Thomas Malthus Born (1766)

Thomas Robert Malthus, a British cleric turned economist, was born on February 13, 1766 (died 1834).  Malthus is famous for a small booklet he published in 1798, entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers.  Originally published anonymously, Malthus later took credit for the work and wrote a continuous string of expansions and updates throughout his life.

In the booklet, Malthus made the fundamental argument that the human species is destined for a recurring series of tragedies—war, famine, disease.  The cause?  Humans (and all species) reproduce so fast that they outstrip the production of resources—chiefly food—to support them.  The consequence of too many people and not enough food is, therefore, tragedy.  This concept—now called Malthusian or Neo-Malthusian—became the centerpiece of environmental thought in the 1960s as ecologists wrestled with worries over a rapidly growing world population.

Malthus grew up in the small market town of Dorking, in southern England.  He was educated at home by his father, until enrolling at Cambridge University’s Jesus College.  He was ordained into the Anglican Church.  He became a professor of “political economy”—the first such post in England—and taught at a college in Hertfordshire, England, for his entire life.  He wrote much about economic theory, most of which was contrary to conventional thought at the time.  For example, while others were suggesting that human life would eventually evolve to a state of perfection, Malthus believed otherwise.  Helping the poor, he thought, would just lead them to have more children, which would produce more poverty.  The obvious endpoint would be famine, disease and strife, leading to a reduction in population through misery—and then the cycle could begin again.

Thomas Malthus, 1853 (oil painting by John Linnell, photo by Welcomme Images)

He expressed these ideas in his 1798 booklet, and it found an immediate and sympathetic audience.  However, we remember Malthus today because his message especially resonated when the science of ecology arrived in the 20th Century.  Ecologists studying populations of animals watched as their numbers grew at exponential rates to high densities, outstripping their food supplies and then ending in massive starvation.  They revived Malthus’ ideas to warn post-World-War-II society that the rapid growth of human populations would end up the same way.  When Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford ecologist, wrote The Population Bomb in 1969, he again popularized Malthus’ view of the human condition.

Fortunately, neither Malthus’ dire view nor Ehrlich’s have come to pass.  With the huge agricultural improvements that we know as the Green Revolution, food supply has grown faster than population.  And improvements in standard of living throughout the world have led not to higher population growth rates, but to lower ones.

References:

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Thomas Malthus.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Malthus.  Accessed February 12, 2017.

The Victorian Web.  Thomas Robert Malthus.  Available at:  http://www.victorianweb.org/economics/malthus.html.  Accessed February 12, 2017.

Understanding Evolution.  The Ecology of Human Populations:  Thomas Malthus.  University of California, Berkeley, Understanding Evolution website.  Available at:  http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/history_07.  Accessed February 12, 2017

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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