Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Malthus the prophet of doom: why bother with reading the original when you can simply cut and paste from the Internet?

An excerpt from the book I am writing, "The Seneca Effect," that contains a chapter dedicated to the Irish famines. Above, the reverend Thomas Malthus (1766 - 1834)

The demolition of Thomas Malthus' work in our times is often based on accusing him of having predicted some awful catastrophe to occur in the near future, sometimes on a specific date. Then, since the catastrophe didn't occur, there follows that Malthus was completely wrong and nothing in his work can be salvaged. It is a well-tested method that was used with great success against "The Limits to Growth", the report to the Club of Rome that appeared in 1972.

Except that Malthus never made the "wrong predictions" attributed to him, just as "The Limits to Growth" never made wrong predictions, either. There are no specific dates in Malthus' book "An essay on the Principle of Population" for where and when famines or other catastrophes should take place. For instance, Malthus says that,
Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

— Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter 7, p 44

Doomerish, you can surely say, but not something that you can define as a "wrong prediction". Events similar to Malthus' description really occurred before Malthus times and in the “Essay” he normally refers to historical cases, especially those that had occurred in China.

So, Malthus was not babbling about dark and dire things to come; he was describing and analyzing events that were well known in his times. But few people, today, seem to be interested in looking up the original text and prefer to maintain that “Malthus was wrong” by repeating the legend. And, by the way, even if Malthus had been guilty of “wrong predictions”, that doesn't mean that infinite population growth could take place on a finite planet.

The other way to demolish Malthus's ideas is to paint him as evil, in the sense that he had proposed, or favored, mass extermination as a consequence of his ideas. This is, also, a common legend and also a great injustice done to Malthus. Over the great corpus written by Malthus, it is perfectly possible to find parts that we find objectionable today, especially in his description of “primitive” people whom he calls “wretched”. In this respect, Malthus was a man of his times and that was the prevalent opinion of Europeans in regard to non-Europeans (and maybe, in some cases, still is, as described in the book “Can Non-Europeans Think?” (Dabashi and Mignolo 2015).

Apart from that, Malthus’ writings are clearly the work of a compassionate man who saw a future that he didn't like but that he felt was his duty to describe. Surely, there is no justification in criticizing him for things that he never said, as it can be done by cutting and pasting fragments of his work and interpreting them out of context. For instance, Joel Mokyr in his otherwise excellent book titled “Why Ireland Starved”⁠ (Mokyr 1983) reports this sentence from a letter that Malthus wrote to his friend David Ricardo,

The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.

Clearly, this sentence gives the impression that Malthus was advocating the extermination of the Irish. But the actual sentence that Malthus wrote reads, rather (Ricardo 2005)⁠ (emphasis added):

The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil into large manufacturing and commercial Towns.
So, you see that Malthus wasn't proposing to kill anyone, rather, he was proposing the industrialization of Ireland in order to create prosperity in the country. Nevertheless, legends spread easily on the web and you can see the truncated sentence by Malthus repeated over and over to demonstrate that Malthus was an evil person who proposed the extermination of the poor. I can't think that Professor Mokyr truncated this phrase himself, but he was at least careless in cutting and pasting something that he read on the Web without worrying too much about verifying the original source.

The Web, indeed, is full of insults against Malthus. You can find an especially nasty (and misinformed one) attack against him at this link where you can read that, yes, the Irish famine was all a fault of Malthus who misinformed the British government, who then refused to help the poor Irish, who then starved - all based on that truncated sentence.

Sometimes, I have the feeling that we are swimming in propaganda, drinking propaganda, eating propaganda, and even being happy about doing that.


Dabashi H, Mignolo W (2015) Can Non-Europeans Think? Zed Books

Mokyr J (1983) Why Ireland Starved. Routledge, London and New York

Ricardo D (2005) The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo. Liberty Fund, Indianapolis


  1. Estamos inundados de propaganda. Y así confundimos la causa con el efecto. A quienes deseamos evitar el desastre con sus causantes.

  2. While all the books pointing out the limits (Malthus' essay, Population Bomb, Hubbert, Limits to Growth, Tragedy of the Commons, Extracted) make perfect sense to me, I am still looking for a good explanation of the opposite (cornucopian) view. But never found anything that makes sense. It is all so simple-minded, like Daniel Yergin's "There will be oil". Their argument seems to be that human ingenuity is *infinite*, therefore technological progress and improved resource efficiency will give us infinite growth. Why so many people subscribe to this view and rail against limits - maybe it's the optimism bias?

    But if there is a sensible explanation of the cornucopian position, I'd be happy to see it. Really.

    1. If infinite growth does not make any sense to you (or me), it does not mean, that there are others who think that this is totally sensible, they are called economists.

      The argument economists make, (and this is really true, see i.e. Larry Summers) is that the world is only a part of the economis sphere (and not the other way round).

      For Larry Summers, there are no physical limits to growth, only economical reasons. The world, as a subsector of econmy, will behave according to neclassical theory. If the world does not, its not the theory that is wrong, its the reality.
      William Nordhaus and James Tobin:(“Is Growth Obsolete?,” 1972, NBER, Economic Growth, New York: Columbia University Press):
      "The prevailing standard model of growth assumes that there are no limits on the feasibility of expanding the supplies of nonhuman agents of production. It is basically a two-factor model in which production depends only on labor and reproducible capital. Land and resources, the third member of the classical triad, have generally been dropped… the tacit justification has been that reproducible capital is a near perfect substitute for land and other exhaustible resources."

