Malthusian Theory of Population

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The Malthusian Theory of Population Definition

The Malthusian Theory of Population is a theory of exponential population growth and arithmetic food supply growth. Thomas Robert Malthus, an English cleric and scholar, published this theory in his 1798 writings, An Essay on the Principle of Population.

Malthus believed that through preventative checks and positive checks, the population would be controlled to balance the food supply with the population level. These checks would lead to the Malthusian catastrophe.

Malthusian Theory of Population Explained

1. Population and Food Supply

Thomas Malthus theorized that populations grew in geometric progression. A geometric progression is a sequence of numbers where each term after the first is found by multiplying the previous one by a fixed, non-zero number called the common ratio. For example, in the sequence 2, 10, 50, 250, 1250, the common ratio is 5.

Additionally, he stated that food production increases in arithmetic progression. An arithmetic progression is a sequence of numbers such that the difference between the consecutive terms is constant. For example, in series 2, 5, 8, 11, 14, 17, the common difference of 3. He derived this conclusion due to the Law of Diminishing Returns.

From this, we can conclude that populations will grow faster than the supply of food. This exponential population growth will lead to a shortage of food.

2. Population Control

Malthus then argued that because there will be a higher population than the availability of food, many people will die from the shortage of food. He theorized that this correction would take place in the form of Positive Checks (or Natural Checks) and Preventative Checks. These checks would lead to the Malthusian catastrophe, which would bring the population level back to a ‘sustainable level.’

A. Positive Checks or Natural Checks

He believed that natural forces would correct the imbalance between food supply and population growth in the form of natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes and human-made actions such as wars and famines.

B. Preventative Checks

To correct the imbalance, Malthus also suggested using preventative measures to control the growth of the population. These measures include family planning, late marriages, and celibacy.

Malthusian Trap

The Malthusian Trap (or “Malthusian Population Trap”) is the idea that higher levels of food production created by more advanced agricultural techniques create higher population levels, which then lead to food shortages because the higher population needs to live on land that would have previously used to grow crops.

Even as technological advancement would normally lead to per capita income gains, theorizes Malthus, these gains are not achieved because in practice the advancement also creates population growth. Once the population exceeds what food supplies can support, this supposedly creates a Malthusian crisis with widespread famine as well as rampant disease. This ends up decreasing the population to earlier levels.

The reality, however, has been that population growth has not itself created the crisis that Malthus predicted. We will discuss the ways in which the Malthusian Trap has been disproven in the following section.

Criticisms of the Malthusian Theory of Population

Criticisms of the Malthusian Theory of Population

1. Population Growth

The gloom and doom forecasts put forward by Malthus have not played out. In Western Europe, populations have grown (not at the rate Malthus predicted) and food production has also risen because of technological advancements.

2. Food Production

Thanks to many technological advancements, food production has dramatically increased over the past century. Often, the food production rate has grown higher than the population growth rate. For example, during the 1930s in the US, 25% of the population worked in the agricultural sector while the total GDP was less than $100 billion to the GDP. Today, less than 2% of the population works in the agricultural sector, while the total GDP is over $14 trillion.

3. Global Trade

The limited availability of land at the time was the basis for Malthus’ theory on food production constraints. However, thanks to globalization, we can trade goods and services for food, which increases the amount of food a country can consume.

4. Calculations

Malthus did not provide calculations for the geometric growth of populations and the arithmetic growth of food. Since then, experts have pointed out that the growth rates are not consistent with Malthus’ predictions.

Prateek Agarwal
Prateek Agarwal
Member since June 20, 2011
Prateek Agarwal’s passion for economics began during his undergrad career at USC, where he studied economics and business. He started Intelligent Economist in 2011 as a way of teaching current and fellow students about the intricacies of the subject. Since then he has researched the field extensively and has published over 200 articles.

56 thoughts on “Malthusian Theory of Population”

    • Totalmente de acuerdo…. además de que el ser humano se ha vuelto soberbio, y no respeta las leyes de la naturaleza.
      El planeta lleva décadas dando señales de agotamiento. Solo ha tenido que dar fuerza a un diminuto virus para poner en jaque a la humanidad.

