Malthus & Population Growth Research Paper Starter

Malthus & Population Growth

This article describes the ideals of Thomas Robert Malthus, author of “An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculation of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other Writers.” Malthusian tenets focus on the impending doom society faces as global population rates continually skyrocket to an unprecedented level, thus exhausting the natural resources necessary for survival. Malthus distinguishes between the growth of agriculture, which he termed "arithmetic progress," depicted in the following numerical sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8,and human expansion, dubbed "geometrical progress" (e.g., 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 132, 264). Furthermore, he differentiated between preventative checks, or the encumbrance of birth rates, and positive checks, or the acceleration of death rates, both of which are nature's way of compensating for overpopulation. Viewpoints of the two contemporaries whom Malthus references in his essay (the British writer William Godwin and the French philosopher Marquis de Condorcet) are discussed, as well as those who responded to his theory with either support or criticism, such as, respectively, Charles Darwin and George Purves. Current literature that affirms Malthusian principles, or the malaise that accompanies overpopulation, is presented, as well as a stance that welcomes gross human expansion, since it serves to produce innovators who typically create additional global resources. Finally, present-day matters related to poverty, along with strategic trends that are utilized to compensate for such deprivation are conferred (i.e., ethanol production), along with the repercussions that accompany such strategies, including pronounced poverty rates.

Keywords Arithmetic Progression; Ethanol; Eugenics; Geometric Progression; Malthus, Thomas; Positive Checks; Preventative Checks



Thomas Robert Malthus was a British clergyman, demographer, and economist who became famous for an book published anonymously around 1798, expansively titled An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculation of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other Writers (Attarian, 2003; Barrus, 2004; Collings, 2007; Heilbroner, 1996; Levin, 1967; Peterson, 1979). Malthus's manuscript dispensed a dire forecast for the future of the human race, due to his calculation surrounding the precarious escalation of people that continually inhabit the planet. His estimation claimed that the future would contain a world that was severely overpopulated and underfed, and two simplistic principles underlined this theoretical premise: that humankind is unequivocally reliant on edible sustenance to cultivate and prolong life, along with the fact that people are inherently sexual beings, with rampant, passionate yearnings and an instinctive desire for physical contact. Simply put, Malthus observed that human life is contingent on food consumption and copulation, the former of which nourishes life, the latter of which produces additional births, marking the commencement of an ever-expanding populace.

Moreover, Malthus described the skewed ratio between food and people which, over the course of time, he predicted, would continue to destructively distort. He claimed that the growth of agricultural provisions occurs arithmetically, whereas human expansion is geometrical (Malthus, 1998; Morton & Shaw, 1997). In other words, crop production grows numerically: farmer Joe may possess a designated piece of land, but over time he may secure additional allotments. His gain is sequentially additive, in that he has one section of land, adds a second section, and then adds a third section, which would translate into the following series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc. Because there is a finite amount of land on which to farm crops, the progressional sequence caps at its eventual limit. On the other hand, human expansion proliferates geometrically; if each generation has only two children per household (an average number in modern developed societies, but a low number by historical standards), then a more accurate demonstration of human growth might be depicted through the following series: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64. In examining long-standing quantitative demographics, the growth of humankind is staggering, as is illustrated by Draper: "The earth had 1 billion people in 1825, and twice that number a hundred years later. It now has upward of 5.3 billion. By 2025 it will have 7.6 billion to 9.4 billion" (1993, p. 14).

Hence, Malthus deduced that human reproduction would supersede the amount of natural resources that are necessary for survival, as his mathematical formula predicted that human expansion would double in size every twenty-five years. It is essential to note, however, that Malthus's theory was confined to eighteenth- century agricultural technological devices. It was not until much later that farming innovations expanded their horizons with the formation of chemical agents (e.g., pesticides and fertilizer), genetic engineering, and machinery such as the tractor (Doyle, 2007). The use of the tractor in the twentieth century, for example, lowered the demand for farmers to preside over crops from 38 percent in 1900 to less than 3 percent as the twentieth century came to a close ("Agricultural achievements," 2007).

