A Malthusian moment at last?

In 1798, Thomas Malthus saw an ever rising population and falling agricultural production and concluded that the United Kingdom was on the verge of a demographic catastrophe. It seemed inevitable that there would be mass starvation or at least a permanent state of abject poverty for the vast majority of its population (Malthus, T. R. An essay on the principle of population, London: J. Johnson, in St. Paul’s Churchyard, 1798). Malthus argued that increases in agricultural productivity could not keep pace with population growth and that such growth would always outpace agricultural production. He saw little option but to limit population growth, but saw no (at the time) morally acceptable means of doing so, except to limit welfare transfers to the urban poor.

The fact that 19th century Europe did not see mass starvation and instead had massive increases in agricultural production has been seen as a rebuke to Malthus’ thesis. The key gap in Malthus’ approach was his inability to predict the role that technology would play in increasing agricultural productivity during the industrial revolution. He did not fully foresee the effects of the mechanization of farm production (p2, Johnson, D. Gale, “Population, Food and Knowledge” 90 The American Economic Review 1 (2000)), nor the role that colonialism and the expansion of trade would play in providing new sources and venues for agricultural production. It was a mix of policy and the ingenuity of invention driven by necessity that provided an escape from the demographic trap that was a consequence of Malthus’ analysis. Technology saved the early industrial revolution from the limits imposed by land availability. Accompanied by the transition to fossil fuels and new fertilizers, the resultant new industrial agriculture created newer, cheaper products, better food preservation and a whole host of benefits that increased survivability.

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