      • Sadly, (& I hate saying this), has the onset of Covid19 created a situation where in effect, the ‘deadwood is being got rid off’?
        Just like when organisations ‘reorganise’, the idea is to get rid of the deadwood—-staff who are generally unproductive, be they ‘cos they’re too old, have a poor attendance record, are incompetent, poor interpersonal skills etc—-Covid19 is hitting the elderly more than any other group, & in Care Homes in particular—-even the younger, ‘tis the most vulnerable who are worst hit ie those with underlying health issues—-is it all a case of the survival of the fittest?
        Brutal, I know, but ‘Malthusian‘ to a degree?
        The exception is the ultimately deaths of front line workers—-doctors, nurses, care workers, paramedics, who sadly have given their lives; no WAY are such heroes ‘deadwood’—-ANYTHING but.

        • Thomas Malthus observed that birth rates were higher than death rates. Why did he believe this would cause an issue?


  1. The Malthusian theory is fast becoming the Malthusian Prophesy which does not have to be proved by maths but illustrated by evidence.

  2. Perhaps the discrepancies in Malthus’ theory suggest there are other parameters beside food production capacity, such as: global testosterone levels; population density; Maslow’s hierarchical needs; or ???

    • Malthus’ projections, while largely true, failed to apply the long term effects of inconsistent waste management and lax public health structure.

  3. If we preposition that the wars that happened didn’t happen (especialy the second world war) his theory would be quite true. The population fall due to the great wars was such great and all the science and medical human experiments had such a high toll of deaths that if all the people lost were still alive and all would have reproduced then the food production would be unable to cope even with all the advancement made.

    • Hogwash. 75 million people worldwide died over the course of the entire war as a result of the war. Many more people than that die every single year of other causes. The wars were a minor blip in population trends.

      • #Covid-19 has consumed millions of life unless than six months worldwide and is still counting. This pandemic is really catastrophic. My fear is the Africa hunger syndrome that would follow after thing lock down in the continent and in community’s. I speak from the #Nigeria angle.

        May the souls of the departed rest in peace…

    • The work of Malthus de great economist is appreciated more in the 21century.
      Just like war prevent the prophecy, so also Covid-19 would prevent some other predictions and forecasts.
      The experience us a cataatrophe and has really affected everything on earth 🌍.
      This is a new beginning to the #multhsian catastrophe 2020. #Nigeria #earthrise #Covid-19 #pandemic #research

  4. The Malthusian theory is a Prophesying theory due to natural calamities illustrated by on going evidence of COVID 19. And other such as earthquake, storms, and tsunami.

  5. He was a doomsayers as is the media circus going on. Yes there will be fatalities…but not like China or Iran. .00007 of the Canadian population have it as reported as of today.

    • Sarah, you need to do more research.

      COVID data

      If you’re wondering why Public Health keeps saying the window is closing to stop the spread, here’s why. The numbers tell us the reality. In Italy, on Feb 20, they had 4 confirmed cases. By March 15, less than a month, they had 24747 cases. Each day they had an average 27% increase.

      In USA, on March 2, they had 100 cases. By March 15, in less than 2 weeks, they had 3680 cases. They are at a 32% daily increase.

      In the UK, on March 5, they had 116 cases. By March 15, in 10 days, they had 1391 cases. They have a 29% daily increase.

      In Iran, on Feb 25, they had 95 cases. By March 15, in less than a month, they had 13938 cases. Iran is at a 32% daily increase

      The average daily increase over 4 countries is 30%.

      Canada and Alberta is following this trend. Two days ago Alberta had 29 cases, then the next day 39 cases, then the next day 56 cases. The average trend is a daily increase of over 34%. Currently in Canada we have 341 cases. In 2 weeks at the end of March we are estimated to have 22,700 cases.

      In Alberta we have 56 cases. We are estimated by end of March to have 3732 cases in Alberta. If 10% of these cases require ICU (15% in Italy), that is 373 ICU beds needed. The province only has 300 ICU beds across the entire province capable of intubation.

      That means in just 2 weeks our entire health care system could be overwhelmed and we will be faced with questions of who lives and who dies.

      The government is not overreacting when they put bans and restrictions in place. This is why the window to stop the spread is very narrow and why strict restrictions and closures are necessary. This is why we have to follow the regulations of government as our civic duty. We need a healthy amount of fear and understanding at this time, not panic, and not complacency, but the right kind of fear that leads to timely action.

