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19th Century Population Growth According to Thomas Malthus

"The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." --Thomas Malthus

With the world's population nearing 8 billion, many people are discussing the likely influences that the growing number of people  will have on available resources and ecosystems.  Population growth is not  a new issue, in fact, one name most commonly associated with concern over a growing population is that of 19th-century English scholar, Thomas Malthus.

What Malthus Believed

Malthus argued that while population increases exponentially, the amount of food we grow only increases arithmetically. He postulates that this reality is determined by two laws of nature:

  1. Food is and always will be necessary for people to live
  2. "The passion between the sexes," as he puts it, is likely to remain a regular component in the lives of people.

Using the United States as an example, he suggests that with plenty of food and nothing to get in the way of marriage, population will typically double every twenty-five years.

As long as that is the case, food supplies can't be expected to keep up with the needs of the human population unless certain checks, like war, disease and famine manage to reduce the populace.

Public Policy Inspired by Malthus

In Malthus' time, his theory was applied to criticism of England's 19th-century Poor Law, which provided citizens a welfare system that helped those unable to find work. The poor were given funds that came out of taxes on the middle and upper classes, which caused considerable resentment. Malthus addressed his disapproval of the law in the essay itself. He saw these laws as encouraging people to have more children, which in his view, they could not afford. Thereby violating the natural checks on population required to avoid a catastrophe of diminishing resources.  His points became part of the justification behind passing a "New Poor Law" in 1834 that was much harsher on the poor, but helped reel in public spending.

Later, his ideas were adapted to support the views of eugenicists. The concept of eugenics was introduced by Francis Galton, who linked the fear of overpopulation with the need to discourage reproduction in members of society deemed "undesirable." The practice, now widely reviled as racist and unjust, gained some prominence in various governments in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

While Malthus' ideas were linked to what many deem to be questionable policies and theories, the population growth of recent years has some reconsidering their value. The fear of vital resources becoming increasingly rare, has produced heated debates in governments worldwide and fueled a number of policy decisions.

Concerns regarding overpopulation have increased, leading to speculation of its effect on environmental habitats and equality . Malthus' predictions have continued to encourage debate and influence how people view this issue, however,what that influence looks like continues to evolve with the times.

Further reading:

An Essay on the Principle of Population, by Thomas Malthus

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