The Malthus Bicentennial

By John Rohe
Volume 8, Number 1 (Fall 1997)
Issue theme: "Carrying capacity and caring capacity: are they at odds?"

Next year marks the bicentennial anniversary of one of the most controversial essays in Western thought. In 1798, the Industrial Revolution was dawning. Prospects of more people producing more merchandise led to a prevalent sense of optimism. In this setting, Thomas Robert Malthus predicted human populations could not grow perpetually on a finite planet. "Misery and vice" would, according to Malthus, eventually bring the number of people into balance with available resources. Amid the enthusiasm for more people, Malthus saw distress as inevitable. The essay could forever change our view of nature and of ourselves, yet there would have been little reason to expect an enduringly clairvoyant forecast from 1798.

Mobility was still on horseback or by foot. Medical cures often entailed greater risks than the underlying disease. In this pre-scientific era, Malthus cracked the door to one of nature's best kept and most formidable secrets. He observed excess reproduction among all flora and fauna in the biological kingdom. Some thrive; many perish. We now recognize excess production as a universal law of nature, but in 1798, this law had to be pried from nature's firm clutch. Malthus extended these laws of nature to human populations. Accordingly, he anticipated the affinity for growth would lead to our demise. He was labeled a heretic and became the inspiration for Dickens' "grasping, squeezing, covetous old sinner," Ebenezer Scrooge.

John F. Rohe is an attorney in northern Michigan. He is active in a variety of conservation projects, and is the author of A Bicentennial Malthusian Essay, recently published by Rhodes & Easton. The book may be ordered from The Social Contract Press, 1-800-352-4843.

Unbounded optimism now accompanies stock market surges. Economic growth abounds, surplus food swells in our breakfast nook and more comforts of life are enjoyed by ever more people. We are feeling good about ourselves. If everything is right, Malthus must have been wrong. Right?

"Confidence in perpetual growth has become the unexamined conviction of the 20th century." Maybe these 200-year-old ideas are obsolete. And maybe they explain whatever ails you today. Name it. Road rage. Urban sprawl. Loss of farmland and open space. National parks loved to death. Congestion. Violence. Incivility. Biodiversity losses. Endangered species. Pollution. Ozone depletion. Greenhouse effect. Carnage on the highways. Hunger. Malnutrition. Food shortages. Unbounded immigration. Landfill expansions. Radioactive waste disposal. Pick your cause and you will find Malthus had a finger on the pulse of your discontent. Malthusian predictions are quietly unfolding amid blind economic optimism.

Confidence in perpetual growth has become the unexamined conviction of the 20th century. It governs our business affairs and every economic report. Were Malthus our conscience today, we would be reminded that economic optimism only temporarily liberates us from the rigors of biological reality.

The planet now experiences a daily net population gain of 250,000 people (total births minus deaths), and over one billion of us go to bed hungry every night. Several hundred thousand slip beyond the brink of malnutrition every year while per capita food production continues to dwindle day by day.

Our economic experience resembles the optim-ism prevalent at the dawn of the Industrial Revo-lution. Malthus found it necessary to publish his essay anonymously. Did he spoil the party for some? Or did he hope to keep it going for others? Was he truly a Scrooge-like figure? Or might he have been the most misunderstood humanitarian of all time?

The lofty perch we seemingly occupy at the top of the food chain is a mere illusion. We remain perilously embedded in the ecosystem. Forty percent of Americans breathe air unfit for human consumption by federal standards. Ground waters are contaminated, endangered species are dislodged, and natural habitats are eclipsed by our cultural priorities. The feverish affinity for growth compels dispiriting urban sprawl and the construction of places not worthy of our affection. Yet we mindlessly maintain faith in growth while clinging to the frontier's romantic mystique. Is there truly no limit whatever to the earth's horizons and natural resources?

The Malthusian message about limits becomes particularly poignant when optimism clouds our sense of reality, as it did in 1798. And as it does now. We remain indifferent to limits at our peril. Implicit in our present optimism is an abiding faith that laws of nature do not apply to the human experiment. We were not exempt from the laws of nature unveiled by Thomas Robert Malthus in 1798. And we are not exempt now.