Thomas Malthus Published His Famous Essay (1798)

Thomas Malthus published “An Essay on the Principle of Population” on June 7, 1798.  The essay and the name of Malthus have become synonymous with the idea that humans, because of the growth of their population, will eventually run out of resources, leading to conflict and famine.  In other words, human existence is fundamentally unsustainable.

Thomas Robert Malthus, 1834 (Portrait by John Linnell)

            Thomas Robert Malthus was an English academic and cleric who lived from 1766 to 1834.  He was educated at Cambridge University and eventually became a professor of history and political economy.  He was deeply interested in the statistics of populations, from birth to death and everything in between—co-founding the Statistical Society of London in 1834.  His work was sufficiently regarded to earn him membership in the Royal Society and the Political Economy Club.  Despite his high ranking in society, it seems he was a pretty regular guy—he always just called himself “Bob.”

            While Malthus’ other works may have been important during his life, it is his essay about population that has maintained his prominence today.  In the essay, he relates that the human population grows exponentially—that is, very rapidly—while the ability of humans to raise food and other necessary resources grows arithmetically—that is, rather slowly.  Malthus reasoned that the size of the human population would eventually outgrow available resources and a state of misery and vice would take over, effectively but painfully keeping the human population in check.  In other words, human life as we know it is not sustainable.

            Malthus’ idea is generally cited as the argument for pessimism in the future by environmentalists who view humankind through dim eyes.  For example, the idea is basically the same as that advanced by Paul Ehrlich in his 1969 book, The Population Bomb, which predicted that global famine would prevail as early as the 1970s.   Malthusian ideas (now often referred to as Neo-Malthusian) remain popular.

The cover of Malthus’ famous essay

            Malthus also believed that because misery was the tool that nature used to check the size of the human population, attempts to improve the conditions of the poor were misguided.  Helping the poor, he reasoned, reduced misery, leading to higher birth rates and population growth—which would eventually lead to more misery.  We know today that reality shows the exact opposite.  Improved quality of life, through better nutrition, health care, education and the like, does lead to a higher population growth rate for a time, but then the growth rate slows and then stabilizes.  Prosperity, not poverty, checks population growth.

References:

BBC History.  Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).  Available at:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/malthus_thomas.shtml.  Accessed June 8, 2017.

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Thomas Malthus.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Malthus. Accessed June 8, 2017.

Library of Economics and Liberty.  An Essay on the Principle of Population.  Available at:  http://www.econlib.org/library/Malthus/malPopCover.html. Accessed June 8, 2017.

Library of Economics and Liberty.  Thomas Robert Malthus.  Available at http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/bios/Malthus.html. Accessed June 8, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

June 1
US Announced Withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement (2017)
June 2
Edwin Way Teale, Nature Writer, Born (1899)
June 2
Rodne Galicha, Philippine Environmentalist, Born (1979)
June 3
The World’s First Wilderness Area Established (1924)
June 4
Gaylord Nelson, Politician and Conservationist, Born (1916)
June 5
World Environment Day
June 6
Novarupta Volcano Erupted in Alaska (1912)
June 7
Thomas Malthus Published His Famous Essay (1798)
June 8
Bryce Canyon National Park Created (1923)
June 9
Coral Triangle Day
June 10
E. O. Wilson, Father of Biodiversity, Born (1929)
June 11
Jacques Cousteau, Ocean Explorer, Born (1910)
June 12
Frank Chapman, Creator of the Christmas Bird Count, Born (1864)
June 13
Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, Born (1944)
June 14
Bramble Cay Melomys Went Extinct (2016)
June 15
Global Wind Day
June 16
Gray Whale Delisted (1994)
June 17
World Day to Combat Desertification
June 18
Alexander Wetmore, Ornithologist and Smithsonian Leader, Born (1866)
June 19
Feast of the Forest, Palawan, Philippines
June 20
Great Barrier Reef Protected (1975)
June 21
World Hydrography Day
June 22
Cuyahoga River Burst into Flames (1969)
June 23
Antarctic Treaty Implemented (1961)
June 24
David McTaggart, Greenpeace Leader, Born (1932)
June 25
David Douglas, Pioneering Botanist, Born (1799)
June 26
United Nations Chartered (1945)
June 27
Tajik National Park Added to World Heritage List (2013)
June 28
Mark Shand, Asian Elephant Conservationist, Born (1951)
June 29
Mesa Verde National Park Created (1906)
June 30
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Created (1940)
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