      • Based on the demographic statistics from countries like Italy, Spain, Chine,USA,Canada and Iran plus other countries that were hit seriously by this covid-19.Is clear indication that we continue with preventive precautionary measures of staying home or home quarantine for some good numbers of day or months as it will directed by any government in any country, is the only way to go.However majority of the vulnerable people are experiencing hard times due this pandemic still it will end. The Only thing to do is to promote and advance primary health care system of our countries rather the medical care (health promotion and sensitization plus on awareness on keeping social distance and availing adequate safe water system for hand washing) so that chain of the virus can be broken down before infection are transmitted to masses of people.Reason the low developing countries have no good upgraded standard health care system like the already mentioned countries above so ….Here prevention is more further batter than treatment as per the context so lets comply.
        lastly we need to think forward how we can still handle the second threat of Ebola that is also emerging simultaneously in the democratic Republic of Congo ,before it also advances to an epidermic or pandemic.
        For God and my country

        • I am speaking from the environmental angle and for me, global warming / climate change is also a factor to be addressed if this pandemic is to be controlled. Earth science speak to a degree of similar catastrophe and degradation.
          I say to the world at large.. Let’s keep our environment clean, safe and green so that the ecosystem can perform their winder and earth would heal herself.
          #ettezee #Covid-19 #earthrise #Malthusiantheory

          • Watch the Michael Moore produced movie “Planet of the Humans” and see what is being done to reveal greed, myths, and fallacies. Moore has angered his base who are seeking to “cancel” him due to his exposure of truths in this film. Millions have watched it in the less than 2 weeks that it has been out. Check it out and see what you think.

  6. Good thinking and analysis, Patty. However, I’d think occurrences as distinct between developed and developing nations. For example, the average in most African states is way below 20%, or could this be explained by precautionary measures driven by fear such as temporal lock downs? Or is there grand misreporting?

    • Sam C, Could It be because of lack of facilities to test suspected patients and under reporting both by health authorities and and by symptomatic patients to medical centres.

  7. We Indians of 130 crores observing complete lockdown of one month & overcome all virus . Do not panic & we all human race shall prevail. Have faith on yourself . Observe discipline . We all humans shall prevail

  8. In Bangladesh, with 170 million people in a land of 144 thousand square kilometers — 12 thousand per square kilometer, this virus can create inferno. Luckily, till date we have only 5 deaths and 44 confirmed cases but we have thousands of people who very recently returned from abroad especially Italy are roaming about carelessly mostly in the village. The whole country is in a panic. There is an unofficial lock-down for 10 days until 4 April which may be extended. We didn’t know what’s going to happen next month.

  9. In India, in certain places, they lack even drinking water. India now has 1.4 billion –with a b– people and projected to surpass China which now has 1.5 billion.
    The deserts are increasing around the world and more people have no enough food to eat or home to live. Globalization may have helped a little to India and China but not to the workers, in the industrialized world, who lost their jobs to India and China.

  10. What is the motivation of The Virus to grow ? Why it is there ? Is it because of “Natural selection ” ? Should we live and let live ? Who will win ?
    It is growing and the human being is gettng killed . One fine day this virus will not have any human being to grow and will then die .

    • As long as human population continue to grow it’s doubtful that our environment and resources can be made sustainable.
      The earth capacity to take care of food and growth had been interrupted by population and urbanization. This is the environmental impact… Climate change /actions.
      Nigeria is now believe to be a global space since local action affects global space and environment. Human activities and pollution had destroyed ecosystems and the earth is graduating in the negative.
      this is the new world and the lock down can help reduce pollution and help earth regain itself gradually.
      #Earthrise #Covid-19 #meandthesdg #ettezee concept #humanpopulation

      • The world population growth has slowed down across the spectrum. It has more to do with, rising women’s education and falling infant mortality. Present world population is about 7.8 billion. It’s predicted to rise to 9.7 billion in 2064 and then come down to 8.8 billion, losing about a billion by the end of this century.(source: The Lancet, July 2020).
        These are the principal findings.
        a. By 2100, projected fertility rates in 183 of 195 countries will not be high enough to maintain current populations without liberal immigration policies.
        b. Dramatic declines in working age-populations are predicted in countries such as India and China, which will hamper economic growth and lead to shifts in global powers.
        c. Liberal immigration policies could help maintain population size and economic growth even as fertility falls.