Preventative Checks

According to Malthus, society may temper mounting populations via two means, which he termed "preventative checks" and "positive checks" (Black, 1997; "Malthus, the False Prophet," 2008) Preventative checks hinder growing birth rates, and may manifest threefold, through moral restraint (Wallace, 1998), vices, or birth control. Malthus was doubtful that people could practice moral restraint; if they did, he surmised that such behavior would be indicative of sophisticated, high-class communities of people who were able to fetter their tempestuous libidos in favor of delayed nuptials and lower levels of procreation. Indeed, a current trend surrounding class relations indicates that those residing in lower-level economic brackets tend to marry at younger ages and produce more children (Dasgupta, 1995). Vices constituted behavior deemed at the time either amoral or anomalous, such as homosexual relationships, abortion, and sexual relations occurring outside marriage (e.g., prostitution, infidelity) that reduced the prospect of proactive and purposeful conception. In the eighteenth century, thwarting unplanned pregnancy via the use of birth control techniques was not socially accepted, and was a process that Malthus held in high contempt.

Positive Checks

Positive checks, on the other hand, contribute toward population control by encouraging an upsurge in death rates. Collectively, society mourns the tragic losses that coincide with widespread human annihilation, such as that which accompanies natural disasters, health-related endemics (e.g., the bubonic plague in the seventeenth century [Price 1999] or AIDS in the twentieth century [Ashraf, 1999]), or the large-scale bloodshed that accompanies international conflict such as the two world wars of the twentieth century. In the absence of such extensive ecological maladies, health scares, or military conflict, the scourge of human life is famine, the ultimate battle with food deprivation (Palmberg, 2008). According to Malthus, such atrocities are meaningful and beneficially balance disproportionate population spurts, and assist nature's inevitable and time-honored responsibility of feeding the masses. In alignment with this notion, Jamieson (1992) points out that the positive medical strides that have transpired in recent decades, including vaccinations that ward off potential blights as well as curative remedies that heal diseases, have negatively impacted the inherent Malthusian equilibrium that prohibits human proliferation from exceeding a reasonable threshold. More cynically, Jamieson affirms: "Aid to the poor countries already grappling with Malthusian restraints merely exacerbates the problem by helping more young people in those countries survive to reproduce" (1992, p. 8).

Malthus's Critics

In order to thoroughly comprehend Malthusian tenets, it is necessary to broach the two references that Malthus cites in the title of his notorious essay, "Mr. Godwin and M. Condorcet" (Arie, 2007; Peterson, 1998; Winch, 1996), and examine their relevance to his philosophy. William Godwin, a devout Calvinist, penned the book Enquiry concerning Political Justice (Chaplin, 2008), which criticized the dictates of governmental involvement, and professed that people should be wary of all institutional provisions, including that of marriage and organized education. Godwin wholeheartedly believed that people had the capacity to continually evolve, but needed to rely on their refined ability to disentangle from the muddied waters of emotionality and focus on cogency, logic, and clear-minded rationality. Hence, if people shed their dependence on organized leadership and utilized restraint toward sentiment and desire, while relying solely on their own intellectual prowess, Godwin was optimistic that humankind would progressively ascend toward enlightenment and perfection. Malthus, in response, felt that Godwin's ideals were lofty and unrealistic, and the two scholars bantered back and forth about their divergent perspectives. For example, Godwin felt that Malthus's premise about the exponential growth of humankind was pessimistic and lacked scientific credence. Godwin was also hopeful about the vast amount of land that could host crops, as well as prospective technology that would enable food production and distribution, and which would eventually account for a flourishing society.

According to Malthus, Condorcet's ideas paralleled those of Godwin's with regard to his romantic, impractical, and naïve outlook. Condorcet upheld egalitarian views, and thought that all human life should be approached on equitable, unbiased terms. Furthermore, he felt that humans have progressed together sequentially as a collective unit, in which they commenced their evolutionary journey by traversing through prehistoric eras when their unrefined behavioral norms lacked sophistication and wisdom. Condorcet indicated that each generational cohort collectively improves its acumen and expertise, and over the course of time, humankind will culminate into a state of utopia. Such a state would be evidenced by human relations...

(The entire section is 4610 words.)