About the Malthusian Catastrophe

A Malthusian catastrophe is an event which results from a period of unchecked population growth, according to the theory of overpopulation advanced by Enlightenment demographer Thomas Robert Malthus (and subsequently applied to “peak oil” and other conceptually similar subjects). According to Malthus, a population grows regularly, or geometrically, until it reaches a peak level at which it cannot hope to sustain itself, and then collapses in a cataclysmic event known as a “Malthusian catastrophe.”

– About Thomas Malthus and Overpopulation –

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) was an Englishman who worked as an Anglican clergyman and then as a history professor for the East India Company. He is best known for his “Essay on the Principle of Population,” in which Malthus worked out his still-influential theory on the causes and consequences of overpopulation.

According to Malthus, a perfect (or “utopian”) society could never develop within a human nation because of the constant cycle of growth, overpopulation, and crisis. Invariably, he argued, technological and other progress would allow human societies to increase the amount of food they could harvest from the same amount of land. This would allow the population to grow. At any given time, according to Malthus, the population of a healthy society was either the maximum number of people who could survive on the food being produced, or was rapidly growing towards that number. The most pessimistic consequence of this perspective was that poverty was more or less inevitable, the human population normally being that which could be sustained on the minimum diet necessary to survive rather than a healthy diet calculated for comfort and good health.

Of course, at the time no countries exercised deliberate population control (and only a few do today, usually with only partial success). For this reason, Malthus argued, there were natural laws which served to restrict population as it bumped up against the maximum viable limits. The most dramatic of these, of course, are those which reduce the population back to more sustainable levels from which growth can re-commence, such as wars (in which soldiers die), famines, and plagues (in which many people die). Typical of Enlightenment scholars, Malthus also argued that once these natural laws were known (as he attempted to do), an intelligently governed society could devise more humane checks and balances on its population levels.

– The Malthusian Catastrophe –

These dramatic and, absent enlightened government, inevitable population reduction incidents are known as Malthusian catastrophes. In Malthus’s original theory, the concept was restricted to two variables: human population levels, and the amount of food which a society could produce. When population growth outstripped food growth, a society puts itself in a position where a devastating event will reduce its population back to a lower level. This may be a war over increasingly scarce territory and resources, in which large numbers of soldiers and some civilians die. Eventually, however, a society too short on food will be at greater risk of a pandemic, and a society with still less food will eventually face a famine. In any of these cases, the resulting “catastrophe” will kill so many people that the survivors will be once again capable of living on their available land base again.

It should be noted that this version of the Malthusian catastrophe does not actually permanently “solve” the problem, which is unchecked human population growth. The reduced human population will eventually grow back to dangerous levels, and suffer yet another catastrophe, unless enlightened leadership can check it at a sufficiently low level to prevent future catastrophes.

Today, the concept of the Malthusian catastrophe is still applied to agricultural problems, but is also at the base of the analysis of other economic issues, in particular depletion of valuable but scarce natural resources such as oil and gas. In both cases, the warning is more or less the same as Malthus’s, though without his theme of cyclical devastation. Today, our society can only be effectively analyzed at the global level, not the national level, and at our currently very intensive level of exploitation, the “resources” being depleted – like arable farm land and fossil fuels – simply cannot recover at a rate anything like what they would need to in order to allow recovery within the timeframe of human civilization. Arable land and fossil fuel reserves will probably require, respectively, at least decades or centuries and at least thousands of years (if not millions of years) to recover to useable levels.

The culminating Malthusian catastrophe, then, could be all the more devastating. In the case of what is commonly referred to as “peak oil,” humanity would have to develop alternative fuel sources immediately – because there simply would be no possibility of obtaining more oil at feasible prices. In the more frightening case of peak agriculture, salination and exhaustion of the soil would not only mean that current population growth has exceeded current farming limits, but that future farming capabilities will be far lower than those of today. In that case, Malthus’s fear of a general famine could become reality.