        In today’s world, countries that have higher population will be benefited if they impart skill and education to their people.
        Predictors and soothsayers like Malthus are very good and leaned people. The problem is, their analysis is based on the past trend ending in the present. It is impossible to factor in future human innovations which are inherently episodic and unpredictable. Let us see how the Lancet predictions work.

  11. I am so glad to see these discussions..I am not a great scholar..just an ordinary person….but the other day I googled (of course) theories on population growth and disease…and came upon The Malthusian theory and saw the interest in it..and thought perhaps there are some seeds of truth in the paragraph about disease.

  12. I studied Malthus’s theory back in the mid 1970, it has always stuck in my mind with regard to the world situation and catastrophes since then. We have had many wars, diseases and famine over the years, plus birth control, they have all helped to control the world population.
    The modern world seems to have been building up to a real disaster for quite sometime, we have HIV, SARS, Ebola and in Africa TB is rife. Is this recent pandemic teaching us a number of things we need to re-think?
    I spend approximately 6 months each year in Africa and if this virus gets hold in some of their townships it will be devastation.
    Perhaps now is the time we need to think about:-
    1. We have to show more respect to the world and her resources.
    2. If we want to interact with other people of the world, ( I know it sounds boring) then we must ALL have an acceptable behaviour that does not endanger others.
    3. As we interact more with each other, perhaps the World Health Org must take a more proactive part in policing the worlds local customs and actions and monitor more closely.
    This has happened in the past, from the bubonic plague to Spanish Flue and as mentioned above more recent diseases, so it is nothing new.
    Regarding Malthus’s theory, i think it’s a little to sharp in its condemnation of the world and its people, but, perhaps it is a theory we should all keep reminding ourselves of.

  13. The theory is not real and Thomas Malthus has created confusion and left, the super powers are using his theory to create wars and artificial diseases

  14. The most dangerous virus on the planet ‘s future sustainability s Man.. depopulation and the new mindset of production/consumption will save this planet. Maybe we should stop producing new stuff and recycling old ones.

  15. The populations in US hit the hardest with this virus are: nursing homes, prisons, and VA hospitals. It surely would help our administration’ s budget to cull these populations.

  16. To paraphrase Mae West’s, “So many men, so little time”, how about “So many people and so little space.” This flu may be a foreshadowing of the future as population continues to grow. If Corona had arrived 100 years ago in Wuhan, it would have never migrated all over the world and very possibly died out right there. Who is to say that other virus mutations have not happened before and died out locally? Who is to say that this is just the first of future pandemics?

  17. Thomas Robert Malthus had two failings. He failed to understand the vast resources the Earth has and the undreamed of technology to develop those resources. What Malthus did understand was no matter how vast the resources and how advanced the technology, those resources are still finite.

    “we can trade goods and services for food, which increases the amount of food a country can consume.”

    What happens when we run out of rain forest to cut down? Or pump aquifer dry that are needed for irrigation? What about quality of life? Will the American dream become like life in Manila with a population density 119,600 per sq mile?

    The old adage of “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” applies to population as well. I doubt Malthus ever envisioned a population of 8 billion people and growing or the size crash that will follow. Remember we can only kick the can down the road only so long. Even the road is finite and has a end.

    • George Kirk and I don’t know where you are from but in Africa and Nigeria this theory is so real. If you doubt, then make your research or come see for yourself.
      even today May 2020 the scarcity of food is affecting pricing and the impact is in the negative and unemployment would bring more hunger.
      Thus is reality not theory.
      for real we need to share resources but you have not considered transportation and the knockdown of economy. this makes Malthusian theory a realistic one even though not predicted in the 21century.
      the earth is calling for adaptation and mitigating standards for it’s recovery

  18. OMG… People wake up, this is not talking about the alite here, you idiots, they are talking about eliminating YOU THE REGULAR JOE! I do see that some of his ideas about food production not being adequate are true. but if we can “send a man to the moon” we should be able to figure out how to feed our people. I don’t know just thinking here…what if we taught everyone how to garden for themsleves WHAT!!!!! He just wants what all the elites want to have a few slavs and the rest dead! You are all FOOLS if you believe it is for the betterment of humankind!

