Malthusian Theory of Population

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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.

He 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

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. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please email me or connect with me on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/prateekgrwl/

21 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.

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

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  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 ???

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

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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    • 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.

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  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?

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    • 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.

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  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

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  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.

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  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.

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  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 .

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  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.

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  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.

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