billion by 2050. Yet the increase has slowed;
: rich nations breed less.

: (C) Copyright 1999, The Economist


Jan 10, 2000, 3:00:00 AM1/10/00
In article <85atfc$b56$>,
"z@z" <> wrote:
> Langrrr wrote:
> : In 1,000 years, the human race has multiplied 20-fold. Today's 6

> : billion people may be 9 billion by 2050. Yet the increase has
> : rich nations breed less.
> : (C) Copyright 1999, The Economist
> Population figures before 1950 are more or less pure speculation
> and have almost no scientific basis at all! You may believe in a
> 20-fold multiplication in 1,000 years. To me however, the assumption
> that the most intelligent species had a population of far less than
> 1 billion during hundreds of thousands of years seems rather absurd.

Wolfgang -

1) This wasn't my essay, it was one from the Economist;
2) It was an essay, for the most part, on why Malthus was wrong;
3) Besides the fact that the first true homo sapiens were few and far
between, how do you think a population of 1 Billion would have survived
on a diet based on hunting and gathering?

- Andrew Langer

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