      In short, ideology needs no logical reasoning.

    2. On this point, I was speaking last week at a meeting in LUMSA (a Catholic university in Rome), and I noted how belief in technology has morphed into some kind of idolatry where we fully expect a miracle to save us from the mess in which we placed ourselves in. Not even the most ardent believer in God would jump out of the windows on the idea that God will save him at the last moment. But that's exactly what we are doing. We say that we can jump out of the window and the Technology God will save us at the last moment

    3. Of course, those who so fanatically believe in science to save us all will consider scientists like You to be utterly unbelievable and even work on bringing down science itself.

      There is a man called Paul Broun. He is sitting in the US Congress "Committee on Science, Space, and Technology" and heads "Subcommittee on Oversight".

      He is one of the people who decide the policies by which we will tackle climate change or peak oil.

      In a speech in the Sportsman's Banquet September 27 2012, in Hartwell, Georgia he says:

      "God's word is true. I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior."

      You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I've found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don't believe that the Earth's but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That's what the Bible says.

      And what I've come to learn is that it's the manufacturer's handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that's the reason as your congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I'll continue to do that." (Paul Broun)"

      See the speech here:

    4. Broun is no longer in Congress; he left office in 2015. An interesting aside: as a result of that speech, Charles Darwin received about 4000 write-in votes in the 2012 election as a protest against Broun.

    5. Thank you for this somewhat consoling info, I am not from he USA so I only stumbled upon this and was horrified. I still am, because a Congress that selects a Paul Broun to a position like this still makes me very pessimistic in general when considering our path to the future.

    6. There's an even worse nutcase than Broun

      James Inhofe (worth a google to read up on him)

      is currently chair of the senate committee on the environment---asserts that god will not allow climate change to happen---and brought a snowball into the senate to disprove global warming

  3. Based on Malthus and Marx work, famous (and "controversial") anthropologist Marvin Harris formulated the theory of "cultural materialism" in 1968. He tried to learn from natural science and bring that knowledge into the humanities.

    Harris said, among many other things, that in every society there has to be an energy equlibrium between energy produced and energy consumed, or it will fall into the (malthusian) trap of overshoot.

    Cultural anthropology has long forgotten and discarded Marvin Harris, just as Malthus, but materialism is back in the scientific discourse.

    Jared Diamond, Bruno Latour, Karen Barad and others have picked up Materialism and finally bring the problems we are facing, back into the discourse in the humanities.

    The Problem I see, having studied both natural sciences and the humanities, is that there is little conversation and understanding between the two groups.

    No "propaganda" was needed to make natural scientists feel themselfs to be "truly scientific" and discard the humanities as being unscientific. Scientists have done this all by themselfs.

    On the other side, with the great success of radical social constructionism, all natural sciences could be regarded as a construct and an arbitrary frame of interpretation by the humanities.

    This divide is much more responsible for controlling our thoughts, than any form of "propaganda". There are many techniques of power, by which this system reproduces itself, propaganda is the least successful.

    The sad truth is, that much more than any propaganda, its the way we are set in our behavioral patterns that controls us. We as individuals, especially scientists, are far more responsible for the world we live in than any propaganda.

    It would broaden the understanding of any chemist or phycisist to read Marx, Gramsci or Marvin Harris, but they almost never do.

    Also the understanding of the natural boundaries that define our societies is very hard to understand without any natural scientific background, so the humanities utterly fail in this regard.

    Blaming propaganda will get us nowhere, only individually breaking out of our thought patterns will.

  4. Ugo I can only concur there is nothing left in public discourse it seems but propoganda. So here is a little cut and paste to add to your learned discourse:

    In his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, Harold Pinter spoke about a "manipulation of power worldwide, while masquerading as a force for universal good, a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis." But, said Pinter, "it never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest."

  5. For anyone new to a anthrological and marxian approach to our problems today I would like to propose whatching this lecture by distinguished anthropologist and geograph Davis Harvey:

  6. In the interest of accuracy, I'm skeptical Mokyr pulled his quote from the Web, given he published the book in 1983. Likely Mokyr used another source who had previously misquoted Malthus.

    1. It may well be. The idea is, anyway, that university professors are not used to this kind of cheap propaganda trick; they have a reputation to defend. So, I don't think Mokyr used it.

  7. "So, you see that Malthus wasn't proposing to kill anyone, rather, he was proposing the industrialization of Ireland in order to create prosperity in the country."

    Have you ever read Polanyi's The Great Transformation? Because Malthus' support for industrialization had nothing to do with making the country prosperous, it was about looting the wealth held by traditional communities, which should be obvious when you look at the rest of the essay. Malthus was opposed to any iniatives that would make the lives of the working people worse.

  8. In my opinion Malthus doom predictions have already happen : it's called WWI and WWII.
    Ok it's not famine, because we tend to fight each other BEFORE we starde, because economic fails BEFORE we starve ...
    But war is surely a form a over mortality I think.

    The cycle is this one I think :
    technological innovation
    economic boom
    population growth
    economy of scale
    disminishing returne
    financial crisis
    economic burst
    political turmoil
    (famine & epidemics if no other innovation come to launch another cycle)

    With WWI & WWII it's the end of coal cycle and the new oil cycle that mis together on a 30 year period, combining in the same time boom (in one part of the economy) and burst (in another part) that impact countries in different ways.

    So 2 world wars is sufficient in my opinion to be called a "doomed" period in wich, demography plays a main role.

    Don't you think ?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)