  19. Malthus’s theory emphasised ‘food’ as the ‘limiting factor’ ie nature would ensure that population levels be ‘controlled’ by the levels of food supplies & availability. But for ‘food’ read water, medicines, vaccines, hospital beds, health care professionals, hygiene—-when population levels increase uncontrolled, but the above ‘limiting factors’ do not ———enter Malthus!

  20. Malthus and most people who discuss him don’t seem to understand how biological organisms ebb and flow in relationship to their food supply. Google “snow shoe fox and hare graphs” to see the classic graph of the relationship between predator and it’s prey.

    When the population of hares decline due to predation, the decline in snow shoe foxes isn’t due to starvation. It’s due to a number of biological factors though actual starvation is probably minor. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one species that overruns it’s food supply leading to massive death by starvation and that is locusts.

    Here is an incredibly informative conversation about the connection to population growth and the food supply. It feature author Daniel Quinn (Ishmael, The Story of B, etal) and Dr. Alan Thornhill, PhD. It’s the most informative lesson I’ve ever had on human population dynamics.

    The video production is dated but the content is stellar. Enjoy.

  21. If you go deep in reading and grinding in brain what Malthus have proposed all are perfectly coming to be correct…

    • Phrasing that Africa is on the receiving end is a little strange. Africa has a problem of organization and corruption. Failing food production, storage & distribution there is the reason why people starve. They live hand to mouth. Overpopulation is the main reason (& basis of Malthusian theory) why Africa is a prime example. Africa has long periods of drought followed by famine.
      The West has increased our agriculture production and reduced input costs so has been able to potentially defy the theory – so far. But the extra pressure on our environment due to this, and our resulting growth in population have caused the climate to change bringing the theory back into the picture. Covid is worth mentioning here – we have caused the evolution of the virus due to our life-style (pressure on the environment by food production en-masse) and spread it (working, trading & travelling overseas). We bought our problems with us. It is nature telling us to beware of what we are doing (if we bother to listen).

  22. I learned about population growth and Malthus around the late 1950s. I also read Erhlich’s Population Bomb and Carson’s Silent Spring during that period. Since then, I have seen 60+ years of those combined statistical events repeatedly prove themselves in mini-niches and thus fully accept the overall outcome and shape of the 3 phase Growth Curve (exponential-like growth; plateau; death phase) as inevitable. It doesn’t have to be that way since Man has learned how to husband their resources during farming and agriculture. But the ability of Man to husband his own numbers is cut off at the knees due to his unwillingness to regulate his own procreation rates in various ethnic and cultural groups worldwide as well as his non-recognition of the physical limitations of his own environment through the blindness of organized religion, demon-ization of science, education, knowledge and intelligence, politicization against coherence of mutual interests, and proliferation of global autocracy as economic and governing power becomes ever-more intertwined and concentrated in the hands of fewer elites, psychopaths, and criminals. When viewing everything through a filter of economic theory, only the most avaricious picture can emerge. Economics has no self-regulating feedback in actual practice. The rich can and will get richer because wealth gives them ever-greater means to acquire and secure more wealth and influence. Without a check and balance mechanism, no system can ever be self-regulating and successful for all.

    Mathus’ arguments, just like Ehrlich’s, were describing the elements that will cause our species to eventually decline and fall. But their only mistake, if there was one, is to try and put a hard numerical timeline onto a general process that actually has huge numbers of variables and is inherently chaotic in its Butterfly Effect outcomes when framed in a one-world global picture. If we look at different population niches throughout the world, we see Malthus’ imprint on each. But each is at a different phase in its own unique growth curve. Civil wars, disease, famine and droughts in various areas and countries and collapsed and failed states without effective governments around the world, parasitic autocracies bleeding their respective populations dry of economic and social advancements, are but a news headline away on any day.

    No, Malthus had it much more right than this naysayer has when it comes to crystal ball gazing and futurism. Economics, as taught and practiced by ideologues in capitalistic and laissez-faire societies, is a formula for a more rapid decline than would otherwise be likely. And it also blinds and undercuts any potential efforts to work as a single species across all boundaries and divisions to control and balance our numbers to the raw resources we need to survive in balance with the other world processes and cycles. Man is his own worse enemy.

  23. 1.If growth of population is not controlled with right earnest and allowed to growth then what will be the scenario in the earth?
    2.It would be horrible/ terrible.
    3.So,need of the hour is to give stress on control.


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