Thomas Malthus, the Man Who Warned the World About Overpopulation
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Thomas Malthus, the Man Who Warned the World About Overpopulation

In his lifetime Thomas Malthus saw the population climb over the 1 billion mark. He started making people aware of the concerns with human overpopulation. Who was Thomas Malthus? Is the world over populated? Is there a risk of human over population? What did Thomas Malthus believe?

Most religious leaders push for growth in their congregation, some religions even ban birth control. Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus was an exception to this rule, and an exceptionally brilliant man, whose thoughts were ahead of his time, and perhaps even ahead of our current time.

Born in Surrey, England, February 22, 1766, his views were very much against the popular views of the time. When most saw European society as getting better, and thought improvement in society was virtually limitless, Malthus saw dangers to prosperity and unlimited growth, particularly with unchecked population growth.

Thomas Malthus

photo source

In 1798 he published the first of six editions of “An Essay on the Principle of Population”. In his writings Malthus noted that as much as populations grow they are eventually held in check through famine, disease, or other forces. He realized that in order to have a “Perfect” society, populations had to be kept in check, because if allowed to explode there would always be suffering. He wrote “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”.

He would have been aware of the crippling effect the Plague outbreaks had on the population of Europe only a few hundred years earlier. He would have seen the steady growth of population in his area at the time, although clearly dwarfed by the population growth of our time.

The works of Thomas Malthus were read by none other than Charles Darwin and other philosophers, intellectuals, and scientists of the time and years to come.

What angered so many at the time, particularly others in the church, as that Malthus considered overpopulation to be a “Test” by God, one that other religious leaders were failing to see. In his eyes Malthus (a clergyman) suggested that God punished humanity for overpopulation by causing wars, famine, and disease.  He argued that people should be having fewer children or God would continue to offer these evils.

He noted not only that populations need to be controlled because the earth could not support continued growth, and suggested there were two types of control measures, positive, and preventative.

The preventative measures were that which controlled pregnancy from occurring, birth control, postponement of marriage, and celibacy. The positive measures (perhaps a confusing name) where those that saw increases of death, such as sickness, war, and famine. Even poverty was seen as a positive measure. Malthus (perhaps ignorant) thought that poor people would not have children they could not afford, and thus the population would be maintained.

He noted that when wages increased so did the birth rate, while the death rate decreased, and as such saw problems with wealth and prosperity.

population chart

photo source

In his lifetime Thomas Malthus saw the population climb over the 1 billion mark. A number he saw as too high. As of fall 2011 the human population is over 7 billion and we have committed the sin of relying on resources that are not replaceable, and as such we have crossed a line.

Thomas Malthus, himself the second youngest of seven children, married and had three children, and left a legacy of people who are concerned with world population growth and see the problems that most seem ignorant of.

Those people who concern themselves with world overpopulation may call themselves Malthusians, and note that at least one fact has changed from Thomas's time. He thought that the poor would limit their own population growth and not have more children than they could afford. In our times the government looks after children financially when their parents cannot afford to care for them. The wealthy are often putting off having children, or having smaller families. Money is sent to poor countries to help them keep their people alive, and money is put into staving off death from disease.

We have clearly ignored the warning of more than 200 years ago, and perhaps we are being punished...

Related Links

The Human Overpopulation Problem

The Greatest Global Disaster of our Time

How Many People does it take to Screw Up the Planet?

Theories on Dinosaur Extinction

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Comments (8)
Ranked #7 in Philosophy

Very well said Brenda. Malthus indeed miscalculate the capacity of the poor to have less children. In my country, the poor people were the ones who have more children than the rich. Great article.

Interesting, but his ideas are incomplete. He talks about the judgment of God, but population is really just an equilibrium based upon surroundings. Obviously, the world's population has not reached equilibrium yet, but there is a genuine limit to what the earth can handle. Perhaps then colonizing other planets would become profitable and necessary.

to Dustin, we have exceeded the equilibrium of the earths ability to sustain us the moment we started relying on non-renewable resources. Take a trip around the world and see how the resources are being raped, the vanishing rainforest, deforestion in Canada, much faster than it can recover... huge quarries, oil fields...

This is true, but it always will reach equilibrium one way or the other. On the micro scale, the decisions we make, like missing the trash can with a bottle or burning down some rainforest so our family can eat, seem small, but the collective damage of society continues because of the existence of these resources. In this way, population reaches a number similar to the way that supply and demand arrive t a price in economics. Sooner or later, our collective decisions will cause the population to retract again, especially in light of the use of non-renewable resources. I discussed the necessity of moving from non-renewable resources in my nuclear and oil articles: and Whatever happens, the population can only maintain a given number as long as it has the resources to support that number. It just so happens that we haven't found that "magic quantity" of the earth's maximum population--yet.

Very interesting historical data, I had heard of him but didn't know a great deal about him.

Actually the United Nations stated some time ago that they felt a sustainable population was around 5 Billion, many scientists have actually argued that its really more like 500 million. With humans to blame for the holocene extinction, we have clearly exceeded any "magic" number.

if China did not implemented 'one child policy' our population could have been much much bigger

Really well written, informative article Brenda. Of course we have to keep an eye on over population but as the world has its own way of 'culling' Floods in Pakistan, tsunami, earth quakes, flu, aids ect it will all work out in the end.